3 Moves Toward Better Teaching Tone and Voice

If I was lucky enough to see you at our #NCTE17 session this year, you know that tone and voice are both something that have been on my mind as a teacher a lot lately. I think most of us can agree that the standard of “maintaining a formal style and objective tone” falls a little short on this nuanced topic. Our voice is in many ways how we convey who we are in our writing, and our tone is immeasurably influenced by it, so it seems to do a disservice to our writers to always expect “formal” and “objective” if we want our students’ writing to be meaningful and effective. In order to dive into a deeper exploration of these concepts, I’ve made three major teaching moves that have helped tremendously:

1. Right a wrong: Move the tone lessons up front where they belong

Okay, so maybe this isn’t a mistake you’ve been making, but it sure has been for me. For the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I’ve been teaching tone and voice by tacking a lesson on to the end of the writing process – in the revision stages. Once students’ pieces were all but finished, we’d do some quick checks to make sure the tone was appropriate for the audience. Every once in a while, we might catch a phrase or two that seemed a little off, but otherwise, the lesson almost always fell flat as a waste of time.

And then I had one of those lightbulb moments. Our tone is something that we develop before the words ever leave our mouths – not something that we revise once the words are already out there. It’s shaped by our attitude toward our subject and our audience, and in this way, it’s inextricable from our writing purpose. If our voice in writing is made up of a combination of our personality, our experiences, and our culture, we must let it inform our tone as we approach a subject. Continue reading

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Rewriting the Word Wall

Today’s guest post comes from Amy Heusterberg-Richards, a tenth-year ELA teacher at Bay Port High School in the Howard-Suamico School District, located just north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Amy currently teaches Writing 10 and IB English Literature HL Year Two. Connect with her on Twitter at @LAwithMrsHR.

Mentor Texts:

Writing Techniques:

  • Reflecting on elements of craft
  • Creating voice

Background:

My fifth-grade Social Studies teacher had a head of hair that rivaled those of Michael Bolton and Kenny G (musical studs of the time), making him the subject of more than one conversation between my classmates’ mothers. He had an acoustic guitar on which he played historical ballads and an impressive collection of obnoxious ties. An apparent pioneer in flexible seating, he had a reading loft and colorful bean bag chairs, over both of which we students often fought. All these glorious items aside, though, the possessions I most remember from Mr. Weitzel’s school domain were his classroom walls, spaces filled with explorers’ names, vocabulary terms, and worldly locations.

At the beginning of the school year, the walls were unimpressive, white blocks spattered with grey smudges and sticky, tape residue. Come June, however, they transformed into an exhibition of all the learning we students had accomplished. I remember sitting at my desk those last days and feeling a proud satisfaction of all the terms I had acquired, all the people and places I could now discuss.  Mr. Weitzel, as primary school teachers perhaps best understand, knew the impact these Word Walls had on the development of his students. He used his walls to physicalize terms, to track concepts, and to serve as reference documents. He skipped posters to motivate and instead posted words to guide.

This school year in our tenth-grade Writing course, my teammates and I decided to re-write the seemingly elementary Word Wall concept at our secondary level. We knew we wanted to begin our class with an exploration of — to borrow language from Stephen King’s On Writing — the “tools” of effective craft. We selected five elements of voice (diction, syntax, imagery, inclusion/exclusion of details, and tone) which we felt we could use in all upcoming writing studies. We also decided, in the spirit of the Word Wall, to post visuals of each tool on our own walls for “Writing Well.”

How We Used The Mentor Texts:

For each writing tool, we asked students to define the device and study a teacher-selected mentor text whose purpose was twofold: The excerpt from King’s On Writing (chapter one of the “Toolbox” section) described how to select vocabulary, but students also discussed how King employed the diction tool himself; Anne Lamott’s “Short Assignments” from Bird by Bird advised how to include/exclude details, but the class analyzed how her writing gave/withheld information with intent, too.

After exploring such mentor texts by writers-on-writing, we asked students to discuss additional examples of each tool’s use in groups and practice writing these devices in pairs. Ultimately, we ended each two-day, tool study with an individual activity that prompted students to intentionally use the element of craft to write well and, at the same time, to produce a visual to adorn our Writing Well Wall.

  • For diction, each student selected words with similar denotative meanings and placed them on a spectrumed paint sample with consideration to connotation.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-07-pm
  • For syntax, each student selected an auditory sound and visually wrote syntax that mimicked its quality and color.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-12-pm
  • For imagery, each student selected a photograph and wrote the sensory experience of one of its human subjects.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-17-pm
  • For details, each student selected a topic about which to write a flip-book riddle that excluded enough details to confuse but not enough to stump.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-21-pm
  • For tone, each student pulled a page from a discarded library book, marked evidence that created a tone, and labeled/showed the tone word.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-26-pm

The entire study of these five writing tools took the initial two weeks of our course. In that short time, our Writing students studied, practiced, and mimicked the craftsmanship of strong writers at a wonderfully tangible level. They created a wall full of examples showcasing the tools used to produce effective craft. Greater even still, they developed testimonies to themselves that they can control, at this most focused level, the sometimes daunting tasks needed to write effectively. As we move on to more challenging topics, more developed essays, and longer revision periods, I hope my students feel a comforting satisfaction — not unlike the one fifth-grade me experienced — as they sit aside a Writing Well Wall that reminds them with each glance that they can use — and have used — the tools of powerful writers.

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