Many teachers find voice a hard concept to teach and an even harder one for students to master. Add a struggling reader into the mix, and it may seem as if voice is too complex a concept and skill to teach. What exactly do we mean by voice? How do we teach it? How do we know when students have found it? These are not easy questions, but they are ones worthy of discussion and discovery for us as teachers and for our students. Voice is deeply ingrained in the history of literature and in history itself for that matter. In history, we find the great voices of nations, of people, of communities, of individuals. We hear their struggles, their battles, their cries, their celebrations. The voices of the past are heard in the present.
Similarly, when we read, voice comes to us - from the characters, from the writer - because the writing on the page embodies voice. Literature is a conduit for time-travel where a writer can speak to us directly from the past (Hammer), where a voice can travel across race, class, religion, etc. (See "What is Voice" for a more detailed description.) We as teachers can begin to use the terminology of voice, academic terminology, and model our thinking about voice, and eventually with consistency our students will "get it." The definition of voice is not simple sentences, so let me begin by exploring some ways to define voice. There are two different ways to view voice: 1. Voice is what is authentic, what is "you." We each have our own sound to our voice, our own style. We each have a unique perspective from which our voice comes. 2. Voice is attached to performance, to role playing and drama (Hammer). It gives us our presence, or lack thereof. We adapt it to our audience and purpose. It is important to note that these two concepts are contradictory in nature, a paradox. The very paradox is one thing that make voice so hard to teach. Later in the unit, I get into more detail about what is voice, but before I do, let me explain where I'm from and for whom I teach.
I teach at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven, CT. Our school is an Arts magnet school, one of two comprehensive arts high schools in the state. Students major in an arts concentration like dance or theatre as well as take college-preparatory classes in core academic subjects. Our students come from about twenty surrounding districts, and while many of our students are honestly interested in their art, many students come because of our small enrollment size of 430. Our school is comprised mostly of Black (not only African Americans), Latino, and White students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. New Haven is an inner-city so we face many of the same problems and challenges similar cities face, such as poverty, low reading levels, apathy, and tough home-lives for students. Fortunately, the magnet school system desegregates the population to make it more diverse.
I'm writing my unit for lower-level 9th graders, especially for the ones who read far below grade level. I teach a class called "English 9 Lab" designed specifically to target struggling readers. We call it a lab class because we use the reading and writing workshop model, allowing students to learn a skill and then experiment using that skill. It is a double-period class allowing students to have double the time, daily, in English class than they would have regularly. My students' reading levels are anywhere from 1st or 2nd grade to 6th or 7th. The curriculum is focused on the direct teaching of reading comprehension to increase students' reading levels at least two grades in one year. We typically shoot for three or four, depending on what difficulties the students have. The goal is to close some of the reading gaps in 9th grade so students can then be successful the rest of their years in high school and beyond.
This unit will also work for higher levels, as it is pedagogically necessary to teach all students analytical thinking. The two differences between what I do with my lab classes and what I do with my honors 9 classes are: 1. With the lab class I teach direct reading instruction so students can gain basic comprehension skills, while with the honors class they already have these skills. Instead, I give the honors class the language with which to talk about their reading process. 2. With the lab class, the material I use to teach analytical skills is at students' grade-levels, and often I use non-print texts to teach a thinking/reading skill and then have them transfer their thinking to print texts. The material I use with the honors class is much more difficult and sophisticated, but when I teach close reading to my honors class, within the next few weeks I teach it to my lab class as well. Basically, my focus on voice is twofold: at first it helps the lower-level readers comprehend by "hearing" the characters - making inferences and meaning. Secondly, it is an avenue for analysis, to deconstruct the effect to see how the writer created voice - how it works in literature and thus in life. I teach both aspects to all my students, regardless of their reading levels. This is an important consideration, because too often we never teach lower-level students high-order thinking.