Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Voice and Choice

"Voice is connected to real audience. We have to create classrooms where writers have a wide, sympathetic audience for their writing. We need to encourage students to meet their audience in authentic ways - not just by sharing sessions with their peers but also by going public with their writing in other ways beyond the walls of the classroom: complaint letters, articles, contests, etc.," -Ralph Fletcher, What a Writer Needs (72).

It was the perfect week to read Fletcher's chapters on establishing voice. My tenth grade students are diligently working on adapting their research essays to a specific audience outside of our class. Since the purpose of research is meant to change people's attitudes and behaviors, rarely, except perhaps in secondary schools, are research papers written for only one teacher to read and grade. Instead, research is meant to evoke change. So as part of our tenth grade research on a current issue facing a non-western culture, students have to share their research with an authentic audience.

And, having done this project with students for the last four years or so, I've have found Fletcher's observations to be spot on. Students do write with more voice, more conviction, and with more investment when they know they are writing for a larger audience. I currently have a student who has organized a fundraising campaign to raise money for Afghan Relief Organization's TEC fund to help students in Afghanistan gain access to technology. He's written and revised four versions of a letter explaining his project. He's adapted email letters for the entire staff in our district, another version for just students, another version for our morning announcements - he's learned to adapt his voice to suit his audience. Other students in the class have taken their research on everything from health care issues and education in Afghanistan to debate over oil in Argentina's Falklands and adapted it younger audiences, going into our elementary and middle schools this week to teach students about the cultures and issues they studied. On their own, students have researched best practices for teaching younger students, lesson plan activities, and have even been writing objectives! By opening up the research writing process, students have an opportunity to infuse their writing with voice.

Fletcher writes, "As students get older, the audience for their writing undergoes a shift. As they approach adolescence, they tend to become more self-critical, particularly in terms of writing. This internal shift gets reinforced by tougher demands from the outside world. The supportive writing environments in the primary grades, often flavored with child-centered or developmental philosophy about learning, yields to upper-grade realities of grading, book reports, grammar dittoes, writing tests, the five-paragraph, essay, etc." (73-4).

By giving students choice in their research writing - the choice of who and how to adapt their writing to a particular audience - they have been in the position of figuring out for themselves how to write for others. Their interest drives who they write for, whether that be the audience of the local editorial page or their peers throughout the world using social networking sites like Facebook. And it is this journey of discovery, which at first they think of as only yet another research project, that leads them to also discover how to write for others. And isn't that they purpose of writing?

Opening up the doors of my classroom, finding ways for students to write for more than just me, has been such a pivotal change in my writing instruction. The more students write for real audiences, the more they write period. They are more willing to revise, to change content and not just mechanics, more willing to enlist the help and suggestions of others, and look for models of good writing. In doing so, students have started their own discovery of who they want to be as writers.
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