Archive for Writing and Voice

State of the Union Creative Assignment

The State of the Union is always such a rich speech.  It is a text that I think should find its way in every classroom regardless of the class, grade, or ability level.  For most of us, we weave it into our classrooms by analyzing the argument.  We might guide our students in analyzing the shifting argument within the speech, identifying the minor premises supported throughout, evaluating the evidence used for support, recognizing concession, considering the larger significance and implications of the argument, and studying the rebuttal by the opposing political party.  However, I don’t want to end the discussion on the State of the Union; I want to see my students demonstrating their knowledge and understanding.  I want them to reflect on the speech, think like an editor, challenge like a critic, and write like a wordsmith.

So, after studying the rhetoric of the State of the Union, I give students the following writing assignments and ask them to choose one they feel they can achieve the most success, allowing them freedom and choice.  The prompts allow room for creative thinking and creative writing, a task not often seen in a classroom geared toward formal argument analysis.  All of the prompts demonstrate a range of talents, but they don’t feel as tedious to the students as writing an essay.


1.)    It is your job to play editor.  What suggestions would you provide President Obama (and his speech writers) to best help him achieve his purpose?  Make sure to identify the purpose and provide concrete, specific suggestions to improve the speech and its persuasiveness.

2.)    Select one statement from the SOTU that strikes you.  State this clearly in your response.  Then, in your response, defend or challenge the statement.  Provide specific concrete proof.

3.)    Evaluate what President Obama (and his speechwriters) considered in composing the SOTU.  What is your evidence of this?  Which considerations appear the most significant given a close reading of the speech?

4.)    The opposing party always issues a response to the President’s SOTU.  While your response will be much shorter (200-350 words), compose a critical response to Obama’s SOTU addressing what you feel are the strongest points of the SOTU.

5.)    It’s catch phrase time!  The purpose of a catch phrase is to make a create a memorable statement that embodies an idea.  They are typically concise, short, and to-the-point but rhetorically powerful.  Pretend you are on Obama’s speech writing staff and working to compose the SOTU.  What catch phrase will you suggest Obama implementing into his SOTU?  Provide this catch phrase.  Then, provide a rationale for your suggested catch phrase.

Resolutions: Opposing P.O.V. Journals

It’s hard to escape the onslaught of reminders that a new year, #2013, should mean adopting new “habits.”  Better habits for our health, personal lives, professional lives.  Ads arrive at my door reminding me that I can get organized via the Container Store, healthy via the NordicTrack and better sleep via the Healthy Back Store.  Retail outlets are desperate to help me.  However…

Winter break feels too short.  Adopting new “habits” too hard and looking ahead January and February seem endless.  Teachers need help without sacrificing mental health and student instruction post winter break.  Instead of enticing you to spend your holiday gift cards, I’m going to spend the month of January posting small things, little things that make a huge difference.  The hope being that you can adopt them easily in order to simplify your teaching life without having to completely revamp.  Make a New Year’s resolution to yourself.  Find more time in your classroom for meaningful instruction that requires less direct instruction from you.

My first resolution for you?  Create an ongoing journal assignment.  This type of journal will practice Common Core and AP English skills.  It will also give you 10 minutes at the beginning of each class to catch your breath while they find their voice.

Start with having them write a 10-minute journal 2-3 times a week.  The best way to get students in the habit of working in a journal is to keep in the room.  Think composition notebook or a cheap spiral.  However, if you are working on the cheap or you want to implement this immediately, simply create lined paper in a Word document (hit the underscore button for eternity) and copy.  Each sheet of paper represents one journal.  If you feel so inclined you can label each sheet.

Journal Type#1: The Art of Argument

Let’s start with my favorite journal.  Students read a short article.  Then, they write an entry that either qualifies the article’s argument or directly opposes it.  This will be a challenge for them since often they agree with the op-ed’s point of view.   Remind them that it helps extend their “range” as writers if they can identify other perspectives and construct response that include those points of view.  Yes, it is difficult.  But it also challenges them too. This type of journal demands they consider other views.    Below are some great articles to help you begin.  If you are pressed for time consider having students read the article outside of class and come prepared to write their challenge or qualification.

Argument Journals-Articles

Multi-Paragraph Introductions

Like many teachers, I find myself moving away from encouraging a five-paragraph format.  The students, however, are more resistant and like that a five-paragraph format gives them a clear format to follow.  They don’t like having to test the waters because they are afraid of being wrong.  But this is part of the problem.  I don’t want my students to be married to a form; I want them to be married to proving their ideas. Read more

Writing Opening and Closing Arguments

When it comes to writing with style a lot of students defer to clichéd topics. 
They might write about a first love and use sweeping language.  They might write about a time when they felt defeated (like from being cut from a sports team) and have a piece rife with hyperbole.  Or they might describe their favorite holiday and use a sentimental (aka sappy and underdeveloped) tone.  However, I don’t blame the students.  Many times the reason for maudlin writing is because of the prompts we provide them.  In their defense, it is challenging to write about a favorite memory without sounding contrived or unsophisticated.  Give them a more meaningful reason for writing and it will become more purposeful.  Having students write opening and closing arguments for existing court cases is a great way to get students more engaged in their writing because they are writing to save someone’s life. Read more

Writing and Voice: Week in Review





Friday Dialogue from  

Your Two Favorite Educators 

As Emily and Aubrey look back over the week they use their razor sharp wit to assess their innermost feelings about helping students develop voice. 

1.  Who is your favorite author based on their voice?  
Emily:  I love Garrison Keillor’s voice.  His ability to integrate sarcasm and biting commentary without alienating his audience.  So tricky.  I was also glad to see you reference Maureen Dowd this week. She is another journalist that I find so much voice and opinion in her writing.  One of my favorite Dowd article’s appeared in the New York Times several years ago.  She was describing John McCain and characterized him as being a cat without whiskers…someone who struggles to stay balanced.  It was such a great comparison. Read more

Writing & Voice: Day Four


The National Day on Writing has arrived!  Here is our technology driven post on voice.

Ultimately, improving student voice takes practice and modeling.  Nothing is better than having them mix their own voices with that of their peers to create a new and distinctive voice.

Have students complete a style analysis of themselves in order identify their style as authors by using the catchy checklist below or come up with your own.

Checkout the example below:

Stylewatch: It’s a Personal Thing

Be specific and detailed in your responses to the questions below. Your answers must be meaningful.  You can’t just say, “I’m not sure—umm—dashes?”

What types of punctuation marks do you favor in your writing?  Why?
What types of sentences define your voice? Long and involved?  Short and concise? What is the purpose of this sentence structure for you?
What level of language do you use in your writing?  Formal/Informal?   What purpose does this serve?
If you had to emulate one author from this year who would it be and why?  WRITE YOUR RESPONE IN THE STYLE OF THAT AUTHOR.  

Discuss as a class what this means about them, their writing style, etc.  Sort students into groups of three based upon varying style characteristics.  You will want to make sure that your small groups have three different types of student “voices.”

Now, the next step depends on what applications you already use in the classroom. You could use Edmodo or Wallwisher and modify the assignment for use in those programs.  I personally like Schoology the best.  Its resemblance to Facebook is a selling point for students and it’s so neat and tidy in organization that it makes it easy to construct separate discussion threads within the program.  This will take some outside of classroom time to set up this exercise.

Create a schoology account for yourself and have your students sign up for their own, as well.  For each class you create the program will create a code.  When students are creating their accounts they will need that “code” in order to sign up for our class.  When you’ve done all of the grunt work you/your students should see this:

You’ll want to click the discussion thread and create a discussion thread group for each group of three.  This means in each class you’ll probably have 10-15 discussion groups.  You will be given the choice for each group to upload directions as well.

The sky’s the limit.  If you teach AP students, use this exercise for voice in their AP analysis.  If you’re teaching the personal essay, give them a topic and then have them construct the response reply by reply by reply.  Of course, you won’t want to do this for the entirety of any essay, so choose an intro paragraph, a body paragraph, a conclusion, anything.

Since Schoology’s format is similar to the Facebook “wall” function, you can students in small groups reply to each other’s writing.   Have them consider that they can’t alter the line coming before theirs, they simply have to “add” to the previous line using their own writing style to inform the creation of this assignment.  When finished, have students type their replies into a new post for that discussion thread.  See the “dummy” example below.


Exercises like this focus on having student collaborate, write, examine each other’s voices and construct a final copy.  Less grading for you, better writing experiences for them.

Writing and Voice: Day Three

Quite often a student asks me why I can’t specifically give them a formula for how to improve their voice as a writer.  Now of course I can talk about style and formatting.  I can even discuss punctuation, sentence structure, and word choice.  But ultimately, the right answer is that there is no right answer.  This is the type of response that drives a teenager insane.  INSANE.  I know this because I’ve watched it happened directly in front of me.

The fact that everyone can have their own style/voice stymies them.  It can’t possibly be true.  It just can’t.  I must be withholding, joking or tricking them.  It’s easy to have them identify the difference in writer’s voice between Hemingway and Fitzgerald but it’s not so simple when they are being asked to come up with their own voice.   I mean, their must be some kind of surefire checklist that gets them an A.  No?

That’s why there’s nothing like This American Life.  Nothing.  It’s one of those radio shows that you don’t just listen to.  It’s an emotional investment every week.  For our purpose today it is also a lesson in teaching students about voice and point of view.  Each week the host, Ira Glass, highlights a topic and then includes anywhere from 2-8 acts from other commentators about that topic.

Some of my favorites include What I learned from Television, Return to Childhood and Notes on Camp.   Transcripts are available for all of the shows along with the audio.  All you have to is select episodes and acts.  (A whole show runs 59 minutes, and not all of it is appropriate for some students.)

What this offers you is the opportunity to provide examples of “stories” all on the same topic but wide ranging in terms of their approach.  It’s great for creating voice in personal essay, college application essays, even for working on how to create meaningful introductions and conclusions in academic writing.


Using only the Prologue

Annotating and Discussing

  • Each episode starts with a prologue that includes a reflection by Glass.  Prologues are short so give students the transcript and have them annotate for voice, style, and point of view.
  • Have them discuss his argument, voice, and point of view as a class.


  • Have them construct an opposing point of view to Glass’s using his voice and style. 
  • Have them add another paragraph to the argument he’s already constructed in the prologue.   


Using the Prologue and “Acts”

  • Each episode starts with a prologue that includes a reflection by Glass.  Prologues are short so give students the transcript and have them annotate for voice, style and point of view.
  • After students have annotated and you’ve all discussed as a class, have students write a short piece about This American Life’s theme of the week.
  • Then, have students listen to one of the individual “acts” following along with the transcript while they mark for voice again.
  • As a class discuss/evaluate the speakers voice and the format of the “act.”
  • Now, have students rewrite their piece based on some of the characteristics found in the first “act” you’ve played them.

Repeat with as many acts as you enjoy/have time to use in class.

Writing & Voice: Day Two

Sometimes I forget that students struggle to understand the reasoning behind teaching literature.  Sure, they are very good at understanding plot, but how much of that is a result of sparknotes?  And yes, they are very good at seeing blatant symbols; what else is The Scarlet Letter to most them but a visible discussion about human sin and failing?  Where they struggle is in understanding how texts serve as professional models of writing.  And I struggle to teach them the importance of mimicking good writers in their essays and journals, paragraphs and reflections.

Creating student voice begins by having them blend their own ideas with the style of authors they’ve read.  Finding pieces that are accessible to students is a good place to start.  50 Essays: A Portable Anthology is a wonderful resource if you’re already using it for your classes.  If not, David Sedaris and Amy Tan, both of whom have featured essays in the anthology have works available online.


Give students a non-fiction text to read.  Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” and David Sedaris “Us and Them” or “Let it Snow” are perfect for this type of an exercise.  They’re also enjoyable to read for both students and teachers.

These non-fiction pieces are great for classroom discussion since they examine the idea of family.  Have students focus on identifying:

  1. Phrasing and word choice that contribute to author voice
  2. Punctuation that helps to uncover author voice
  3. Details and storylines that create intimate conversations between author and reader.
  4. Engaging elements in the introductory paragraphs and reflection in the concluding paragraphs.

After your class has made a list of unique author characteristics, ask students to write, employing the characteristics of either Sedaris or Tan.  This can be a perfect way to practice learning voice for personal narratives or college application essays.

Beginning Assignment

Mimic David Sedaris’ style as respond to the prompt below. Your response should be one paragraph of 8 or more sentences

Discuss your favorite food related memory from elementary school.


  • Sensory descriptions
  • Witnesses-Who saw this occur?
  • Exaggeration-but only if it’s funny



Since creating good voice in student writing means “throwing out” bland sentences, know in advance that this paragraph will probably only manufacture 1 or 2 meaningful sentences.  Use the revision exercise below to work with those sentences.


Revision Assignment

  1. Choose the best two sentences from your food memory written in Sedaris’ style.
  2. Reread the Sedaris story (or give them a second story) in order to remember his writing style.
  3. Revise your best two sentences in order to completely create the “Sedaris effect.”


You can use this type of exercise multiple times and even ramp up the level of difficulty or change the outcome.  If you prefer argumentative or analytical writing, choose columnists like Maureen Dowd or Charles Krauthammer.  Instead of writing about the personal, have them write about research topics or current events mimicking the style of newspaper columnists.

Writing & Voice: Day One


I spent a large part of this weekend reading Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot.  I knew that I should grade papers, plan lessons, write college recommendations.  I just couldn’t.  The writing was so good, so immensely satisfying that it felt like I was doing something secretive and illegal.  Good writing makes us lose track of time, dog-ear pages and double underline meaningful sections.  As teachers, good writing is easier to identify than to teach.   Students need so much practice and feedback that quite often we find ourselves spent.

Every post this week will focus on how to improve voice in student writing.  It seems an appropriate way to celebrate The National Day on Writing this Thursday and a good way to provide some new approaches to teaching voice.  Jim Burke posted a tweet this past week that commented, “October is the cruelest month” and he’s not kidding.  There is something about October that reminds me just how hard it is to teach writing.   They aren’t quite ready to have individual writing breakthroughs, yet, and they are so busy with putting things in the “right” order that voice is an afterthought.

This weekend I was reminded that good writing is voice.  It is what makes students “fall in love” with an author, character, story, or setting.  It is what makes them take out their books when they finish an assignment early and read quietly.  It is what makes me, their teacher, linger over their own writing when they get it right.   So this week we’ll start with engaging non-fiction writers with loads of voice (Tan, Sedaris, Dowd, Krauthammer to name a few), work on short exercises that practice that voice, and even talk about collaborative assignments the combine multiple voices into one piece of writing.

Now, back to. . . reading.