The “Smell It” Lab

Writing detail-oriented pieces, such as profiles or other bits of narrative journalism, requires detail-oriented reporting. In many cases, students struggle with this because they have learned to rely on only a few sense: They hear sources speak and they see the activity going on around them. When those students have to create a deeper or more nuanced “word picture,” they often lack the feel in their reporting and the nuance in their vocabulary to make it work.

To help students better attend to other senses and find better descriptors, I developed two labs: Smell it and Feel it. Today, my feature writing class did the Smell It lab and I captured key moments of it. I also recorded some explanation as to how to go about doing this if you want to give it a try in one of your classes.

The basic idea is to find a way to isolate the sense of smell from the other senses and then force the students to describe the tactile nature of what they were experiencing. Here’s a simple walk through:

Each year, I change up the smells. I try to find variations in terms of things being “heavier” or “lighter” in terms of the smell or “fresher” vs. “dirtier.” In most cases, I tend to pick something “industrial” from my garage (as long as it doesn’t say on the bottle that breathing it in will cause brain damage or something). I also like to pick between my woodcrafting stuff (wood oils, stain), my wife’s essential oils for the fall (spicy, cozy), cleaning products (citrus, soapy) and some sort of food product. I stick with oils or liquids, as I can’t hide the items well enough and still keep them in a plastic bag to use actual items. One year, I used beef jerky, which was great for the smell, but students kept saying, “This smells like beef jerky” because they could see it. A chunk of cloth with a bit of liquid on it works a lot better.

To make the process fair, I have three bags and 15 students, so there are only five slots per hole. This means that every “smell” will have five students who are all working independently and then collaboratively to come up with what they smelled in the bag. Here’s how it works, with a few edits:


Once the students get done smelling, they need to come up with a list of 10-15 descriptive words that capture their experience. I allow a few short descriptive phrases, but I try to keep them at single words when possible to have them better focus on the specific sensation:


Once they have their own lists, they meet up with the other folks who had the same bag and they try to come up with a list of 20-25 words upon which they agree. They will need to compile that list for everyone else to see:

The students then list all their words on the board under their bag’s number:


Once it’s done, we debrief. I reveal what was in each bag and we go through the list of the words and determine how well those words align with the material that was in the bag. (In this case, it was a splash of a hazelnut-vanilla liqueur, a dose of 2-stroke 50:1 motor oil and a sampling of doTERRA (an essential oil made of citrus and spices/herbs).

Once the students are done with this, I have them write up about a 1/2 page to a full page that includes those words as part of their description of the tactile experience. This is the outcome element I use to assess the entirety of the process. If you want to try it, feel free to include the write up as graded, or a check-off item or something else.

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