Listen for Their Voice

What a completely glorious weekend! From the moment I woke up yesterday, the sun pushed  through the blinds and took hold of my mood. twitter UVChecking the weather app, I tweeted that, indeed, we were now measuring the UV index again! UV index and seeing my first robin count as the harbingers of spring for me.  My husband and I hold a contest (which I ALWAYS win…) to see who spots a robin first in spring. But in February?  Not likely.

I couldn’t wait to get outside. My eldest daughter, Hannah, and I commit to a routine when she returns home for a visit: a long walk. Green space holds a magic spell on our well-being so we crave the outdoors to draw out our burdens, and our conversation, like a mini-retreat.  Yesterday did not disappoint. The ever-present sound of water –  roofs raining, grates draining – provided a soundtrack for our hike.  As we zigzagged to opposite sidewalks to dodge puddles, I grabbed Hannah’s arm.

“Stop. Listen.”


“A robin.”

“How do you know it’s a robin if you can’t see it?”

Scouring the treetops we searched for what I knew must be neaRobinsrby. We listened again. Sure enough, a wave of robins had just moved into the neighbourhood and they were jostling for branch positions above us, exhausted from their journey of migration. I was thrilled because:  spring is on the horizon, and I won first-robin-sighting of the season!

There are many ways to identify birds: their plumage, their behaviour, their flight pattern, their location. But when you can’t actually see them, you rely on listening. Sure, robins have a call and song that most people recognize. Other birds require closer inspection and the ability to close out other sounds to isolate just their song. The catbird is a trickster mimicking birds around it confusing me and their predators.

Birding requires listening closely, knowing where to look as a result, and patience. Years of practice tunes your ears to a bird’s song, a bird’s call, their voice.

As I’m in the midst of supporting newer teachers with their writing programs, I’m reminded that these same habits are necessary in our writing workshops. We listen closely to detect what to look for when giving feedback and next steps, and tune in to identify and nurture student voice. When we are reading student writing, we are really listening to their voice, their song. We know the voice we speak with isn’t the one we write with (unless we’re texting). It’s not only what we say, but how we say it that reveals a writer’s voice. We also know that one of the biggest challenges in writing is saying what we mean! Does my message match my thinking…my inner voice? Listening to a student reading their own writing can sometimes bridge the that distance.

Like my birding example, we use a variety of ways to identify students don’t we? By their academic achievement, their behaviour, the friends they hang out with, even their fashion style. How many of us recognize our students’ writing by their voice, their song? If a writer’s voice is what uniquely identifies their writing, how often are they engaged in writing that exercises it? What’s more, how do we teach and empower students to identify and value their own voice, the voice that both reflects and shapes their identity?neil_gaiman_quote_06

Not surprisingly, our voice is most evident, most confident when we write our own stories.  We are more likely to bring confidence because we are experts on ourselves. Penny Kittle calls writers’ notebooks tools for all of us to find our voice. I think we find ourselves in the process. That notebook may be the place I start with newer educators, to play with and model our own writer’s voice. And find our song. For how can we listen for a student’s voice before we’ve learned how to identify our own?