Doing up the buttons

Students who have to write online for assessment face a real conflict, it seems to me, in terms of finding the value in their own voice.  Advocates for “voice” can also build the slightly false hope that once you’ve found it, you’re set for life, like a stand-up comic with shtick. But so many people this week mourning the death of Seamus Heaney have written about the importance to them of the sound of his voice.  I was really moved by Catherine Cronin: “I hear Seamus’s voice in my head and my heart when I look at this photograph.”

Online writers don’t have sound, so they have something else: the shapes they make with words themselves, silently. But I think those who have heard Seamus Heaney and still hear in their hearts are saying something the same: part of the craft of reading is that we come to recognise the writing voice of one person as different to another, even without hearing them with our ears.

Elan Morgan has been keeping a blog for ten years, and in a lovely post this week reflecting on that history (and a few other things), she has this to say about coming to terms with voice as a bodily gesture, that changes and ages just as you do :

I was not always comfortable with my voice, style, and point of view, and I’m not always comfortable with them now, because life is change, and I’m always changing. When I started blogging, I don’t think I had much of a voice or style. Anything I did was accidental at best, and I had no real sense of what I sounded like.

The more you write, though, the more you start to cultivate voice and style, and the more you are able to hear yourself come through. Your voice will become as another limb, one that you employ as naturally as you do your fingers when you do up a button.

The point for all of us to write online is that none of us do up buttons in the same way that we did as children, or even in the same way we did five years ago. We don’t even do up buttons in the same way as people around us. Just watch.

The shifting nature of our own skill is measured in the tiniest of increments, as the buttons require less conscious attention. But we’re still using hands we recognise as our own, and by repeating this simple gesture over and over and over without thinking, we keep extending our capacity to do something very delicate, unselfconsciously.

Hands

This is me with my aunt, and her beautiful hands.

The way to think this through is to look at the hands and fingers of children around you, and then look at the oldest living hand you can see. At the end of her life, my aunt no longer clearly knew that the hands that tugged at her sheets were her own; they became strangers to her. This happens.

So, hand and voice, we do need to use them for craft and expression while we can, in ways that are authentic to us.

The highlight of my week was reading from a new student writer that the blogging process was turning out to be enjoyable because it introduced him to others with different points of view.  And then I realised that this is the exact opposite of writing to a grading rubric.

I think we need to talk more about how every reader reacts differently in their heart to the voice of another human struggling for expression. Grading can’t turn this into an exact science, it just can’t.

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One thought on “Doing up the buttons

  1. What a beautiful post, Kate. I love how you link two streams of thought here — thought-provoking questions for educators about encouraging and assessing authentic writing… and more personal ideas (& images) of hands, gesture and voice. The photograph of hands, your own and your aunt’s, is powerful and so beautiful.

    Thanks also for linking to my post about Seamus Heaney. I don’t always write in such a deeply personal way, but sometimes I’m compelled to do this. It’s not a coincidence, of course, that it was Seamus Heaney who prompted such a personal reflection. Julian Girdham quotes Heaney on the SCC English blog this weekend: “he transmitted a desire to be more yourself to yourself”. http://www.sccenglish.ie/2013/08/seamus-heaney-rip.html

    I’ve been thinking a lot about encouraging and assessing students’ writing and spoke about this at the eAssessment Scotland conference recently (nearly finished the blog post!). Encouraging students to tap into their interests and passions, allowing as much choice as possible for students (re: topics, audience, tools, media, ways of working), and focusing on process as much as the final product — I’ve found that these all help students to tap into their own creativity, their own voice. This is an ongoing learning process for me as well — I continue to learn from my students and other educators every day. So thanks again 🙂

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