Friday, June 3, 2011

Poetry Friday: Teaching Voice


It happens at every writers' conference. An audience member asks the guest editor or agent what he looks for in a book. He says, "Voice."

"How would you define voice?" is the follow up question. Answers range from a succinct non-answer, "I know it when I hear it," to a rambling response while the agent squirms in her seat.

Voice is difficult to define, yet as readers we do have an ear for when a character's voice sounds true to itself.

Voice is also part of the 6+1 Writing Traits curriculum. So how do you teach it?

This school year, I brought back a lesson in portrait poems, using fine art images and magazine clippings for inspiration. The full portrait poem lesson is here.

Since I last posted the lesson, I've used PF blogger Amy LV's "Face Poem" as an additional model. 

The students get really into it! First, we look at an image and talk about the facts we see. Next, we spend time imagining -- what's this person's story. (One of my Northfield third grade classes imagined that the grandfather in Amy's picture was a time traveler and the baby he held was himself.) Last, we read and discuss the accompanying poem.

When it's time to write, we follow the same steps. Facts first, then imagination. I can't explain why it works, but it does.

My intern from St. Paul's School for Girls, (hi, Alissa!) and I were whispering about the poem, "A Quote from Gaga" in the back of the classroom. How does a third grader step outside of her own experience and write in the voice of a superstar?

A Quote from Gaga 
by Madi M.
Grade 3

Stylist! Stylist!
Where are you?!
I need a new outfit
For my photo shoot.
I need you to shop
‘Til you drop!
I need a new motorcycle
As a prop.
I need bright red lipstick
and shiny black kicks.
I need long black gloves,
And please, no doves.
My hair needs to be teased
And I need stockings to cover my knees.
The table is out of forks
And I need my black shorts.
I need my hair dyed
And none of this will be denied.
Did you just say, “No?”
Well!
You’re not invited to my show!
Hah!

Mackenzie brought an unusual image with her. The opening lines describe the magazine clipping she used. Then, the poem led Mackenzie into a fantasy scenario.  What an imagination. This poem is written in third person (both first and third were options for the portrait poems).

Untitled
by Mackenzie D.
Grade 3

Putting her hand in a green
glowing ball, wanting to have done
this all her life.
Touching it, feeling a hard
but soft thing, making the whole thing glow.
The light shining down
making the ball brighter.
Lines seem to burst out, but
go back in.
Sparks shooting out like a fire.
Her shirt’s already green, but it
seems as if the glow makes it greener.
Everyone crowding around her now,
wanting to do the same.
She gets bigger and bigger as
she takes her hand out,
then she gets smaller.

I will post more portrait poems over the next few days. Thanks again to Northfield Elementary and its families for giving me permission to share the students' amazing work.

10 comments:

Blythe Woolston said...

I loved the anatomical illustration as a gloss on the voice question. I am impressed by the ability to assume a persona on the basis of an image. I wonder what the mechanism is. Really, Grade 3 and able to give voice to a diva. Mackenzie's poem really rocked me back on my heels. That is a fantastic narrative in the truest sense of that word.

Author Amok said...

Hi, Blythe. I wish I knew what it is that makes this lesson work. My guess is that our group discussion about Shonto Begay's painting (and Amy's photograph) helps make the kids comfortable with deep imagination. I love their ability to step outside of themselves.

Janet said...

This sounds like a fun way to get across the concept of voice -- natural too, since we all tend to project a voice into certain images we see. Must have been a fun class discussion. Thanks for the inspiration!

jama said...

What awesome poems! Looking forward to more :).

Author Amok said...

Janet, I think you make a good point about project voice into images. This year's third graders were some of the most creative (and SF/F minded) I've ever worked with.

Jama -- I'm hoping to post more tomorrow. Thanks for visiting.

Mary Lee said...

Sometimes (maybe most/all of the time?) it seems like we just need to get out of a kid's way so they can show us what they can do...

Author Amok said...

I agree, Mary Lee. My intern and I were talking about this. After all the "academic" writing kids are asked to do in school, many freeze-up for creative assignments. It's a gift (thanks to state arts council and PTAs) to have this time set aside for writing. The results always amaze me.

Toby Speed said...

Laura, I have to tell you, when I stopped by here on Fri. I was blown away by the two poems. Mackenzie's poem absolutely transported me, from the first lines. The results here speak to your ability to prepare your students to write.

Right now I'm feeling glad that I didn't throw away all my years of "The Sun." Do you know the magazine? Every photograph could spawn a hundred poems.

Author Amok said...

Hi, Toby. Thanks for the lovely comment and compliment. The students were extraordinary this year. I do know "The Sun," but haven't subscribed in a while -- good idea for a resource.

Kerry Aradhya said...

Hi, Laura. Congratulations! I have awarded you The Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award. Visit this site on my blog to pick up the badge and pay it forward: http://tinyurl.com/5sk8pvp :)

But also...great post on voice. I remember not too long ago, I was one of those people at the conferences wondering what it was! You are right...the work of your students is amazing :)