WITS Voices: What is a Detail?

By Arianne True, WITS Writer-in-Residence

This past week, my classes focused on details – what and where they are, and putting them into our own writing. We defined details, went over senses, and totally rocked an exercise on noticing them all around us in the classroom.

For practice finding details in poems, we read Ada Limón’s “The Noisiness of Sleep,” and I asked them to notice sensory details. Yet, tons of kids in every class jumped right into analysis and evaluative statements. I had to go over precisely what I was asking multiple times, tying it back to the classroom-detail-noticing activity we’d just done before they could let that part of their brains go, to see what was in front of them without trying to figure out what the poem meant or how they felt about it.

This caught me totally off-guard, but it makes sense now that I’ve seen it. In academic spaces (and creative ones, too), we tend to jump right into questions like “what is Thing X doing?” or “what does Thing Y mean?” or “how do those two relate?” instead of asking our students to just be present with the piece.

Those more cognitive and evaluative questions, often regarded as “deep” questions, are absolutely important, and I learn so much from how my students answer them. But those aren’t the only questions worth asking, and this week showed a gap in how my students have been taught, including by me. I had to explain to them, in great and repeated detail, how to just notice moments in the poem without trying to attach meaning or analysis. How to observe without interpreting. In writing poetry, this is a major skill, but in reading poetry with my students, I’d forgotten to center it. Read more…