Name: Rebekah O’Dell (@RebekahOdell1)
Class: English 9 Standard
School: Trinity Episcopal School, Virginia
The first twenty minutes of the pilot episode of The Walking Dead is virtually silent. I hadn’t remembered that when, out of desperation and end-of-October exhaustion, I agreed to show the episode to my ninth graders on Halloween. They begged. I was weak. In a lame effort to sound educational, I grasped wildly for one of our recent mini-lessons “As we watch The Walking Dead, think about what we know about the world that we aren’t explicitly told. In other words, think about where the show is showing and not telling.”
“Showing versus telling” is my instructional arch-nemesis. I teach it every year. I have some really good mini-lessons — or so I think. And still, every year, this is one of the skills that a chunk of my students have the hardest time mastering. This baffles me. It becomes a story of the writerly haves-and-have-nots, with some students mastering the skill instantly, innately.
If a student comes to my class without being an avid reader or without being a confident writer, the student still has years of story under their belt. On some level, they know that stories have action and dialogue and details. They can pick it out when they see it. They can talk about it. Yet, when it comes to translating this into their own writing, I always have the other 30% students who deeply struggle to show — and not tell — on their own.
I’ve modeled until my hands hurt. We’ve practiced: Tell me about your ride to school this morning. Now, show me your ride to school this morning. We have identified exemplars in our independent reading books. But nothing I have tried has met with more than about 70% success.
Until I gave up trying and showed an episode of a TV show.
Enter The Walking Dead
About half of my students had some familiarity with The Walking Dead before class. I couldn’t have planned the conversations that happened between my students.
“The girl is a zombie!” one blurted.
“How do you know? another asked.
“Watch the way she walks. It isn’t normal. That’s how they are telling us something is wrong.”
“Who is ‘they’?” I probed.
“The show,” one said.
“The writers!” another exclaimed
Ahh, the lightbulb went on above their heads. Writers had crafted a way of communicating to the audience without words — by showing a world gone horribly wrong through subtle, precise details. And the audience knew every single thing they needed to know without having heard a word.
The conversation continued, and I jumped to the board to jot down the students’ observations. “How do we know something bad has happened?”
“The clock has stopped.”
“The flowers are dead.”
“There is no electricity.”
“There is no sound.”
Student after student made observations about what they knew about The Walking Dead through showing alone. Naturally, when the bell rang, students begged for more. So, I gave them more. As a fan of the show, I was surprised how impressive I found the pilot episode upon re-watching. It was smart. It was interesting. It relied on a smart audience to do its work. And it felt wholly different than the show I was currently watching in season four.
A week later, I showed students the first twenty minutes of the premiere episode of season four. I offered a similar guiding question: “What do you know about the survivors’ current situation because of what you are shown?”
Little came up.
“With just this information, what are some of the differences in the show four seasons later?”
Students broke up into small groups and discussed what they had noticed. The resounding, unprompted answer was that while the season one premiere showed, the season four premiere relied on telling. And it just didn’t work as well.
Why It Worked
I won’t tell you that this lesson solved all of my showing-not-telling woes, but it did make a substantial difference with my students. No – each of my struggling students did not suddenly become a master narrator, but our conversations did have a new focus and energy. Something had clicked.
Immediately after our close reading of The Walking Dead, a student called me over for a writing conference, asking, “I know I want to show that I was nervous to open the back door, but I knew I had to do it. How can I use my words to show that feeling?”
She was getting it. While she wasn’t fully there yet, she now understood what the end goal looked like and was beginning to formulate the questions to move her writing forward.
These students had seen an engaging model of showing — current, a little bit edgy, and surprising for them. Like me, they didn’t expect to be engrossed in a mostly-silent TV show. More importantly, students had seen the contrast. They had felt the difference between compelling showing and flat telling. Seeing the difference played out in front of them made it far more concrete. It became something that they could internalize and then duplicate in their own writing.
This lesson that started by accident is one I will repeat on purpose.