In The Classroom

The Megaphonic Voice

Tone and voice are essential to a successful argumentative essay, especially to creating strong lead paragraphs filled with passion and pathos. But tone and voice can also be tricky concepts to convey to a class of middle- or high-schoolers. In the classroom, I use a variety of methods to introduce students to ideas of tone and voice: they read op-eds, watch popular political news shows, and listen to musicians addressing controversial issues with the same passion and intellectual rigor as any political analyst.

Still, poetry—with its heavy reliance on tone and voice, as well as other proven persuasive techniques like rhythm and repetition—is an especially excellent way to show students the anatomy of persuasion. Here is a writing exercise that uses Suheir Hammad’s poem What I Will as a model of how poetic devices such as rhythm and repetition—essential in great speakers throughout history, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr.—influence tone and voice and can be used to craft compelling arguments with a voice that commands attention, that stands out, that can be heard over the noise of the crowd: a Megaphonic Voice.



1. Begin by inviting the students to read Hammad’s entire poem to themselves.

2. Next, ask three or four volunteers to read the poem out loud in their own unique voices.

3. Already students can begin to identify the differences in the way each reader delivered the poem—in each person’s voice: Was the poem read fast or slow? Which words were emphasized? How did this affect the power of the poem? (You can also ask the readers themselves: How did you know when to speed up or slow down, and which words to emphasize?)

4. As a starting point for discussing concepts of voice, introduce and define the words cadence, rhythm, and repetition.

5. Next, invite the students to rearrange some of the lines of Hammad’s poem into a paragraph—to translate the poem from poetry to prose simply by removing line breaks and mixing up lines. Students can instantly see how the “poetic” elements of this poem turn it into a strong introductory paragraph to an argumentative essay that uses all three concepts—cadence, rhythm, and repetition:

Life is a right, not collateral or casual. I will not dance to your drummed-up war. I will not mourn the dead with murder nor suicide. I will not side with you, nor dance to your bombs because everyone else is dancing. I will not lend my name to the beat. I know intimately that skin you are hitting. It was alive once, hunted, stolen, stretched.

6.   Ask students what changes when the poem becomes the first paragraph of an essay. Is Hammad’s argument still clear? What will her essay be about? And what do they think her reasoning will be, the logos of her essay?

7.   Students can then practice developing argumentation from these first paragraphs by writing three or four lines extending the ideas in Hammad’s essay-poem. They can take one of her “arguments” and expand it: for example, what does she mean by “I was alive once, hunted, stolen, stretched?” Hammad may already know what it feels like to be at war; she may be from a country that’s already been at war; or perhaps she knows someone who has been to war.

This exercise can be the springboard to launch students into writing argumentative essays about other topics—using Hammad’s poem as a guide, young writers have, essentially, learned how to create a strong opening filled with pathos and emotion, with rhythm and repetition. In another lesson, you can follow up on this by asking students to make lists for their own essays—things they will or will not do, or things they know, or feel, or have experienced: all build a sense of repetition, power, and emotion.

I like to continue the process by initiating a class discussion on topics in which the students are personally invested. When I taught this lesson to New York City high school students, we discussed racial profiling and how the fashion trend called “sagging”—wearing pants below the waist—ties in to this profiling.

The students, of course, had plenty to say.  When it came time for them to start their essays, I told them that they should try to capture their strong feelings in their writing, creating a “big” argumentative voice—such as Hammad’s—to convey their passion for the subject and their opinions. I reminded them that rhythm and repetition would be useful for this, as well as using strong verbs and making a list of their key points. And I explained that starting with a strong opening would emphasize the importance of the topic in their lives—even if they were not speaking from personal experience.

Even though my class discussed two topics particularly relevant to high-schoolers today, I think it is important for students to understand that they should try to express the same sense of passion in an argumentative essay for any given topic. Open discussion in a classroom can help cultivate the passionate “megaphonic” voice they need to make themselves heard in both their speaking and their writing.


by Muneerah

In America, it is called street harassment. In Bangladesh, it is called “eve teasing.” And in Egypt it is called public street harassment. Street harassment can be gender motivated, it is unbefitting to human rights, and it is also uncomfortable. It is one of the many things in this world that should not be allowed and it must be stopped.

by Bethany

Would it be right to be told how you have to wear your clothes? You are not naked or showing your skin, but you are not allowed to do certain things because of how you choose to wear you pants. Within the last two decades, sagging pants have become one of the most controversial fashion trends in the United States. Society feels divided about this. People in favor of sagging pants say that the style is comfortable and is a way to show their artistic expression. Those who are opposed complain that it is no more than a display of public indecency. Some people in the opposition even want to make sagging pants into a criminal issue. The government does not have a right to tell you how to wear your clothes.

Ibi Zoboi's short stories have been anthologized in Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, Haiti Noir edited by Edwidge Danticat, and The Caribbean Writer, among others. She’s received grants in Literature & Writing from the Brooklyn Arts Council and is a winner of the Speculative Literature Foundation Travel Award. Ibi is an MFA student in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.