Teaching Sensory Detail with a Global Perspective


On my first day teaching in Bulgaria, I played a game with my students. I asked them to move around the room, depending on their answers to my questions. For example, "Go to this side of the room if you have siblings, and that side of the room if you are an only child." I asked a ton of getting-to-know-you questions so I could start to learn a little about them.

One of my questions was about whether or not they had ever been out of their country. To my surprise, virtually all of them had. So I asked if they had been to more than 3, 4, or 5 countries. Most said yes.

My Bulgarian students had a wide knowledge of the existence of other cultures, other perspectives, other histories. Though that didn't always manifest itself in open-mindedness, I believe they benefited a lot from having traveled beyond their own borders so extensively.

When I moved back to the United States, I tried to share some of my experiences in other countries with my students. I wanted them to get thinking beyond our borders, just as I had seen students doing so naturally in the small country of Bulgaria.

One way I did this was by decorating my walls with postcards from my travels, and starting a classroom postcard collection that we used for lots of different writing activities. "Grab a postcard," I might say, "and write a story set in the scene you see." Or "Grab a postcard and write a letter to someone describing the place you are looking at."

If you'd like to start a postcard collection of your own, I highly recommend it! In fact, I've created a free PDF with 10 writing prompts for you to use with it. Get students involved in bringing in postcards from their trips and that others send to them. They don't all have to be international - I have great ones from across the United States too.



At some point I decided I wanted to create a similar writing activity that would specifically encourage students to engage sensory details. While I taught abroad, I wrote a number of travel and educational pieces for publication, and using sensory details well became an important professional skill for me. I knew the power of these small details in bringing writing to life, and I wanted students to know it too.




So I designed a series of handouts that would help students imagine life in another city, focusing on the sights, tastes, smells, sounds and feelings of far-off, lovely places. Students would look at a stunning image on one side, a photo I had taken in my travels, and then imagine they were there, writing a postcard home to a friend. Except that postcard would specifically target a certain sense. So maybe they would tell their friend all about the incredible tastes of Paris, on the back of a postcard featuring a Parisian bakery.

I have designed four sets of these international sensory postcards, featuring Barcelona, Paris, Venice, and a selection from them all (The European Tour). I love them! They make for a fun little mini-unit when you need something interesting between other texts, or they complement an overall writing unit well. And the results make for great displays!


I love looking at postcards, so it's been a joy to mix them into my teaching on a weekly basis. Every time I go somewhere I am on the lookout for my collection. You'll be surprised at how much fun it is if you decide to try it too.

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