Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds and whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me. I am small and weak. I need your strength and wisdom.
-American Indian, Lakota, Chief Yellow Lark – 1887
Adolescence is all about discovering ones voice and identity. By identity, I mean the age old question, "Who am I?". Many of my students are experimenting with who they are and what they want from their lives. They are trying to make sense of the world by questioning and arguing with things they see, hear and experience. They are rebelling and testing the boundaries in order to see where they fit in. Students need activities that encourage them to become more confident about who they are as individuals. The quote above demonstrates the coming of age search for identity and strength. My students have a voice within waiting to emerge, they are searching for the appropriate venue to release this voice. The voice needs guidance and encouragement, but eventually it will evolve from a small, weak voice to a strong and wise voice. It is the responsibility of educators to make sure that students are given the appropriate guidance to allow them to grow and develop into writers. I intend to incorporate activities into this unit that allow students to practice exploring and strengthening their voice through writing. Students learn to write by writing regularly. "We tend to see writing as if it was oppositional to speaking, but voice is in fact a bridge to writing-writing and speaking are collaborative" (Hammer). As students practice writing they become more confident and begin to see themselves as writers. They realize that they have a voice and that their ideas and opinions are valid.
Voice is probably one of the most difficult concepts that I teach my students because it is so complicated. Many questions arise when one thinks about the topic of voice: what is voice literally, who are the voices in the room, and who has the right to have a voice? In the classroom, voice is usually identified with power. The person in power is the one who has the authority to speak and those who don't have power must listen. Voice is therefore created between speaker and audience. Who has the opportunity to speak and who must remain silent? Traditionally, the teacher is the figure with the authority to speak; however, in a student-centered classroom students are given the power to have a voice and speak when they choose. Voice equals authority; that is opinions that have strength and are a persuasive force. A student-centered classroom is organized in a circle with the teacher a participant in the circle as opposed to stationed at the front of the room. Students call on each other when they want to share their thoughts instead of the teacher having the power to choose who speaks and who doesn't.
Voice is something produced by the body. Voices are distinctive and imitable. We identify and recognize people by their voices even when sick or we haven't spoken to the person in a long time. (Elbow) Voice is comprised of both sound and style; that is pitch, tone as well as the manner in which the person speaks. Although voice is authentic, we have multiple voices in our repertoire. "Our voice is made up of many voices. Finding a voice is learning about the many voices that we have" (Hammer). One speaks differently dependent upon audience and purpose. For example, a person might speak differently to their boss then to their friend. The quality of their voice may not change dramatically, however the style and tone may change. Voice changes to reflect on emotions as well. A person who is nervous may quiver, stammer or stutter in uncomfortable situations just as a person who is angry will reflect this emotion in their tone. At the same time, a person has a public voice that they share when they speak in addition to a private voice inside their head that houses their inner thoughts within the mind.
I am a tenth grade English teacher at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, Connecticut. Wilbur Cross High School is the largest high school in the city with a population of approximately 1600 students. Wilbur Cross is not a magnet school, so only New Haven residents are allowed to attend. It is one of the two non-magnet schools in the district. This unit is written for sophomore high school students, both mainstream and sheltered content.
Sheltered content is a new program initiated this year in the district. This program replaces the bi-lingual education program that traditionally accommodated non-native speaking students. The reason that this program was initiated was because non-native speaking students were scoring drastically lower on standardized tests than mainstream students. The deficiency was attributed to the fact that students were not getting enough content area knowledge in their bi-lingual classes. As a result, students are no longer taught in their native language, but instructed only in English by two teachers, one content area teacher and one English as a Second Language teacher in a co-teaching model. The students placed in these classes are from various countries, generally Spanish speaking comprising of South America, Central America, Puerto Rico as well as Asian countries. The students contribute to the diversity of our school community and carry their history, culture and values into the classroom. These aspects can be used in various lessons and discussions over many content areas. Sheltered content students struggle not only with the content area but acquiring language at the same time. One of the objectives in this unit is to incorporate modifications for English Language Learners in the English classroom. Ideally, I would like the students to be able to engage in the same activities as the mainstream students with the help of scaffolding, graphic organizers, modeling and additional vocabulary.
As an English teacher, I have observed that students struggle the most with writing. Many of my students are able to verbalize their thoughts. They can effortlessly debate and explain themselves in detail, but formulating their ideas into clear, concise and organized writing is often intimidating and frustrating for these same students. Thinking back to when I was in high school I remember having similar problems. Writing definitely wasn't my strength. I coasted through my high school English classes writing for the teacher. I would figure out what the teachers wanted me to write about and how to write about it, then I would write exactly what I thought they wanted. I wrote for the grade and not for myself. Everything I produced was designed to please others. When I entered college as an English major I discovered that I was expected to write my thoughts instead of the teachers'. It was at this time that I began experimenting with my authentic voice. I notice that many of my students share these same qualities when approaching the subject of writing. A lot of times students ask me if what they wrote is right or good. Despite the fact that I emphasize that there is no right or wrong answer, the students are programmed to vie for my approval or exhibit learned helplessness. Students often struggle with independent thinking and activities that encourage them to authentically think. It is much easier to have someone give you the answer than have to struggle through the process of figuring it out on your own. When I tell them to write what they think they look at me with puzzled stares. "But how do I know what to think?" is the response that I receive from many of my students. They want to know what I think instead of thinking for themselves. My students are also not used to writing frequently. They are used to worksheets and assignments that require lower-level thinking. My students are used to responding to a teacher-chosen topic and text.
My objectives for this unit are to encourage students to become authentic thinkers and express their unique thinking through various creative writing projects. I want to emphasize that this unit is a
writing unit because so often teachers organize their lessons around grammar and vocabulary. I want to concentrate on the creative aspect of writing because tenth graders are so overloaded with CAPT preparation during the first half of the year they seldom get the opportunity and the freedom to step outside of the box and the structure that the exam demands. Although the unit does not emphasize CAPT drills and prompts, it does teach CAPT related skills through critical thinking, questioning and reactions. For example, in the memoir lesson students visualize an event to write about. The skill of visualization is number four on the CAPT test but it is taught authentically without drills. Also, the I wonder why questions and theorizing are question one in the CAPT exam. Students will begin to view themselves as writers by writing often. They will frequently practice writing by exploring various genres in particular: journaling, poetry, memoir and documentary/personal history/story telling. Journaling refers to students writing regularly in their personal notebooks in class. Journaling takes place from anywhere between 10-15 minutes in the beginning of class. Students write their responses, questions, notes and reactions within their journal. Students will learn by familiarizing themselves and modeling with different genres of writing. Modeling is a technique used to show students samples of work in order to familiarize them with the process and give them a "model" to use when writing their personal work. Modeling gives the students a chance to examine exemplars. Modeling also is used in the sheltered content classroom in which the teacher demonstrates what something looks like and sounds like. Students will be exposed to both professional authors as well as student authors. English Language Learners will build necessary vocabulary to engage in the lessons, strengthen writing skills and reading comprehension.