A mother of a six-year-old girl wrote to Julie at Bravewriter.com to detail her experience with homeschooling. The part that struck me--and that I direct you to here--describes the process of working on a fairytale project with her daughter. She does well at showing the writing process, the goals fixed on nurturing her child's voice and building her confidence rather than insisting on correctness. You can find the description here in the fourth paragraph which begins, "I told her we were going to do...."
 
 
A note about voice from a fictional student:
"She [Francie] started fresh on a new page.

'Intolerance,' she wrote, pressing down hard on the pencil, 'is a thing that causes war, pogroms, crucifixions, lynchings, and makes people cruel to little children and to each other. It is responsible for most of the viciousness, violence, terror and heart and soul breaking of the world.'

She read the words over aloud. They sounded like words that came in a can; the freshness was cooked out of them. She closed the book and put it away."


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, page 229
 
 
Teacher Carolyn Foley sent a letter to the parents of her students. It's worth reading in full. Here is a quote she includes which piggybacks nicely with what I said here and here.
Don’t worry too much about technicalities and misspelling.  (Some-times we over-stress spelling because it gives us something easy and clear cut to land on.  We mustn’t overlook what is being said.)  The school has primary responsibility here.  Grammar can always be repaired if sincerity and interest are present.  On the other hand no amount of “correctness” can cover up the empty world of a child who hasn’t been helped to get interested and excited about something, preferably many things.
 

Voice

09/18/2013

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I don't know if my English teachers' instruction about voice floated right over my head or if they didn't include it in their lesson plans. All I know is that I didn't learn it from them. What did sink deep was the importance of sounding smart and using correct grammar. But, as this article explains, an impeccably correct essay can be a painfully voiceless one. And who wants to read it? No one.

_The author says, "I would define voice in writing as the quality of writing that gives readers the impression that they are hearing a real person, not a machine."

Let's be teachers who help our students develop their voices, providing practice, encouragement, and models. If their personalities and passions are welcomed at the writing party when they are young, they will likely continue attending when they are older.

It's long, but this article about voice in writing is excellent.
 
 
Over the weekend, I found 6 + 1 Traits of Writing by Ruth Culham at the thrift shop.  For $2.50, I couldn't let it stay on the shelf.  This paragraph from Culham rang true for me.

When I was in school, the papers that got the highest grades held the reader at a safe arm's length.  They tended to pontificate.  I remember being told never to express  a personal opinion unless asked. And never use 'I,' which was always tough to figure out: Who else did the reader think was writing the piece if not 'I,' after all?  My assigned readings, however, were passionate, opinionated, stylistic, and fascinating. But when it came to my own writing, on went the straitjacket, and I wound up pumping out stuff that was stilted, cold, and distant.  It was boring--but it always got high marks.  Unfortunately, this tradition is still alive in many of the classrooms I visit. And more than likely, something that's boring to read was boring to write.  It will be nearly impossible to get students engaged in writing if all the excitement's been drained out of it (103).


Why is it that students are so often shoehorned into five-paragraph, formal, voiceless writing?

It's easy to teach a formula.  It's easy to grade a formula. It's easy to keep control of the process when you have a classroom of kids.

The question: why?

The answer: easy.

The result: boring!

It happened to me as a student. The result was that I thought I had to use big words and sound like something I wasn't. Stilted, cold, and distant didn't describe me as a person, but they certainly described my writing. Sadly, the habit went deep; I still fight to get out of the ditch I thought was mine.

I want to give my students something far better. I want them to be free to experiment, to create, to be themselves. I don't want to jam them into a specific style, draining the excitement out of writing; I want them to discover that they have something to say, and they can say it well with their own voice. They can be the ones writing passionate, opinionated, stylistic, and fascinating pieces.

What can we do to make writing more exciting for our students?
  • Let them choose their own topics.
  • Don't lock them into one format (i.e. the five-paragraph essay). Allow them to experiment with different genres.
  • Give them a reason for writing that goes beyond the teacher and a grade, offering assignments and projects that captivate their attention.
  • Integrate writing into everything they do rather than relegating it to worksheets.
  • Remember that writing is a process. Editing is one part of the process; it's not the focus. It's important for published pieces to be correctly spelled, capitalized, and punctuated, but if mechanics are the primary focus during the process, a student can end up with a correct, but lifeless, paper. (That described my writing, too.)
  • Look at writing you enjoy. Do any of the pieces follow the five-paragraph format?  Does every paragraph have a topic sentence?  Does every sentence have a subject and a verb? Likely not. Invite your students to look at writing they enjoy, observing it closely and imitating it.

It is true that you invite risk when you walk away from formulaic writing assignments, but you also welcome creativity, thinking, and passion. Instead of reading a predictable piece that you will soon forget, you will likely read one that comes from the heart, leaving a mark on yours.