Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Show and Tell: It’s a Window on their Lives


Shapiro, Alan


There was a boy named Mark. When he went up in front of the class he got scared and his friends laughed at him and called him names so he didn’t go up again. (Harley, Grade Three)

Show’n tell is like you’re in Grade One because it is baby stuff but it is a real experience. It is like when you’re holding something inside and you’ll like to get it out. (Paul, Grade Six)

Whether it’s called “show’n tell,” “sharing period,” “bring and brag,” or “news time,” this event in the young child’s day is likely a universally shared school experience. Recalling our own childhood, we may remember arriving at school with some news from home, a new toy or handcraft, and waiting excitedly for our chance to speak. The teacher may have been busy at her desk engaged in such non-instructional activities as taking attendance or collecting the lunch money. For her show’n tell may have been a simple device used to get the day started while dispensing with a few routine tasks. Thus, show’n tell became our own time. Each in turn, we took our place at the front of the classroom to tell about our own special interests. Although no more than fifteen or twenty minutes were allotted for this activity, for some of us it may well have been a most important part of life in the school-day.


What, then, is the significance of the show’n tell experience? What meaning lies at the bottom of this event? This is the topic pursued in the following pages. The purpose is to gain and make available an understanding of the subjective experience by asking, “What is the experience like? What is it like to show’n tell?” This activity will be viewed from a pre-theoretical vantage point in order to see the world through the eyes of those involved during the show’n tell encounter, i.e., to lay aside any preconceived notions concerning this seemingly very ordinary and taken-for-granted phenomenon and see it in new ways. As Beekman (1978) suggests, belief in ordinary reality may be momentarily suspended in order to “look naively, with a sense of their simplicity.” What, then, can “show’n tell” tell us about the lifeworlds of children and their teachers


Being-Up-There: A Search for Subjectivity at the Risk of Objectivity

As one of the children said, “Show’n tell is baby stuff but it is a real experience. It is like when you’re holding something inside and you’d like to get it out.” Getting things out-probing feelings and sharing experiences. But for many involved in showing’n telling, there is a price to pay, and oftentimes the cost is great. It is a struggle to overcome, and the risks can be frightening.


When asked, “What is it like to show’n tell?” responses from students in Grades Three and Six reflect numerous experiential commonalities.


Some show’n tellers reveal the feeling of “being-up-there”:

lt feels very gross to stand up there because if they don’t like what you brought they just turn their back. It makes the person standing there feel like a jack-ass or a mule. (Barry, Grade Six)


It feels embarrassing when you go up front. You have to talk and you feel scared and frightened. (Susan, Grade Three)


Well, um, like when you’re up there and you’re talking you get quite scared because there’s a lot of people and you want to leave because it’s so crowded with a lot of people and they start laughing at you and you can’t figure why they are laughing at you and you don’t like it very much. (Cheryl, Grade Six)


It feels scary to just stand up there and let everybody sit there and stare at you. They just sit there and stare at you while you’re showing’n telling something. You like to tell something but it’s embarrassing to stand up at the front of the class and tell it. (Michael, Grade Three)

Some students tell of the effects of “staring eyes”:

Scared, I get frightened all these people watching you and you feel like you want to leave the room and you don’t want to come back to the room again. (Santino, Grade Three)


It feels crazy when you stand in front of the room everybody looks at you. (Laura, Grade Three)


It feels like you’re going to get sick or something because they’re all staring at you. (Ruth, Grade Six)

Others express embarrassment and fear:

Well, you’re a little scared and you just talk about what you’re going to do and then you just sit down. (Terry, Grade Three)


I get so frightened and I just want to go in back and sit down. (Billy, Grade Three)


It’s scary because there’s a lot of people there and you don’t know what to do and all of them are there and you want to leave. (Sarah, Grade Three)


It feels embarrassing because when you try to do your best the kids in the room still laugh at you. You can hardly speak clearly or stand up straight. You might say, “Well, you know,” or “I don’t know.”. (Paul, Grade Six)


It feels embarrassing because some people will get interested in it, and some will think it’s sick and interrupt and laugh and giggle. Some people want to know, and just think it’s sick because it’s coming from somebody they don’t like. (Steve, Grade Six)


Everyone laughs when you say something-it bothers me a little. (JoAnne, Grade Six)

One little lady justs get mad:

It feels embarrassing and just pisses me right off when they laugh at me. I also feel like a dumb ass. (Tammy, Grade Six)

For the child, showing’n telling can be a terribly risky business. Allowing oneself to be put on display appears to have serious consequences. To choose to be a show’n teller is never a passive decision. Once the choice is made, the child is driven from the comfort of the anonymous collectivity and the undifferentiated group-life of his class. He has chosen to place his self-outside-the-crowd. He has chosen to be made more visible-to “let them” stare. To choose to stand “up there” before the many eyes may mean enduring laughter and ridicule. He has chosen to risk being stripped of subjectivity-a state which MerleauPonty (1956) describes as, “caught by a gaze which freezes me in my tracks, reduces me to the condition of an object, steals my world from me, and takes away my freedom along with my subject position.


To show’n tell may mean to risk being shamed publicly: not unlike Sartre’s description of the “look.” The objectifying eyes may bring with them disgrace, shame, fear, embarrassment, and sometimes anger. Why else does the feeling of shame wait until you are seen?


When the child stands up there and “lets them stare,” he is suddenly aware of himself. In this sense he is brought to reflective life. The look from the other precipitates an abrupt, reflective awareness of self; of myself as a “me” now somehow different from the “me” experienced as part of the “we” of my group orientation. The group-we that was seconds ago a security and refuge has become a potentially threatening “them.” The child now experiences Sartre’s possibility of “hell as being other people. ”


Sitting at his desk, surrounded by his classmates and friends, the prospective show’n teller thus moves between limitation and possibility. A choice must be made. With his choosing he is immediately confronted with his own freedom to become. It can be a dreadful freedom because, in his need to choose, he suffers a certain disquietude as he moves into himself to explore his own consciousness of what it is to choose and, subsequently, to act and to be. He is, in the richest sense, intimately involved in creating himself.


Having chosen to open his world, he realizes the danger of possible objectification by “them.” But he now must act upon this enterprise to authenticate himself as a person. He has developed a sense of his own limitations but the yearning self outweighs his fear. Anxiety and tension are inevitable when one is faced with existential possibility, and so he rehearses those possibilities that lie ahead. He appraises himself, and he “sees” himself in the role he is about to play. Tension will be inescapable when he confronts that open future. Thus, his choice remains the mode by which limitation and possibility can be translated into freedom. He has chosen to take a risk and break free. For Kierkegaard, too, choosing is always crucial:

The instant of choice is very serious, not so much on account of the rigorous cogitation involved in weighing the alternatives, not on account of the multiplicity of thoughts which attach themselves to every link in the chain, but rather because there is danger afoot, danger that in the next instant it may not be equally in my power to choose.

The show’n teller is responsible for his choice; he has chosen to war against his own passivity and comfort-in-the-crowd-to live dangerously and take the risks of growth. He has chosen to become in this commitment: to achieve his own reality and act upon his own possibilities. He confronts the obstacles to his own being; those “cold looks,” the indifference of the world.


Roller-Skating, Elvis, Trips to Grandma’s, and Adultery

Few would take issue with the potential pedagogical value in a show’n tell session. For many children it may be the only time in their day when they can voice real personal concerns and share problems. Many young children do not worry about baring their souls; they are simply “up front” about things that are important to them. But, as is any human activity, show’n tell can be quite unpredictable-sometimes shocking. One particular Grade One teacher found this openness unacceptable:

I found that I had to begin to structure my show’n tell period and control it more. There was too much sharing of personal home experiences and problems. Kids would tell about their parents who were drunk and fought. One child told of the time when he came home and found his uncle in bed with his mother. It just became too much. I had to put a stop to it. Now they have to bring a toy or something they made and have to talk only about that. Now they know what I expect of them. (Teacher, Grade One)

It was, indeed, the teacher’s show’n tell. It became necessary to structure and control; things were getting out of hand. She opted for a session that could be more predictable and controllable and show’n tell had become another highly structured subject, another assignment complete with specific directions and means for evaluation. “Things” were shown. The child became hidden behind dolls, footballs, and television reviews.


Another teacher reflects upon the time when a little girl related the homecoming of her Daddy. He had been “running around” on her Mommy:


It was a vivid part of her life. I guess I was a little shocked that it came out in something as unpretentious as show’n tell. I felt like holding her and saying, “You poor child,” but her statements were like water off a duck’s back to the other children. They said, “Oh, really,” or “Are things better at home now?” They weren’t shocked. It was as if they’d heard it before or it had happened to them. And we just stopped right there and talked about it … and quite a few interesting things came out about it, and I thought, “Well, this is a part of their life and it’s something they have to deal with.” I really try not to paint a picture of Mommy and Daddy, and white picket fence with the children playing inside the yard. I don’t think that for many children it’s realistic. I don’t structure show’n tell;… if it comes out, I let it come out. I’m surprised at how mature my children are about real problems. Probably because they’ve dealt with it, and they’re very understanding to one another most times, but not always. (Teacher, Grade Three)


Another teacher relates a similar encounter:

I remember one little boy, he was saying, “Well, my Mum didn’t come home last night,” and a little girl said, “Well, that’s O.K., you can always get a new Mummy.” But she was doing it in a very sincere manner, and from knowing her, that is what happened to her, they just got a new Mummy … and it was funny how calm they were, and I was sort of shaking inside thinking how is he going to deal with this real life situation. (Teacher, Grade Three)

To be effective and authentic as teachers will depend, to some degree, upon the nature of our own personal commitment. Somehow, we must acknowledge that we cannot live a divided existence; to neatly partition our lives into distinct domains-private and professional. Nor should this disunity be required of our students. Having chosen to teach, our pedagogic responsibility extends beyond our role as subject matter director. Thus, our teaching becomes an all-encompassing endeavor: a way-of-being-in-the-world. Being an educator means being intimately involved in the lifeworlds of our students. We must allow, in the course of the school day, opportunity to “just stop right there and talk.”


Essentially, this is the orientation required for clarifying most educational issues, and it is one too infrequently assumed. All too often, the processes and phenomena of pedagogy are empirically and analytically dissected from a depersonalized distance. How can there be a feeling of responsibility for what takes place in this particular school with this child? Scholars may tend to adopt a more positivistic stance when studying the subject called education, but the teachers described here are not distant observers. No matter how deliberately, how rationally they may wish to guide what happens in their classrooms, they are immediately involved. Almost everything that occurs is affected by their presence there, by their moods and gestures, their expectations and explanations, their responses to those who are trying to learn.


Perhaps this can be the only dependable account of a teaching situation because it is one presented from a viewpoint that takes the pedagogic intention into account-the intention of helping the child to grow toward independent and mature personhood.


The teacher who is a true pedagogue dares to engage in dialogue with his students; opening himself to their lives and realizing that in pedagogy the teacher must open the way to tension and anxiety; the very unrest that is so essential to growth. Classroom situations can be transformed into occasions for stimulating the young child’s yearning to be a somebody-an independent and real person, a form of being to which all education is always pointing.


“Do it Because I Like to Tell About Me”

If showing’n telling means risking public ridicule, fear, or embarrassment, why, then, is it so popular with many children?

Oh, I like it because I like to tell about me and what I do, and what I have and what my cousins do. (Jerry, Grade One)


When they say things, I like to know what they say … and I say something and they know what I say. (Olga, Grade Three)


There are a lot of things that they don’t know and I do, and you can tell them so they can remember. (Marc, Grade Three)


Well, if you don’t have show’n tell and you have something that’s important, you can’t say it. (Roger, Grade Six)


We need show’n tell because if I had something to tell about me and what happens to me I couldn’t tell it because there would be no time anyplace. (Linnea, Grade Three)

What emerges from such reflections? Show’n tell is viewed by children as something of important value. It is a time when lives are shared, a moment when important and special things are spoken, a time when the collective “we” is forgotten and “me” becomes central. Where else, during the long school day, is there such deliverance from the forced quietude of routine classroom activities? It is a time to know each other in a display of personal growth.


Our children are aching to flower, and we must give them space. We must welcome their unease and tension. We can.


While working within the structures of subject matters, we can strive to see through the eyes of our students, to take their perspective, to view life from their vantage point. We can, as their teachers, create in our classrooms an atmosphere of intersubjectivity; as Van Manen (1978) suggests, a “countervailing force against increasingly externalized experiences, [which] drain all subjectivity and interpersonal understanding.” Our classrooms need not be “those in which things are going on inside that nobody understands and which are full of people who are afraid of each other but won’t admit it.” (Nyberg, 1971).


We, too, must “live dangerously.” Tranquility will not saturate such an atmosphere; our students will not be put at ease. But neither will they be viewed as objects or specimens. Encountered in this manner, they may discover the possibility of being with others and at the same time being with themselves.




Beekman, T., et al. (1979). Hide’n seek: The world through children’s eyes. Pedagogische Studien. University of Utrecht. 1( 1).

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). The phenomenology of perception. New York: Humanities Press.

Nyberg, D. (1971). Tough and tender learning. Palo Alto, CA.: National Press Books.

Van Manen, M. (1978/79). An experiment in educational theorizing: The Utrecht School. Interchange, 10 (1).