"Snapshot" Exercises & Sensory Detail Word Bank

This lesson is primarily a writing exercise that is useful when students are on a field trip or class outing. Materials:
  • Pen or pencil
  • Paper


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Adapted from an exercise provided by Jenny Vogus, Huron High School, Ann Arbor, MI.
Grade level:
2- 12
Very little prep time, 20 minutes in-class discussion time, 1 hour writing exercise
Student Learning Outcomes:
  • Students will exercise their minds and creativity in this lesson to capture one moment in time through writing.
  • Students will learn writing skills and vocabulary that are essential to literacy in the science classroom.
Lesson format:
Writing Exercise

Standards Addressed:


  1. Use the following points to lead a discussion with your class. (Note, there is an alternate reading sample provided for Elementary teachers further down in step 6.)

    Writers are like photographers with giant zoom lenses, observing life in incredibly fine detail, pulling back to make sweeping generalizations, then zooming in again to make those generalizations come alive with detail. Look at the way Jerry Spinelli makes a dilapidated house come alive in his young adult novel, Maniac Magee. (This is a good example when explaining "snapshots" to students. Students may be familiar with this book. Plus, it will get their attention!)

    Maniac had seen some amazing things in his lifetime, but nothing as amazing as that house. From the smell of it, he knew this wasn't the first time an animal had relieved itself on the rugless floor. In fact, in another corner he spotted a form of relief that could not be soaked up by newspapers.

    Cans and bottles lay all over, along with crusts, peelings, cores, scraps, rind, wrappers—everything you would normally find in a garbage can. And everywhere there were raisins.

    As he walked through the dining room, something—an old tennis ball—hit him on top of the head and bounced away. He looked up—into the laughing faces of Russell and Piper. The hole in the ceiling was so big they both could have jumped through it at once. He ran a hand along one wall. The peeling paint came off like cornflakes.

    Nothing could be worse than the living and dining rooms, yet the kitchen was. A jar of peanut butter had crashed to the floor; someone had gotten a running start, jumped into it, and skied a brown, one-footed track to the stove. On the table were what appeared to be the remains of an autopsy performed upon a large bird, possibly a crow. The refrigerator contained two food groups: mustard and beer. The raisins were even more abundant. He spotted several of them moving. They weren't raisins, they were roaches (1990, pp. 131-132).

  2. Begin by explaining to students that writers have a magic camera that they can point at the world and create snapshots that contain smells and sounds as well as colors and light. Read examples of snapshots from science-based literature and discuss why writers like John McPhee (Basin and Range), or John Krakauer (Into Thin Air), John Steinbeck, or Henry David Thoreau (Walden) describe things the way they do. What do the students like about these passages?
  3. Review some of the things writers can do to dig deeper for the details when they stall out. What do they see? What do they hear? What do they smell? What do they feel?
  4. In science class, have students pick one moment and write a "snapshot" of a landscape or event at that particular moment. Encourage them to create a picture with words. See the "Sensory Detail Work Bank" (Middle-High School) or Sensory Observation Sheet (Elementary School). This is a great exercise for field trips (we do this at a local rock quarry and our hike along the river behind our school every year).
  5. Ask the students to write for 20 minutes or however long it takes to create a snapshot of their moment. When finished, have students read over what they’ve written and ask themselves at least two questions that will lead to more detail. Students should write out the questions and then go back and add these details to their snapshots.
  6. For elementary students, use the same process, except read this excerpt from Charlotte's Web by E.B. White and Garth Williams. After class discussion, have students write in words that describe the moment they are going to be writing about. Have the students fill in the different sense boxes using the Elementary Worksheet (above). They can use the words then in their snapshot writing. Obviously, writing sample and time for elementary students will be much shorter than for middle or high school levels.

    When Mr. Arable returned to the house half an hour later, he carried a carton under his arm. Fern was upstairs changing her sneakers. The kitchen table was set for breakfast, and the room smelled of coffee, bacon, damp plaster, and wood smoke from the stove.

    "Put it on her chair!" said Mrs. Arable. Mr. Arable set the carton down at Fern's place. Then he walked to the sink and washed his hands and dried them on the roller towel.

    Fern came slowly down the stairs. Her eyes were red from crying. As she approached her chair, the carton wobbled, and there was a scratching noise. Fern looked at her father. Then she lifted the lid of the carton. There, inside, looking up at her, was the newborn pig. It was a white one. The morning light shone through its ears, turning them pink.

    "He's yours," said Mr. Arable. "Saved from an untimely death. And may the good Lord forgive me for this foolishness."

    Fern couldn't take her eyes off the tiny pig. "Oh," she whispered. "Oh, look at him! He's absolutely perfect."

    She closed the carton carefully. First she kissed her father, then she kissed her mother. Then she opened the lid again, lifted the pig out, and held it against her cheek. (Excerpt from Charlotte's Web, Chapter 1).


Assessment will depend on the level taught and whether or not this activity is done in combination with an English or Writing teacher.



Last modified March 8, 2006 by Jennifer Bergman.

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