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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The Syntax of Things: Lesson Ideas for Syntax Study

Mentor Texts:

Big Idea:

Writers use syntax purposefully to create meaning and a desired effect.

What’s ahead in this post:

A 3-day lesson series on analyzing literature for syntax, including passage analysis and short story analysis, and using literature as mentor texts 

To answer E.E. Cummings’ lovely question “since feeling is first / who pays any attention to the syntax of things” — We do! We Teachers pay attention to the syntax of things in writing and in literature, and we ask our students to pay attention, too. I tell my students over and over that being careful and observant readers is what will make us better writers.

Analyzing a text for its syntax is one of the most “lightbulbs” concepts I teach all year. When students embrace the “structure supports meaning” mindset, I notice a new depth and level of sophistication in their reading, writing, and thinking that I hadn’t seen before. 

Here’s how I introduce this concept in my AP Literature class:

On Day 1 of this lesson series…

I ask students to read and examine the first few paragraphs of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” Most students are familiar with the story, and so many of them seem to love the dark and gothic writing of Poe. There’s also a great (and creepy) animation to accompany the reading that really amps up the madman mood of the room.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve last encountered this story, here is what students see on the page when they tackle the first paragraph:

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

After students read, watch, and annotate, I follow with my go-to close reading questions:

What happens?

What do you notice?

Why is it important?

Keeping with the Read as Readers then Read as Writers rule, we discuss “feeling first” and then “the syntax of things”.

Almost 100% of the time, students talk about structure. They talk about dashes and exclamation points and fragmented thoughts and inverted sentences. We spend time talking about tone and point of view and how the needle of the story is being threaded here in this first paragraph.

We also spend time talking about how deliberately crafted sentences make this possible — how there is a pretty specific reason we do fancy this madman, well…mad. Students put their fingers right on the nervous-anxious atmosphere Poe establishes and how this madness is underscored through the “writer’s moves.”

I love that this is where students’ brains go. Thanks to Mr. Poe, it’s a perfect introduction to the syntax lens of literary analysis and this writerly move for our young writers.  

On Day 2…

I project a series of images on my Smart Board and ask students to create sentences (very deliberately like Poe) that mimic the feeling or atmosphere created in the photograph.

Here’s one of the photos we tackle: 

roller-coaster

Students decided that the feeling of this photograph is release after anticipation and suspense. We talked about the up and down of a roller coaster, the slow climb to the top of the hill, and the quick drop to the end of the ride. We then talk about how sentences can do that. After each photograph, I give students about five minutes to write in their notebooks.

Here is an example of one student’s writing inspired by the roller coaster photo:

file_000

Thanks to Katie U. of 5th period AP Lit for sharing her writing

After we write, I then ask students to turn and talk and share with their classmates. Finally, I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the whole class and then to discuss their approach their writing.

I especially like this part of the lesson because all students have a chance to hear how their classmates are interpreting the image and crafting their writing. Students always surprise me with the explanations of their writing. Their interpretations of the photos vary, but the one constant is their awareness of the construction of their writing. It’s an English teacher win.

This writing activity isn’t easy, but the writing is low stakes, and I’ve found that it opens up some creative doors that students may not have realized were there.

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