Over the last year of my teaching, I have written the words ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ more times on student work than I can keep track of. In fact, I’ve written it so many times that I don’t even write it in full. My students know, SDT=show, don’t tell. The question is, how do we actually get students to activate this feedback? How do we start getting them to SHOW.

 

My thinking on this  has developed as I’ve read about what other teachers do in their classes, but I have also kept coming back to a seminar I attended in my first year of teaching, run by Matthew Hooper via VATE  (the Victorian Association for the Teachers of English). So that work was the starting point for my thinking here.

First, I think you need to start with the WHY or showing, versus telling.

See, we don’t choose to show because that’s just how creative writing is done. Showing is about giving readers an opportunity to understand the world of the novel and inhabit it with the characters.

Let’s go through an example:

Instead of telling the reader that: ‘Elizabeth felt nervous’.

Show the reader that: ‘Elizabeth felt the beads of sweat gather on her upper lip, and her hands trembling’.

The second example gives insight into common physiological experiences, which gives the reader an opportunity to remember and relate to these bodily experiences. In essence, by showing, we’re given a better opportunity to actually empathise with Elizabeth.

So understanding this element is crucial. Showing is about enabling a reader to see and understand the clues of a character’s experience.

Here’s a few ways that I get students to see this:

#1: BRAINSTORM

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This is one way you can get started in thinking about how you might show these emotions. This activity above is a really accessible way of getting students to start thinking about showing.

#2 Role Play

This task is one that I got from Matthew Hooper many moons ago at the aforementioned VATE Conference. This task will probably take 20 minutes of class time (but could take longer if you ask students to turn this into a piece of writing). You’ll need a student volunteer and a script (I’ll put one here, but you can also make one up of your own). There are two run throughs of the role play, which centres around a very easy to relate to scenario (eg. arriving home from school).

I first get my student volunteer (generally a hand picked boisterous kind of person) to mime out the actions that I tell them. This is the TELLING version of the role play.

TELLING (I would probably add in a little more detail)

  1. You arrive home at your front door
  2. You walk into the lounge room
  3. You put down your school bag
  4. Unbutton and take off your coat
  5. Go to the fridge and get a drink
  6. Sit on the cough
  7. Turn on the TV

SHOWING

This version of the role play will follow the same plot, but for each of the 7 actions above you ask a question/questions of your students. Each of these questions ask for bodily experiences. Students write down their responses as you ask these questions.

  1. You arrive home at your front door
    • Touch/Body
    • What does the door handle feel like in your hand?
    • How is the temperature inside the house different to outside the house?
  2. You walk into the lounge room
    • Smell
    • What does the lounge room smell like?
    • How does this affect your sense of hunger?
  3. You put down your school bag
    • Sound/Body
    • What sound does your bag make as it hits the floor?
    • What is the floor made of? Can you feel any vibrations in your feet from the bag landing?
  4. Unbutton and take off your coat
    • Touch/Body
    • What do you shoulders feel like as your coat slides off them?
  5. Go to the fridge and get a drink
    • Touch/Sight
    • How does the air from the fridge feel against your skin as you reach into it?
    • How does the fridge light affect your eyes?
  6. Sit on the cough
    • Smell/Touch
    • What does the couch smell of?
    • How does the fabric of the couch feel against your skin?
  7. Turn on the TV
    • Sound/Body
    • How does the remote control feel in your hands?
    • What sounds does the TV make?

The trick is to give students long enough to be able to think and write down their answers. This task works well because it walks students through the steps of the narrative and asks them to empathise with the character they are visualising. Moreover, it’s impressive how many possibilities there are for such a simple narrative and it shows students how to create a sense of mood or atmosphere, even in a seemingly simple story/setting. I recommend trying it!

#3 Looking for balance

The only trap is that once students get the hang of showing, they may go a bit overboard. This might mean that you have the unfortunate opportunity to write something like ‘overwritten’ in their feedback. Students tend to start telling too much and need some prompting to show more, but they can also show too much and get bogged down in explicit detail that is overwhelming and unnecessary for their reader.

For this, I would get students to look at and identify how writer’s achieve a balance. For instance, below is a paragraph that I will be looking at with my students over the next week. I was thinking about showing/telling as I was reading this part, so this paragraph struck me as I was reading for it’s clear balance between showing and telling. The notes on the paragraph are mine, but I think it would be useful for students to:

  • highlight in different colours which parts are showing and which parts are telling
  • explain what the effect of the showing is- what mood does it create? What clues does it give us about the characters’ emotions?
  • explain why they think the author chose to tell what she did tell

Hopefully a task like this will show students that you can’t aim to show everything, telling has a place too.

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Hopefully this helps somewhat with ideas for getting some good showing happening in your students’ writing. If you’ve got any other ideas for how you do this, I’m all ears!

Reference: Matthew Hooper, VATE Presentation, 2012

 

 

 

 

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