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.