Showing Not Telling: Demonstrations Matter

Being a parent continues to be an eye-opening experience.  Just the degree of difficulty alone sets this job apart from any other I have ever run across in my life.  Many facets of the parenting experience have surprised me and bewildered me, leaving me oftentimes utterly speechless and scratching my head.  But I must say, few things have left me with such glimmering moments of satisfaction.  For me, the act of parenting is like writing in some very key ways.

A few nights ago, I climbed the stairs toward my daughters’ room.  It was bedtime, and as I approached the top of the stairs I could hear voices, well, mostly one voice.  I instantly recognized my eldest daughter’s voice (she’s in second grade). She was reading Cat in the Hat to her sister (who is in kindergarten) and her stuffed panda bear.  What struck me instantly was the fact that my little reader was inventing voices for the characters in the story.  As I stood proudly in the doorway, I thought about the many, many times she had heard me, and probably her teachers, demonstrate this same thing.

Dr. Brian Cambourne from the University of Wollongong names the power of demonstration as one of the conditions needed for learning.  Learners must be able to observe actions in order to make meaning.  When teaching our writers, we might think about demonstration through a few different lenses:

What a demonstration is not:  I used to live across the street from a man named Jon.  One thing Jon loved to do was jump off the sides of high precipices wearing a special pack on his back.  Upon pulling a special cord, this pack would open, and a large red parachute would emerge.  Jon would then use special rope handles and techniques to maneuver the parachute.  Sometimes he would remain airborne for hours.  One time I watched a video his wife had taken of his jumping process.  While watching, Jon was careful to be sure I understood I was not watching a demonstration.  What I had just viewed was deceptively simple in appearance.


What a demonstration is:  The word “demonstration” is sometimes defined as “an act of proving conclusively, as by a show of evidence.”  A real demonstration, especially in a writing workshop, requires us to break down an act of writing, an act we often call a “strategy,” into steps.  Like steps in a recipe.  Otherwise, what our students watch us “teach” is kind of like the video I watched of Jon jumping off the cliff that day.  After watching that video, I could not go do that.  The inner workings of the process had not been revealed to me.  And without a true demonstration of the inner workings, the likelihood of my being able to replicate the act I was shown was pretty low.  I keep this notion of demonstration in mind each time I attempt to teach writers a strategy I believe to be worthwhile and one that will lift the level of their current writing.  I think about the way, the steps, by which I can prove to students conclusively that this strategy is (a) something writers really do, and (b) something they can replicate.  Tucking in words like, “First I (do this)…,” “Then I…,” and “After that, I…” helps students internalize the path writers follow to successfully execute the writing move. I’ll often try to tuck in the “why” as well, sometimes by saying something like, “Writers will often do this because…”  Learners must observe actions in order to make meaning.  Steps really help.

The writerly life:  A demonstration is also defined as “an exhibition, as of feeling; display; a manifestation.”  So another lens through which we might consider meaningfully demonstrating for our students is to show them what it means to live like a writer– for real.  Those of us who participated in the Annual Slice of Life Story Challenge (SOLSC) had a wonderful opportunity to exhibit both our love for writing, as well as what commitment can look like.  Students look to us to see what we value.  It has been said that the physical contents of our classroom show students what we value, yes; but so do our everyday actions.  If we wear our love for writing enthusiastically on our sleeves, students will see it.  For me, wearing my continued love for writing on my sleeve sometimes means:

  • taking a moment to share a part of an entry from my own writer’s notebook.  
  • sharing a struggle I faced down as a writer and how I got through it.  
  • sharing an idea I have and the excitement I feel around getting it down on paper or into my phone somehow.  
  • sharing a small moment about how I had an idea to write about and was so glad I’d brought my writer’s notebook along with me so I could get some of it down.

The point here is that as teachers, we can demonstrate that writing can be a way of being.  It doesn’t have to be just a school thing; it can be a life thing.  Katie Wood Ray once said:

“Everything we do in writing workshop teaches students.  Either we can be walking, breathing, talking examples of all we advocate for our students, or we can have them sitting around wondering why we are trying to get them into something we obviously aren’t into ourselves.  They see me as someone who writes, which is how I’m asking them to see themselves.  And this is a key ingredient to learning anything.  They listen because they can see I know what I’m talking about.  You can’t get that if you don’t write.”  

Katie Wood Ray seems to be asserting that students will mirror our way of being around writing.  So make that way of being worth mirroring!

As difficult and emotionally tumultuous as parenting can be, I find the mirroring effect to be inspirational.  By demonstrating what reading can be, I have helped to create a reader who, at least for now, sees herself as a reader, and brings joy and prosody to her reading aloud.  Showing is different from telling.  Many of us have taught this lesson to our writers when they are writing narrative accounts.  However, showing not telling is also critical to bring to our teaching of writing.  Because as we know, actions speak louder than words.