Helping Students Find their Writing Voice

Open book with a seaside and tree landscape emerging from book

I woke up when I heard the opening chords of Chopin’s Ballade in F Major. I’d been dozing off, phone in my hand, trying to keep up with the news. I vaguely remember Dr. Fauci and Rand Paul’s heated jabs about the pandemic because by then, the piano music, the subtle, delicate sounds of innocence had transcended me to the daisies in the meadow. Chopin’s Ballade in F Major opens stately with warm choral tones but soon turns torment-like, embodying the violent waves of emotions that only a good story can convey.

“Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone wants to tell it,” a colleague once said. She’s right. Storytelling is what excites my students the most. It’s an invitation for them to read, observe, dissect, understand, feel, and write. Through writing their stories and mine, we learn about our past, current, and future selves; we get an intimate glimpse of our joy, loneliness, sacrifice, anxiety, heartbreak, anger, fear, guilt, surprise, and all the nuanced emotions that make us human.

Another colleague had written about why storytelling is important. “Storytelling,” he explains, “is a universal method for making sense of the world, and as the world grows more complex, storytelling will become increasingly important.” He is also right. Storytelling gives the writer a voice and engages the reader’s heart and mind; it helps us make sense of the world, the situation. This human connection is the reason why speakers of all industries open with stories.

Before I was teaching college students how to write a story, I was a piano teacher. I taught the Suzuki twinkle variations, among other pieces, for almost ten years, day after day to the young, sprightly students joining my studio. One evening, after a piano recital, a parent mustered the courage to ask, “Really, you don’t get tired of teaching the same song?”  “No,” I said, “each student playing the same tune tells a different story; they don’t sound exactly alike dynamically.”

Like with piano lessons, in which I help students develop their musical voice, I also strive to help my composition students find their unique writing voice. Here are some ideas on scaffolding a storytelling unit:

  1. Let students experience the power of stories. To start, have students read books embedded with rich, complex stories that will serve as a model text, and discuss them in book groups. Meanwhile, kick off the power of stories with quotes for storytelling or TED talks about storytelling. My students found The Power of Personal Narrative (J. Christen Jensen) and Your story is your strength (Tiffany Southerland) inspiring.
  2. Give students choice. The first step in the writing process is for students to brainstorm a personal story that they’re willing to share publicly. Let students know that any story can work—a time they felt wronged, a childhood memory they think about often, a day they felt was their happiest, a time they failed at something—as long as they can show transformation in their storyline, that is, a change in their thinking, feeling, or behavior.
  3. Provide students with story structures. Once students have settled on a story they want to tell, show them how stories are structured, such as using a narrative arc or story spine. Begin the writing lesson by choosing a story that students have read and use annotation to highlight the narrative elements—exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution—to see the underlying structure and its variations. Then, direct students to visualize or outline their story by having them fill in the narrative handout.
  4. Offer pre-writing peer feedback. To help students flesh out the plot and characters of their stories, put them in small groups and have them tell their stories aloud. When students tell their story to others, or as my students put it, “let it all out,” they can see how their story takes shape and in which areas development is needed. The feedback students give to each other could be something like this: (1) say one thing that you thought was effective and (2) ask a question or make a suggestion. 
  5. Have students write the first draft. The first draft is where students get their ideas down on paper. As students begin to write their first draft, offer some guidance on what it means to have a strong opener (starting with tension, a question, humor, an anecdote, or conversation), an engaging middle (using literary elements to show versus tell), and a satisfying ending (closing with lessons learned, a transformation, or a significance). And, show students how to write an effective title, one that’s unique and connected to the storyline. Lastly, it’s really helpful for students to see examples of these narrative sections in the stories they’ve read.
  6. Peer review the first draft. When the first draft is complete, guide students in determining their writing goals: How would you rate your story? What are you proud of? What changes do you want to make? Ask students to share these goals with their peers so the feedback they receive is specific and targeted. Then, have students read their story aloud to one another, all while annotating their own draft with notes for revision or codes/symbols to journal their thoughts.
  7. Conference with students. Conferencing with students is my preferred method of providing feedback. Students come to their conference with their annotated draft, and they initiate the conversation, telling me how they feel about their draft, what revision ideas and questions they have, and how I can help. Having a two-way conversation helps students see that the instructor is a partner in their learning process.
  8. Assess the final draft. To assess the final draft, I use the assignment rubric to craft my narrative comment (not to check off boxes). Generally, I indicate what is working well and provide suggestions for improvements should the student decide to revise further. An alternative assessment method is having students self-assess: assign themselves a grade and provide evidence to support it. This method builds in self-reflection and agency in their learning.

I hope you enjoy these ideas. They are simple scaffolding guidelines I’ve recently used with my college freshmen. I know there are more possibilities out there, so I’d love to hear yours.

Crystal O. Wong, EdD, began her teaching career in the San Francisco Unified School District as a K-5 music, literacy, and classroom teacher before starting a second career at San Francisco State University, where she teaches in the writing program. Dr. Wong has won several awards, including the university-wide First-Year Teaching Award (2019) and the Liberal & Creative Arts Excellence in Teaching Award (2020). She has a passion for learning and effective teaching.