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Laurie Block Spigel

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The Five Senses

Awakening the Senses

Multi-Sensory Teaching

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An early K-1 lesson is to identify the five senses. Yet throughout our lives it seems that we use these senses less and less. Even the visual sense, perhaps our dominant learning pathway, is underused, and we miss things that seem to stare us in the face. Once my mother asked her college freshmen to write, on the spot, about the doorway that they had to pass through in order to enter the building. My mother loved this doorway, surrounded with statuesque carvings reminiscent of a cathedral archway. And yet these college students had all ignored the door through which they walked every day. The short essays that were handed in were practically blank. My mother gave no assignment, and didn’t discuss the work, or lack of work. But a week later she suddenly gave the same assignment, and students had to pull out a sheet of paper and write about that door. Every student described the doorway in detail. My mother had done her job as a teacher, and yet she had never assigned homework, and never openly exhorted her students to look. “Look up!” she used to say to me. “People never look up!”

As I taught my children to develop their own senses, I found that I continued to develop mine. We sat on the kitchen floor one day, opening bottles of spice. “Try this,” I held the open cinnamon bottle to my young son’s nose as he inhaled. “What does it make you think of?” He answered, “Christmas.” One at a time we would test dried orange peel, ginger, crushed mint. Each elicited a different response. Once we reached four or five we were on sensory overload, and we’d have to save the rest for another day. For my poetry classes I created a smell kit, with small, unlabeled bottles containing various scents such as: coffee, licorice, garlic, popcorn, and pine needles. These prompted words, associations, and poetry.

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I also made a touch kit, a bag containing items with different textures. Students would reach inside and gently touch something they could not see, feeling the sensation of a feather, hairbrush, fine sandpaper, or soft cotton cloth. Each touch prompted words, sometimes invented, leading to descriptive poetry.

Sound words were invented after listening with closed eyes to a variety of noises, from the crumpling of a piece of paper to the rattling of a pencil box. Students would hide their eyes while I made the noise, and then waited while they busily wrote down their description. Crumpling paper sounded like “walking on snow.”

Taste is closely related to smell, and these two senses seem to trigger memories more successfully than any other. Food-related memories make for easy writing, and food-related history make for fun events. At a geography fair, my son chose to do a presentation on Madagascar. In his research, he found a recipe for a Malagasy fruit salad. The children at the fair each got a cupful, and as they ate were asked to find the secret ingredient, a major export of Madagascar. Guesses included cantaloupe, pineapple and lychees, the main ingredients. Finally I gave a hint: it’s invisible. “Vanilla!” they shouted. To this day we remember the major export of Madagascar.

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In Sharon Creech’s book Heartbeat , the main character is told to draw an apple every day. That experience not only leads her away from stereotyping, but takes her to a deeper level of seeing that she had not known was possible. In order to develop the visual sense, we explored the meaning of color, applying colors to characters, situations, feelings, and poetry. We looked at black and white photographs and movies, and then at others in color. On a walk through the autumn woods we marveled at the many colors in a single leaf. We looked at clouds, letting our imaginations wander. We talked about the design aspect of everything, from utilitarian objects to costumes and theater sets, and made our own designs. We played the Exquisite Corpse game, where anything goes, the more unexpected, the better. We traveled, reading maps and reading landscapes. Once you discover tiny Anasazi Indian ruins nestled on the side of far-off canyon walls, you just don’t look at the landscape in the same way anymore. You scrutinize the horizon, peering for the possibility of surprise.

Physicalizing any activity employs more than one sense. Having trouble remembering the alphabet? Make it out of clay. The tactile experience will give you a whole new connection to the letters. Difficulty learning time? Make a huge circle on the floor with paper numbers, like a clock face, and let the child be the hands, using his or her body to show the hours and minutes. Kids have begged me for this!

Cooking is an easy example of using every sense: we make mental computations and physical measurements; we read, examine, taste, smell, listen to the sounds of cooking; we stir, beat, scrape, pour, and smooth; we check on varying temperatures; time passes; smells fill the house; we eat, and share. What could be a better learning experience? Homeschooling in the kitchen, amidst a sensory symphony.

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