Let’s Have a Chat: Teaching Students that Writing is a Conversation

When I sit at the teacher table during lunch, I’m not looking for my colleagues to speak with formality as though I’m conducting an interview. I’m also not looking for them to say things that are inappropriate and offensive. I’m looking for them to engage in a conversation in which they use their authentic voices in an appropriate way. That is what writing should be: a conversation that is appropriate to its audience.  

One thing that makes teaching writing so difficult is how students react to the process. The groans, the eyerolls, the general resistance because it’s “too hard.” Somehow, writing has been relegated to the shelf of difficult things, but why is that? Writing isn’t hard. Writing can and should be fun. Most students dislike writing because it feels prescribed and formal. It feels unnatural to them. They put up resistance right away because they feel they don’t have innate skills, and the ones they’ve learned aren’t good enough.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Once students understand that writing is just a conversation, their resistance falls and writing is suddenly more accessible for them. If they can have a conversation, they can write.

The Student Voice

Building a student’s confidence in their ability to engage in a written conversation starts with mastering their student voice. At the beginning of the year I spend quite a bit of time explaining what I mean about voice. I ask students to consider two questions:

  • What is your voice?
  • How do you cultivate your voice?

This can be challenging for students who have not had much experience identifying their own voice. Much of what they think and the opinions that they hold belong to other people at this point in their lives. They are molded by their families, their communities, their churches, their peers, and others. They seem to constantly feel they have to apologize for their views by framing them in their writing with “I think” or “in my opinion” when they could simply just state their opinions or feelings. They don’t yet have confidence enough to simply assert them, and they don’t yet have confidence to be their authentic selves when they write.

What is Your Voice?

To get answers to the question “what is your voice,” I challenge students to write down who they think they are. I have them list any descriptors they can think of (ex. gender, race, nationality, birth order, religion, sexuality, political leanings, favorite food, favorite sports team. etc.). Then I get them to defend each descriptor in a classroom conversation. This might sound goofy, especially with a descriptor like gender, but today gender is so fluid that getting students to really think and speak about their own gender is a great way to make certain that they have ownership of all of their descriptors instead of just accepting them. If I have to defend the notion that I’m a girl, I may say “I feel like a girl, and I look like a girl, and my DNA says I’m a girl.” The act of defending that one descriptor illustrates the point of individuality by showing that I’m a girl because I say I am, and that kind of individuality is central to voice.

This exercise also teaches students that it is best not to make assumptions about any characteristic of a person. It helps build empathy when students realize that people in the room have a different answer to these same, simple questions of identity.

How Do You Cultivate Your Voice?

The second question asks, “how do you cultivate your voice?” This is more abstract. To help students cultivate their voices, I set up debates.

In one exercise, I ask students to think of a social or political issue they feel strongly about. Common examples that come up are polarizing issues like the death penalty and abortion. I pair students who have opposing views about the issue and tell them that they will each have to speak for one minute on one side of the issue. Then I really make it hard. I tell them they have to argue for one minute against their personally held belief.

This is a critical exercise because, for some, it is the first time they have had to examine the other side and argue it. They learn in this process that if you understand the other side, you can more forcefully defend your own position. The other side is the person you are having a conversation with, and getting them to listen to your argument takes skill. This exercise helps students to build confidence and critically think about all sides of an issue.

A happy bi-product is that it can often reveal that a student can’t defend a long-held position. In those cases, students will often sit back and think, and frequently they change their minds. It is the first time that many of them have actually asked themselves why they believe something. Having a strongly supported belief or understanding is critical to cultivating voice before entering a conversation.

Writing as a Conversation

Once we have identified and begun to cultivate voice in these ways, we enter into a conversation in our writing. I get students to go through the following process as they write their papers:

  • Understand your audience…me! What do you need to acknowledge about me in in order to have a conversation with me?
  • Adjust your conversation to your audience…me! How will this paper be different than if you were writing it to a friend or a small child or a stranger?
  • Assert yourself – don’t use personal pronouns, not because it’s an arbitrary rule but because your argument will sound stronger if you don’t apologize for your opinions by saying things like “I think.”
  • Support your points – you won’t convince me of something in this conversation if you don’t support your points.
  • Use your own voice – use words that sound natural to you. Don’t pretend to be someone you aren’t in this conversation.
  • Transition – don’t feel stuck in a 5-paragraph vortex. Paragraphs should transition with ideas, but not because there is a formula you are required to follow. There aren’t hard and fast rules to a good conversation, it just needs to flow in a natural way.

When students approach the writing process in this way, the results are so much more successful. Their voices don’t seem forced, and they are able to develop ideas that they might not have had the confidence to explore before. These are the papers I don’t mind reading. It’s the forced, formulaic papers that are written at me instead of to me that I dread. I much prefer a good, thoughtful conversation.

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Louise Kennedy

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