These are my students outside of a candy shop down the street from our school. A diverse group of students, each with their own style, interests, opinions, and voices. In the photo, this range is evident in the juxtaposition of an I-don’t-ever-smile and a puffy-cheeked-funny-face, of a wide grin and a purposefully obscuring handsign. Where this range has not historically been evident, is in their essays.
Last June, I ended the year with a semester of creative writing. I saw students, albeit not all of them, bring unique voice to stories and poems. But, this is low hanging fruit. When students can invent their own tales, it is no surprise that they infuse them with, well, themselves—their voices, their lives. However, in our final department meeting of the previous year, we reflected on the limitations and shortcomings of a curriculum plan that drew clear boundaries between creative writing, creative nonfiction, and literary analysis. Of course, this is a problem evident in the larger literary world today. All one has to do is look to the ever growing list of genre defying writers to see that such lines are often meaningless. More importantly, for our students, such a distinction is stifling.
In designing my current curriculum, I sought to blend and cross genres, of both content and output. To teach plays, poetry, memoirs, novels, short stories, and historical documents all. And in one semester. To ask students to write op eds along with, or instead of traditional essays. To elicit facts, statistics, textual quotes, and personal anecdotes as evidence all in the same piece of writing. And in turn, to bring student voice—hitherto sequestered in creative writing semesters, units, and prompts—to analytical writing. In other words, to make student writing look more authentically like the writing that I, they, we encounter on a daily basis.
Cue my 11th and 12th grade course, The Earth is Flat and Other Facts. I pictured teaching NYT articles about the evolving role of truth in the current political climate alongside historical fiction set in Maoist China; diving deep into 1984, while talking about the anti-vaccination movement and the relevant science behind, or not behind it. And if you came into one of my classes, you’d see passionate debates ranking the efficacy of propaganda from Trump, Big Brother, and Mao. You’d see students referencing episodes of the Netflix series Black Mirror to support their claims about human nature.
Yet, if you followed me home, sat on my couch and looked over my shoulder while I proceeded to grade my students’ first projects (an op-ed-style essay on the role of truth in Maoist China vs today, using evidence from Dai Siji’s novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress as evidence of the former), that’s where the torrents of passion would peter out. As a night of grading drags on, my living room becomes a graveyard of dry, nearly voiceless essays. Okay, that’s a bit hyperbolic. I have some students who naturally imbue their analysis with voice—the future English majors, future video game critics, future New Yorker contributors—but what of the rest? When asked to analyze a novel, even as a small part of a larger assignment, many students revert to formulaic, academic, voiceless prose. So, I ask myself, my coworkers, and the wider pedagogical world: how do you teach students to let their authorial voices shine through literary analysis? How…for the love of Orwell?
Have you shown your students the essays of folks like Rebecca Solnit or Nikki Giovanni? Because Giovanni is a poet, her essays about her observations, experiences, and her political views have her unique voice. Solnit is a critic, activist, and a historian; her essays are inflected by all of these aspects of her work.
Perhaps choosing mentor texts that are more genre-fluid will help students free themselves of their school-voice.
Forgive me for the following questions if it seems ignorant, because, well, I’m not a literature teacher and I consider myself at terrible writer who only knows how to write voiceless prose!
How do you assess student voice? Do students know how to assess it? Are they aware of what a piece with strong voice looks like? Are there characteristics of having a strong voice that are easily identifiable or that can be compartmentalized? It’s easy for students to demonstrate strong voice in personal memoirs because they are incorporating personal values, opinions, experiences and anecdotes – but is that what students can or should do in literary analysis? If not, then how can you have strong voice in writing a piece that doesn’t ask you to incorporate your personal opinions? (Although an Op-Ed seems like it should!)
I agree with Lynn that having great examples of mentor texts are key in inspiring students to take risks in writing that they haven’t before. Maybe even seeing examples of student work with strong voices can help students imagine what this might look like. In my class, I’ve asked students to rate sections of lab reports written by other students and come up with a rubric for what they think constitutes an Honors v. Incomplete, because I think students need to be able to identify the features of what makes a strong hypothesis, for example, before they can write a good hypothesis. It may be harder for things like student voice which is more abstract and difficult to identify features of?