, Derry, New Hampshire


June 13, 2013

Column: A writer finds his voice

Bennett Cerf, a famous publisher, wrote the first book I remember reading cover to cover. It was filled with corny riddles that appealed to my budding sense of humor.

Before long, I was feasting on Mad magazine, and every Sunday morning I couldn’t wait for another episode of “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.” I needed some comic relief after a steady school diet of Dick and Jane, the Stepford-like siblings that surely inspired “The Stepford Wives.”

I have several joke books on a shelf in my classroom, and when I have a few minutes to spare, I pull one out and share a few with my sixth-grade students. I do it because laughter is healthy, and because understanding a joke requires one to grapple with the subtleties of language, something that’s still a struggle for many of my students.

I’ve found a kindred spirit in Kyle Cardoza this year, a student who shares my sense of humor. One morning I entered my classroom to find a drawing Scotch-taped to a cabinet door, a cartoonish dinosaur wearing a sombrero and shaking maracas. The caption read, “Tyrannosaurus-Mex.”

Sure, it’s politically incorrect by 21st century standards, but it reveals a playfulness that’s become a major element in Kyle’s writing voice this year.

So many of my students enter my classroom in the fall with a sterile, buttoned-up voice hatched from hours and hours of worksheet writing. They’re taught to follow a formula that requires them to begin with a question — “Do you like chipmunks?” — and end by restating the same question — “Now you know why I like chipmunks!” And the details in between read like the action-packed adventures of Dick and Jane.

I won’t accept boring lead paragraphs or conclusions from my students. And their details must move their narratives along. Kyle embraced each of these tenets of good writing in his persuasive essay, “The Translation of ‘We’ll See.’”

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