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Volume 62, Number 5September/October 2011

In This Issue

Classroom Guide

For students: We hope this two-page guide will help sharpen your reading skills and deepen your understanding of this issue’s articles.

For teachers: We encourage reproduction and adaptation of these ideas, freely and without further permission from Saudi Aramco World, by teachers at any level, whether working in a classroom or through home study.


Jump to McRel Standards


This issue’s Classroom Guide is organized around two themes: Describing Experience and Behind the Scenes.

Theme: Describing Experience

This issue of Saudi Aramco World is all about things we experience with our senses: fashion that we look at, made of fabric that we feel against our skin; food that we smell and taste; art in exhibition spaces that we experience as entire environments. But how do writers put such sense-based experiences into words? How do they convey the experience to readers?

How do writers use words to describe sensory experiences?

Writers use different techniques to describe things. For the purposes of these activities, we’ll focus on three of those techniques. First, they use descriptive words to describe objects and actions. (In grammar jargon, you would say they use adjectives to describe nouns and adverbs to describe verbs.) Here are a few examples:

  • Adjective-noun pair: red shoes; blue sky; black-and-white dog.
  • Verb-adverb pair: run quickly; drive cautiously; sing happily.
  • Adverb-adjective-noun: extremely hot day; piercingly loud voice.

A second technique for describing things is similes. If you don’t remember what a simile is, find a definition. Make sure your definition has some examples so that you’ll be able to recognize a simile when you see one. Come up with a simile or two of your own, just to be sure you’re comfortable with the concept.

Finally, a third technique for describing things is to refer to something you assume your audience is already familiar with. For example, “The Met Resets a Gem” describes the museum’s “Beaux-Arts façade”—which is helpful for readers who know what “Beaux-Arts” refers to. (If you don’t, you can Google it and find images that show you.)

Keeping these three descriptive techniques in mind, divide the class into four groups. Assign each group one of the feature articles: “Nouvelle Vogue in the Mideast,” “Through the Black Arch,” “The Met Resets a Gem” and “Gaza’s Food Heritage.” With the members of your group, read your article, and look for how the author describes the clothing, artwork, exhibition space, or food. As you read, highlight the descriptions, and use a different color to distinguish each type of description. Share a few examples of each type of description with the class so that you all have a good sense of how the authors of the four articles described sensory experiences: Which descriptions did you find most evocative? In other words, which ones gave you the best idea of what something looked, felt, tasted, smelled, or sounded like? What made it work for you? Which did the least to help you imagine what the author was seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling? Why do you think it didn’t work for you?

Now find examples of descriptions in other sources. You might, for example, read a restaurant review, or watch a TV show that reviews restaurants. Or you might find an advertisement for an air freshener or a laundry detergent that describes scents. Maybe you’ll read a music review: How does the author describe the sounds? You get the idea. Find one brief example and share it with the class. Explain what you discovered about how the author described whatever sensory perception(s) he or she was experiencing. If you like the description, explain why. If you didn’t like it, how would you describe the same thing? What do you think makes your description better for a reader, viewer, or listener?

How can you describe something effectively?

Now try it yourself. The authors of the articles in Saudi Aramco World were describing things that they had experienced. You haven’t had direct experiences with what they’re describing, so think about something you do have direct experience with—things you can see, hear, taste, touch, and/or smell. Choose a food dish, for example (you’ll probably get the most mileage if you choose one you really like or one you really don’t like), or an article or outfit of clothing, or a place. Whichever you choose, be very specific. For example, describe your experience as you sit at your favorite spot on a beach you know well, rather than just trying to describe “a beach.” Write your description. Make sure it’s at least a paragraph, but see if you can go for a page or two. Remember that your aim is to describe the sensory experience so that someone who hasn’t shared that experience can really understand what you perceived. Have people read aloud their descriptions, or trade descriptions with several other students so that you can read each other’s writing.

Theme: Behind the Scenes

Much of what we see every day is finished products. If you go to a restaurant, you see only the food as it’s served: You don’t usually see it as it’s being prepared in the kitchen. When you read this magazine, you see it in its finished form—all laid out with photographs, captions, call-out quotes and well-edited text. But a lot happened behind the scenes to make the food or the magazine possible. That’s what you’ll be looking at in these activities.

What finished products do you present? Would you want people to look behind the scenes to see those products before they were finished?

You may not think of yourself as someone who presents a finished product, but you are, and you do. For example, when you turn in a homework assignment, you’ve probably made a clean copy of it (at least your teacher hopes so). You don’t show your drafts, or all the cross-outs you made, and there is no evidence of how late you might have stayed up to finish it, or the conversations you had with anyone while you were working on it. You only show the finished product—and maybe that’s just as well!

Think of an example of another finished product that you present or have presented. Write it down at the top of a piece of paper. Then think about how that product came into being. What was involved? What did you have to do? What was the product like at different points during its creation? In short, write about—or show illustrations of—what went on behind the scenes. Then think about whether or not you want people to know everything that went on during the process of creation. For example, would you want your classmates to see what your hair looked like before you combed it this morning, or for them to see you repeatedly sticking your finger in the cookie dough while you were baking the cookies? Write a little bit about what you would or wouldn’t want others to see in your behind-the-scenes process.

What is gained by knowing what went on behind the scenes? What is lost?

Clearly a lot of people are fascinated by what goes on “behind the scenes.” That’s what tabloid magazines and shows are about: What is that movie star really like? Are the prince and the princess really in love? The private lives of public people fascinate others.

So does what goes into making a movie. (That’s where the phrase “behind the scenes” comes from, after all.) Have you ever watched the supplemental material on a dvd? Whether you have or not, do it now. Get a dvd of a favorite movie and watch the director’s commentary (or interviews with the actors, or explanations of the special effects). What did you find out? How does knowing it change how you think about the movie? Does it make you like the movie more? If so, why? Do parts of it bother you? If so, why? Have a few volunteers describe for the class how their thoughts about their movie changed when they saw the background material. As a class, discuss whether you are glad you saw the background or not, and why.

Now look closely at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition space that is called “The Arts of Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.” Read the article to find out how that space came into being. After you have read the article once, go through it again, this time paying particular attention to the challenges that writer Walter Denny describes. With a partner, list those challenges in the left-hand column of a T-chart, and the solutions in the right-hand column. You might further organize your chart by having a section devoted to each of the three major rooms he describes, and another section about the overall challenges.

When you’re done, visit the museum’s own website, particularly the page for the new space: <http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/museum-departments/curatorial-departments/islamic-art> With a partner, describe (orally or in writing) what you see in the photo the museum has placed on that page. Find the photos in “The Met Resets a Gem” that show the same space while it is being renovated. How does seeing and reading about the space as a work-in-progress affect your thoughts and feelings about the finished space? Does knowing the behind-the-scenes story make you more or less likely to want to see the space in person? Write an essay to answer the questions, and explain your thinking. Include how your thinking was influenced by the earlier example you came up with of your own “finished product” as well as how you responded to the additional material in the dvd. What conclusions can you reach about the value of knowing what goes on behind the scenes? What conclusions can you reach about the drawbacks of knowing it? What new questions come up for you about products and situations you are in?

Through the Black Arch


Standard 10. Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics

Visual Arts

Standard 3. Understands the causes and consequences of the development of Islamic civilization between the 7th and 10th centuries

Standard 4. Knows a range of subject matter, symbols, and potential ideas in the visual arts

Gaza’s Food Heritage


Standard 4. Understands the physical and human characteristics of place

Standard 9. Understands the nature, distribution and migration of human populations on Earth's surface

Standard 10. Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics

Standard 11. Understands the patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth's surface

Standard 13. Understands the forces of cooperation and conflict that shape the divisions of Earth's surface

Nouvelle Vague Mideast Style

Arts and Communication

Standard 4.. Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication


Standard 5. Understands the concept of regions

Standard 10. Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics

The Met Resets a Gem

Visual Arts

Standard 4. Understands the visual arts in relation to history and cultures


Standard 10. Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics

World History

Standard 23. Understands patterns of crisis and recovery in Afro-Eurasia between 1300 and 1450

Standard 28. Understands how large territorial empires dominated much of Eurasia between the 16th and 18th centuries

Standard 34. Understands how Eurasian societies were transformed in an era of global trade and the emergence of European power from 1750 to 1870

Julie Weiss is an education consultant based in Eliot, Maine. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies. Her company, Unlimited Horizons, develops social studies, media literacy, and English as a Second Language curricula,and produces textbook materials.