Toothpaste: Show Don’t Tell – Kelsey Wentling

Show-Dont-Tell-2Once inside the cabin, everyone shivers off their jackets and eagerly starts buzzing around the warm haven: home for the next three or four nights.

Soon after, buzzing turns to chatting and not far off chatting turns to gossip.

Show-Dont-Tell-7Middle school children are no strangers to gossip. Seemingly every student, willingly or otherwise, partakes in the exchange. So before our warm, little sanctuary can become a breeding ground for rumors, I take out my toothpaste for a little ‘Show and DON’T Tell’ and sit everyone in a circle.

“Who can squeeze out some of this toothpaste for me?” A few hands go up and I choose someone who isn’t afraid to get a little messy. She coaxes some toothpaste from the tube and looks back at me, a little puzzled. “All right, now put it back into the tube.” She looks at me again and then at the tube before giving it the ol’ college try. “Pretty difficult, isn’t it?” Nods and giggles from everyone.

Show-Dont-Tell-5After I’ve cleaned up, I ask my students to relate this demonstration to gossip. The similarities are clear:

  1. Once it’s out, there’s no way to get it back in.
  2. It’s messy.

I was first shown this demonstration at a summer camp in Maine when I was in 5th grade. I remember with vivid detail sitting in a circle with friends from school, while our counselor made us do the very same thing.

What made this experience so memorable that a decade later I’m doing the very same thing for my students?

In part, the power of the message resonates strongly with students of this particular age group. However, the truly haunting aspect of the message was the visual representation of what gossip can look like. My counselor didn’t tell us not to gossip, (we’d heard that enough times) she showed us not to gossip.

Show-Dont-Tell-3Showing without telling is one of the most powerful techniques an instructor has at his or her disposal. Increasingly, in my classes and cabin groups, I’m aware that students will often remember not what I said to them, but what I showed them through activities or demonstrations.

I could explain myself more, but that would be breaking my own rules. So instead I’ll show you another example:

The activity is Name Juggle.

Round One: After setting students up in a standing circle, I give them directions to call someone’s name and receive an answer before tossing the ball to them. This is done repeatedly from student to student throughout the circle.

Show-Dont-Tell-4Round Two: Once we’ve got the hang of it, I add in another ball and another and another. Pretty soon students are calling over each other, talking at the same time, confused and giggling.

“What made this activity difficult?” I always ask the students, and they always answer: “Everyone was trying to talk over each other and we couldn’t play the game right!” Ahhh!

Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah

Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah

I could sit them down and tell them the importance of respecting one another by being attentive listeners. I could go over why we should call each other by name and why we should be aware of those around us.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin


Smart Old Dude

But, if I permit it, this activity allows students to teach themselves. At this juncture, students are much more interested in learning by reaching their own conclusions through demonstration or trial and error than through lecture. If I show them the consequences of poor communication, they’ll likely remember it long after they’ve forgotten the miscellaneous tidbits and details we teach them in class.

So, Ben Franklin knew his stuff! I can tell my students that gossip is wrong and destructive. I can tell them to be respectful towards each other. Or I can show them, which I believe is more likely to make a lasting impression on their character. If that’s the case, then I can truly begin to do my job.

Show-Dont-Tell-8At High Trails Outdoor Science School, we literally force our instructors to write about elementary outdoor education, teaching outside, learning outside, our dirty classroom (the forest…gosh), environmental science, outdoor science, and all other tree hugging student and kid loving things that keep us engaged, passionate, driven, loving our job, digging our life, and spreading the word to anyone whose attention we can hold for long enough to actually make it through reading this entire sentence. Whew….

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