Teaching Voice with Anthony Browne's Voices in the Park
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The concept of voice is often difficult for middle school students to incorporate into their writing. This lesson, provides a clear example of an author who created four specific voices. By reading and discussing the characters in Anthony Browne's picture book, Voices in the Park, students will gain a clear understanding of how to use voice in their own writing. Students begin by giving a readers' theater performance of the book and then discuss and analyze the voices heard. They then discuss the characters' personalities and find supporting evidence from the text and illustrations. Finally, students apply their knowledge by writing about a situation in a specific voice, making their character's voice clear to the reader.
Stapleless Book: Students select page templates and then design pages that can be printed out, cut and folded into an eight-page book.
From Theory to Practice
Student writing often lacks voice, or a sense of personality or feeling. In Writing with Voice, Tom Romano defines voice as "the writer's presence on the page. It is the sense we have while reading that someone occupies the middle of our mind, the sense we have while writing that something or someone is whispering in our ear." (50). One method that Harry Noden recommends in Image Grammar to demonstrate voice in writing is a form of imitation he calls the Van Gogh approach. This approach introduces students to similar stories, such as "Little Red Riding Hood" or "Humpty Dumpty," written in contrasting styles. The story details stay the same, but the way the story is told, or the voice of the story, changes. The benefits in having students note the contrasts and how they contribute to the overall style and voice of a piece are numerous. First, students begin to experiment with voice in their own writing. Second, they begin to look at how their favorite authors distinguish themselves and begin to compare one author's style to another. Finally, according to Noden, students "discover how grammatical choices characterize an author's craft" (79).
This lesson combines Noden's form of imitation with using children's picture books in middle and high school English/language arts classrooms.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
Materials and Technology
- At least four copies of Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne
- Writer's notebooks
The day before the lesson, choose four students, ideally two boys and two girls, as readers to perform the book following a readers' theater model. Choose readers who you know are proficient and somewhat dramatic so that they will be comfortable getting into their assigned voice. Assign each a voice and give each a copy of Voices in the Park so they can practice their parts at home that night.
- understand the concept of voice and how it is created by analyzing a story to determine aspects of a character's personality.
- create or revise a piece of their writing to incorporate strategies that demonstrate an understanding of voice in writing.
Session One: Sharing and Analyzing the Text
- If you have enough copies for groups of three-to-five students to share, proceed to the readers’ theater performance prepared by students the night before. If not, read one copy of the book aloud to the entire class, pausing at the end of each page so all students have the opportunity to experience the illustrations.
- Have readers stand so that they are spread apart, preferably one in each corner of the room. Readers will perform the book for the class by reading it so all four voices may be heard.
- Ask students to discuss the literal voices they just heard: What made each character sound different from the other? Be sure to focus this discussion solely on the readers’ theater presentation of the book.
- Students then list the “facts” of the story—things that remain the same regardless of who tells the story. For example, each voice includes two dogs who play together, two children (a boy and a girl), a woman, and a man. Each voice sets the story in the park where the man looks ragged and the children play together.
- Assign one voice to each student and group students according to their assigned voices. Explain the Character Analysis Chart with a brief model. I choose to use the first voice. For a fact, I say that she is rich because she has a “pedigree Labrador” and the illustrations show her in a neighborhood with a large house. For a personality trait, I say that she is judgmental, maybe even prejudiced, because she describes the other dog as “some scruffy mongrel” and has a pinched up face in the pictures. Encourage students to find multiple supports for each of their assertions.
- For homework, students should complete their charts at home that evening. Since they will not be able to take a book home, encourage the students to make rough notes about the traits that can be explained more fully at home.
Session Two: Discussion of Textual Analysis
- Allow students a few minutes in their groups to discuss their completed charts and determine which characteristics they would like to share with the class. While this discussion occurs, the teacher could walk around the room to check the assignment.
- Discuss each character’s personality with the whole class, supporting assertions with evidence from both the text and the illustrations. Since the illustrations are so rich and clearly reflect characters’ personalities, students enjoy finding pictorial evidence. Allow this, but be clear that textual support is also needed. Limit the amount of time spent on each character because students will quickly find more support for their assertions and discussion of each character will be lively. You don’t want to end up skipping a character because too much time was spent on the one previous.
- For homework, ask students to list in their writer’s notebooks the techniques they feel Browne used to distinguish one voice’s story from the next.
Session Three: Prewriting
- While walking around the room to check the homework, explain that all good writing, not just fiction, has a distinct voice to it. Voice is often based on the point of view of the person writing the essay or story, and it reflects a particular set of attitudes that allow readers to hear the words spoken in their heads in a specific tone. You may want to use Noden’s words, describing voice as the “rhythm and sound of an author’s words” and relate voice to music.
- Ask students to share their lists of ways they think Browne distinguished one voice from the next. Have an example ready in case students are afraid to share. One might be varying sentence length, with the first voice using longer sentences than the others. This might reflect her more advanced age, social standing, and educational level. Other examples include sentence structure (simple vs. complex), word choice, word order, etc.
- Have students brainstorm situations in which there may be more than one point of view. For each situation, include a list of the various “voices” that may be involved. For example, a parent-teacher conference could include the voice of the parent, the teacher, a younger or older sibling of the student, and the student.
- Have students form groups of three-to-five students and choose one of the brainstormed situations or an alternate scenario with teacher approval. Have them list the “facts” of the story—what will definitely happen regardless of who is telling the story. Group members will choose one of the possible voices and, in their writer’s notebooks, brainstorm how they will make their character’s voice clear.
- For homework, students should complete a rough version of their character’s story in their notebooks for the next day’s class.
Session Four: Composing a Book Demonstrating Understanding of Voice
- Students should spend a few minutes in their groups sharing their stories and offering suggestions for revision so that each individual voice clearly reflects the character’s personality.
- Using a computer lab or the classroom computers if there are enough for each individual student, students create a Stapleless Book from their rough drafts. (You may also wish to have them draft their stories using the Stapleless Book Planning Sheet.)
- Allow volunteers to share their completed books, and display all the books on a bulletin board.