Standard Lesson

Make a Splash! Using Dramatic Experience to "Explode the Moment"

3 - 5
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Four 45-minute sessions plus additional writing time
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In this lesson students learn to elaborate or "explode moments" in their writing by using descriptive language. After hearing excerpts from popular chapter books that use vivid, sensory language, students participate in a dramatic experience as a springboard for a shared writing activity. The dramatic experience can be a staged surprise event in the classroom, such as a school counselor running in and throwing a confetti egg at you during the lesson. Students complete a graphic organizer that details what they saw, felt, thought, did, said, and heard. For further practice using descriptive language, students brainstorm their own memorable moments to "explode" and use the writing process to publish personal narratives.

From Theory to Practice

  • The quality of students' writing will improve only when we regularly discuss, create, and share criteria with them. One way this can be done is by sharing exemplary literature.

  • Every writer needs to find his or her unique voice or way to show "personality on paper." This includes writing persuasively, showing perspective, or sharing opinions as well as vivid and descriptive language.

  • Learning to write well involves learning to choose which details should be included based on which ones will enhance the reader's experience and convey the writer's intention.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Materials and Technology

  • Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos (HarperTrophy, 2000)

  • Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (Walker Books, 2005)

  • Holes by Louis Sachar (Yearling, 2000)

  • Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Aladdin, 2006)

  • Transparencies and overhead projector (optional)



1. Plan a dramatic experience to motivate your students to focus on and write about a specific event. The initial experience should be unexpected and somewhat shocking so you can emotionally hook students into the lesson. Ideas for the dramatic experience include:

  • The school counselor runs in and throws a confetti egg at the teacher or the chart during the lesson (make it a water balloon if you're really brave)!

  • A person in a funny mask or hat runs through the classroom laughing or shouting and steals a special item from the room, such as the flag, the class pet, or the teacher's chair

  • Another class parades through your room in a conga line making funny noises and dancing

  • Stage a disaster that fits with the curriculum you are currently studying (e.g., if you are studying insects, you might stage an ant farm catastrophe using fake ants)
You may need to ask the school librarian, counselor, another teacher, or former students to assist you in staging the dramatic experience. Students should not know that you planned this event for them. Keep the plan a secret throughout the lesson.

2. Select a dramatic excerpt from the books listed in the Resources or a book your students are reading and make an overhead of it. Look for examples that focus on a moment in time and are rich in sensory details, images, and vocabulary. The excerpt should make students feel like they are experiencing the moment with the character. This lesson uses chapter 1 from Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos as an example.

3. Find three to four additional examples of dramatic excerpts in other published works, such as chapter 1 in Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, chapter 20 paragraphs 35-42 in Holes by Louis Sachar, or chapter 1 paragraphs 1-3 in Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Make copies of one excerpt for each pair of students.

4. Make a transparency or a chart of the "Explode the Moment" graphic organizer and make about three copies per student.

5. Review the steps of the writing process. Plan to model revising a piece of your own writing for students.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of the classroom literacy community by discussing models of descriptive writing and engaging in a shared writing activity

  • Employ sensory details in their writing by using the "Explode the Moment" graphic organizer to brainstorm what they saw, felt, heard, thought, did, and said during a dramatic experience

  • Use the writing process to brainstorm, draft, revise, and publish personal narratives that include descriptive language

Session 1: Exploring Models of Good Writing

1. To "hook" students into this lesson, tell them that you are about to read "the greatest piece of writing." Be sure to over exaggerate the "greatness" of this writing. Write on the board and read to them aloud, "I got in trouble with Mrs. Maxy during class." (Students should adamantly disagree with you that this sentence by itself is not the greatest piece of writing!) Have students justify why this is not a great example of writing. Students might explain that the writing is boring, there are no details, and, as readers, they are left with many questions.

2. Put the excerpt from Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos on the overhead and read it aloud (see Preparation, Step 2). Ask students to compare the first piece of writing on the board with Jack Gantos's writing. What are the differences? Do they like Jack Gantos's writing better than the plain example? Why? How does Jack Gantos capture the reader's attention?

3. Invite students to consider the author's craft by discussing what Jack Gantos does to make his readers feel like they are in the math class with Joey, experiencing everything that he is experiencing. Explain to students that the author uses a small moment in time and elaborates it with descriptive language so that the reader feels "right there" in the moment. He uses descriptive language so that the reader uses all of his or her senses.

4. Using an overhead projector or the chart you created, show students the "Explode the Moment" graphic organizer. Use it to look back at the text for specific examples of how the author uses senses to make his readers feel like they are experiencing the event. Have students add details from the text to fill in the chart under the different categories (thinks, says, feels, does, hears, sees).

Session 2: “Explode the Moment” Dramatic Experience

1. Share other samples of excerpts that "explode the moment" (see Preparation, Step 2 for suggestions). Have students discuss in pairs or as a whole class what makes each example a good model of descriptive writing.

2. Using the "Explode the Moment" graphic organizer, analyze another excerpt together as a whole class. Note how the author uses sensory language (e.g., what the character does, says, thinks, feels, sees, hears) to bring the story to life.

3. Have pairs of students complete the graphic organizer for another text excerpt. Circulate while students are working to assist them and answer questions. Meet with students who are struggling. (You may want to revisit this activity or complete it as a whole group, since it will be interrupted by the dramatic experience.)

4. While students are working, stage a surprise dramatic experience to occur in the classroom (see Preparation, Step 1 for suggestions).

5. Have students immediately stop what they are working on and complete the "Explode the Moment" graphic organizer for the dramatic experience. Encourage them to capture every detail of what happened (i.e., what they saw, felt, thought, heard, and so forth). You might tell them you want to report it to the principal!

6. After things calm down and students have had an opportunity to record what they witnessed, have them share their responses. Record their ideas on a class version of the graphic organizer. Note: Students should not know that you planned this event; keep it a secret.

Session 3: Modeling How to Turn Experience Into Writing

1. Using the class or transparency chart completed during Session 2, Step 6, model how to turn the graphic organizer into a short narrative. First, put up a plain description (e.g., "I got hit with a water balloon. It was scary."). Use this plain sentence as a springboard to start a discussion and a shared writing activity. Have students help you select sensory details from the class chart to "explode the moment" as you are writing. Use the following steps to do this:

  • Ask students how to make the description more interesting. What is missing? Students should point to all of the details on the chart.

  • Explain to students that they need to record all of the details exactly as they happened so you can report it to the principal. Ask them to close their eyes and picture what happened, thinking about what you should tell her or him first.

  • Have students pair-share their thoughts about what they saw, felt, thought, and heard and then choose a few example to share with the whole group. Write students' ideas on the chart. (You might consider marking on the chart which details you select to go into the narrative.) Don't feel that you need to use all of the details. The idea is that your class creates a visual description of the event so that anyone who reads it will feel like they were there.

  • Continue to take ideas. If students are not forthcoming, make some suggestions while modeling your thought process. For example, you might say: "Hmm, looking at our chart, I can see we need to mention how we felt. I know that I was shocked. How can I say that so someone else feels what I felt? What if we say, ‘My stomach dropped and my heart raced as the water balloon flew across the room.' What do you think? Which category could I use next?"

  • Once the narrative is complete, read it aloud to the class while their eyes are closed. Can they picture the event? Are there any details missing?
2. Before the end of the session, have students brainstorm and discuss memorable moments in their own lives that they could "explode." Have each student create a list of ideas, such as happy moments, sad moments, scary moments, special occasions, funny moments, exciting moments, and so on.

Session 4: Planning and Writing an “Explode the Moment” Narrative

1. Have students continue brainstorming memorable moments (see end of Session 3) for five to ten minutes. Then have students circle their top three moments and share them with a partner. Partners should help each other choose the moment that would make the best topic of a descriptive narrative.

2. Have students use the "Explode the Moment" graphic organizer to plan sensory details for a short personal narrative. The story should only be about one moment, not an entire day or an entire event-just the one moment. This is an appropriate time to create a criteria chart with students for the Explode the Moment Graphic Organizer. Have students refer to previously created organizers to decide appropriate criteria. (You can also refer to the "Explode the Moment" Criteria).

Follow-Up Session(s)

Have students use the writing process to create a short narrative that is rich in details and descriptive language. This can take place during independent writing time, as structured sessions, and as homework.

  • Drafting: Ask students to write about their ideas in their journals. Students can refer back to their "Explode the Moment" graphic organizer for ideas of details to include. Have students take short breaks to share with a partner what they are writing; they should discuss how they are adding details to "explode the moment."

  • Revising: Have students reread and clarify their ideas. Model how you revise a sample piece of writing and/or providing shared revising activities that help scaffold students' understanding. You might do this by revisiting the graphic organizer to show students how you incorporate details from the organizer as you revise your writing.

  • Editing: Focus students on grammar and spelling. Students should first self-edit their writing before submitting the piece for a peer or teacher edit.

  • Publishing: Have students complete the writing process by writing a final draft of their narratives and sharing their writing with an audience (e.g., classmates, younger peers, or parents)

  • Reflection: Have students write a paragraph identifying a place in their writing where they "exploded the moment." Have students give at least three examples of sensory details that they used. This paragraph is an assessment showing that students can utilize descriptive language in their writing.


  • Give pairs of students another simple, "boring" sentence. Using the "Explode the Moment" graphic organizer, have students revise the original sentence into an "exploded moment." This activity works well right before the revision step of the writing process. After this activity, have students reread their own narratives (or a buddy's writing) and choose a place to add more sensory details.

  • Use the Interactive Timeline tool in small groups to help students who are struggling to narrow their focus. Model how to use the tool and then allow students (alone or with a friend) to use the timeline to break an event down into smaller moments. Consider having them choose one of the events from their brainstorming in Session 3. Once the timeline is complete, have students choose one entry from the timeline to elaborate with descriptive writing. Allow students to talk out each sensory detail (what they said, thought, felt, heard, did, and saw).

  • Have students take a previously published piece of their own writing and choose a moment to revise using the "explode the moment" technique.

  • Find "explode the moment" examples in movie clips. Then have students write scripts. Have students make a short movie of a dramatic experience for other groups to write about using the "Explode the Moment" graphic organizer.

  • During computer time, have students research the websites of the authors you have been discussing. A few kid-friendly author sites include:
  • Jack Gantos (author of Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key)

  • Kate DiCamillo (author of Because of Winn Dixie)

  • Louis Sachar (author of Holes)
  • Student Assessment / Reflections


    • Use the “Explode the Moment” Criteria list to evaluate students’ “Explode the Moment” graphic organizers (see the Completed Sample “Explode the Moment” graphic organizer as well).

    • Evaluate students’ writing by observing and conducting individual conferences during the writing process. You may want to keep anecdotal notes to record areas of strengths and need for individual writers during your conferences.

    • Evaluate students’ reflection paragraphs (see Follow-Up Sessions, Reflection) to see what they have learned.

    • Evaluate students’ writing journals, drafts, published stories, and presentations based on individual and classroom standards for process writing.