Using Tortoises and Termites to “Show” Perspective in Writing

Greetings, teachers! My apologies for not blogging more often, but things have been a little hectic with teaching, writing, and occasionally spending time with my family. I do have a backlog of writing lessons and assignments that I will definitely throw online in the next couple of weeks, and when I say “definitely” I mean “almost positively.” Maybe.

I wanted to share a really simply lesson that I hope addresses a problem I see a lot with young writers. Kids, especially those who struggle with writing, tend to write from “outside” the story, as a spectator. I liken it to those old-fashioned nature documentaries wherein an omniscient narrator does a play-by-play of some unfortunate animal in the wild: “The innocent gazelle has no idea she’s been stalked by the hungry lion. Watch as she innocently nips at the leaves, completely unaware that she is in the final moments of her life…”

These types of videos can be really useful for a quick writing exercise. However, I don’t recommend showing scenes of graphic animal violence in your classroom (unless, of course, you’re tired of being a teacher), so I thought something like the following might be a bit more kid-friendly. In it, a pancake tortoise slips away from a predator—it starts at around 7:50 and is only 30 seconds long.

(Important note: I have NOT watched this whole video, so make sure you cut it after the scene, just in case subsequent footage contains psychologically damaging tortoise carnage.)

After watching the clip, talk about how what the narrator is saying is very similar to writing from “outside” the story, without choosing a perspective. “There is a tortoise. A caracal sees it. The tortoise has to escape by slipping under the rocks.” This is great writing for lab reports, but not for fiction. Our job as fiction writers is to make readers feel like they are in the shoes (or, in this case, claws) of the protagonist.

With this in mind, have students re-write the scene from the perspective of either the tortoise or the caracal, using thoughts and actions and all that good stuff. It might be easier to write from the first person, though third person can certainly work just as well. The important thing is to remain within the viewpoint of their “character” and see the world solely from that perspective. This is showing and not telling on a very basic level, and a necessary stepping stone to more complex techniques.

This is an activity that can—and should—be repeated, so here’s another example. At 10:14 you get to watch an echidna chowing down on some termites, which would be a good choice for this activity (plus you can incorporate sensory language—yummy termites). Again, I haven’t previewed the entire video, so be forewarned.

I’ve also attached a Powerpoint presentation about this particular skill—with a follow-up assignment! Bonus!

Show-Dont-Tell 2


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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