Advertisement. Click on the ad for more information.
Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | voice

Pickle Voice

When I was a kid I got lost while participating in a summer recreation program. I was terrified. So the first thing I did when the group leaders found me was to laugh.

I was laughing out of pure relief at being found. And because even as a kid, my emotional stress relief valve was set to “humor.” I’m hardwired in such a way that I often laugh even while I’m crying.

I got in big trouble that day for laughing, and I continued to get in trouble whenever other people thought humor was an inappropriate response. Which led me to believe that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, I needed to use a serious tone. Humor, I had learned, would likely get me into trouble.

Guess what? None of those oh-so-serious things I used to write got published. The writing felt lifeless and artificial; it wasn’t reflective of who I really am. It wasn’t until an editor encouraged me to pursue the “hidden funny story” that she found buried in a manuscript of mine that I let humor back into my work.

That reworked story, complete with lots of “funny,” went on to become my first published book.

I think that what we mean when we talk about “writer’s voice” is a writer’s personality showing up on the page. It emerges through many diverse writing choices, ranging from word usage to tone to rhythm. It’s a tough concept for students to grapple with. Yet editors say it’s a major factor in what they look for in a publishable piece, and writing programs include it as a key component. We can’t ignore voice just because it’s hard to teach and learn. So how do we help students find their voice, especially given that some of them may have been told that the voice that comes naturally to them should stay lost?

I use an activity that encourages students to play with voice. I first choose a group of things that exist as a collective, within which the different components have “personality” without being controversial. Examples are the four seasons—winter and summer have different personalities; or it might be colors—we can assign personalities to green and pink without coming to blows over it; or you could even use food flavors. Then I have students write about a simple topic using contrasting choices from the group. In other words, I might ask them to describe the town they live in, first using a dark chocolate voice, and then using a pickle voice.

It sounds odd, but I’ve seen it have surprising results. Somehow playing with voice in this way can set students on a path to finding the writer’s voice that was lost inside them all along.


The place I go back to…

Going to the Lake | Lisa BullardThere is a particular road trip that has become a summer ritual for me, a journey that takes me to another time as well as another place: going to The Lake.

No other place has been such a constant in my life. I spent early summers there dive-bombing off the dock with my cousins and listening to my grandma’s stories of the moon spinners. I spent teenage summers there playing mud volleyball and yearning over the boys next door. More recently, I’ve spent summer weekends there watching a new generation pick up where the last one left off.

It is the place I go back to when I need to find myself again.

Sometimes in the middle of a hard-frozen winter I will pull something out of a closet that I carried home from The Lake months before, and as soon as the familiar scent of that place reaches me, I jump straight back into some of my deepest memories.

Our sense of smell holds that ability to instantly relocate us to another place and time because it is deeply entangled with our memories and emotions. And yet as writers, our sense of sight too often dominates. When seeing a scene for the reader, we focus on what our eyes perceive, and forget what the nose knows.

Encourage your young writers to allow the sense of smell to sneak its way into their writing. For the youngest writers, you might challenge them to perceive a story seen “through a dog’s nose.” For more developed writers, you might ask them to write a scene where all the emotions are signaled through smell.

You might find, with a litt‚le encouragement, that smells are powerful enough to transport your young writers on their own evocative journeys.


Choice and Voice

Classroom bookshelfIn several past articles I’ve written about the frustration I’ve felt concerning my district’s decision to adopt a new reading curriculum. In recent weeks I have had to reflect and dig deeply to understand my uneasiness and fear related to “an innovative and modern way to teach the gamut of elementary literacy skills” (quote from district website post about the new reading curriculum). I am someone who has never shied away from change or opportunities to grow as an educator. However, this significant shift in the approach to literacy learning and instruction in my classroom (and approximately 660 other elementary classrooms in the district) has contributed greatly to my decision to accept a position with a new school district for the coming school year.

What follows is the letter I am sending to district leaders and school board members in my now former district. My hope is that by sharing this with you, my Teach it Forward readers, and district decision makers, I can respectfully offer something for all of us to think about in hopes of making a positive difference in the lives of our students.

Dear District Administrators and School Board Members,

I believe we have several essential things in common. We care about kids and we want them to succeed. I also believe we share a passion for learning. We aim to do what’s right by our students. We share a sense of urgency. We want to empower our future leaders with necessary skills, experiences, and knowledge. We are intent on making informed decisions and allocating resources wisely.

I applaud the district for its willingness to invest in its kids. A combined $5.3 million for the new reading curriculum, training, and technology is no small expenditure. I know district leaders who supported the curriculum adoption worked countless hours to coordinate the review process, the piloting of materials, and the plan for implementation. For teachers who are new to the profession and have limited experience, this new program offers a detailed overview for each day of the six week units that cover lesson plans for the entire school year, including book selections, alignment to the standards, weekly tests, and interventions. For more veteran educators it delivers a time-saving program that features a fully-integrated curriculum that embeds reading, writing, spelling, and vocabulary, along with a wide range of technology tools.

I’ve spent nine years, more than a third of my 25-year teaching career, in this district. I am a National Board Certified Teacher with a masters degree in literacy and an Education Specialist degree in K-12 Leadership. My desire to make a positive difference in students’ lives runs deep. However, this letter isn’t about me. It is about the 32 incredible kids from Room 123. It’s about kids who need an advocate who will speak up on their behalf when they are not in a position to do so themselves. I am writing to respectfully ask you to consider some of the insights I have about the district’s recent adoption of the new curriculum.

Here are three things I believe those 32 kids would tell you if they had the chance.

Book Wall

#1. Please let us pick books we want to read along with books we want our teachers to read to us. “One size fits all” does not always feel that great.

Readers thrive on having choice and voice. Kids come to us with a wide range of interests, abilities, backgrounds, and experiences. Providing them with plentiful opportunities to have some say in what they read is critical. Imagine showing up at your public library or favorite bookstore every week for the next six years only to be told that the stories and books with which you will be spending 60-90 minutes a day have already been pre-selected for you … would that motivate you to read?

Nancy Atwell, renowned educator and author who is the first recipient of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, speaks to the importance of offering choice and honoring students’ voice when it comes to reading. She explains:

“We now have a quarter century of studies that document three findings: literacy blooms wherever students have access to books they want to read, permission to choose their own, and time to get lost in them. Enticing collections of literature—interesting books written at levels they can decode with accuracy and comprehend with ease—are key to children becoming skilled, thoughtful, avid readers.”

I encourage you to read what else this accomplished and highly regarded educator has to say about kids, reading, and achievement.

The new curriculum has all the books pre-selected for the entire year. The read-aloud or shared-reading selections are organized by theme to connect with the titles that are shared in small group reading. Each week there are four titles offering four different reading levels to match four different groups of readers. The district website post announcing the new curriculum adoption states: “… they’re [students] reading the same content no matter their reading ability. So students at different ability levels can participate through collaborative conversations and learn from each other.”

Those 32 incredible kids might want to know what happens if one of those four books doesn’t fit (whether that be because of topic, genre, or level)…do they have a say?

Reflect bookcase#2. Please know that we don’t all have the same access to technology but that doesn’t mean our families don’t want us to do well or that we need more worksheets to do.

While the new curriculum offers digital at-home access to texts and reading materials, not all students have the same opportunity to use them outside the classroom. Nearly 80% of students at my former school are eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch and almost half are English Language Learners. Close to 90% are students of color. Yes, there is an achievement gap between white and non-white students and yes it must be addressed. Acknowledging that an “opportunity gap” also exists is a step in the right direction.

Those 32 incredible kids might not be able to articulate their feelings about the notion of “equity” but there is no doubt they have felt its absence. They might be wondering how the district will address the issue of equity for students who lack access to technology at home. Will getting a “hard copy” of texts and materials instead of getting to use online tools be enough to provide them with self-directed learning opportunities?

Relax bookshelf#3. Please ask and listen to my teachers about how the new curriculum is working in my classroom, at my school (test results are only part of the answer).

 One feature of the new program is weekly assessments, which will provide test-taking practice for students and data for teachers and administrators. While this is one way to measure growth and achievement to aid in planning for instruction, it is not the only thing to consider. The teachers who piloted the program primarily represented non-Title schools in the district. In fact, of the 10 schools (out of 24) selected to participate, only 3 were from the 14 Title schools in the district.

As stated earlier, advocating for my incredible students is my ultimate responsibility and it is the reason I am sharing this letter. It is my hope that the under-representation of Title students and classrooms in the piloting of the curriculum does not signify an indifference to students and teachers who deserve to be included in conversations and decisions about the implementation of the curriculum.

On behalf of those 32 incredible kids I keep talking about, I am happy to report that they are some of the most creative, intelligent, kind and funny kids with whom I have ever worked. Many are bilingual. They write poetry. They play musical instruments. They are artists, athletes, and actors. Most of them believe in themselves and their ability to do and become whatever they choose. Those 32 incredible kids have shared their unique talents, passions, and personalities with me each and every day, some for the past two years. Their desire to read, talk, and write about their favorite characters, authors’ messages, and the things they wonder has been evident, in part because they have been given guidance and freedom to select from the vast collection of books available to them in Room 123.

One final thing those 32 incredible kids might ask is that you never lose sight of the fact that although they might not all be able to demonstrate just how much they know and are capable of doing when it comes to reading and standardized tests, they deal with challenges on a daily basis, challenges that some of us never encounter in our entire adult lives. Don’t let this new curriculum become another challenge. I simply ask that you look beyond the new curriculum to consider what the kids and teachers might need to address the issues of student choice, student voice, equity, achievement gaps, opportunity gaps, and, most importantly, the idea that one size does not fit all when it comes to teaching and learning.


Maurna Rome


Let me show you this great video I took on my trip…

alligator“We’re stuck,” Airboat Man said.

Stuck: three people, on an airboat, nearing sundown, with nothing but swamp and alligators for miles.

Here’s the deal. I could tell you this story several different ways and remain truthful.  I could make it seem scary, or adventurous, or even perverted. But being me, I’m going to tell you what I hope is the “funny” version:

“You two stand down on the edge there and bounce.” Airboat Man pointed to the lower portion of the airboat. “That should jar us loose.”

BFF and I glanced dubiously at each other. Was this how Airboat Man got his kicks? By dragging zaftig, out- of-state females deep into the lonely swamp, where he manipulated a set of diabolically evil circumstances so that he could force them to—bounce?

“It’s the only way,” Airboat Man said.

So we bounced. Sure enough, we got unstuck. Airboat Man looked amused.

“I wonder if that Japanese film crew over there got videos of ya’ll bouncing,” he said.

Indeed, while we had been busy bouncing, another airboat had appeared behind us.  They had pulled close enough that I assume you could google the phrase, “Large American women bounce on airboat” (if you knew enough Japanese), and you’d get an up-close-and-personal of our bouncing back ends.

So what does this tell you about writing? I’ve talked before about how difficult it is to help young writers understand the term “voice.” Voice is the distinctive way that each writer acts as a filter for how the reader experiences a story. If BFF or Airboat Man wanted to write about this same event, they would do so using a different voice—and it might sound like a completely different story.

Why not ask all of your students to write about an adventure you have shared together?  Then have them each read their work out loud, so the group can hear different voices relating the same experience—and begin to learn by comparison what is unique about their own voice.

Developing your voice as a writer is a little like bouncing to “un-stick” an airboat.  At first, the whole concept sounds pretty suspect. But once you give it a try, you find out it works. In fact, some writers are able to develop such distinctive voices, they become famous enough to google.


Traveling Abroad

by Lisa Bullard

Swiss ChaletIn college I spent a month traveling in Europe. I savored dozens of exciting new foods.

But it was the ketchup—something I usually took for granted—that stood out. Foreign ketchup was so foreign. Had ketchup become so familiar at home that I’d stopped noticing its taste? Was it because I was eating ketchup in Switzerland that it seemed like I was tasting ketchup for the first time?

To me, the elusive concept of “writer’s voice” is like foreign ketchup. I know, now you’re saying, “Seriously, ketchup?” But teachers are being asked to help even young students develop their writing voices. The first step must be to define voice, yet adult writers struggle to grasp what it means. Is a condiment comparison really so out of line?

The best definition I have for voice is that it is the writer embedding her personality, history, essence, into her writing. Is it true that there are no new stories? If so, then voice is the thing that makes us want to hear the old stories told over and over again—because each new voice makes those stories seem fresh and surprising.

Voice is each new writer saying to you as the reader:

“I’m going to tell you a story… about being afraid… about losing someone… about finding your true self… about staying a good friend. Sounds familiar, right? But I’m going to tell you this story in the way that only I can tell it, so you’ll hear it as if for the very first time.”

My story, told in my voice, will taste like foreign ketchup to you.  Still recognizable as the condiment you take for granted. And yet also so unexpected, so newly noticed, it will seem as if you have never eaten ketchup—or heard that particular story—ever before.



Gifted: Spike, Ugliest Dog in the Universe

Spike, Ugliest Dog in the Universe Debra Frasier, author and illustrator Beach Lane Books, October 2013 Ever since I saw my 10-year-old niece pose in front of the television, trying to imitate the supermodels at the end of the runway, my awareness of the beauty culture in this country has been acute. We took her […]