What we talk about when we talk about voice, part two

What we talk about when we talk about voice” will be a running series of blog posts on the 
topic of good writing in general and good writing for educational institutions in particular.

by Patrick Kelly
CRANE editorial director

One reason that people find it so difficult to write stories
is that they forget how much time and patience is required to convince through the senses.
No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story
is going to believe anything the writer merely tells him.

–Flannery O’Connor,
“Writing Short Stories”

Moving from abstraction to story

Let’s pick up from where we left off with a simple conditional that we probably can all agree upon:
If The Official Style and abstract language obscure meaning, then story reveals meaning. And yet, quite counterintuitively, story—that most familiar and natural form of human communication—somehow gets lost, forgotten, overlooked in the everyday descriptions of what schools do and how schools do it.


Now, Flannery O’Connor may have been talking about fiction, but her precept about the vital nature of sensory description holds true for all writing. And no, writing about education, about pedagogy, about teaching and learning merits no exception.

Think of it this way: Just as it takes a lot more effort, time, and expertise to teach in an inquiry-based classroom than submit to rote lecturing, it takes similar measures of nuance and craft to describe what’s going on in an inquiry-based classroom than it does to state: Our students learn through an inquiry-based process.

It’s a lot harder evoking and bringing to life an interdisciplinary English-U.S. history project where a small class deconstructs
Huck Finn against the backdrop of the Compromise of 1850 than simply stating:

We apply an interdisciplinary approach while utilizing a classic curriculum, blending the best of both worlds.


But as you probably already know, the harder thing is almost always the right thing.

Just look at this partial list of outcomes—see the full list here: http://www.ebsfb.org/node/26 —from the East Bay School for Boys, one of the most concrete, sensory, picture-able—and because of all that, inspiring—lists of outcomes we’ve ever come across:

By the time he graduates, each EBSB student will have:

  • Conducted a conversation in a foreign language about something that he has
    read in that language;
  • Analyzed a meaningful passage of another’s writing and declaimed it with passion
    and from memory;
  • Disassembled, diagrammed, rebuilt, and written instructions for something
    electrical or mechanical;
  • Sowed, grown, harvested, and eaten his own vegetable;
  • Held and cared for a newborn baby;
  • Mentored another boy in something in which he feels confident; and
  • Produced or performed a work of art.

This list tells a story about this school. It tells a story by painting vivid images of what these eighth-grade boys do. Can’t you picture a 13-year-old boy in one frame tending a garden, in another wiring a circuit, and perhaps most strikingly, cradling a newborn? Isn’t that the exact kind of 13-year-old boy you’d want as your neighbor, your friend, your son?

The voice of this school lies, as is so often the case, in taking the time to paint specific descriptions instead of falling back on the easy footing of generalization and abstraction. Of telling a story through sensory description instead of defaulting to status quo edu-speak. Of splashing a bit of unexpected art on the blank page instead of submitting to sameness.

And putting forth that extra effort yields such memorable results, such powerful imagery.
It truly makes all the difference.

Tune in next time for Part three: Can/should your writing have personality? And is that or isn’t that a rhetorical question?