Teaching in the 21st Century

Traci GardnerTraci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.

My Secret Weapon in the “Show, Don’t Tell” Battle

posted: 11.11.09 by Traci Gardner

I’ve probably written “Show. Don’t Tell.” on several thousand papers. It’s always felt at least slightly disingenuous. After all, I tell students to show. Where’s the logic in that?

I’ve pointed to passages from model essays. These examples help, but they never reach every student. Now I have a new tool for the arsenal.

Photographer Steve Mermelstein (@vtphotog) passed along this Make Pictures Don’t Just Take Pictures video from the PhotoFocus blog. In just under two minutes, the video demonstrates the value of capturing a story with your camera, rather than simply snapping an image of whatever is in front of the camera:

After playing the video for students, ask them whether the photograph at the end is better than the first image the photographer takes. They should quickly identify the simple underlying lesson:

  1. Remove the background noise.
  2. Tighten your focus.
  3. Capture the story.

It’s the photographer’s equivalent of the writing teacher’s “Show. Don’t Tell” lesson. Students may not immediately see the connections between photography and writing however. On his companion site to Image Grammar, Harry Noden includes a particularly pertinent passage from Robert Newton Peck on Show and Tell:

Readers want a picture—something to see, not just a paragraph to read. A picture made out of words. That’s what makes a pro out of an amateur. An amateur writer tells a story. A pro shows the story, creates a picture to look at instead of just words to read. A good author writes with a camera, not with a pen.

Showing, and not telling, is about writing with a camera, as Peck states, but it’s more than that. It’s about making that picture, as the PhotoFocus blog entry calls it. It’s about removing the details that don’t matter, focusing in on the topic, and capturing the specifics that make the information compelling. To embellish a bit, a good author writes with a camera, and makes the picture that comes to life in the text.

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