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Voice and Composition: Authenticity Through Digital Literacies

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by Dawn Reed

I believe in the power of voice. As an English Language Arts teacher, I value voice in writing, speaking, and as a means to critical thinking or engaging in ideas. I want my students to know they have something to contribute and can insert their “oar” in life’s many conversations.

When preparing to teach a speech class, I knew that I wanted students to experience an audience that would offer diverse responses to their speeches and one that was larger than the nineteen bodies in our classroom. That’s when I turned to podcasting. [For further details about the curriculum for this project, visit ReedCurriculum.pdf.] Our class explored the role of technology in communication, which then led to blog discussions, the exploration of the National Public Radio podcast “This I Believe”, and students ultimately creating their own “This I Believe” podcast.

While, I had many reasons for approaching the work in this way and many questions to explore about the role of digital literacies in the classroom, I didn’t anticipate the way this project would transform my teaching and classroom learning community.

[Further discussion of this project can be explored in “From the Front of the Classroom to the Ears of the World: Multimodal Composing in Speech Class” in Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom.]

Voices in the Classroom

When I reflect on my classroom, I see students engaged in dialogue about good writing and speaking skills. Yet, as we discuss the role of voice in writing, we enter a gray area. Defining writing with voice as well as assessing voice is often a continual challenge for writers and writing teachers. When we began writing our “This I Believe” speeches, I hoped my students would simply engage in their writing of speeches in order to consider their larger audience in relation to delivery and content. Yet, the newer technologies we worked with helped us convey voice in our own unique way. We learned to emphasize words to express a particular tone that would compliment our message. This was even present in our class’s collaborative introductory message, in which we each shared one line about what we believe. These beliefs offer a tiny glimpse of my classroom.

When we recorded our collaborative introductory beliefs, students went back and forth to revise their one line belief statement trying to get it perfect. In our introduction we collaboratively worked on shaping, reshaping, and revising, and we discovered that the technology of digital voice recording and editing were not only a major piece of the end product but also a major part of the writing process. For instance, if we didn’t like the way we pronounced something, we could hear it and even see the peaks and valleys of the way our voices sounded through the use of audio tools, and this process often led to revision of our writing.

Students said they revised in new ways when they podcasted. They also found that they tried to portray speaking personalities in which they worked on emphasis and tone in their writing to convey their message. Take Lisa’s speech on her belief in laughter. In her piece, voice is present in her print text but becomes even more sincere and heartfelt through the manner in which she shares her story (despite the rough background noise of the audio recording). Moreover, Lisa’s classmate shared a closing piece to her speech and while doing so accidently laughed. While this may at first have seemed merely cute, it later seemed to also offer a natural reiteration of the message of Lisa’s “This I Believe” speech. As such, this laugh was left in intentionally by Lisa in order to emphasize the message through not only her spoken voice, but also that of her peer.

Other students also found a sincere voice for their essay, which was especially apparent when they felt passionate about their speeches, such as Madi’s speech, in which she reflects on being the oldest of five girls, or Ronney’s speech, which focuses on what he learned from the death of his father. Still other students let their voice of confidence come alive in their speeches. Take for instance, Cody’s speech, which focuses on the importance of being selfless. In this speech, he is able to make his examples become living stories through his emphasis in reading his essay. Yet, these voices were not able to come alive without careful revision of both the written and spoken word.

Voice: Tools for Revision

Just as the audio recording became a tool for our writing, as we examined the shapes of our spoken voice in the literal waves of the recording and the way in which we simply pronounced a word, investment in sounding like ourselves was also important to our writing processes. Jonathan’s explains his writing process:

The most important thing I learned was how to put my true thoughts and point of views into writing and process complete thoughts. This I believe essays helped with shaping and creating my speech in there [sic] speeches I noticed the emotion and realism in there [sic] voice which showed that they had a genuine belief in what they were saying. After listening to there [sic] speech I decided to go out on a limb and try to match there [sic] creativeness. Once I had all my thought down on paper It took so long before I had changed everything to the way I seen fit. Hearing my voice in audacity was a wake up call I found myself rewording many parts of my essay because I didn’t feel it sounded right coming out of my mouth.

Jonathan suggests that while the role of audience is present, pleasing the audience was not his end goal. Rather, his goal was to please himself, and he began to do that through his practice with the writing process and taking “so long” to make sure he liked the essay. Having taught Jonathan without the context of digital literacies, I did not observe this sort of response or care to revise, prior to this project. In fact, in another class students, (including Jonathan) were to work in writing groups, and they were supposed to read their writing aloud to one another as part of their peer review protocol. When we started this podcasting project, however, Jonathan told me he was amazed by how the recording of his speech made an impact on the way he viewed his voice. He also told me that he had never read his work aloud before, and he was impressed with the role it had on his revision. Without the step of the actual recording of his voice, Jonathan skipped the reading aloud of his work. It wasn’t until he needed to record that he saw the value in reading his work aloud, and he additionally listened to his voice, which gave him insight on his writing and revision strategies. In this way, digital literacies have become a revision tool for Jonathan. It was when he heard his voice being played in the recording that he noticed himself not sounding real or genuine and that’s when he went back to revise the piece in the print and spoken text in order to have his writing and speaking show his voice. Through this process, Jonathan affirmed the role of his unique voice in his print and spoken essay.

Sharing Your Voice with a Real Audience

In a world where communication is constantly changing and everyday people may choose to engage with conversations in various Web 2.0 mediums, the role of audience is clearly changing. James observed this concept when he shared:

Doing this podcasting project had changed my outlook on public speaking. I used to think that public speaking was really just for the public around me. But this pod casting project has shown me that when your audience it [sic] limited that you will need to get a bigger one. The TV and radio are really good ways of telling your speech to the masses. But what better than to give your speech on the world wide web.

Troy Hicks and I observed (2007) that “James, who was originally skeptical about producing content for the read/write Web, had gained an appreciation for creating podcasts and sharing his ideas.” Furthermore, we found that “since one of the goals of 21st-century learning include using newer technologies to communicate to a wider audience; James exemplifies what it means to have a better understanding of how to do just that.” From this project, clear illustrations of the importance of authentic audiences and purposes as well as the role of recording a spoken essay with the intent of podcasting influence the writing process through a deeper appreciation and relevancy of composition and revision. When the audience is more than the classroom, the composer is often more engaged and more fully embraces the challenge of addressing the audience. Not knowing the audience provides a different challenge about how to address that audience when our voices are literally something that can go to the whole world. Our speaking personalities develop in the delivery and the language used in the composition. Our voices become real to tell who we are, and the way we understand voice is broadened as podcasting then becomes a game changer for the composer as the composer is able to shape his or her own voice for the audience.

Our Voices are Heard

Ultimately, what I found compelling about this project was the engagement of students.

To complete the project, students would voluntarily stay after class to revise and revise. On the last day of our class, which was the Friday before spring break, the bell rang, but no one jumped for the door. Rather, slowly people left, and then others stayed hours after school to keep working on revision or listen to other speeches and post comments to one another. Over our break, I checked our blog and found that students were posting. Learning was truly happening beyond the walls of our classroom and the hours of our school day.

We used technology as a new writing tool to explore the rhetorical moves of writers in digital environments and the sophisticated thinking that happens when students are able to insert their voice into a larger conversation (such as the “This I Believe” speeches) as done through their revised speech. Additionally, I found that technologies transformed our experiences and pushed us to a higher level of community and inquiry as we were working in digital and face-to-face environments. My students honed their writing and the critical thinking skills needed to have a voices and move forward in the 21st century where the jobs and skills they need for their future are constantly evolving.

As a teacher, I aim to help my students express their voice. With digital literacies, our understanding of voice is not as limited, but rather we aim to express it in our composition and means of delivery in authentic ways.

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