Voice is very personal, yet it is driven by faith and relying on God to get you to where you rightfully belong. View these images and accompanying text with open eyes, hearts and minds. Finding a unique voice involves struggle but it is an honorable one, especially for nascent writers.
As we see in Jeremiah 29:11, God’s Will for us is so much greater than we can actually conceive. Our vices and worries often get in the way of clearing the weeds that choke our environment. Once we do the work with confidence, the galaxy is the limit.
Oftentimes we must take the time to be silent, as reflected by the following Bible verse:
In my personal journey of voice, I have learned to turn the volume down on life so that I can listen to God’s voice. When I try to rely on my own merits entierly, the task for my voice to emerge strongly and clearly is overwhelming and I become enveloped in anxiety and fear. But then I remember I must trust God’s still, small voice that whispers in my ear.
In developing voice, expect to be criticized, ostracized and even completely ignored.
As you can see, I’m not looking at you Miss Santa Croce (last name translates into cross in Italian, pronounced “cro-ch(hard ch)-ay”) because you were one of the early ones to tell me I needed to speak only when spoken to; therefore, my big eyes turned sharply against you even when my Mommy instructed me to “smile pretty.” My excitement was contagious at times, but you conspired with my Aunt Michelina one week before classes began to label me as a trouble-maker. I was an ear-witness. Aunt Michelina, the blackest of all sheep in our family, served only to stir the pot of family division, at the expense of a then five-year old. Was I trouble because I eagerly wanted my ideas to be heard and my writing to be seen? Labeling can begin at an early age, but I was in no way ready to surrender my voice, because I was born with a loud one:
My sister’s demonstrative chagrin was short-lived because she played a literal role in teaching me to speak and express myself in truly unique ways, including poetry and story-telling. With every writing project, she urged me to push boundaries and approach assignments in new ways. I will never forget when, as fifth-graders, we had to advertise a product and mine was “Mamma Medea’s Miracle Munchies,” a breakfast pastry that was sold to the audience via an Italian accent. I even dressed the part of a little old Italian lady, bearing a head kerchief, an apron, a winning smile and a waggling finger. The accoutrements of the advertisement were my sister’s idea, while the product was mine. I will always be in her debt for helping me to develop my adolescent voice. My immigrant parents also encouraged me to utilize my voice, since their English was limited when I was a child. They taught me to speak up for what I believed in and press for help when I needed it, but to do both things respectfully.
Voice is also about acceptance and remaining loyal to those people who encouraged you from the time you were a child. I was lucky to have a Nonno (grandfather) who, tough as he was, a survivor or World War II and poverty in Sicily, engaged me in the enthusiastic expression of my voice. I am the expressive woman I am today, in part, due to him.
Despite all the sustaining nourishment one receives, there will continue to be be high figures of authority who will challenge the very utterance of your voice. I wish I still had the photo of my eighth grade graduation walk to church, but it has been lost in moves. Here is the best approximation that I could find:
Sister Josephine Cabrini was wearing black and her veil was flying into the electric wind as we rushed to the church before rain fell on that muggy June evening. I am behind her, not dressed as a nun; but rather, garbed in my white cap and gown. A classic Chillemi sarcastic expression twists my lips as my Valedictorian cords fly in that electric wind. The reason? Months before, on one of the rare occasions that my mother advocated for me (I was promised that I could take a test because I had been ill, but she reneged), Sister Josephine addressed my mother with unkind words: “You should throw her in a dumpster, she will make you crazy and she will never be a lawyer.” Guess I won on that one Sister Cabrini! And double win: you didn’t sour my faith in God, not one bit. “Cuz you made me that much stronger, made me work a little bit harder, made my skin a little bit thicker…thanks for making me a fighter” (Christina Aguilera, “Fighter”).
Letting your voice be heard instead of squashing it before it rises through your throat is a difficult hustle to maintain when you are in your formative years. My Catholic high school peers often labeled me as a geek and this sometimes stopped me from giving my opinions. When you tell your “friends” you were on the radio late at night because you were querying a member of the former Soviet Union about life after Communism, it is not cool. “What, you weren’t on Hot 97FM? Get out of here.” And I was quiet for a long time, until I found the Forensics program, where I blossomed in sharing my voice in poetic and dramatic pieces. My advice to young people who don’t fit in: find something you love and give your all to it, it will make you more confident and self-assured in using your voice. Also, if someone is bullying you with their voices of hatred, tell someone you trust. You should not have to endure this alone and moreover, cyberbullying policies exist for a reason. Lift your voice for your life and your health. Do not suffer in silence.
Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, we all know that voice-killers are out there, even in what is supposed to be the professional world. Take a note of my worn-out, lucky shoes:
These shoes were worn in both academic and professional settings. In law school, I was told that joining a law journal would be too advanced for me. Though the shoes bit into my bare skin, I went to every meeting, met with my advisor assiduously, and had my piece published in the school’s Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law. Professionally, I was told I was too inexperienced to appear in the Appellate Court, but I stretched, wearing these same shoes, pretty well-disguised under my pants’ legs. I needed a small stack of books to reach the podium (no one was the wiser as I arrived at court ahead of time to ensure my reach). I plead my case and my client won. Correction: my voice won because I refused to be boxed into an artificial category of “new attorney.” I eventually wore these shoes so much that the strap broke, but I still keep them as a reminder of exercising my voice despite what seems to be a tidal wave of disapproval. These shoes have miles to go before I sleep.
It is easier said than done, but my advice to those finding their voice is to distance themselves from toxic influences, which unfortunately abound in our world. You also need to be the force that challenges the status quo. You cannot start a fire without a spark. This is not only a Bruce Springsteen lyric, but also a reference to Blinded by the Light, a brilliant 2019 film about the life of a Pakistani-British teenager living in a small 1980s London suburb. Watching it reminded me of my own struggle to develop a unique voice while I was growing up in my preppy high school. I include the trailer here:
Like Javed in the film, I too have thrown my poetry out (albeit not as dramatically as the character in the film), deeming it to be rubbish. Thankfully, both of us had the presence of mind to collect our worn, crumpled paper and smooth it out into legibility. Voice develops. There is something powerful to be said about raw, visceral words that are freshly inked or penciled onto a page.
I think it is important at this juncture to leave my young self (little Medea) ten life lessons she wished she had:
Now voice does not stop with the self. It needs to be used for serious advocacy, to agitate the waters of the status quo. I leave you with my spoken word call to action, designed to inspire nascent writers, who will be agents for change in the maelstrom worldscape in which we live. Do not ever forget that we speak not only for ourselves, but for those who do not have the cultural or political capital to do so.
Brannon, Lil and C.H. Knoblauch. “Student’s Rights to their Own Texts” College Composition and Communication vol. 33 no. 2, May 1982, pp. 157-166. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/357623. Accessed 28 Nov. 2019.
Today, I choose to share my writing reflection re: “What are the connections between the Writers’ Retreat experience and your future plans.” Here it goes:
The Writers’ Retreat has taught me that my work is necessary for the world. It is has reinforced the notion of holding true to my dedication to banning self-censorship. It has also taught me that I need to be more disciplined. I cannot fall back into the comfortable, warm wave of reading excessively. It is too easy. I, Medea, have something valuable to say.
I need to stop admiring other authors so much (that’s actually not true). Admiration, respect and empathy are crucial goals for a reader AND a writer. Dr. Zamora taught us about this in Fall 2019 when my cohort took Writing Theory and Practice (new friends, you are going to LOVE it; make no mistake it is rigorous and challenging, but it is rewarding and we ALL looked forward to Monday nights as a time to be comfortable in peer-learning).
Empathy is a special kind of currency that must be actively cultivated…I digress…The Writers’ Retreat has stopped the raging weed of self-doubt from choking my ongoing expression and taking stubborn root (cue Freedom ’90, George Michael; Cue gospel singer Dorothy Norwood’s Rendition of “Victory is Mine” – hey Satan, get thee behind). I am not an aspiring author. I am an author. HUGE words for me. My friends in the program and Dr. Zamora know that I have a strong work ethic and that I am a bit of a perfectionist. They KNOW I am my own worst critic. However, they encourage to be kinder to myself. I need their affirmations. Listen…I grew up in a family where sharing things outside of the family was verboten. “Boca chiusa. Cosi di la casa non si dicino a nessuno! (Keep a closed mouth. Matters of the home are not to be told to anyone”). Family has seen past challenges as character flaws. You know what I don’t care about my alleged “bad reputation” (cue Joan Jett and the Blackhearts”). It really isn’t a bad reputation. It is just a few in my family think things, challenges, and weaknesses should be kept private.
The Writers’ Retreat has improved my confidence in my future writing about my experiences with anxiety, especially in higher education. As Nives says so well, I will be unapologetic in showing my evolution. I am not completely open yet, but I am getting there. I am starting to feel more comfortable about sharing deeply personal stories. They should not remain under a rock anymore. They will be published. I know I am a great writer. My talent is huge. I’m not going hamstrung by sharing it (I’m going to do better though). It is NECESSARY to get feedback when you write. Hello, drafts? Hello feedback?
My sister has always encouraged me to write about family history, which plays a big role in my journey with anxiety. Of course, I know her well. If she looks bad in the story in any way, she will be uncomfortable (she’s going to have to deal with it or guess what, don’t read it). You must understand I am the blue smurf (are there any other kind?) of the family (as my sister puts it). We are different people. I relate to Dr. Zamora about taking her best friend (her sister) in small doses. That is the relationship with my sister. I am effusive, I get excited, I go from zero to “extra” quite quickly. She gets overwhelmed. Well my best friend, my beloved sister, will just have to chillax. My dad funnily enough (and in total keeping with the Italian male stereotype) encourages me to be less expressive with the men I date. Not happening. He is exactly like me, effusive, full of laughter. But it isn’t appropriate for his daughter? That’s too bad. I no longer get offended. First of all, he does not say it in a mean tone, just matter of factly (it is still sexist). I still call him out. Family…so complicated.
Paradoxically, my sister’s children (my Godchildren too) crave my personality. We laugh, I visit them and they literally pull me back and say no, you cannot go back home. We are keeping you. These “kids” are 19, 15, and 11. I am a role model, yet I’m the fun one! I am proud of that. It encourages me even more to write my chapters with with humor, despite the fact that there is a maelstrom of anxiety in there. I also received amazing feedback in my small community.
My nephew (15) said something profound this weekend. We love you no matter what your perceived weaknesses are, the struggles you have faced. Acceptance. It gives me a new sense of freedom in my writing. That is the gift that the Writer’s Retreat has made me so open to.
The Retreat has engendered great excitement (squee as the Brits say) in pushing through with my project. I have received great feedback!
The small writing community group in which I participated was special. I caught the tail end of Diana’s work and I was hooked and I came in the middle of her reading! There was a Polish grandmother who obviously underwent communism asking a butcher how much meat she could have. The grandmother was completely overwhelmed and sobbed at this prospect of plenitude. Now if that is not a scene, I don’t know what is! When I was in my small community today, I got some great feedback on chapter titles I have been working on. It has been difficult for me to narrow my focus. I thought this memoir was going to be about law school. The end. I was wrong. I am exploring so many other issues. I got great feedback from the other authors in the room. Here is the most special thing: my colleagues’ work is rich and textured and important. We gave each other great constructive criticism, led as always by Dr. Zamora. It was a wonderful experience because we stayed in the hangout a little more and discussed issues regarding diversity and sensitivity to writing about issues such as anxiety. Thank you Jennifer! I am so grateful for all of you!
Here is a teensy, tiny question, by this time next year, I will have graduated, can I take this retreat again (on campus hopefully)? I will have finished my memoir for thesis, but hey, am I welcome again? I will have new material of some kind. I really don’t want to be stuck in a cabin with a picnic basket of supplies. I’m intimidated by that…Cue “Under Pressure” by Queen. It doesn’t feel very #writreaty. Be well!
Today’s experience was unique! I was very frustrated at having to just see a bright yellow screen with no photo of myself in the Google Hangout. If online is challenging, online without seeing faces is extremely annoying. I was a bit angry at Apple (such a finicky laptop for me). I am following a friend’s crucial advice, breaking down and buying a PC (sorry Mac people, it’s not you, it’s me).
The writing exercises are always so centering. I associate things that calm and center my thoughts with the color blue. I feel that sometimes we beat ourselves up if we have not produced work. Dr. Zamora reminds us that introspection as well as marveling at every-day things are great. You can’t see it today but my bracelets are sky-blue. I saw the depth of the hue in one of the bracelets, which has specks of white in it. An ordinary stretch bracelet, no big deal right? I guess that is the thing that goes hand and hand with this pandemic. Appreciating small things…the taste of a clementine, the texture of a crisp apple, fluttering leaves. I used to be too busy to notice such things. I think many of us were. I think that being more grateful will be stay with me. Imagine, something great coming from something horrific as this pandemic? WOW!
The exercise about tweeting about something that brings us joy was very eye-opening. Dr. Zamora does everything with extreme intention. There are no exercises that she gives us that are superfluous. Many posted or referenced family. In my life, my sister’s children (also my Godchildren) bring me immense joy. There is a bond there that no one can break. They make my heart soar. Let’s not wax poetic about motherhood or caretaking. It is not for everyone. This retreat has made me more willing to share things, like a flower that slowly unfurls. So here it is: I am an anxious person; when the kids were babies and even sometimes (to their embarrassment) in their teens (the oldest is 19, middle is 15, youngest is 11), I was overwhelmed with fear. This is similar to Linda’s experience, which she so candidly shared last week. I choose not to be a parent though. Even now that they are older, I am extremely overprotective. My sister has to give me a cue to be more relaxed. If they are sick, I become rife with worry. My sister takes things in stride; she has been a rock in my life. She knows when a cough is serious and when it is just a passing thing. I panic (even now). I start to ask numerous annoying questions. I immediately make tea with lemon. I ask my sister if she should take them to a doctor.
My sister was like a second mother to me when I was little. Plus, she always knew she wanted to have children. For me, it was a passing thought and not a priority. I used to be very self-conscious about people’s opinions. Many people have told me in the past that all women must feel maternal stirrings for their own children (whether that is their biological children or adopted kids). It is part of being a woman. Men have told me this. Excuse me? We are all different; let us enjoy beauty in diversity! Now, I am very open about it (I just don’t like to be public on it on Social Media).
Being a parent is difficult; I see that. However, it is my Godchildren that give me peace. I think of them and I am instantly calmed, transported to a clear blue sky (It is only in their presence, that I become the helicopter aunt; I am better though, though not cured). They are beautiful, special people. They pride I have in them makes my heart swell.
Ok what does it have to do with today? Well, I noticed many people posted photos of or about family members. This reminds me how much people are vital to our life. I consider those in the M.A. program to be “my people” in an important way. I found my tribe. What a blessing!
Today was about finding groups with common sensibilities and values, groups that share a purpose as Dr. Zamora states. Today was much more of a sharing day rather than a writing day. However, I revised my outline for thesis and received some advice that I need to do some serious thinking about cutting things down. I received some good advice from a professor about condensing ideas for my memoir in 5 sentences. I am going to work on this.
Getting back to talking, out of the clear blue, I forgot to sign out of the hangout. What happens? At approximately 11AM, I hear a voice! It’s female. I look. It is Kefah! We have a lovely conversation about social justice, cancel culture, empathy and listening to people’s stories. WOW, I can’t wait for her work to come out. It is going to be good. I then spoke to a friend about how I was brought up. It is all food for my memoir.
Then, the best thing happened. I spoke to Señor Bruce Zehnle who taught me Spanish at Union Catholic in Scotch Plains, NJ. I had emailed him in the middle of the night. Thank you insomniac theater. You are always open! I had to tell him about my excitement about the program. He was a big part of my M.A. journey, because he was counseling me about my initial ambition of getting an M.A. in English literature. He is a wonderful sounding board and he is so supportive. Dr. Zamora knows this, but let’s just say I sometimes get very effusive in emails in the middle of the night! I had to tell Señor about the work I was doing. I had to get his feedback. I had to share my joy about moving forward through fear and anxiety and just doing something even if you STILL feel trepidatious! You can either fold or Forget Everything and Rise! I choose to do the latter, with all of my anxieties, insecurities and hangups! We aren’t perfect people. Just as my memoir is a work in progress, so is my journey. As I long as I do things with integrity and zeal, I will be fine.
Then Señor said something powerful, it’s all in what’s in between the dash. Que dices Señor? No entiendo. Me puedes explicarlo? Si! We are born in Year X, we die in year Y. On our tombstones it reads born Date X (birth day)- Year Y (year of death). This is not a morbid thought. It is a powerful one. It is amazing. I am carpe dieming it with no more excuses. He meant make the most of your life, do what you love! I am a writer. I will be a published author. I am reminded by Meagan T. Mentor’s affirmations as I say this. Words have power. What is in our minds have power. If we constantly succumb to doubt, we drown. It is ok to be fearful. But take whatever talents you have and run with it!
It has been joyful to share my journey with Señor Zehnle. I am also really happy that he is proud of me! He is an icon. Look him up. He taught Spanish in a way that no one else I have seen taught Spanish. An innovator. A trailblazer. In my time there, he used to use hand puppets to teach. He also used to run up and down the aisles of class and shout MAJORRRR TEST. He also made us engage in creative projects. He took us to NYC to see a Flamenco show and to eat dinner at a Spanish restaurant. One rule, no ordering in English. We rose to excellence, because he held us to that standard. He did not underestimate our abilities. I love teachers who do that. It is an ART. Not all can do this! He also held us accountable.
I will be continuing to work on my chapter and he is excited to see it. Today was a day of technological failures, writing, excitement, some laughter, some sarcasm, zeal, and deep encouragement. That’s life that’s what all the people say…..(Sinatra). Today I choose to be riding high in [June]. Señor Zehnle referenced Sinatra. Do it your way!
The concept of voice is difficult to grasp, but it is essential for understanding and appreciating literary works. It is the most elusive feature of writing, but also the most important, because it helps writers form an emotional connection to their readers. Voice is an author’s distinct style. In the audio interviews that follow, Susan and Dana will discuss different aspects of how student voice can be encouraged in the classroom setting.
Susan Wong’s Audio Interview on Voice and Writing
Dana Behr’s Audio Interview on Voice and Writing: Gold Nuggets from Peter Elbow
Written Script of Susan Wong’s Audio Interview
Hello, my name is Dana Behr. My friend and classmate Susan Wong and I will be interviewing each other for our Writing Theory and Practice final class project.
Q- Susan, what is the topic of your interview today? A-I will be focusing on voice in writing.
Q – What is voice? A- Your writing voice is unique and gives your readers a glimpse of who you are. The feelings you want to elicit from your audience are influenced by your voice.
Q- That’s very interesting. What aspect of voice would you like to discuss and why did you choose it? A- I would like to discuss classroom practices that help emerging writers find their voice. Throughout this semester, we examined the theories behind many practices used in teaching writing, and for most of the topics we covered I was able to make a strong connection between theory and practice. But how do you teach something as elusive as voice? It’s hard to define and even writing theory scholars like Peter Elbow say there isn’t much recent scholarly discourse on the subject. One thing is certain though, that it is very much alive in our classrooms.
When I was a young student, teachers discouraged the use of language that revealed anything about the writer. Voice had no place in academic writing. But in more recent times, teachers are encouraging students to be more introspective, especially when responding to literature. I used to think that voice was a God-given gift, something you were blessed with at birth, you either had it or you didn’t. This mentality prevented me from putting my full effort into becoming a better writer because I truly believed that I was not one of the gifted ones. But over the years, and most certainly in our Writing Theory class, I have learned that finding your voice is teachable, learnable, and can flourish with practice. Overall, voice may be elusive, but there are some concrete elements that teachers should point out to students.
Q- What are some of these elements? A- Some elements of voice are: Personality – This refers to the qualities that are distinct to each of us. It’s what makes you you. What do you feel? What do you believe? What moves you? Tone– Tone is about attitude. It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it. It’s how you express yourself to influence the way your message comes across to others. Word choice – Words are the writer’s basic tools. They create color and texture of the written work and help shape the reader’s perceptions. They bring about the writer’s vision. Imagery – is using descriptive language to help readers visualize the author’s writing by involving any or all of the 5 senses. It’s painting a picture with words. Syntax – refers to the way words are arranged within a sentence. It includes word order, sentence length, sentence focus, and punctuation.
Q – What is the process of developing voice in writing? A-The process of developing voice in writing happens in stages. In elementary school, students learn foundational skills such as spelling, grammar, sentence fluency, and vocabulary. In middle school, students write to express, record, discover, reflect on ideas, and to address problems. They are expected to produce coherent, multi-paragraph essays. Teachers begin to build the framework to master structure. In high school, teachers support and encourage students to go beyond the framework to explore and present their personality on the page. Students begin to capitalize on what they have learned in order to create compositions that are uniquely theirs. Each of these stages is instrumental in the emerging writer’s journey to finding voice.
Q-Do learning structures help or hinder voice? A-Learning structures lay the groundwork for comprehensive writing, but some educators are very critical of structure such as formulaic writing, particularly the 5-paragraph essay. They claim that it stifles creativity and ongoing self-exploration, elements necessary in shaping voice. However, as Picasso said, “you’ve got to learn the rules like a pro, before you can break them like an artist.” The fundamental goal of writing formulas is to teach students about the components of a basic essay. By first mastering the introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion, students gain a clear understanding of what readers expect in different parts of their work. And this initial awareness of audience is important later on in developing voice.
Q-Is it acceptable to write in the first person? A- When I first started writing essays, I was taught to detach myself from my writing. My teachers told me in order to be objective I had to be absent and not use the pronoun “I.” But why shouldn’t writers be present in their own writing? Writing in the first person lends credibility to your work and helps to build a connection with your readers. When you say “I,” you commit yourself to your writing and having a personal stake in what you produce makes you more careful and thoughtful about the words you choose. It makes your compositions more interesting to you and your audience. This is what voice is all about—breathing life into your work.
Q-How should teachers respond to student writing in order to encourage voice? A-Writing teachers often comment on student papers by using a red pen to point out errors and make suggestions for improvement. Even though these remarks are usually well intended, students may still perceive them as harsh and unhelpful. Comments such as “too wordy, be more specific, try harder, you didn’t get the point,” are vague and unproductive. When I was in elementary school, my teacher wrote in big red letters on my paper “Reading and Writing below grade level!” This warning scarred me for life and for years I was terrified of writing. Teachers should distance themselves from these traditional methods and recognize that the best kinds of comments are those that enhance the writer’s feelings of dignity. Don’t ever underestimate the power of positive reinforcement.
John Bean gives great advice. He says that teachers should play the role of a coach providing guidance for revision, for it is in the act of revising that students learn most deeply what they want to say and what their readers need for ease of comprehension. Comments that make students want to revisit and deeply delve into their work are very constructive because it will engender awareness of voice.
Q-What are some recommendations for thoughtful and constructive feedback? A-Teachers walk a fine line when responding to writing. They really do want to help their students improve their writing skills, but they have to realize that young people are sometimes overly sensitive when they see their papers marked up with hurtful comments, so they have to be cautious about what and how they say things.
Here are some suggestions. -Don’t use a red pen to comment on papers. It looks like blood, which denotes death. Use something less threatening like a pencil or blue or green pen instead. -Always start with a positive comment even if good things are hard to find. Some examples are: “interesting argument, great title, nice transitions” -Intermix positive and negative comments. Start with something positive then a criticism, then another positive and another criticism, and so on. This will provide a balanced response. -Criticize the paper and not the student. For example, you could say “this paper lacks direction,” instead of “you don’t seem to know where you are going.” -Don’t use exclamation points or excessive underlining when pointing out something negative or confusing. A question mark would suffice. -Be specific with suggestions in order to avoid frustrating the student and don’t nitpick over spelling or grammatical errors in early drafts.
With this careful consideration, emerging writers will be encouraged and empowered to find their true voice and reach their full writing potential.
Q- Thank you for your insight and suggestions, any final words? A-In closing, I would like to say that there is so much more to voice than what I have covered. It’s not the easiest thing to explain, let alone teach, but as elusive as it is, I find it the most fascinating feature of writing. I hope that my thoughts and suggestions help educators and emerging writers understand the impact of voice in writing and that the classroom is the most important place to introduce and cultivate it.
WrittenScriptofDanaBehr’sAudioInterviewonVoiceandWriting: Gold Nuggets from Peter Elbow
Topic: Peter Elbow’s Concrete Suggestions for Teaching
Q: I understand you are going to share some of Peter Elbows pedagogical techniques with us. What draws you to his teaching style? A: In his article Reconsideration: Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries, he reflects upon the surge of enthusiasm in the 1960s for getting voice into writing. He, and other academics who were promoting voice in one sense or another, believed that voice in writing was an extension of the true self and had rhetorical power. Another belief that was held by these advocates of voice in writing was that the goal of teaching writing is to develop the self. These tenets resonate with me because I see them as a strong catalyst and motivation for getting students engaged in the learning process. Additionally, Peter Elbow expounds upon his ideological position by making concrete suggestions: He recommends numerous practices that encourage the development of student voice in writing. That will be the focus of what I would like to share.
Q: Which one of his practices would you like to discuss first? A: I admire that he makes a distinction between high and low stakes writing. First, I would like to discuss this practice and how he implements it into his classroom structure and evaluation process. High stakes writings yield an evaluation of soundness of content and clarity of presentation that then becomes a grade; however, low stakes writing is written predominantly for the benefit of the student’s development of critical thinking and writing skills. These exercises receive varying degrees of feedback or none at all.
Q: Could you give me an example of when low stakes writing should be used? A: Yes. Low stakes writing should be used frequently. Students should be given time in class and mandated to create written reflections for homework on discussions, readings, lectures, and their own thinking. Also, if a student submits a high-stakes essay, a week or more before the final version is due, the student can then receive low stakes feedback. This practice enables them to be able to make informed revisions for the high- stakes evaluation. (Pause) Peter Elbow also believes there is great value in having “evaluation-free zones.”
Q: Can you give me a paradigm for an “evaluation-free zone”? A: The ten-minute, nonstop free-write is an example; however, an arena for deep learning can occur if enough time is granted to students, where they are free from the pressures of being evaluated. Peter Elbow dedicates the first three weeks of the semester entirely to freewriting that is non-stop and private, leisurely journal writing, and quick-writes or sketches. Sketches are unevaluated: however, they are read aloud by the students each day and collected by the teacher. Only affirmations such as “thank you” or appreciating a passage serves as feedback from, either other students or the professor, during this period. This practice builds community as well as improves student writing. The improvement in writing skills may be because a greater volume of writing homework per week, during these first three weeks, is required.
Q: Based on what your saying, I understand the Peter Elbow believes that critical thinking and student confidence evolves in an “evaluation-free zone” or under low stakes conditions; however, an evaluation process is necessary in most academic environments in order to yield a grade. Does his system encompass this reality? A: Absolutely, he has made some concrete suggestions on how to diminish the student’s tendency to say what they think the teacher wants to hear about the content they express, while still implementing systems that have evaluative components. First, he establishes standards that pertain to student conduct and a work ethic at the outset of the class. He promises the students that if they fulfill all these requirements, they will receive a minimum grade of B. I will elaborate upon the standards that lead to enriching the student’s academic development in a moment. The evaluation methods he uses for low stakes writing differ from assignments that are high stakes. Also, he uses a variety of simplified rubrics that enable students to understand where their strengths and weaknesses exist in terms of academic performance and writing. Finally, he recommends that a portfolio serve as the basis for high stakes evaluation, because the student can choose their best pieces and the teacher has a body of work on which to base an important grade, rather than an isolated piece of writing.
Q: You mentioned that Peter Elbow establishes standards that pertain to student conduct and work ethic at the outset of a semester. Would you like to elaborate upon that? A: Yes, thank you. His list includes these items: “Not missing more than one weeks worth of classes; not having more than one late major assignment; substantive revising on all major revisions; good copy editing on all final revisions; good effort on peer feedback work; keeping up on the journal; and substantial effort and investment on each draft.”
Q: You also noted that his criteria for low stakes and high stakes assignments differ. A: Yes, he has an evaluation scale: He offers a greater amount of feedback for the assignments for which he has higher expectations in terms of the product itself. All assignments have a value: The value in low stakes assignments, as I mentioned, is to afford practice without anxiety and develop student confidence within the context of community; however, assignments that have higher stakes need to meet expectations that are evaluated. I am going to describe a continuum he uses between low and high stakes responding: Zero Response is for the lowest stakes: Private journal writing would fall into this category The next level is described as Minimal, Nonverbal, Noncritical Response: In this stage of evaluation, strengths in a piece of student writing are indicated by the teacher placing a strait line under or beside strong points or strong writing samples. The next level in this progression is Supportive Response- No Criticism: This evaluation method is used to articulate to a student, things that they are doing well that are unclear when only indicated by a straight line. For example: “You chose a good approach to your topic” or “You write with a clear and lively voice.”
Descriptive or Observational Responses demand that the teacher skillfully reflect back to the student, what they are observing in the structure of the students writing, without being critical. For example: “You begin with an anecdote of your own experience; then show us how it throws light on your academic topic: Then you make your case- which really rests on a process of definition – showing what fits and what is excluded.” This offers the student a mirror to their own work.
Minimal, Nonverbal Critical Response is when the teacher places wavy or wiggly lines underneath or alongside problematic areas.
The highest stakes assignments demand that the teacher provides a Critical Response, Diagnosis, and Advice. Combining feedback in the form of a rubric, constructive critiques, and praise of strong points is a useful formula for providing clear feedback for a high-stakes assignment. If appropriate, a teacher can be flexible and combine the various evaluation methods.
Q: You mentioned that Peter Elbow utilizes a variety of simplified rubrics for different objectives. I know it’s difficult to describe a graphic in an audio format, but could you direct the listener to where they could find that information. A: I would be glad to. On page 194 and 195 of his article, “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement,” a sample rubric is depicted. In the text that follows, he makes suggestions about how this format can be altered to meet the needs of different assignments.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say before this interview comes to closure? A: As a final note, I would like to reflect upon a belief that Peter Elbow and many others share regarding the use of portfolios for high stakes evaluations. I would like to directly quote him first and then conclude with a final perspective. Peter Elbow states, “Course grades are more trustworthy and less damaging because they are based on so many performances over so many weeks.” Personally, I think that process-oriented work, that takes place in an environment that minimalizes an authoritarian structure, yet, clearly establishes expectations regarding the students work ethic, is ideal for nurturing the development of student voice and critical thinking skills. Using a portfolio, in conjunction with the other pedagogical methods mentioned in this interview, motivates the students to adhere to the delineated work ethic, and by affording them the opportunity to represent themselves through the final selection of their best pieces, empowers them.
Bean, John. “Writing Comments on Students’ Papers.” Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide To Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning In the Classroom, 2 nd ed, Jossey-Bass, 2011.
Elbow, Peter. “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment.” College English, vol. 55, no. 2, 1993, p. 187., doi:10.2307/378503.
Elbow, Peter. “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, vol. 1997, no. 69, 1997, pp. 5–13., doi:10.1002/tl.6901
Elbow, Peter. “Reconsiderations: Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries.” College English, vol. 70, no. 2, Nov. 2007, pp. 168-188.
Harris, Robert. “Recommendations For Writing Comments On Student Papers.” Virtual Salt. April 29, 1997.
Lambert, Keith. “Helping Students Find ‘Voice’ In Their Writing.” education world.
Parker, Kimberly. “Response: Never Use “I.”” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. WVU Libraries. 2017
Rodriguez, Rodrigo. “Leave Yourself Out Of Your Writing.” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. WVU Libraries. 2017
Thomas, Patrick. “Writers Must Develop A Strong, Original Voice.” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. WVU Libraries. 2017
Wiley, Mark. “The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We need to Resist).” The English Journal. 90.1 (2000), 61-67.
As you will see in the poem that I will attach, I have gained knowledge of the heart and mind in Writing Theory and Practice (more affectionally referred to as Monday nights). I venture to say that most of us ran to Monday nights as a refuge, as so eloquently stated by my colleague, Emily. We were also so excited to learn from each other. Writing pedagogies came to life through our presentations and our discussions and critiques. I’ve been truly blessed to have had this unique experience and I look forward to many more with people I am proud to say are my colleagues, some of whom are genuine friends. I hate goodbyes, so I am not saying that. But there is undoubtedly a sense of bittersweetness in my heart. But then, what is sweetness without bitterness? What is sugar without salt? These types of contraries are the very essence of what it means to live. Here is my verse, entitled “It All Changed in the Fall.”
Regarding the final project, I never expected that I would journey so far back into my childhood to explore my own Voice. I thought I would be discussing my post-secondary school education, which is where I really learned to hone my own unique voice. As the saying goes, you make plans and God laughs. Writing is a beautiful, winding journey. It always surprises me where it takes me. It was wonderful for me to consider how many obstacles little Medea faced and she did not even recognize them as insurmountable obstacles at the time. She just felt, responded and well, used her voice. Every negative experience that has tried to stifle my voice has strengthened my indomitable spirit and my faith in God. I especially grateful that as things became hard, I did not turn away from Him. Of course, I have had wonderful nurturing experiences where my spirit has been fed and my voice was able to flourish naturally. However, in my formative years, it was the tough times that built my identity and incidentally, have lead to laughable absurdities. Just look at the picture of me standing next to my kindergarten teacher, it’s all in the expression in my face and my eyes, which do not lie.
Now, I’ve got my foot through the door, and I ain’t going nowhere
It took a while to get me here, and I’m gonna take my time
Don’t fight that good s$%t in your ear, now let me blow ya mind
(Chorus of “Blow Ya Mind” by Eve, featuring Gwen Stefani)
Your blog post for this week should be a description of your own personal goals for this project. This is not an invitation to share your freewriting. Rather, your blog post should be a more polished or cohesive narrative (or summary-description) of what you have learned from the freewriting. In your blog reflection, please identify learning outcomes that matter the most to you. What do you want to learn? In addition, please describe a few project concepts that you have developed in order to realize the learning outcomes that are most meaningful to you. In other words, please describe a few project concepts with as much detail as possible. What do you want to make? Why? – http://writingtheorypractice.miazamoraphd.com/
I think it is essential that we keep referring back to Dr. Zamora’s instructions when we approach our final project. This is supposed to be a cumulative experience of what we want to learn and contribute.
I want to learn about how art intersects with our intellectual/emotional experiences of writing. I want to create a project that creates a lasting, aesthetic expression of what this program is about. I do not want to summarize the concepts that we have already learned, but rather synthesize them to fuel something that will both emotive, intellectual and artistic.
Here are a few ideas that to which I have given serious consideration:
(1) Creating a sharp, digital portfolio of photographs that are annotated by our personal reflections.
We could take pictures of objects, people, anything that is meaningful to us. Under those photos, we can express how education has motivated us or has hindered us (or both). We should be free to tell our own stories. Here is an example (obviously unedited in terms of background, font type and other stylistic elements):
You said I could not walk a mile in my shoes because they weren’t made for long distance. I walked anyway and broke the strap, but I didn’t stop. They dug into my bare feet, but I kept walking to the class you said was too advanced for me.
You said I wouldn’t be able to reach the podiums because I would still be too short, I found a stack of books to anchor my steps, no one was the wiser. I spoke with confidence. My own definitive voice was heard, and you were shocked…Don’t expect me to drop the mic just yet.
…To all the “yous” out there… my shoes have miles to walk before I sleep.
(2) How about casting our hands in plaster in a star shape (like an all-hands in, “go team” shape that players form before they break and go back to the field)? We could design key words on the hands. We could glue the formation to a piece of wood, then we’d mount it on the wall. My goal would be for it to remain in the English Department.
(3) How about creating something similar to the collaborative poem that was done for the National Writing Project? We would each have to contribute short poetry/lyrical pieces that would form a cohesive whole and then weave them together into a whole by means of recording our voices and then stringing them together into one MP3 piece. The focus question could be: what have I learned that I didn’t know before this semester? Of course, we’d have to be careful that we don’t duplicate our answers.
(4) I love the idea of creating a quilt that echoes the sentiments of #3.
(5) Also incorporating the ideas above, it would be great to create a tree and hang personal leaves utilizing important quotes from readings as well as experiences we’ve had. Doing the leaves would not be hard. But building a tree is quite a task. I would like it to look like an actual small tree that resides in the English Department.
What my colleagues have said:
I like the idea of confessions of a writer that Meagan talked about.
I also like the idea of creating a writer’s journal in which we contribute concrete ideas to avoid writer’s block and also includes what we have learned. (Meagan again). This could give us the freedom to create multiple artistic expressions as well.
The idea of an open mic comedy routine is also great (Nives). It is my philosophy that tragedy plus time equals comedy (not my quote). We can tell stories of how we failed yet pulled ourselves up in educational circumstances. Humor is also a great way in which we can cast ourselves in our cultural backgrounds, which I believe never leave us.
I like the idea of a play- However, if we do one, I don’t think we should do someone else’s play because I don’t see how this would reflect our unique learning and writing experience. We would have to collaborate to write a new piece. It would not have to be a traditional 5 act play.
I look forward to everyone’s ideas! I want us to stretch our minds and collaborate effectively. If anyone wants to add to my ideas to make them concrete, please feel free to do so. I also welcome all criticism, good and bad.
It’s really all in the title. This is a collection of short stories edited by Leah McNaughton Lederman. Several of her own unique stories are also included in these Tell-Tale heart beating pages (yes it is that good). The collection represents the human face of horror that we often do not see in current fiction pieces. It is not filled with stereotypical “gotcha moments” or “jump scares.” However, there are definite elements of surprise that will have you looking over your shoulder. I read this in the small, stolen hours of the night and that made it even more eerie. The stories were written by diverse women who really delved into their characters’ psyches to give us the best possible scares that leave indelible marks. The collection is highly atmospheric, so much so that it is a sensory delight to read (that is rare). Women and men will be able to relate to the stories and will be pulled into worlds from which they will not soon depart. The graphics are a joy to behold and add so much to the collection. I enjoyed learning about the artists and writers at the end of the book. Leah McNaughton Lederman also includes editorial instructions at the end that I found to be invaluable. Cafe Macabre is available on Amazon. Buy it. It is horror at its best because FRESH perspectives are introduced that are highly relatable…scary, right?
In Multiliteracies and Writing, the developing of frameworks is crucial. Without giving students a framework, they will become nervous, frustrated and at worst, quit. This is something that I appreciated as part of Writing Theory and Practice. The pre-Fall 2019-me balked at the idea of giving students frameworks (too confining). I thank Nives, Susan and Linda in helping me see this issue from a different point of view. You should not hand a child a fancy balloon without one of those smiley face weights attached to it. It will go flying off and there will be inevitable tears. Frameworks provide solidity and they are a necessary part of structured learning, critical thinking and writing.
In “Teaching ESL Students: Issues and Options,” Harris and Silva explain that there is a “pedagogy of the tutorial” (526). This involves developing a hierarchy of what is considered to be most important. Ibid. Tutors should focus on the big picture and resist the itch to correct every error (530). First, as the authors mention, tutors should gain training on the special needs of different ESL students and how their cultural backgrounds may affect the way they learn. It is also important for a tutor to get to know, as much as possible, his or her tutees. From her descriptions in class, I know this is how Patricia approaches her students. We have to remember that at the other end of the desk is a student with feelings and different perspectives. It is difficult to develop a relationship with students if they are coming into Writing Centers (WCs) on a sporadic, as-needed basis. I would encourage for all ESL students, especially those just at the beginning of their writing journeys, to consult WCs often, during draft stages, so that tutors and students can get to know each other and develop a rapport and trust.
I agree that is important that rhetorical structures be prioritized over grammar and syntax. For that, I refer back to much-beloved Aristotelian triangle:
I agree with the stretching out of the composing process:
(1) include more work on planning– to generate ideas, text structure and language; (2) have ESL students write in stages, e.g. focusing on content and organization in one draft and focusing on linguistic concerns in another draft; and (3) separate their treatment of revising (rhetoric) and editing (linguistic) and provide realistic strategies for each, strategies that do not rely on intuitions ESL writers may not have.
Adhering to grammar is important; however, it should not take a front seat. I think it would be best if ESL students had separate training on grammar and syntax. As the authors mentioned, tutors also need to have a formal way of conveying these components, because even if they come second-nature to us, we may not know how to teach these rules.
The main goal in teaching ESL students is communication. In communicating, it is always important to emphasize the positive aspects of a student’s writing. Again, trust is an important in every relationship, including the student-tutor one.
In “Using Rubrics to Develop and Apply Grading Criteria,” Bean explains that rubrics aid in planning a class at the outset and in describing the expectations required by the instructor (267). This idea, which I once disliked, makes sense because it conveys a sense of shared purpose between the student and his or her teacher.
I found Paul Deiderich’s experiment to be crucial (268-269). He was able to train readers to balance their assessments over 5 criteria: (1) quality of ideas, (2) sentence structure, usage, spelling and punctuation; (3) organization and development; (4) creative wording or phrasing and (5) liveliness of committed voice (“flavor of personality”).
I think that both analytic and holistic rubrics can be utilized. It is important to gain an overall impression of a paper (holistic) and then to grade it according to the crucial hallmarks noted above and in the analytic rubrics Bean included in his piece. It is important to know that giving too specific of a rubric can backfire, causing students to approach writing as a plug-in-the formula experience, rather than as a critical exercise of their own thoughts. I think that it is also important that there be room for teacher’s commentary on a student’s work. However, it should never be cursory or vague, as we have discussed in other classes.
In the Controversies Abut Rubrics section, I felt that Bean was speaking to the former me. I used to see rubrics as stifling to the creative process. I thought that it would lead to individuals being put in a box from which they could not easily extricate themselves. This reminded me of George Michael’s personal transformation from sex symbol to a writer/performer who had something genuinely different to say, but had to struggle in order to do so. I direct you to his beautiful song, “Freedom” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diYAc7gB-0A).
Bean states that opponents to rubrics believe that they are unfair to students because rubrics them the wrong “message that there are universally agreed-upon standards for good writing” (277). That is incorrect. I think that students, especially beginners, need concrete structure in order to clearly organize their thoughts on paper.
I really liked Bean’s specific approach to using rubrics (279-280). However, I think that adding up numbers is too formulaic. Additionally, I wonder if Bean’s approach would be extremely time-consuming for already over-taxed teachers.
Bean’s article reaches an apex of greatness when he states that instructors have to find an approach to grading that works for them. This will most certainly vary with the subject matter (i.e. literature as opposed to scientific lab reports). As I explained before, I think that it is vital that teachers set out expectations of their students and stick to them. Bean has included some great rubrics that would have even satisfied the pre-Fall 2019 me because they allow room for creative expression.
The natural creation of a pearl requires agitation. This image came to mind while reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire suggests that authentic identity, with all of its nuances, cannot be achieved until oppressors and the oppressed first understand their roles and then work together towards agitating true freedom. That is, the oppressor and oppressed must break out of their stereotypically embodied selves and work towards equality. There can be no shortcuts and no doubt the waters will churn with agitation.
Freire’s exposition reminded me of Karl Marx and I wholeheartedly disagree with Marxism as a viable, sustainable philosophy for change. However, this did not make Freire’s work any less powerful or meaningful to me. Achieving humanization, in its truest authentic form, is essential. It is the historical task of the oppressed to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well (1). It is from them that the germ of agitation must stem.
Freire makes an apt point that “during the initial stage of the struggle, instead of striving for liberation, [the oppressed] tend to become oppressors or sub-oppressors” (2). This is because they see themselves in purely individualistic terms and do not have proper consciousness as belonging to an oppressed class. The Darwinian model of survival of the fittest frames such individuals’ roles, rather than the goal of broader humanization.
Freire’s take on freedom is pivotal:
The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. Rather it is the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion
Freire compares the process of liberation to painful childbirth (4). Moreover, a new paradigm must be established, one that shatters the mold of the colonized and colonizer (12). Activism and “armchair revolution” are unacceptable (14). Freire asserts:
The correct method for a revolutionary leadership..lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientizacao.
15 (conscientizacao is awarenesses in Portuguese)
Awareness is a necessary step for humanization to occur. Freire also explains that “teachers and students (leadership and people)” must be intent on this goal (16-17). Ultimately, it is the oppressed who must break apart the framework of control and lead the oppressors to higher planes of consciousness. Only when former selves are sloughed off can new growth and understanding prevail.
Freire’s article dovetails with Delpit’s “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children” because the idea of the silent majority is implicit in the culture of oppression. This carries over into the classroom because cultural and racial identities are not checked at the threshold, nor should they be. It is necessary for teachers to confront this reality and understand that agitating for authenticity in unique student voices is an important end goal.
However, before end goals can be met, initial steps must be taken. It is imperative that teachers not cheat their students by failing to acknowledge that racial bias persists in our culture, no matter how uncomfortable a fact that is. There are implicit and explicit hidden powers at play and all students must be made aware of this.
Delpit indicates that unique voices must be acknowledged and celebrated. This is intuitive. However, when confronted with the example of “village English” being taught by an Alaskan teacher, I was honestly uncomfortable. I questioned whether the teacher’s methods were really preparing students to live in a competitive world where standard written English (SWE) is the norm. The teacher did have days where formal English was taught as a means of dress up. Individual voice should be acknowledged and promoted; however, will these students be ready for the professional world? Shouldn’t they be made aware that SWE is crucial? One has to know the basics that are at play before experimentation with voice is carried out. It is a thorny issue for me.
I agree with Delpit’s point that teachers must know their students and ensure that there are appropriate learning strategies for everyone. It is inherently racist/ classist to think that just because a student is a person of color or a member of a poorer class (i.e. a person outside the culture of power) that he or she should be taught in accordance with a “basic skills approach” (286). That is blatantly offensive.
Race is part and parcel of our culture. Delpit rightfully suggests that teachers open their eyes, ears and hearts so that they may be made aware of and sensitive to students’ backgrounds. The author’s inclusion of student commentaries to teaching styles is unique to me and important.