Thursday, June 10, 2010

"The bigger the issue, the smaller you write"

This past Saturday, I attended the orientation session for my summer PA Writing Institute course. Not only did we have some time to get to know the other teachers participating in this summer invitational, but we also had an opportunity to learn, discuss, and write about voice. And what we discovered is that as veteran teachers, we all seem to struggle with how to define voice in writing.

It is one of the hardest things to grade, let alone teach. Voice in writing is more than simply an author's diction or sentence structure. I must admit that I'm not a fan of how the PA Writing Rubric boils voice down to the simple "choice, use and arrangement of words and sentence structures..." Voice represents the art and craft of the writer. By paring down a definition of voice to something that we can easily dissect from a piece of writing, we lay waste to what makes writing an art, to what makes writing so powerful and moving. Voice is the subtle nuance that a writer brings to the page, to his or her subject. It comes through in the tiniest of details, in the smallest turns of phrase. We know a strong voice when we read it. We can literally hear the writer's words, understand how the writer wants us to say his words aloud. Voice in writing is that quality of a text that speaks to the heart of who we are.

We had an opportunity to play with this idea of voice in a couple of different writing activities. One of our morning presenters shared with us some writing activities she used with her students to get them reflecting and writing about their own voice. The first being a "Where I Am From" poem.

The directions are simple: students complete a series of six quick writes in which they gather details about their surroundings, their families, and memories. The idea being that, as Ralph Fletcher describes, "The bigger the issue, the small you write," meaning that the voice in our writing becomes clear when we focus on the unique, peculiar details. "Put forth the raw evidence, and trust that the reader will understand exactly what you are getting at." This exercise has students focusing on the "raw evidence" of their lives, what makes up their voice.

Students begin by brainstorming lists of what someone would see upon entering the door to their house, what a stranger would see outside their home, what they would see in the neighborhood, as well as descriptions of relatives, favorite foods, and memories of pivotal moments. Each list becomes a separate stanza in the poem. By combining elements from each list and beginning them with the statement, "I am from...," students begin to write about who they are and also about what they bring with them into their writing.

Taking to heart Fletcher's advice - that "writing becomes beautiful when it becomes specific" - I tried my hand at this exercise.
I am from Skippyjon Jones
left open in the middle
of the living room floor, holy guacamole!
I am from a home hit hard
by a two and a half foot tornado.
I am from pillows pulled
from the couch,
piled neatly about the floor,
covered in little wet O's where Harry,
open mouthed,
flung his face.
I am from picture and board books,
balls and blocks.

I walked away from my morning orientation energized and excited. It reminded me writing is fun, it is personal, it is specific. And, given that, I need to find ways to make the writing in my classroom similarly engaging. Writing shouldn't be about rubrics and grades and grammar. Writing is about discovering one's voice.

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