Using Specific Details to Show and Not Tell

If there is one concept I want my third graders to understand by the end of the year, it’s the difference between showing and telling. Of course, the goal is that they’ll be able to incorporate this crucial technique into their own writing, but not every child will be ready for this major step. (They are, after all, only 8 and 9—some of the cute little tykes can’t even tie their own shoelaces yet.) My goal for all students, however, regardless of their ability level, is to make them aware that there is writing that “shows,” and writing that “tells.” Hopefully they’ll begin to notice these different forms in the books they read, and this awareness will eventually parlay itself into better writing.

Again, that’s my theory. I also think that unicorns were probably real at some point. Caveat emptor.

A good starting point when teaching showing vs. telling, especially with struggling writers, is the inclusion of specific details. True, including specific details doesn’t always mean a student is necessarily showing (that comes more through demonstrating a specific perspective, in my humble opinion), but it’s an easy enough concept to grasp and it pays quick dividends.

And I made a Powerpoint, which means it’s super easy to teach! Powerpoints are fun like that, though I apologize that there are no cute graphics or other such flashiness. Truth be told, I’m a pretty boring Powerpoint maker, so if you like the content, feel free to jazz it up!

The final two slides present quick writing assignments (for grades 3/4 and 5/6) that can easily be done in a journal. In my school we have a show don’t tell competition every other month: a new concept is introduced, and there is a follow-up writing activity to be judged by the teachers. The winner from each grade gets to read his/her entry over the loudspeaker, because what writer doesn’t want to be heard?

Show Don’t Tell


Teaching Multi-Step Questions Creatively

Wow—it has been a LONG time since I updated this blog. I intended to get back to it when school began in September, but I was in the midst of finishing Thickety 3 and that, along with the usual start-of-school craziness, pushed this blog to the bottom of my to-do list. Things are a little more stable now, however, so hopefully I’ll be able to share some ideas with more regularity.

As a teacher, one thing I try to do is make those “necessary evil” skills somewhat more palatable. For example, I teach my students to re-state questions by asking them to create imaginary answers to ridiculous queries. If you’re interested, the link to that lesson—and a worksheet—can be found here:

Another skill I’ve found that my students need to work on is answering multistep questions, a perennial favorite of standardized exams. You know, the kind of question that seems to exist purely for the reason of cruelly fooling 8-year-old children? Here’s an example:

In the story “Baby Sister’s New Shoelaces,” Nicole learns a valuable lesson.

  • What lesson does she learn?
  • Do you think she’ll treat her baby sister differently from now on?
  • Have you ever learned a shoelace-related lesson in your life?

As you can see, that is three freaking questions, and many children will gleefully answer the first part and, in the process of formulating their answer, forget that the other two questions exist. It would, of course, make sense to split up the three questions with answer blanks so that this doesn’t happen, but we all know that’s not how standardized exams roll.

(“Why the heck not?” is a perfectly reasonable question; “Because they are evil, soul-crushing tests manufactured by malevolent trolls” is my not-so-reasonable response.)

Anyway, there are several very good techniques for tackling this type of question

  1. Crossing out each question as you answer it.
  2. Numbering bullet points so you remember to answer each one.
  3. Teaching students to proofread questions before they proofread

I think any of these approaches would definitely work, but I also like my students to practice answering multistep questions with purely imaginative responses (just like my restating the answer activity). There often isn’t enough time for creative writing in the day, and this is my way of cheating. (“Yes, they’re using their imagination, but they’re really practicing for exams.” Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

I hope the attached worksheet can be of some use to you. This is a repeatable activity, so after the initial introduction just change the questions and it can be used as a writing center. Also, more advanced writers often enjoy making up their own questions!

Multi-Step Questions Worksheet

Interviews and Guest Blogs

Brazos Bookstore Interview: Why I Write Books for Kids by J. A. White

Why I Write Books for Kids by J. A. White

…While I don’t necessarily miss being a child, I miss being a child reader. I still treasure books, of course, but my enjoyment of them is somewhat hampered by an understanding of their origins, the knowledge that books are written by talented men and women who love to tell stories but also need to earn a living. This inevitable realization—that the once mysterious workings of the world are composed of mere practicalities—is one of the true curses of adulthood. As a child, the thought that an author was paid for his or her work never occurred to me; books were simply truths that fell from the sky, as mysterious as ancient doors leading to far-off kingdoms…

Interviews and Guest Blogs

An Interview with J.A. White in Publishers Weekly

Spring 2014 Flying Starts: J.A. White

…White has been a storyteller from the get-go. He first told stories about the pandas on his bedroom wallpaper, and in middle school he published his own stories, mimeographing them for the benefit of classmates. He read voraciously—Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King—and favorite books included Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. He was so enamored of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain that he never read the final book (The High King), because “once I read it, the story would be over. I may read it on my deathbed…”


San Francisco Book Review of The Thickety

San Francisco Book Review

I couldn’t believe how fast this story is. It is like action on every page and I felt like I was actually in the book with Kara as she was bringing the book to life and as she started seeing Grace for what she was and the power they both had…The book ended with a major cliffhanger and totally left me wanting to read more…


Book Tour Blog: Boston Area

I met Paul Durham, the author I would be touring with that day, for breakfast, and we instantly hit it off.  Paul, a former lawyer and author of the excellent middle-grade novel THE LUCK UGLIES, lives up in New Hampshire with his wife and two daughters.  He’s laid back, funny, and an all around good guy.  He also writes in a refurbished chicken coop, which is ridiculously cool.

Ginny, our media guide that day, took us to two schools in the New Bedford area.  Doing a shorter version of my presentation was a nice change of pace, and it was fun to play off Paul when we were answering student questions.  Paul is an engaging speaker with all sorts of tricks up his sleeves, such as writing on bananas and making kids wear crazy masks.  It makes a lot more sense when you see it!

Our bookstore engagement that evening was at Wellesley Books, where Paul and I chatted about our lives, writing, and inspirations.  Allison, one of the booksellers there, asked us to discuss our favorite deleted scene from our respective novels.  What a good question!  (Quick answer: THE THICKETY was originally written in an omniscient voice, jumping from character to character, before I realized that would make it far too long.  I miss the scenes written from Grace’s point-of-view.)

Paul Durham
Paul Durham and I at Wellesley Books.

I spent that evening walking around New Bedford.  It was once a major whaling village, and as I was staying right by the water I took some time to check out the ships and narrow cobblestone streets.   As it grew dark I was reminded of another coastal town, this one from the H.P. Lovecraft story “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but that’s probably just me.  (I’m sure there are no cults that worship ancient underwater sea creatures in New Bedford.  Probably.)

whaling museum
In front of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Not at all a totem to Cthulhu.
clam chowder
Anyone who enters the Boston area is legally obligated to purchase clam chowder.

The next day Ginny drove me all the way from New Bedford to Cohasset, a little over an hour. Although I was pretty drained by this point in the tour, I really enjoyed the scenic drive past thick foliage and cranberry bogs, as well as our pleasant conversation about books and family.  When we arrived in Cohasset I snagged coffee at Marylou’s, which proudly announced, via a bright pink sign, that it had the “BEST COFFEE IN TOWN.”  (It was the only coffee I drank in Cohasset, so I have no point of comparison, but it was way better than Starbucks!)

The first school I spoke at was Inly School. The path to the office was lined with colorful cow statues, so I immediately knew I would like this place—and I wasn’t disappointed.  However, the librarian at Inly School, Shelley Sommer, did a much better job writing about my visit there than I ever could, so though I’ve already tweeted it I’ll re-include her post here:

(Her blog is a great resource for teachers and librarians—I particularly liked the post about 10 picture books for teaching kindness and compassion:

My new best friend.
moo cow

After Inly School we journeyed to Buttonwood Books and Toys, where I did some shopping (they give visiting authors a free book—so cool!—but as they have a great selection I couldn’t settle on just one for my kids).  I also picked up a copy of THE COLD SONG by Linn Ullmann, a Norwegian thriller that is also an IndieNext pick.  How could I resist?

Ginny and I enjoyed sandwiches in the back room (with cranberry sauce, a local thing that I felt was a definite improvement over the usual condiments).  Afterwards, we headed over to Hingham Middle School, which was a blast!  The kids were incredibly enthusiastic, cheering and applauding throughout my presentation.  The fact that they were on the verge of a long Memorial Day weekend might have had something to do with that.  One student, who had done his research on my website, asked me the level of my Skyrim character…and shook his head sadly at my pathetic answer.  Another student asked me for the name of my favorite horror movie.  I started saying the real answer—SUSPIRIA—but then scrambled for something relatively more kid friendly and came up with UGETSU, the great Japanese ghost story.

Here are the FINAL tallies for “Which is scarier?”—along with my choices:

abandoned hospitals (7) vs. abandoned amusement parks (2), 1 tie.  I have always had a thing for abandoned amusement parks, and I feel like there is a story there somewhere, waiting to be told.

spiders (5) vs. cockroaches (5).  It ends in a tie!  I’m not particularly frightened of either one of these—spiders eat other insects, which is why I try to let them do their thing, and cockroaches are pretty gross, but not really scary.  Millipedes, on the other hand…I hate millipedes.

creepy children (8) vs. dolls (2).   I think I’m going to write a story about a creepy child carrying a doll.  It will be the scariest story ever written.

clowns (8) vs. the dark (2).  I was really surprised by this one!  I don’t find clowns particularly scary at all, just kind of sad.  Mimes, on the other hand…

In conclusion, when my next novel is published, you’ll know where I got the idea.  It’s called CLOWNS AND CREEPY CHILDREN IN THE COCKROACH-INFESTED SPIDER HOSPITAL.  NY Times Bestseller Listhere I come!

Tri-state area events next…