There are moments from elementary school imprinted in my memory: gold stars, colorful comic-book stickers, butterscotch candy, cubbyholes. Among those memories, there’s one experience from that era I have never forgotten, one that never fails to hold educational value for me to this day: show-and-tell. For many of us, our ability to speak in front of a crowd began somewhere around third grade with show-and-tell, the popular activity implemented in elementary classrooms that continues to maintain its power to inform and educate and enthrall.
This deceptively simple activity crosses curriculum and grade levels and allows for a potent learning experience for both teachers and students. Additionally, show-and-tell activities provide a creative outlet in the waning months of the school year when students and teachers are in the thick of standardized testing, end-of-course exams, finals, SATs, ACTS, and Advanced Placement exams. They’re easy to implement and, with careful planning and time management, allow students a break from the fill-in-the-bubble answer sheets of typical tests, standardized tests, and assessments that seem to stack up at the end of the school year.
The case for show-and-tell in the upper grades
At the secondary school level, show-and-tell functions best when anchored to a skill covered within a specific learning unit. In my 11th-grade English class, we study symbolism, rhetoric, and stylistic technique in one particular unit. We read and analyze E. B. White’s personal essays “Death of a Pig” and “Once More to the Lake,” the poetry of William Wordsworth, and Norman Maclean’s ruminative A River Runs Through It, both as text studies in analysis and as models of exceptional writing.
At the end of this unit, as an assessment, I focus our show-and-tell activity on a singular theme: the function of memory in our lives. Here, then, show-and-tell has a different tenor with a specific skills-based purpose. Show-and-tell-like activities connect students to the class text in a powerfully personal way and provide students with an opportunity to model exceptional writing, which I include as a specific scoring domain in my rubric.
I encourage students to model the wondrously complex syntax, imagery, and stylistic techniques of White and Maclean in their own show-and-tell assignment, thereby improving their reading comprehension skills, since they analyze and synthesize the work of other authors, and their own compositional skills at the same time.
Show-and-tell also allows students to practice their oral presentation skills. One complication, however, of an oral presentation–centered activity is what to do about shy or nervous or anxious students—students who would rather receive a zero than dare stand up in front of a room full of their peers.
Although some students may be hesitant to speak publicly and openly or share personal stories, I’ve modified the assignment to accommodate those concerns. I’ve had students, particularly students with 504s or IEPs, present just to me in a one-on-one session to avoid the anxiety that comes with oral presentations in front of a class. And in a few cases, I’ve provided the option to compose a speculative show-and-tell for a character we read in class for those students who preferred not to share personal information, particularly if that information was too sensitive for the student’s comfort.
One student, recalling his analysis of Virginia Woolf’s work from an earlier unit, created a show-and-tell presentation as if he were Virginia Woolf. He used a pencil as a powerful tool for Woolf’s unique creativity, her microscopic attention to selective details, and her scintillating syntax. This particular student, who was anxious about sharing personal details with the class, accomplished the tasks of a show-and-tell while also reviewing our study of Virginia Woolf at the same time.
Benefits of Show-and-Tell
In addition to bolstering students’ writing and presentation skills, show-and-tell encourages valuable self-reflection. At my own school, our administration encourages us to use restorative circles to bolster social and emotional learning with our students, building a community between students and teachers of trust and understanding. Show-and-tell is an additional way to have students reflect on their own unique experience and share that experience with their teachers and peers.
Katie Lee, deputy director of communications for Mental Health America, outlines 10 tips for teachers to practice for social and emotional learning. Show-and-tell includes several: a culture of kindness, reflective writing, time for talking, and expression through art (10 Tips for Teachers to Practice Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom).
Learning about the powerful personal experiences of my students builds rapport and an emotional connection. I’ve personally discovered so much about my students through show-and-tell: the family photo taken during the last family vacation before his parents’ divorce; the last dance with a great-grandfather; a warped, bent princess crown that reminds one of my students of a snowstorm from her past.
More important, though, show-and-tell reinvigorates my love of teaching and reminds me why I wanted to become a teacher in the first place. For, as teachers, we have the ability to not only teach our students essential academic skills but also provide influential memories they’ll take with them into their future.
Finally, the moments of self-reflection and personal epiphanies that come with a show-and-tell assignment—itself an homage to our foundational early elementary school years—provide perfect fodder for the college essay process. If, like me, you teach students in the upper grades, the task of composing personal essays for the arduous college application process looms palpably for students.
The college essay sends my own students into fits of stress and anxiety and adolescent turmoil. Show-and-tell, through its emphasis on amplifying a specific, personal moment, often gives my students a launching point—a foundation—to begin constructing their college essay. And more than once, my students have used the topic of their show-and-tell activity for the focus of their college essay. In this sense, then, teachers reveal for students not only the value of a reflective journey into their past but also a glimpse into their future.