The Story is in The Details

The biggest events in our lives are made up of small details; the way we feel, the smells, colors, sounds, and movements around us. The more students can attune to these details, the stronger their narrative writing will be.

Observing art is a great way to help students notice all the details that make up a moment and a story.

In this activity you’ll build students’ observational skills and descriptive writing skills as you notice the details in Norman Rockwell’s “Going and Coming.

See how this activity ties to the Common Core Standards.

Before you begin your work with students...
Watch Norman Rockwell Museum Deputy Director and Chief Curator Stephanie Haboush Plunkett and Curator of Education Tom Daily observe and discuss Going and Coming (below).

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Going and Coming, 1947. Oil on canvas, 16″ x 31 1/2″. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, August 30, 1947. Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, 1973.15. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN

This activity is meant to be flexible and work with your classroom goals. Please adapt this to meet your needs. Do any or all of the steps below, add your own steps, or veer off in a different direction. Share your experiences and ideas here so that we can learn from you.

Subject Areas:

English Language Arts: reading, writing, speaking and listening


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    Students Will:

    • Observe, discuss and interpret visual details
    • Integrate relevant descriptive details into narrative writing and oral stories
    • Collaborate with peers in group discussion

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    You Will Need:

    • A color copy or digital display of Norman Rockwell’s “Going and Coming”
    • Index cards and a pen or marker
    • A white board, chalkboard, or large sheet of paper


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    Observe the Art

    • Let students know that together you will investigate Norman Rockwell’s Going and Coming.
    • Ask students to think of themselves as detectives. You might say, It’s your job to notice all the small details in this painting. Stress that no detail is too small. Let students know that, just like detectives, they should not leap to conclusions as to what these details mean. For now, they should just mention details that they see, not what they think or feel about those details.
    • Begin observing the two parts of Rockwell’s illustration. Draw students’ attention to: the scenery, color, character posture, facial expressions, objects in and around the car, the light, etc. To help students’ steer away from interpretation, have them start each observation with “I notice…”
    • As students mention details, write the descriptive words that they use on index cards.

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    Interpret the Art

    • Revisit students’ observations and begin talking about what these details might mean. You might ask:
      • What does it make you think of…?
      • Based on______ how do you think that character might be feeling in the top and bottom portion of the illustration? How have their emotions changed from one part to the next?
      • What might the different characters be thinking? What might they be saying? Why?
      • Based on the objects that you noticed, what are some things you think this family did on their trip?
      • What story do you think Norman Rockwell is telling with this illustration?
        • Encourage children to begin these statements with “I think…” or “I feel…” Continue writing children’s descriptive words on index cards.
      • With older students you might ask how detail is used to suggest time, place, and the illustrator’s intention. Ask questions like: what feeling or emotion is Rockwell trying to convey in each illustration, and how is he using details to convey this? What details help to place this illustration within specific moments in time? How might this illustration be different if it were made today?
    • Draw students’ attention to the fact that they have just investigated two small moments in time, a family going on a trip and a family returning from a trip. Review all the rich words that went into describing those two moments. Explain that all moments are packed with this many details; students need only to notice them.

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    Respond to the Art Through Writing

    Explain that students are now going to write the story of one event that they think may have happened during the family’s trip in Rockwell’s “Going and Coming.” Encourage students to draw or sketch the event before writing about it. As they draw, encourage them to spend time imagining all of the rich details that are the building blocks of their story. Students can reference the word lists and word categories (if you created them) as they write.

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    Connect with the Art Through Personal Stories

    Have students create their own “Going and Coming Stories.” Encourage them to write or tell about an event that took place over the summer, creating a clear beginning, middle, and end. Before students begin, you might have them draw a “before” and “after” picture just like Rockwell did. When the stories are complete spend time noticing the details in each story, just like you did with Rockwell’s painting.


You have now generated a lot of descriptive words. We want to know what types of activities you might build around the words you generated. Here are some ideas that we had. You might try them and let us know what you think, or share some new ones with us in the comments below.

Generate categories for the words…
  • … on your index cards and write them on the board.(i.e. words that describe emotions, words that describe setting, etc.)

    Discuss the category or categories that each card might go under. Again, draw students’ attention to all the senses that they used when observing and describing these scenes. Stress that students can and should do this same level of noticing and describing when they are writing. You might go further and set up a still life on a desk or perform an action like brushing your teeth. Ask students to observe, describe, and discuss all the details in your scene.

For Grades 6-12
  • Take a look at all of the observations that you generated. Create two categories: “literal” and “connotative”. Go through each observation and decide if it was literally in the painting or if it was a connotation that Rockwell was suggesting. Discuss how literal and connotative meanings apply to poems and stories that you are reading in your class.
  • Evaluate the details that students collected and the observations that they made. Discuss which are most relevant and essential to the story that Rockwell is trying to communicate. If you were turning these scenes into stories or poems which details would you find it most compelling and important to include? Why?
For Grades K-5
  • Spend time investigating each word. You might draw the words, act them out, incorporate them in sentences or integrate them into a game of I spy, “I spy something in the painting (or in the room) that is red and glowing”. Play games where you set up a scene and then challenge students to describe that scene with as much descriptive language as possible.


Share Student Stories

Upload student drawings and written stories to share their creations with other teachers and students in the comments below or email to

Thank you for participating in this exercise! We look forward to your thoughts and to seeing what you and your students create.

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