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:
- Phrasing and word choice that contribute to author voice
- Punctuation that helps to uncover author voice
- Details and storylines that create intimate conversations between author and reader.
- 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.
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.
- Choose the best two sentences from your food memory written in Sedaris’ style.
- Reread the Sedaris story (or give them a second story) in order to remember his writing style.
- 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.