Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Cynthia Rice on Voice

Final Reflection for Teaching and Assessing Writing with the 6-Traits by Cynthia Rice

As a reluctant yet aspiring writer, I approached this course with some ambivalent anticipation. My position as resource teacher requires me to know something about all academic areas, maybe quite a lot actually. My lack of experience in teaching writing with the 6-traits propelled me to take this course. My own schooling did not provide any inspiration for how writing could be taught so that students could discover their own creativity. I did have an excellent model, however, when I supported a child in the grade 2 class last year. The teacher implemented Writers’ Workshop with astounding results. This model gave me a vision of how writing could be taught and illuminated some excitement in me.

Our first trait, voice, was total immersion. Voice is the trait that I understood least. I was delighted to read Spandel’s chapter on voice. Her writing is a demonstration of how voice can be heard even in a textbook. Reading the chapters on voice was a refreshing change from texts that present material with a distinct lack of voice. I enjoyed reading her material; the examples illustrated clearly what she was conveying. Her writing drew me in and the pages seemed to turn themselves as I read. The quality of her writing did not diminish for me over the course and I now own three of her textbooks.

As the course progressed I realized that voice is supported by all of the other traits. The choice of ideas, the organization, the construction of sentences, the effectiveness of word choice, and the use of conventions all work to either produce and highlight the author’s voice or disguise voice. Even very young writers who have not mastered the alphabetic principle can write with strong voice. Indeed, their early voice is usually very loud and the distinct job of the educator is to nurture voice as the child grows. Struggling readers and children with limited skills with the mechanics of manipulating a pencil can have voice represented through the 6-traits. I work with a boy in grade 3 who has only begun to master the very basics of reading and writing. When he has authored a piece he writes his by-line “by Joey!” Nothing could be more demonstrative of Joey’s voice. He has to work ten times harder than any of his peers to write even one word. I smile everytime I see this exclamation.

The course as a whole has made me intensely aware of voice in all kinds of literature. On PEI our phone book is an excellent example. How could a phone book have voice? Well, ours did. All Islanders eagerly awaited the delivery of the newly published phone book each May. The cover was a main attraction. A particular aspect of Island life was always portrayed. One year there were images of about 50 kids engaged in various activities. People took great delight in trying to identify how many of the kids they knew and where they lived. In one community there are so many people with the same names that most people go by their nicknames. The nickname often pointed to an idiosyncrasy of the person. A phone book was published using nicknames so people could find them more easily. Eventually, the Island Telephone Company was swallowed by a larger company and then as the fish in the sea do, the larger was again swallowed by an ever-larger company. No one takes notice anymore of the publication of the phone book. Someone in Toronto designs it. Voiceless…

The other traits are tools to communicate what the author has to say. Rating each trait was an adventure in itself. I enjoyed discovering how each trait has potential to enhance or deaden the message. Through the reading and even more so through the ratings I found myself discovering the potential of each trait. The author has the power to shape the reader’s experience and perception through the traits. An artist uses form, color, composition, light, and line to communicate in a similar way that the writer uses ideas, sentence fluency, word choice, conventions and organization. Or the musician can use tempo, dynamics, phrasing, melody choice, instrumentation, and vocals to speak through music. The artist can vary brush strokes, use line in novel and unexpected ways to provide a visual experience. So the writer can use word choice and sentence fluency to take the reader on a journey. These tools have so much potential as part of a whole effect.

It was through rating students’ pieces that I gained the most insight into how these traits can be effectively used. When reading a master’s piece the elements are not as obvious to me. I experience the whole piece and its aftermath as a whole. When looking at developing writers it was easier to see how the individual traits can be used, sometimes when the young author neglected to use them. In examining how a piece could be improved, I was able to focus on the impact of a trait. I had never thought of the effects of sentence length on the attention and feelings of the reader. An abrupt change in sentence length can act to alert the reader, make them more attentive. Using long, descriptive sentences can lull the reader into feeling complacent. As for convention, I was aware of the effect of using proper conventions but now I am aware of how conventions can be used to make a piece explode with voice.

Last summer, I traveled to Toronto with 2 boys who happen to have autism to pick up 2 of my grandsons and drive back to Prince Edward Island to spend the summer together. We stopped in Kingston, a city known for its university and maximum-security prison. We stopped to meet up for the afternoon with one of my Canada World Youth participants whom we all knew and loved. He attends university in Kingston and had planned activities for us. To my surprise, he had planned to take us to the prison museum. We all approached with caution. The tour of the museum turned out to be one of the most meaningful events of a densely packed summer. In the museum there was a gallery displaying work of the inmates, mostly visual art. There was one piece of writing displayed. All of the traits carried a voice that pierced me. It was a full biography. Presentation, conventions, sentence fluency, idea, organization, and word choice combined to bear the weight of a powerful voice. The piece was displayed with dignity beside a wonderfully rendered drawing of birds in flight. The piece was written on a broken hunk of Styrofoam with paint that had dripped down the sides.  It read “I wish al parints had to aksept there children the way thay ar..”

The course has given me the tools to teach writing effectively and to evaluate students’ writing so that they grow as writers. No doubt, the main objectives of the course have been achieved. In addition, my desire to write has been awakened and now I am working writing into my day. Writing can give me moments of reflection within the current, even the rapids, of my life. The question was posed for discussion consideration: Must a teacher be a writer to be effective at teaching writing? Perhaps not. However, I think that any teacher who is truly inspired by teaching through the 6-traits will be compelled to be a writer.

Spandel, Vicki. (2012). Creating young writers. Boston: Pearson.

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