Use The Polar Express to Develop Rich and Detailed Writing

Bring The Polar Express into your middle school classroom to spark the creativity of your emerging writers.

By Stef Durr

Cup of hot chocolate

Kids of all ages enjoy celebrating the season with themed material, so give your pre-teen community a clip of the song “Hot Chocolate” from the 2004 film to enhance their writing style. With this mini-lesson, they will focus on using descriptive details to enliven their writing and develop their unique writing style.

What Are Sensory Details?

To put it simply, sensory details help set the scene by explaining what one might touch, taste, smell, see, and hear when they enter a particular setting. They should create a believable and inviting setting that helps the writing come alive to the reader. Using sensory details expands vocabulary and lends itself well to using figurative language. It should add to the writing, not take away from it. Here is a list of words that appeal to the senses. Consider printing or posting this list for your writers to reference.

How Should We Start?

I focus on sensory details throughout the entire school year, as I feel it really helps the reader connect to the text. Before introducing this mini-lesson, present your class with two writing examples; one that uses sensory details and one that doesn’t. Read each example aloud, and have your learners choose which one captivates them more. Every time I do this, the overwhelming majority chooses the example packed with sensory details. Since middle schoolers are starting to play a more active role in their own learning process, it’s important to involve them in the discussion behind why we use sensory details and the effect it creates for the reader. Some key questions I ask are:

  • Which passage is more interesting to read?
  • How does each passage make you feel?
  • Which reading helps you picture the scene better?
  • Give me examples of things that helped you see, hear, taste, smell, or feel the setting in the description you heard?
  • Why should we use sensory details in our writing? What does it offer our audience?

How Do We Use the Clip?

After highlighting the importance of using different senses to develop the setting and mood, it’s time to play the clip! At 2:47, you can easily play it twice. Start by having your class simply sit back and enjoy the catchy tune. Then, pass out a graphic organizer to help them keep track of the different senses explored during the video clip. If they were on the train, what would they hear, smell, taste, see, touch, etc.? As they work to recall any of the descriptive details, play the video clip once more. They should be able to list several examples for each of the senses listed.

How Can Learners Enhance Their Writing?

Although sensory details are most commonly used to enhance creative pieces, have your class use their completed chart to craft a short summary. What happened before, during, and after the train crew distributed the hot chocolate? Encourage writers to use the rich, sensory details they’ve captured on their chart to detail the clip’s events.

What Steps Should Pupils Use For Reflection?

Before grouping class members to share their paragraphs, have writers reread their own paragraph, underlining (or highlighting) every place they appeal to the senses. Divide learners into groups and have them take turns reading their summary paragraphs aloud. As you monitor, identify a few great examples to reference in the large-group setting. Focusing on strong examples (and what makes these examples strong) will reinforce the developing skills.

Additional Lesson Plans:

Using Descriptive Language

You won’t just find sensory details in creative pieces; they’re also used frequently in advertisements. Analyze the author’s use of descriptive details by reading the article provided and sparking a class discussion.

Writing Exercises

Get your class writing with these short writing exercises. First, writers attempt to describe an object of your choice, and then they write the beginning of a story that takes place in your classroom, focusing on employing sensory details.

Describe A Journey

In no more than 200 words, your writers must create a structured piece of writing that details a journey. A list of questions prompts writers to use all senses in their description.