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