The following is a sample of what I’ll be presenting with Three Teachers Talk at #NCTE17, session C.26, Friday at 12:30, room 274.
Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories, encouraged me to think about students as natural storytellers.
So I dug through their writers’ notebooks to see storytelling in action. During my dig, I wasn’t looking for detail or dialogue or finished pieces. I wasn’t reading for apostrophes or paragraphing or numbered and dated pages, either. I instead wanted to know where writers were already practicing storytelling, and what tools and strategies they were already using.
One the ways I noticed that student writers tell stories is that they listen to their inner ear. This emerged when I read half-baked, quarter-finished crime stories where a student could hear a bought cop addressing a group of criminals. I noticed it when I heard a writer list the annoying sayings her mother used. I noticed it again when writers took on a Ken Burns-ish important-sounding narrative voice to discuss an important world issue.
Some students can really hear when they write.
So the first thing I did was I turned that observation back to the students: did you notice how you hear the character in this section? That observation then became an expectation. In your writing, you should be able to hear your character or narrator speaking. When you revise, ask yourself if you still hear your characters or your narrators. If you don’t, mark the text for a future revision.
There are also ways that writers can practice hearing stories. The easiest way is just to choose a good piece to read out loud to the class. For middle school, I’d recommend the first few pages of a Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie or Jason Reynolds’ Ghost. For high school, I’d probably choose a text like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future. You can read the book in your voice or cue up the audiobook, and ask students to discuss what they noticed and then practice some imitations.
You can also invite students to imitate characters they already know. It’s always fun to try to imitate a sibling’s voice or a young child’s voice. I invited students to imitate boastful and outrageous LaVar Ball, a parent of an NBA player, after I provided examples of what he has said. Students embraced the opportunity to play around with LaVar’s voice in their writers’ notebooks.
Another idea would be to collect some of the voices of nonfiction: this includes Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo, Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid, some Mary Roach, and whatever nearby textbook or magazine is in sight. Work backward: what do these voices sound like? Whom do I imagine is telling me this story?
I could even see students doing multimedia work with voice by tape recording themselves.
I’m going to assume for a moment that teaching voice is probably not new to you. But what might be new is teaching voice and playing with voice as an element of storytelling instead of housing it within a certain genre or a certain unit.
Will you be at #NCTE17?
I hope to see you there!
Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York. She writes book reviews at teachingtransition.wordpress.com and is deeeeeelighted to serve on the CYBILS book award committee for middle grade fiction.