"Why do we have to write these stories about ourselves, Mr. Joseph? I mean, what's the point?"
With characteristic 5th grade skepticism, I found myself facing a key question from my student, Tate, that speaks to the heart of the question of student voice - that of audience. What Tate really wanted to know was, Would anybody care about this? Would anybody see this? Would it have any meaning beyond simply a skill that I'm supposed to know?
As teachers, we all have students who are compliant and willful, who will readily produce whatever output we ask or demand of them to please the teacher or earn a desired grade. There is no question that narrative and non-fiction writing are critical skills that must be taught explicitly at all levels every year. Increasingly, however, in an era of daily online publishing and daily digital content production on social media sites, students need to know that whatever they are asked to generate will have a meaningful audience and make a difference to someone. In 2014, kids have never known a world where they haven't been able to reach out around the globe in seconds and make an impact with words, pictures, and video on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.
Central, of course, to student voice is student choice. When asked to write a small moment narrative this past fall, students in my writing workshop were given the opportunity to not only write traditional text-based stories using words, but also to create a "performance piece" that involved a demonstration of the story through some digtial medium. Some students chose to make digital stories, matching their own podcasted voice to images and create a movie. Others chose to learn the ancient art of storytelling, and videorecord their performance. Some reenacted their story as a movie and filmed the experience. Still others used animation techniques to tell the story. The possibilities generated by the students and the products that they ultimately produced far exceeded anything I could have imagined.
The students in my workshop all have blogs, so they posted both their stories and the digital counterparts online. They were asked to send the link to at least three people in three different states or countries around the world and solicit feedback. In this way, the students saw the exponential possibilities of global sharing, and how their work does indeed make an impact - however large or small - on the lives of people, often countless individuals beyond friends and family. Their voice was not only honored, but broadcast on the widest possible stage.
We all know that technology tools are constantly evolving and changing. What will remain immutable, however, is the architecture of story - problem, solution, characters and setting. As long as we enable our students the choice to decide what multi-modal output they would like to try, they will be motivated to learn the fundamental writing skills they need to grow and develop as writers. Furthermore, their work will have meaning for the maximum number of people possible, as it should. Kids care about writing and creating when they know people pay attention to and care about their work . Writers' voices will be heard.
Check out Shin Be telling her story the old fashioned way:
Here's Tate's Paintball Party in pictures and words:
Nicolae uses Lego animation to tell his tale.