This lesson is part of Writing Our Way Through: clear, fun, and engaging “lessons” for writing at home with young people.
Author: Susan Karwoska
Age Range: 3rd Grade & up
Materials: A variety of objects or fabrics of different colors. Paper and pens/pencils.
Can a color have a sound? Can it have a taste? Do musical notes carry a scent? For many artists, musicians, and writers, the answer is yes! In this lesson we revisit the five senses but this time with a twist. Synesthesia is a fancy name for what happens when our senses blend together or intermingle. Someone experiencing synesthesia might “hear” a color, “smell” a texture, or “see” a sound.
For instance, the musician Duke Ellington claimed that a D note conjured up an image in his mind of dark blue burlap while a G note was light blue satin. As odd as it might seem, this blending and blurring of the senses is easy to get the hang of once you get started. And it helps us stretch our powers of observation in new and interesting ways.
As the poet Rubén Darío said, “Words should paint the color of a sound, the aroma of a star; they should capture the very soul of things.”
1. Gather together a collection of small-ish objects or items of clothing from your home, making sure to include a range of colors in the things you pick. These objects don’t have to be anything special—a smooth black stone, a blue bowl, a green scarf. Picking a variety of colors is more important than the objects themselves. Another fun approach is to start off with a scavenger hunt, asking each participant to do a brief search for an object in a color “calls out” to them
2. If you’ve done the gathering yourself, place the things you’ve gathered in the center of the table and ask each participant to choose one of them. Or, ask the scavenger hunters to join you at the table with their objects. Have everyone place their object on the table in front of them.
3. Read “Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell. With its emphasis on the taste and feel of words, this is a fun poem to read aloud. Kinnell uses vivid metaphor here (the blackberries are like “juicy” words in his mouth) as well as synesthesia (the language of the blackberries is “silent”).
4. Once you’ve finished reading, invite participants to name some of the words the poet uses to describe blackberries and the experience of eating them. There are so many delightful words from which to choose—“icy “ and “startled” and “squinched” and “fat” and “prickly”.
As participants call out these descriptive words, ask why the poet might choose such words to describe blackberries. How might blackberries be “silent,” or “startled”? This blurring of the senses might seem strange at first, so the goal is to give participants permission to use sense words in ways that might be unfamiliar. Invite them to focus on the color black in the poem and to say how Kinnell might describe it, using synesthesia. Black tastes like ripe berries. Black feels icy cold…
5. Invite participants to pick up their object and name its color, then to consider the following questions. This works best if you can print or write out the questions and place them in the middle of the table so all can see. Make sure to emphasize that there is no “right” answer to any of these questions. Two people can experience the same color in completely different ways!
- If this color had a taste, what would it be?
- What kind of music or sound would this color make?
- What is the texture of this color? Would it feel rough? Smooth? Soft? Bumpy?
- What is the scent of this color? Can you compare it to something? Burning leaves? Cookies baking? Your aunt’s perfume?
Once participants start to get the hang of synesthesia, you can offer more challenging questions such as these:
- What kind of weather would this color be? (“Yellow is a sunny summer day at the beach…”)
- What time of day? (“Blue is 6 pm on Sunday evening…”)
- What mood or feeling does this color give you? (“Green is the calm feeling you get while swinging in a hammock…”)
Before everyone begins to write, choose one of the 0bjects left in the middle of the table and invite participants to call out their answers to the questions above while you take dictation and compose a collaborative poem on the spot. Gently remind them that descriptive details can make writing come alive. For example, “Red tastes like bacon,” could be made even more vivid by adding “Red tastes like bacon sizzling in the pan on Sunday morning.”) When you have five lines, read the poem aloud.
6. Now it’s time for everyone to write! Invite participants to use their synesthesia powers to describe the color of the objects they’ve chosen. The easiest way to start is by answering the questions above, which you’ve placed in the middle of the table. But make sure to let everyone know they should feel free to ask and answer their own questions, especially if they are on a roll (see the student poems below!)
7. Finally, invite participants to describe a memory associated with their chosen color, as the author of “Blackberry Eating” does. The memory doesn’t have to have anything to do with the lines already written (although it can, of course) but it can offer an interesting, open-ended way to finish, while also making a place in the poems for the writers themselves.
8. When everyone is done writing, invite participants to share what they’ve written, even if it’s just a line or two. As always, it’s ok to pass, but it can be fun to see the variety of observations your fellow writers make about the colors they’ve chosen
Literary Terms, Forms, and Devices: Synesthesia, Simile and Metaphor
Acknowledgments & References: Synesthesia: A Literary Device by Liz Arnold, Image To Word: An Abecedarian List Of Games And Experiments by Joanna Fuhrman, Young Writers of the World by Liz Arnold and Susan Karwoska, Sensory Language by Jason Leahey
I love to go out in late September– Galway Kinnell
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths and squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.
Chilly and sinister at the same time
But also peaceful and calm
Like the ocean waves
Or like blue M&Ms or Skittles
Teal feels wet, rough, and icy and it tastes salty
It reminds me of ice-skating on a chilly day
–Poppy, Grade 3
It’s the color of water in the ocean
The water cold, the sky hot.
It tastes like a nice cold drink of water.
It feels like ice when it touches your tongue.
It sounds like a guitar on the lowest notes.
It reminds me of a lake in the daytime.
It’s smooth and salty
just how I like it.
– Sara, Grade 3
Lavender feels like smooth velvet, warm from the dryer
Or like waving your hand through flowers
Lavender is like waking up to classical music in the morning
Lavender is a cloud over the sun
Lavender reminds me of picking juicy grapes in the summer.
– Chloe, Grade 3
Yellow makes me really happy
Yellow tastes like lemons
Yellow wakes me up in the morning
Yellow is so smooth I can’t feel it
Yellow sounds like music playing
Yellow is super sour
Yellow is like the sun
So bright you can’t look right at it
–Harry, Grade 3
Blue reminds me of gargling with salt water
It reminds me of walking by a hotel pool at night
It sounds like soft jazz
It feels like a rainy night
It looks like the deep blue sea
It tastes like oysters in your mouth
It’s the darkness of midnight
–Jasper, Grade 3
Red feels like the fires in Australia
It sounds like low C on the piano
It is both angry and happy
Red tastes like a spicy lemon
And is as hot as boiling water
Red makes me remember when my science teacher almost set fire to the school.
–Lélia, Grade 3
Susan Karwoska is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellowship in Fiction; a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace residency for emerging artists; and residencies at the Ucross Foundation and at Cummington Community of the Arts. From 2005-2014 she was the editor of Teachers & Writers Magazine and currently serves on its editorial board. She is also on the board of the New York Writers Coalition, and has served on NYFA’s artist advisory board. She writes and edits for a variety of publications and organizations, works as a writer-in-the-schools, and lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is at work on a novel.