Listening to Students’ Voices through Audio Essays

August 16, 2016

I aim to teach my Chicago high-school students that writing is not always about the writing. Yes, the ideas, the sentence structure, the connotations matter. But sometimes, the process before the writing or after matters more.

I start every year with a challenging non-fiction narrative unit that pushes students to focus on one key event in their lives—something that led to a shift in their habits of mind. I want it to be more than a personal essay, I tell them. “I want it to be something that matters to more people than you,” I explain.

One of the texts that helps us prepare is Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk about the clues to a great story. There, he helps us understand about starting with the end. So I have my students think of many turning points in their lives, simple or complex, mundane or mind shattering. Some students write about dealing with death or academic failure. Others find meaning in what at first seemed ordinary.

In our exercises where students polish their descriptive writing skills and contemplate the most effective use of dialogue, students grow, recognizing when and how they became more self-confident, more patient, more kind.

This past year, I added a powerful element to the process, one I hadn’t used since 2010: students turned their written essays into audio essays. After they viewed my rudimentary video on using MovieMaker, and after giving them a couple of examples from past students (scroll down to February 12 on this link to give a listen), I stepped back and said, “Impress us. Be creative and selective about how you use sound.” This class of students has more access to technology, and more experience using sound mixing applications than did past classes. So the obstacles were few, and the results impressive.

The grades for this assignment didn’t go into the standards category, which makes up most of their final grade. (The grades for the written essay were already there.) For the audio essay, I assessed them for the performance category. I considered their fluency, their creative and strategic use of sound, and, simply, whether or not they finished it.

Besides the technological and rhetorical development, students learned that writing is about more than the writing. Sometimes the words we put down need to be heard. The emotions carried in these paragraphs need to be felt. The sounds help both the speaker and the audience to remember and reflect. The words and the sounds help us remember the value of listening to our students’ voices.

For Benito, speaking to police officers in a complex situation gave him courage.

For Karen, courage came when she had to speak in public and share her knowledge.

For Arslan, the lesson came after his father called him on his drug use–drug use that started because of friends.

For Bianca, realizing a friend’s racial bias made her re-think her close friendship.

For Jaclyn, playing softball became her way of inspiring other women.

And for Jose, a math test became a turning point in academic life.

Take a few minutes. Hear the voices of my students.

Ray Salazar, NBCT

Ray Salazar has been an English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools since 1995. He is a National Board Certified Teacher. His blog, The White Rhino, tied for second place in EWA's Community Members Best  Blog category in 2012. National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio aired his essays and the Chicago Tribune and CNN's Schools of Thought Blog published his editorials. Salazar earned a bachelor's degree in English/Secondary Education and master's degree in writing, with distinction, from DePaul University.  Visit his blog The White Rhino at Follow him on Twitter @WhiteRhinoRay Contact: