Sunday, October 10, 2010

Using Show Not Tell in the Classroom

I introduce the topic of show not tell by reading a touchstone text that exemplifies the writer's craft I want my students to focus on and practice in their own writing.

Reading from the Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas - p7
     “The pork chops were fragrant and crisp, the potatoes swimming in butter with a sprinkling of black pepper over their shiny brown backs.  The chop house keeper returned briefly and added a plate oozing with berries and dusted with sugar.  The wizard said something, but I didn’t hear him.  I picked up my fork and cut open a potato.  I let butter soak in for a second and then took an enormous bite.”

In the center of our mall there is a little kiosk that sells Cinnabon cinnamon rolls.  The smell of freshly baked bread spiced with cinnamon wafts through the air.  The scent tantalizes and teases me, taunting that it is within reach.  As the enticing aroma tickles my pleasure centers, my brain goes on full alert.  I reconnoiter the kiosk, surveying the display case.  Scouting out calorie laden pleasure bombs, knowing that one bite will detonate my greed for more.  I set about capturing the enemy, a choice roll that has both rich caramel flowing over the sides and thick luscious frosting standing guard on top.  After capturing this sinful delicacy, I savor it with a frosty chilled latte.  Mission accomplished.

“Breakfast Toast” is a successful writing-exercise, I have used with my students.  I ask the students if they have ever eaten toast.  They all look at me as if I have lost my mind.  I go on to describe how I like my toast.

“I like my toast golden – not crisp, not blackened, just lightly browned.  I sniff the melting butter – spreading like a puddle over my golden brown piece of toast.  To this I add jelly or better yet honey.  The smell of hot toast beckons as I sit down.  Honey butter with its sweet flavor teases my tongue as I bite down into the lightly toasted bread.”

Student Example:

Pancakes by Lily Slunaker (5th grade 2009)

I love my pancakes golden brown and soft. I love it when the smell is sweet, and the taste is warm and delicious. I like the taste of the rich maple syrup against my tongue and the sound of the batter getting poured into the sizzling hot pan. I love having pancakes for breakfast because of their delicious taste, sweet smell and the sound of the batter sloshing in the hot pan. I love pancakes.
The prompt: – Write about how you like your toast or another food.  I then let them write for seven minutes followed by sharing.

The Sharing – This is a very important part of the Writing Workshop and writing process.  There are many ways to approach this.  I modeled my classroom procedure after the National Writing Project class I attended in Laurel, MT. 

I had the students bring their writing to the back of the classroom.  We sat in a circle and I talked to them about being good listeners and a good audience.  I also told the students when called on to read they had some choices they could make – (1) Read their writing (2) Have another student read it (3) Have me read it (teacher) (4) Say pass.  As a reader make contact with your audience.  Use inflection.  Project your voice so everyone can hear you.

The listener’s role is to understand the writer.  Ways to be a good listener: watch the reader, interact with the reader - nod your head, smile encouragingly, make eye contact, what part of the writing works.   After the reader has shared their writing – thank them for sharing.  I then tell them, they can retell the part that they liked best and why.  I encourage them to use as many of the author’s exact words as they can.  They can ask questions for clarification.  They can talk to the speaker about what they are still confused about (I remind them they must do this in a respectful way.)  In the book p 36 “Don’t Forget to Share” by Leah Mermelstein are some great questions audience members can ask the speaker.  As a final step I ask the writer, “What part of the conversation was most helpful?”

This sharing and reflection is very powerful.  Even though I give suggested prompts I always leave writing about something else as an option.  I remind them that they need to keep the content school appropriate.  Last year I had a young woman (4th grader) share about her cousin’s murder.  Two students moved to sit by her giving her support and comfort.  These sessions are important to building community and a safe place to share their writing.  It also provides the writer with a real audience for their work.

Recommended Professional Literature:

Don’t Forget to Share: The Crucial Last Step in the Writing Workshop by Leah Mermelstein
    ISBN: 13: 978-0-325-00951-3


  1. This is such an excellent skill to teach kids! I know as a writer I am guilty of telling sometimes rather than showing. Because it's quicker perhaps, and takes more effort to show a scene through a character's eyes.

    (Those cinnamon rolls just made me hungry!)

  2. Fantastic exercise to get students thinking about writing differently, by showing. For some reason I am now very hungry, off for a snack :)

  3. The kids really loved this prompt. They did some really awesom writing.