Posts Tagged ‘Teaching Children How To Write’

How to Show “Less Is More”

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Less Is MoreIn my last few pieces, I went into some depth about how to teach children metaphor, all with the emphasis on shedding light on the old, favorite utterance among English and Creative Writing instructors alike: “Show me, don’t tell me.”

And, since I assert most teachers never really stop to think about how to explain what that odd phrase actually means [nor can they—usually—do it very well, themselves], I thought the subject needed to be explored some more, and then broken down into parts we can all understand, enabling those of us who find ourselves teaching children better qualified to make “show don’t tell” actually make some sense!  And, hopefully, I was able to stimulate your minds enough to help you teach such concepts, in regards to writing, to your students or your own children.

So now, I come upon another phrase often thrown around in writing—and other creative—classes, and that’s the phrase:

Less is more.  The phrase, evidently, is 19th century proverbial phrase, first found in print in Andrea del Sarto, 1855, a poem by Robert Browning.

But what, exactly, does it mean?

We grown-ups can understand the meaning easily enough, but how can we teach such an abstract idea to children?  To a child, however, it’s a nonsensical thing to say, and trying to explain the meaning can be tricky.  I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I’ve come to a determination about why less really is “more” when it comes to creative writing or story telling…er…storyshowing.

The phrase less is more is usually applied to the creating of a scene, description of something in a narrative, or other similar instances.  So why is less more, and what does that mean?

Well, when describing…while storyshowing…we want our listeners or readers to feel like they’re “there”, as much as possible; we want to show and not tell them what’s going on in such a way as to excite their imaginations, right?

Here’s what I’ve come to realize about less is more:

When we give too many details or too much description, we actually [in my words] sort of steal or rob people’s imaginations of the privilege of filling in details, in their minds, from past experiences; doing this makes the story less intriguing [at least for adults], and even to a large degree for kids, because our imaginations are usually more vivid than even the greatest description.

The thing is, it’s not so important your reader or listener “see” the details exactly the same way as the writer has first imagined in his or her head [what writers who use too much detail typically are trying to do]; so long as the reader gets the important details to complete a picture in his or her mind, this makes for better storyshowing.

Here are a few examples:

Too much detail:

John was all muddy.  His once white, Nike shoes with the electric blue stripes and matching blue laces were now covered in mud two inches thick, with little bits of grass sticking out here and there, and the mud was up past John’s ankles, so that his socks were just as muddy as his Nike’s, and the mud had spattered his legs, white shorts, and white T-shirt, with globs of mud and spots of muddy water stains made his shirt look kind of like a Dalmatian.

Notice how you “see” all of those details but, like misdirection in a magic trick, your imagination is focused ONLY on those details, and “misses” the bigger picture?  That’s what too much attention can do in just about any circumstance of life.

Now fewer details:

John looked like he’d stepped on a mud bomb.   What made it worse was he had been dressed in white; white shoes, shorts, and T-shirt.  Now his clothes looked kind of like a Dalmatian and he stank like the swamp.

See how the image of “…like he’d stepped on a mud bomb” allows your imagination to picture a mud “bomb” “explode” beneath some kid?  The remaining, few details give you just enough to complete a picture that will be uniquely your own; you might even have someone in mind to “be” John.

The greatest novelists are known for their skill in using sparing, sketchy details when it comes to description, respecting the reader’s imagination as the most important element in storyshowing.   Children, in their excitement while writing stories, often overload with details, and most adults are probably just about as prone to this [natural] inclination.

If you can effectively teach your students to always incorporate LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND, in their own creative writing [I like the idea of making a poster visible in the classroom], as well as getting comfortable in using some basic simile and metaphor, they will quickly pick up on how to skillfully “show and not tell” and even do so by using less to make their stories more engaging.

How to Show Using Conventional Metaphors

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Teaching children metaphorIn my last piece, I talked about teaching children how to “show not tell” using visual metaphors.   In this piece, I wanted to jump right into teaching children how to show using conventional and creative metaphors, but upon further review of the two types, I think we should stick to conventional metaphors, as creative metaphors are fairly abstract, and do take more mature minds to comprehend.

But here are two quick definitions:

According to About.com, a conventional metaphor is:

“A familiar comparison that does not call attention to itself as a figure of speech.“

Here are a few examples of conventional, just to help us know where to start:

• “His temperature went up.”
• “The work keeps piling up.”
• “I’m a night owl…she’s an early bird…”
• “Life is a journey.”
[For kids, you could say “Life is a field trip: Have fun, stay together, and don’t get lost.]

Notice how these metaphors call attention to themselves, meaning, they’re OBVIOUSLY figures of speech, and no one—not even children—would think a person is really a night owl, or that life is a journey or field trip!

Contrast with creative metaphor, just to show you how bizarre they truly can be, I’ve included three examples so you know I’m not trying to get out of teaching creative metaphors. Ha!  Creative metaphor is defined as:

“An original comparison, which does call attention to itself, as a figure of speech.”

Here are a few creative metaphors to look at.  I took these straight off About.com’s examples page, as I couldn’t think of any of my own; perhaps you can create some of your own after reading these:

“Her tall black-suited body seemed to carve its way through the crowded room.”
(Josephine Hart, Damage, 1991)
“Fear is a slinking cat I find, Beneath the lilacs of my mind.”
(Sophie Tunnell, “Fear”)
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough.”
(Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”)

See what I mean? Weird, hunh?

Now…to teach children how to show using conventional metaphors I, of course, assert it’s best to begin using metaphors the kids are likely to have heard many times before [again, with blatant explanation of how they make sense, using LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND.  Let’s stick with the examples above and build on those.

Let’s take a variation on “his temperature went up”, which meaning could be confused meaning he got a fever, and say…

Jim suddenly got hotheaded.

[Some coaxing here, to direct kids’ thoughts might be needed.

You could say…

“Have you ever watched a cartoon where, say, Daffy Duck, gets really mad and his face turns red and steam comes out of his ears?   That looks like his head is getting hot, doesn’t it?   So let’s pretend this man or boy, Jim, gets mad suddenly, so we say his head ‘got hot’, okay?”

You then might want to help kids realize people do things like clench their teeth, stomp their feet [they’ll know this], slam things down, or throw things, or yell when angry.  Invite them to list things they might notice people doing or happening when they get mad.

So with that image in mind, your kids can “LOOK” [picture in their minds] Jim with a red face, jaw muscles flexing, nostrils flaring, etc.  So let’s show, in steps, how Jim could “be” and angry bull, for example:

Jim was an angry bull.
Jim was breathing and grunting.
Jim’s nostrils flared with his loud breathing.
Jim paced back and forth.
Jim looked like he was ready to charge at someone
.

Jim was an angry, snorting and panting bull, pacing back and forth, looking as if he was about to charge at someone.

Then, using LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND, your kids can build upon the elements there that will make up their stories.

ONE WORD OF GENTLE CAUTION TO ADULTS/TEACHERS/PARENTS: Don’t worry about kids coming up with ridiculous “reasons” to satisfy LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND; so long as they give reasons to explain—the most important thing—they’ll eventually come up with realistic, feasible, and engaging reasons that make for good storyshowing.  For now, we want them to become familiar with what metaphor is, and then be able to create some basic metaphors of their own, or at least be able to identify metaphors easily.

Next up: How To “Show” “Less Is More”

How To Show With Visual Metaphors

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010
How to Teach Visual Metaphor

Life as a visual metaphor

Hopefully, by now, your students are beginning to gain at least a smidgeon of confidence in storyshowing—or showing not telling—using simile and Dead Metaphor.   Let them use all of the corny, hackneyed metaphors their young minds care to pull out; they can refine their skills over time.  I don’t see any point in explaining about tenor and vehicle, the two aspects of metaphor, until, perhaps, high school.

Now let’s explore Visual Metaphors and get some practice using them and hopefully begin to use a few in creative writing.  Another fun approach is to challenge your kids to try to use metaphor in their day-to-day conversations; perhaps, 3 times within a week, or once a day.  As they begin to become familiar with using them, their understanding of the concepts will grow exponentially.

A technical definition of a visual metaphor is

“The representation of a person, place, thing, or idea by way of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity.”

So let’s jump in with teaching “show don’t tell” with visual metaphors, shall we?  Your students aren’t likely to have the benefit of actual pictures in their stories—we’re hoping to teach them how to “show and not tell” with words, after all—so encourage them to continue practicing LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND.

Here’s a refresher on LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND:

• LOOK for “ The Secret Story.”
• ASK why things are the way they are.
• DECIDE on reasons for why things PROBABLY are the way they are.
• FIND words to explain how your decisions make sense.

Some examples of visual metaphors could be…

• A sports car with a cheetah lounging on the hood, suggesting the “wildness” and speed of the sports car is comparable to the cheetah.
• The image of a “family tree.”
• A white dove associated with Peace.
• The symbols on your remote control indicating Play, Rewind, Fast-Forward, and Stop, are all visual metaphors.
• One your kids are probably familiar with is the cartoon character looking angry, a dark cloud overhead.
• Everyone is familiar with the image of a light bulb, lit up, over someone’s head as representing that person having just gotten a “bright idea” [“bright idea” is a visual metaphor in word form.]
• The red octagon without the word “Stop” printed across the color field is a visual metaphor that has become pretty much universal for that action [Stop] along roadways around the world.

Let’s take one of those and see if we can’t “show” and bring about understanding that conjures up vivid visual imagery in our minds.  I like the cartoon character example for our development study; it provides a captivating image to begin with, to keep kids interested, and there are lots of details we can borrow from nature that children should be able to comprehend.   Again, I suggest creating with simile first, keeping LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND…in mind.

Simile: Jim’s mood was like a black, threatening rain cloud.
Simile: Jim’s thoughts were like a thick, dark forest at night.
Simile: Jim’s attitude cleared up like the sun breaking through the clouds.
Dead [Visual] Metaphor: Jim’s face brightened.

Now let’s improve that metaphor a little bit at a time.  Get your students to imagine—in this instance—a boy [named Jim] with a look on his face like he was unhappy, but then suddenly something happened to make him happy.   Then, have your students apply LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND; you might turn the LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND steps into a poster that remains on your classroom wall so students can readily go over the steps until they become second nature to them.

LOOK for Jim’s Secret Story.  What might his face look like BEFORE he gets his idea?   Maybe Jim could look perplexed, bored, frustrated, or sad.  ASK questions to explore possibilities.   DECIDE what Jim’s Secret Story is, and—in this case—what’s causing his mood.  Reaching these conclusions will greatly assist your students in FIND-ing words to describe what they will write.   You might also need to help them with ASK-ing probing questions to discover (or create) the depth of Jim’s Secret Story.

So Jim’s Secret Story might be revealed something like this:

1. Jim’s mood was a gathering storm.
2. Jim’s eyes were heavy thunderclouds.
3. Jim’s dark expression brightened.
4. Jim’s stormy mood blew
away.

That’s probably enough for now.   Let’s combine those elements for a vivid image that really shows.  And since we’re graduating our students, so to speak, from simile to metaphor, why not incorporate some simile in our “finished product” to help out with our storyshowing?

Here’s what I have thrown together:

Jim’s frustration was a dark haze gathering into a threatening storm; his eyes were like heavy rainclouds ready to burst. But then, all of the sudden, the thick fog seemed to lift, the thunderclouds in his mind were burned away by a bright thought, like the sun breaking up dark and frightening thunderheads.

This example should cause your students to ask even more questions; the most logical being, what thought did Jim have to change his mood so suddenly?  I don’t expect kids to come up with something so…intense as this, but I just wanted to show how various, observed [FOUND/DECIDED] upon elements can be included in the showing.

You might want to get your kids started on this by showing some common, visual metaphors—maybe even display some posters or other pictures—and then help them think of as many as possible; drilling on these will awaken an awareness in your students, and they’ll begin to notice metaphor(s) all over the place!  Children are intelligent; they just need some stimulation to get started!

Next up: Conventional and Creative Metaphors.

How To Teach Children Metaphor (Part One)

Monday, April 12th, 2010
Speak Metaphorically

How Do We Teach 'Metaphor' to Children?

[This piece was originally going to be titled: “Mom? What’s a ‘Meta’ For?” but I’ve decided to change the title of this portion of my series to a more practical—and search engine VISIBLE—one. ]

Teaching children how to “show not tell” using simile wasn’t so terribly difficult.

It’s really a matter of “thinking like a child” or paying attention to the things they say, the way they observe life, and then helping them think of examples that make sense.  Then once they get the hang of it and, after practicing LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND, they can begin to incorporate simile into their creative writing more regularly.   The use of the literary device, simile, really does aid in training children [or adults] to learn how to “show and not tell.”

But approaching metaphor with children will take more time, requiring more thought, and you’ll have to draw on many examples, because there are so many variations or types of metaphors [13 that I know of] to learn—many of them complex and abstract—and it will take years of using metaphors—consciously—to gain a real, functional skill in weaving them into one’s writing or manner of speech.  I say functional, because we all actually speak metaphorically almost every day, in life, without realizing it.

Here are a few examples:

1. The face of the mountain.
2. She broke my heart.
3. Life is a roller coaster.
4. I’m at the end of my rope.
5. He wore me down.
6. The daily grind.

Yes, those are ALL metaphors.  We usually call them “figures of speech,” but even I hadn’t thought of them as metaphors…until I started researching for this series, that is!

One quick note: I don’t think it’s a good idea to attempt to teach too many kinds of metaphor, at first; not until, at least, your student or child displays adeptness at coming up with metaphors that work well [there are abstract metaphors I’m STILL scratching my head over!]

So let’s start with just a few.  I’ve paraphrased definitions from this About.com piece: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Metaphor—The Different Types of Metaphors.

Here are some basic metaphor types.

1. Dead Metaphor.  Those that we’ve used “to death” and have lost their impact or even meaningfulness.   The examples above are all dead metaphors.
2. Visual Metaphor.  Represents a person, place, thing, or idea by way of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity.
3. Conventional Metaphor.  A familiar comparison that doesn’t call attention to itself as a figure of speech.
4. Creative Metaphor.  An original comparison that DOES call attention to itself as a figure of speech.

I’ll start with the first one, Dead Metaphor; the other examples I’ll save for another day, and I’ll write shorter posts for #’s 3 & 4 in a separate lesson on ‘show don’t tell’, using those kinds of metaphors to accomplish good storyshowing.

Okay, let’s “take a stab” [metaphor!] at the first dead metaphor example for showing versus telling, and see if we can’t bring it back to life, and see if we can’t get your students’ thoughts in the right frame.

The front of the mountain was like the face of a monster. [Simile].
The face of the mountain was a terrible, grimacing monster breathing down on the village. [Metaphor]

Granted, the use of metaphor tends to call for more words and description, but you end up with a more vivid image, don’t you think?

Now for #2…

She broke my heart.  That’s a metaphor a child will probably have heard, so the correct, non-metaphorical statement would be…

She hurt my feelings, and made me very sad [since a person can’t literally break someone else’s heart, not without killing that person, right?]  And so once your students understand and recognize “she broke my heart” is a metaphor, but a dead—and NOT creative or original—metaphor, at that, you can help them DECIDE on a more creative, more “showy” metaphor (or simile) to use.  The verb ‘broke’ is kind of weak, too; plus, we’re not sure if ‘she’ intended to break the heart, or if she was unaware of what she’d done.

Let’s try something else that’s not only more dramatic, like…crushed or stomped on—or both—but also that answers questions about intent, and thus revealing more about her Secret Story:

She crushed my heart, like a dried leaf on the sidewalk, under her shoe.

Now let’s improve that and ‘show’ more with something like…

My heart was a dried leaf, on the sidewalk, on her walk through life, and she stepped on it, crushing it to dust.

Of course, with such an example, you’ll have to help kids “see” the reasoning behind why/how these make sense by maybe saying something like:

“Have you ever walked along the sidewalk, during autumn, and stepped on dead leaves?  They get crushed under your feet, don’t they?  And sometimes we don’t even notice it happen, do we?  Well, maybe this girl was so busy thinking about her own things, she wasn’t paying attention to the boy’s feelings, and ended up hurting his feelings—kind of like accidentally stepping on a dried leaf, and HE felt like she ‘crushed his heart’.  Maybe that can be their ‘Secret Story’ for you to tell.”

After a while, they’ll get the hang of thinking up metaphors all on their own; just keep them practicing.

I never said teaching metaphor to children would be a breeze, but my point is young kids—say, 3rd to 5th grade—CAN learn metaphor, and you CAN teach kids how to effectively “show, not tell” by taking on the challenge of understanding some simple metaphors, and using them in their writing.