Saturday, May 22, 2010

Finding Voice

I’m in the process of discovering my voice.

I find this a bit ironic since this is something that I supposedly teach. I tell my tenth grade students at the beginning of each semester that one of the goals of our tenth grade writing curriculum is to help students identify and hone their unique writing voice, that by the close of the semester each student should be able to turn in a typed essay without a name at the top of the page, and I should be able to tell whose it is simply by the voice of the piece. In reality, they are just beginning to figure out who they are, who they want to be, trying on different personalities and styles, much like they do in their writing. And, at twice their age, I still find myself doing the same thing.

Maybe this is what makes writing engaging and exciting – it is always new. Perhaps good writers are always a bit unsettled, trying out new ideas and new styles. Perhaps this is what keeps writing fresh, what keeps us coming back to the blank page – the possibility. It is through writing that we are able to discover new possibilities in ourselves, in our lives, and in those around us. So perhaps it isn’t a bad thing that I haven’t been able to pinpoint who I am as a writer or nail down my own style.

Or, maybe this is just what I tell myself so that I don’t feel like I’m still floundering when faced with the blank, bright white screen in front of me.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about my own writing and what it means for me to be a writing teacher. I was recently accepted into this summer’s Pennsylvania Writing Project Summer Institute where I’ll become a fellow in the National Writing Project. As part of my application and interview, I talked about my interest in engaging students in the writing process through more authentic writing opportunities like those that can be offered through collaborative web 2.0 sites. In fact, I just delivered a professional development workshop on this very topic this past week to a group of my fellow teachers. Each semester I ask my students to post to discussion boards, write and respond to blogs, and collaborate on wiki pages. I’ve found that when I ask students to write for larger audiences, when they write and post pieces knowing that their fellow classmates, other teachers, and sometimes the general public will be able to read and respond to their work, they take the writing process much more seriously. They are writing for an actual audience and not just a single teacher. They seem to understand better the need to be clear. They spend more time with the writing process rather than just rushing toward the end of the page. This semester, I’ve asked my students to write personal narratives and reflection journals as blog entries, post videos of speeches they’ve written and given, use a discussion board to connect with students in Kabul, as well as collaborate, create, and post online a variety of presentation materials. In short, my students have been working diligently on establishing their writing identities in a public space, online. But as their teacher, the one you would think should have the most experience with these sorts of opportunities, I’ve found recently that the writing I tend to do most is didactic, not the same sort of reflective writing exercises that I ask my students to engage in.

I don’t seem to be carving out the same time that I ask my students to devote to figuring out who I am as a writer. I’m not writing with my students. Instead, I find myself giving instructions rather than instructing, meaning that rather than modeling my expectations, I seem to just be dictating them. I think this is an easy trap for teachers to fall into. I get so caught up in wanting to make sure that my directions are clear, that my rubrics make sense, that my lessons are meaningful, that I forget that good teachers are also learners. Students need to see their teachers learning right along with them. How else will they understand that learning is a life-long process if the adults in their lives don’t model this?

I am certainly not an expert in writing. In fact, I have a very long way to go in order to figure out who I am as a writer. But maybe that’s okay to share with my students. Instead of getting so caught up in the directions and grading, I need to spend time exploring my writing voice right alongside my students. I have a feeling that they can teach me a thing or two about writing, about what it means to be open to exploring new possibilities in my writing. I need to be willing to find my own voice together with my students as they discover theirs.
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