Lesson: Use Your Senses, An Introduction to Observation


Introduction to Observation activity:
Use your senses!

1. (10-15 minutes) Choose a short piece of writing that features sensory details. I chose the first chapter of “We the Animals’ by Justin Torres (it’s one of my favorite books!)

  • Read the piece aloud in class. I read the piece to my students so that they could concentrate on listening. I asked them to listen closely and try to picture the scene
  • Discuss the reading:

i. What details of this piece stuck with you?
ii. I feel this piece is particularly strong BECAUSE of how the writer uses sense-based descriptions (review a few). We can feel, see, touch, hear, taste the same things that he does when he describes them so vividly and this pulls us into the scene.
iii. Sensory descriptions are effective in writing because they are descriptive and help a reader connect to a piece (when they are done well). But why is it important for us to use our senses otherwise? Why is it important that in our everyday lives, we observe and notice things with our senses.

2. Split students into 5 groups

3. (2 min) Explain activity: I have five things that you will have to identify and describe using your senses. Each object targets a different sense. Each of your groups will have approximately 5 minutes with each object. Use these minutes to OBSERVE the object with the appropriate sense. You are welcome to talk within your groups, but you should also be writing down your own observations.

4. (5 min) Before we begin, let’s help each other out and think about the ways that we generally describe things using our senses.
Class brainstorm! But some of the things I’d highlight are:
i. Similes (it looks like, smells like, tastes like, etc) — note that these can be abstract, i.e. “It tastes like bleary-eyed winter mornings in my grandmother’s house …’
ii. It does NOT look/smell/taste …
iii. Use of memories — “The scent reminded me of the my Uncle Carl, who used to hunt on the weekends and come back with moose blood congealed under his fingernails’
iv. Use of abstraction — surprise us with how you describe things! “Sunlight found cracks in our blinds and laid itself down in crisp strips on our carpet’ (Torres 3)

5. (25 -30 min) Use your senses! *Try to bring objects that are hard to place into categories, so that students are forces to observe closely rather than immediately categorize.
a. Sight: I brought in an unidentifiable object that I had at home, something that would be hard to immediately categorize so that the students had to really examine it.
b. Sound: I had students go into the hallway and listen (it’s wild what weird building noises you can hear if you listen!)
c. Touch: I put an iphone case in a bag — students had to reach in and touch it with their hands. They focused on both shape and material.
d. Taste: I brought cookies. *Note that I later discovered vegans in my class! It’s hard to accomplish this one and still accommodate 25 student dietary choices.
e. Smell: I brought a small bottle of geranium essential oil — again, hard for students to categorize immediately.

6. (10-20 min) Come back together as a group and discuss
a. Share some student observations
b. Do you guys agree/disagree? Did any of the descriptions you heard seem to be right-on?
c. Can we actually separate the senses? How many people used smell to help them taste?
d. A lot of students wanted to KNOW what each object was. They wanted to be able to put a single identifying word to the iPhone cover, the unidentifiable object (I don’t even know what it is). We discussed: So we were all trying to put labels, identifying words to these things. Why? Why do we as humans do this? What is the value? How many assumptions go into a single identifying word? If we call this iPhone cover just an iPhone cover,without adding additional observations, what do we lose?



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