3 Ways I Approach Voice & Style with my AP Literature Class

I’d like to formally apologize to my college professors for my “I’m trying to sound smart” papers.

I remember cranking out papers in college that, when looking back, make me shudder with embarrassment. How many attempts at “smart sounding” papers did I diligently and dutifully write while holed up in my tiny room in my tiny apartment, typing away into the wee hours of the night? It’s hard to say. Words like thus and therefore littered my papers and dichotomy and paradoxically kept them company.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with any of these words. I was just trying on my “academic” and “formal” writing style in college—the descriptors my own students now parrot back to me—because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, or rather, how I was supposed to sound.  

You walk a fine line when teaching a course like AP Literature and Composition because, as I often say, it’s about the test, but it ain’t about the test. Helping students develop their aptitude for handling complex texts, exploring truths of human nature, and embarking on the quest of elegant and creative writing is challenging and deeply rewarding.

And what I’ve learned is that oftentimes my students have the tools for deep, insightful analysis, but clearly and creatively articulating them in writing is where they struggle. And rightly so. It’s a difficult skill to grasp and master.

I’ve also learned that every student who has aced the AP Literature exam is a student who has extraordinary control and command of language. My “fives” are the students who can bend language to their will and capture your attention in a mere 25-30 minutes of drafting.  

Here are a few strategies we use in my class to consistently build our voice and style in writing, so on test day, students feel comfortable and confident in their writer’s skin and focus on both the content and the quality of their writing.

Strategy: Student Blogs

Tricia’s post To Blog or Not to Blog: Blog! beautifully captures the benefits of student blogging. Consider this my ditto and what she said. Blogging gives students license to experiment with and exercise their own authentic voices, and, importantly, it gives them an audience for their voices.

My students write a monthly blog post about a contemporary poem. For the complete assignment, check it out here. Like any other literary analysis, they must discuss the content of the text, the choices of the writer, and what it all all means. The catch is: my students participate in a “blog share” with other AP Lit classes from all over the country. Each month they are responsible for posting their own work, reading the work of others, and commenting on posts from our cooperating classes in other states.

In short here’s what this assignment has afforded my students:

  • Choice in content and approach
  • Creative license in structure and format
  • The opportunity to read their work through the eyes of a living reader
  • Reflection on what works and what does work in their writing and the writing of others
  • Practice narrating ideas, analysis, and arguments in — gasp! —  their  own voices, the way they choose

Because blogging about poetry isn’t nearly as intimidating or daunting as drafting a “controlled analysis with significant insight” in 40 minutes, students see that dialing back the big words and ratcheting up the intention can have an impact on the personality and panache of their writing. 

For examples of student blogs, check out Chocolate Curls, The Inner Workings of Ally’s Mind, Chasing Daisies, and Poetic Thoughts With Matthew.

Giving students a platform to experiment and exercise their voices has been a) meaningful b) effective and c) really fun and rewarding to watch grow.

Strategy: Free Response Texts as Mini Mentors

I admit it. This is wacky. But it works.

My mentor, who taught AP Lang, used to say he wanted his students to “write the quiet beautiful essay about the quiet beautiful essay.” Here’s how I nudge students towards utilizing and transferring this skill…

I introduce free response texts as mentor texts in Notebook Time. Like any other mini mentor text we study, students read like readers and like writers—arguably, the foundation of AP Literature, and then analyze the passage or poem to determine how the writer created the effect he or she did through their craft.

Students then spend time in their notebooks answering an AP style prompt.

But there’s a catch.

As students develop their argument, I ask them to try out one of the writer’s moves in their own writing. So if students notice repetition, they use repetition in their response. If they notice strong connotative language, they assert their claims and evidence with strong connotative language. If students see rich and vivid imagery, they, too, attempt to describe the writer’s approach and their insights using rich and vivid imagery. Of course the upshot is students will have identified moves that they can both implement and discuss.  

It’s no easy task, but in a low stakes writing opportunity, students has have permission to play—and importantly, to wander outside the bounds of more traditional analytical writing.

My goal is to practice this skill enough, so that when it’s game day, my students are bringing these mature reading and writing skills to the exam. I want them to feel comfortable and confident with any passage or poem — knowing that they can read it, interpret it, and borrow from it to guide and inspire their own writing.

If you want to try it out, a good jumping off point comes from a popular, workable passage and prompt that, with a little adjustment of your students’ reading lens, could yield some pretty excellent writing: “Birthday Party” by Katherine Brush from the 2005 AP Literature .

Strategy: Mentor Texts from “the wild”

This is one of my favorite ways to get kids hip to voice. Just last week, I screenshot excerpts of emails from friends and colleagues who manage to breathe life into their professional emails and speak with style from their screen to mine. If you’re a member of Folger Library’s new teacher community Forsooth!, you already have a wealth of voice and style mentor texts at your fingertips in the emails from Dr. Peggy O’Brien, Education Director at Folger. She is so wicked smart and funny, her emails read like you’re hanging out with her.

If you don’t have a whizz bang emailer with strong personality and clear stylistic choices, try Twitter. It’s incredible what effect a (now) 280 character tweet can hold. But if you’re still swinging and missing, try out Amazon reviews. Trust me, some folks make art in their commentary on hygiene products/air compressors/baby gates/down comforters/wifi crockpots/eyeglass cases, and…you get the idea.

The power of this strategy is in question “How does it work?”

Invite students to read the mentors from the wild to determine how voice and style work—to examine what moves communicate the author’s personality and intention to the audience.

Of course, this strategy doesn’t have a clear through line to The Test, but it sure is fun. And it opens one more door for students into considering the impact of their writerly choices, their intention, and the impact of their voice on their writing.

The hope is, by developing and practicing this skill early and often, students are prepared for, yes the AP test, but writing beyond my AP Literature classroom, so one day, when their future selves are cranking out papers in their tiny rooms in their tiny apartments, they will be writing with intention and the goal of making effective, engaging writing.

For other tips and tricks for developing student voice, check out Meagan’s post 3 Moves Towards Better Teaching: Tone and Voice , my post called Voice Lessons: Helping Students Find Their Writerly Voice, and Kelly Pace’s guest post Do You Hear What I Hear?  Using Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts for Teaching Voice. 

How do you help students develop their voice and style? How do you see voice and style fitting into the AP English classroom? 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!
-Karla

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