One of the big challenges in teaching fifth grade is finding a way to excite the kids about writing. Perhaps it is because of all the standardized tests that they seem to view writing as a chore rather than an art. They think that “good writing” means neat letters, correct capitalization and lots of punctuation.
So we try to jazz things up a bit by introducing lessons about how powerful it can be to express yourself well in writing. We teach the kids how to choose their words depending on the audience they are addressing, and how to create a mood in their writing. We call this “voice”. Its a really fun concept to teach, and to learn.
This week my class has been writing letters to people who have some power in their lives (like me!). The letters need to persuade the power person to do something that they want (like, oh, say, getting a puppy for the classroom) Before we began the writing assignment, I spent quite a bit of time talking about having a “powerful voice”. As I spoke, I looked out at the 25 faces before me, and thought about how some of them are struggling to find a voice within the class. I thought about how one or two of them have yet to find a way to say, “Can I play?” or “I need some friends.” or “Please stop making fun of me.” I hoped that learning to write well might one day help them to say those things, and more.
On the second day of the lesson about “voice”, I woke up with a nasty cold. My head was achy and my throat was dry and hoarse. As the day wore on, I found it harder and harder to speak loudly and clearly. Ironically enough, I realized that I was losing my voice! Being a teacher, though, there wasn’t much that I could do to give my vocal cords a rest. A silent teacher is an ineffective teacher, trust me. I don’t enjoy chaos, so I kept on giving directions and keeping order. I struggled through it, knowing that with every word spoken I was making a bad situation worse. Oh, well, what could I do?
On Friday, the kids came into the classroom to see my morning message, complete with a little drawing of me with a frowny face.
“Great news, kids! You are going to LOVE today! I’ve lost my voice!”
We had a good laugh and settled in to the day. I tried my best to rest my pipes, I really did. But I had to teach the lesson on multiplying decimals. I had no choice about explaining the directions for the hour of “centers”. I had to answer at least 100 questions about the computers, the printers, the network and the applications during the hour while the kids were writing their persuasive letters. And after lunch I had to have a good long talk with two boys who were testing out their preadolescent cool guy roles. By 4:15, as I headed for my car, I could barely squeeze a sound out of my swollen throat. I was nearly mute, and I didn’t like it at all.
I got home after running some errands, collapsed onto the couch, and went to log on to the internet. I wanted to touch base with the worlds of Facebook and gmail. I wanted to check my favorite blogs, to see what people were saying. I wanted, in a word, to COMMUNICATE.
Well, guess what? There was some kind of glitch with the router, and I couldn’t get on. I tried every tech trick I knew, asked for help from my son, all to no avail.
I can’t describe how frustrated I was at this point! I was near tears as I tried to explain to Tim, in my squeaky little voice, how helpless I felt with no way to get my thoughts across to anyone, anywhere. I felt mute. I had been silenced, if only for a while, and it left me feeling totally powerless, and very isolated.
And so my thoughts have come full circle.
I have been trying to teach my students about the importance of developing a strong, clear voice, so that they can learn to influence the people around them, and so they can gain a sense of freedom and control. To have a voice is to have power. To have a voice is to have a role and a place and a purpose in life. I hope that I have begun to help the kids to realize the truth in the lesson. I hope that in some small way I am helping them to search for, and maybe find, their true voices.
And as I suffered through my several hours of mute impotence last night, without the power of either spoken or written words, my thoughts returned to the voiceless members of our classroom community. Their silent endurance and quiet courage still amazes me. They speak, but they aren’t heard. They send out messages, but no one reaches out to receive them. They are part of the group, but they always stand alone.
If teaching means anything, I will find a way to give those silent few a real voice.