How We Standardize Our Students’ Voices, and Why It’s a Problem

Notes from the Classroom

“So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity–I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.” – Gloria Anzaldua, from “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”

As a teacher of language, I find that I’m often caught between contrary instincts about how to teach voice. I think voice done well is one of the most powerful elements of writing. This applies to all writing, not just what we tend to label as “creative writing.”

Here, though, I’m talking about argument writing, because that’s what I teach.

In my classroom, my first instinct is to follow the rules that were drilled into me by almost all of my teachers. That instinct tells me that I should push traditional rules of writing. These rules say your voice must be neutral, third person, and use standard grammar. Following these rules, the idea goes, highlights the power of one’s argument.

That’s what I was taught. And that approach is still taught everywhere.

But I’m caught between that and another instinct.

This second instinct comes up when female students persist in using the male pronoun, or when I read something that is so bland I can barely stay awake–and my eyes drift to the top of the page and see the name of a student who I know isn’t bland. I look at those names and I notice that they are often female, people of color, kids who speak two or more languages.

And as I circle non-standard usage, I wonder if what I’m really looking for in that neutral, standard voice is actually me: white, male, bland.

It bothers me that we’re stuck, my students and I. They want to get good grades and be successful writers. I want the same for them.

But not at this price.

When I ask them to be tradional, what I’m really asking for is whiteness. Think about those words: traditional, standard, neutral. They’re all pointing in the same direction.

Why do we read, teach, and celebrate the distinctive voices of Zora Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid, and Gloria Anzaldua, only to turn around and tell our students that they shouldn’t write this way for the exam? That these brilliant writers and their voices should be relegated to the “creative” category, rather than using them to show our students that serious arguments don’t always come from “neutral,” “traditional,” “standard” writers?

I hear the words above from Anzaldua every time my classes talk about voice, every time I circle something. And I know she’s right.

RICKRick Kreinbring (@kreinbring_rick) said many, many years ago that he would become a teacher because “English Major” didn’t sound like a job, and his father really wanted to see him get a job. Rick liked to read and he wrote a little, so he got his teaching certificate and he’s been working at it for over 20 years. Most of the time he’s at Avondale High School, trying to stay one step ahead of his students.

It’s Hard to Teach Voice in Writing. These 4 Novels Help.

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

Teaching voice to teenagers can be a tricky business. Voice is so personal, so varying, so complex. 

To make the business even trickier, there are many powerful ways to teach the written voice–so many that it’s difficult to teach them all.

All of which explains why this task calls for examples from literature. But where to get started?

These four YA novels offer students beautiful expressions of voice. They also happen to be excellent books, which students may find that they are excited to read once they’ve had a taste of the story and the style.

1. Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

You probably heard about this one unless you’re strongly opposed to YA literature or you’ve been living under a rock. It’s the latest from the author of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, who is known for his trademark wit and sincerity. Turtles All the Way Down follows Aza, a teenager with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which manifests in increasingly suffocating thought-spirals from which she cannot break away.  

Green’s wit is back in spades, and the lessons in voice come from his successful descriptions of Aza’s seemingly indescribable feelings: “Felt myself slipping, but even that’s a metaphor. Descending, but that is too. Can’t describe the feeling itself except to say that I’m not me. Forged in the smithy of someone else’s soul. Please just let me out. Whoever is authoring me, let me up out of this.”

This novel offers a case study in how to express the things that seem to only make sense in one’s own mind. It’s a voice lesson for our students that is worth the price of this book.

2. Dear Martin, by Nic Stone

We’re currently riding a wave of excellent books dealing with race and police brutality (All American Boys, by Reynolds & Kiely, The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, among others). Dear Martin separates itself from the others by offering heartfelt, introspective thoughts from its main character, Justyce, who is arrested inappropriately while trying to help a friend, and faces worse interactions with police and the media later in the novel. 

Justyce writes letters to Martin Luther King, Jr., in an attempt to process his feelings, in King’s nonviolent manner: “I know I’m a good dude, Martin. I thought if I made sure to be an upstanding member of society, I’d be exempt from the stuff THOSE black guys deal with, you know? Really hard to swallow that I was wrong.”

With so many teens realizing, like Justyce, that their expectations will not always be met by adults, society, or so-called friends, Justyce’s voice serves as a textbook example of internal dialogue.

american street3. American Street, by Ibi Zoboi

A National Book Award finalist, American Street shares the story of Fabiola Toussaint, an immigrant to Detroit from Haiti. Her voice perfectly expresses the feeling of being pulled between two cultures, two families, while struggling to belong to both worlds. Fabiola says, “My two paths meet at this corner, and it seems like I have to choose one. One street represents a future, the other leads to a different kind of life.” 

Ibi Zoboi, the novel’s author, also beautifully mixes Fabiola’s beliefs with moments of magical realism, allowing for the expression of spiritualism in a very poetic way. As so many of our students may be trying to express aspects of their cultural background in writing, the character of Fabiola provides a lovely yet accessible example.  

4. Rani Patel in Full Effect, by Sonia Patel

A 2016 Morris Award finalist, Rani Patel in Full Effect introduces us to Rani, an Indian-American teen poet and rapper living in Moloka’i, an island in Hawaii. Sonia Patel does a masterful job characterizing Rani, imbuing in her a strong connection to her heritage but also to Hawaiian and ’90s hip-hop culture.

We see this in every phrase that she utters, including one memorable, imagined encounter with the rapper LL Cool J: “If I ever met him, I’d probably give him a chin-up and say, ‘S’up LL.’ Naw. Let’s be real. I’d give him a big bear hug and say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for Mama Said Knock You Out. It’s cheaper than therapy, man.'”  The inclusion of Rani’s poems and lyrics only add to the strength of her voice, which tops my list of the most dynamic voices in YA literature.

These are just a few examples of outstanding YA novels that offer powerful examples of voice. I’d love to know if any readers have additional favorites. Email, tweet or share!

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.  Bethany is strangely fond of zombies in almost all forms of media, a fact which tends to surprise the people that know her.  She has two children below age five, and is grateful at the end of any day that involves the use of fewer than four baby wipes.