Show, Don’t Tell!

For much of the early part of my teaching career, there was a strong focus on literacy from “the outside”. In other words, as soon as I stepped out of my own math classroom, I was bombarded with messages of how important it was to build literacy in students, and how the primary goals in schools needed to be about literacy above and beyond all other topics. To be fair, I started my teaching career at a school for students with various learning differences, but which at that time had a strong focus on dyslexia and other literacy-based disabilities. I am sure that had an impact on the messages I heard, from parents, from administrators, and from the speakers we had and conferences we attended during professional development. Still, there seemed to be a focus on literacy at the expense of math. As a beginning teacher and still in my mid 20’s, I took much of that message personally, and found myself both explicitly and implicitly arguing in favor of the need for more focus on math, which I saw as “the great equalizer” (as described by Edward James Olmos’ portrayal of Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver). 

Now, 16 years later, and in my very, very late 20’s, I have come to see math take center stage in prominence, thanks, for better or for worse, to Common Core. It has been literature refreshing to become more aware of the education world outside of math education, and see that we math teachers have a pretty prominent position in shaping (or trying to shape) the conversation about what education should mean in the 21st century. Thanks in part to Robert Kaplinsky’s #ObserveMe movement, I was reminded that I can learn a lot from every teacher, and at a small school like mine with a math department of 3, learning from teachers in other departments is almost an expectation.

Enter Laurie Miller, a veteran literature tLaurie Millereacher who led a small workshop during our inservice at the beginning of the year on the idea of “Show, Don’t Tell”. I’ve definitely heard the terminology before, but never spent any significant time on it that I remember in any of my English classes. We went through a nice activity where we read a passage and attempted to identify when the author was showing and when the author was telling. In the rich discussion afterwards, I found myself wishing we had more time to explore this idea, but also wondered when I would really use it (except in the written projects that I have my students do throughout the year).

A couple of weeks later, our other math teacher noted that she used the terminology to encourage a student to show their work, and things started to click. Asking students to show me their work in the past often went nowhere, because they had given the answer, and if the answer was right, why does the work matter? That can be a difficult argument to win as a teacher without resorting to authoritarian tones. But this new, simple phrase, one that students were buying into because they hear it in every class, really says it all. “Tell” is “give me the answer”, and that lends itself to a closed conversation of right or wrong. “Show”is along the lines of “convince me” or “prove it”, and leads to an open conversation about methods, efficiency, effectiveness, clarity, cohesion, organization, persistence, and all the stuff that we think of as important, and as transferable outside of our math class bubble.

I realize that this is a hastily written blog post, poorly edited, and probably rife with “tell, don’t show” examples, but in my defense, implementing SBG in Geometry and Pre-Calculus, switching to CPM for Algebra 1, and having 6 classes and no prep periods, plus a 2 year old and 5 year old at home, lead to lots of late night grading and very little time for blogging so far this year. And that’s unfortunate, because between SBG, CPM, and math debates, I have so many things to write about…over Thanksgiving break? Winter break? Hopefully sooner? Time will show.