Beyond the Basics

Susan Naomi BernsteinSusan Naomi Bernstein’s most recent book is Teaching Developmental Writing, Fourth Edition. She has published in Journal of Basic Writing, Modern Language Studies, and elsewhere, and has an essay forthcoming in Reflections: A Journal of Public Rhetoric, Writing, and Service Learning. Susan currently is a lecturer at Arizona State University in Tempe, and co-coordinates the Stretch Writing Program. This year she is teaching a section of Stretch at an American Indian Community in central Arizona, as well as a new practicum course in teaching Basic Writing.

Advice for New Teachers— and the Rest of Us

posted: 5.25.15 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

For a crowd-sourced blog post for “Beyond the Basics, ” I invited participants on the Council on Basic Writing Facebook page to respond to the following question: What one piece of advice would you offer to new teachers of Basic Writing? Why?

The responses clustered around three main themes:

  • Create classroom community
  • Draw on compelling pedagogy
  • Offer compassion, empathy, and transparency

While this advice may be especially helpful for new teachers, all of us can benefit from the ideas presented here, and the range of experiences suggested by the respondents.  I have not imposed separate categories, since these themes intersect as tributaries meeting at the same wide ocean.  Through deeply embodied pedagogy, the respondents theorize practice and emphasize the passion necessary for our work together with students.

Participants were self-selected and their contributions are listed in alphabetical order.  Thanks to everyone that responded, and please follow the Council on Basic Writing Facebook page for additional opportunities to participate in other crowd-sourced posts throughout the summer and in the next academic year.

Ann Amicucci Teaching basic writing means teaching writing confidence. Students need to be shown (or reminded of) what they’re capable of as writers. We can give them opportunities to develop writing confidence by crafting situations in which students write on topics they care about and are genuinely interested in and in which they have the chance to explore ideas through words without the fear of being told those words or the ways they’ve used them are wrong.

Elizabeth Baldridge Get to know your students, and respect and care about them as human beings. That is the most important work I do every semester.

Andrea Dickens Asking each student to set one writing goal for themselves each term allows them to start to think of themselves as capable of guiding their own learning. It allows them to move beyond passively accepting their writing abilities or lack thereof as being fixed, and lets them start to feel empowered about improvement.

Traci Gardner Allow for multiple modes of communication and multiple languages in your assignments and activities. Basic writers may struggle with the linguistic mode of expression in academic situations, but they are fluent readers, writers, and creators in many other scenarios. Find activities that let them demonstrate their understanding of visual composing by including photos, cartoons, mind maps and similar visual elements. Invite them to bridge from the languages they are best at to the language of the classroom with activities that focus on dictionary writing and definition. Respecting students’ existing communication skills is key to expanding their capabilities.

 Ann Etta Green RE Commenting: less is more. RE Writing: more is more.

 Nicole Hancock This is really basic, but learn students’ names on the first day of class and make sure they know what you would like to be called. It is especially important for Basic Writers to know that you see them each as individuals with stories to be told, and learning names is a good first step. Also, take the time to go over bits of the syllabus that are less intuitive: how office hours work, what we mean when we say the book is required vs. recommended, how the grading will work, how to read your assignment calendar. Instead of covering the entire syllabus at length in the first day, spread it out across the first week and reserve class-time for getting them writing and talking as soon as possible. This, more than anything else, will show students what the class is supposed to be.

 Dale Katherine Ireland We teach best when we meet our students where they are. Because our students in basic writing classes arrive with differing skills and strengths, the basic writing class thrives in a student-centered learning frame; our students benefit when they teach to learn and learn to teach. Meeting our students where they are means we can invite them to teach and advance their strengths as they develop new strengths. When we join our students as co-learners, we help make learning transparent, including the benefit of failing, taking risks, and trying again.

 Joanna Howard‪ I would add patience to the mix— and the ability to be patient while holding high standards. That is, patience during those times the students are trying something new, and are frustrated with their progress and results. That’s the moment to reassure them that they will get there. Because they will.

 Cara Minardi Be kind. Allow students opportunities to use writing as healing themselves of past intellectual hurts.

 Lynn Reid All of the above AND: Experienced writers have internalized many things about writing that are implicit and implied. Make these things visible to your students as often as you can. Provide model texts that highlight the difference between successful and less-successful attempts at the assignments you have created so that students can see the contrast. When you model, help students to see not only the structures of a text, but also the thinking that underlies those structures. Always ask students to explain the logic behind the way they structured their own papers because, however it might look, they almost always had a plan in mind. Listening to what it looks like from their perspective will tell you a lot.

 [Dale Katherine Ireland (I just had to respond to Lynn) Lynn Reid, yes to all you say, especially this: "When you model, help students to see not only the structures of a text, but also the thinking that underlies those structures." It's important that we help students understand their writing moves as choices. Asking students to consider the choices other writers make helps make the concept of choices more transparent. This thread has lifted me today. Thank all of you very much.]

 Kristen Ruccio‪ Give students rights to their own stories and language. Our basic writing students often expect the system to fail them–because it has in so many ways. Don’t begin your relationship in that punitive vein. Most importantly, these are not basic people, so don’t lower your expectations for them.

 Lynn Buncher Shelly Build community within your classroom (I learned this from Ann Amicucci)

 Bradley Smith Imagine: year after year, having to face of English teachers giving you bad grades, marking up your essays with errors in convention, telling you it’s not good enough. Understandably, a lot of basic writers don’t like writing all that much—or at least what they write in school. A basic writing instructor’s job is to get such students to enjoy writing, to get them invested in the class. Once you have accomplished that feat with some (you won’t reach them all) those students can be proud of their work, critically assess their writing, and begin to work on their issues.

 Jessi Lea Ulmer Do not treat the students like they are stupid. Most students in my basic writing classes are more than capable of writing full out essays, but have come to dislike writing since they were forced to write paragraphs or five-paragraph essays over and over. If you take the time to walk students through the process of writing, you will be amazed at what they can produce, even at the very beginning of the semester!

Chris Vassett Maintain high expectations, avoid grammar instruction (it is insulting to begin the college experience with such hegemonic soul crushing instruction), assign college level reading, and read Patrick Sullivan’s, “A Lifelong Aversion to Writing: What If Writing Courses Emphasized Motivation?”–Teaching English in the Two-Year College v39 n2 p118 Dec 2011.

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Becoming a Better Writer: Advice from Students

posted: 5.11.15 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

“You need to take this class because you’ll be a better writer at the end of the year. And at the end of the year, being a better writer will mean more to you than it does now.” – Stretch Writing Cohort 2014-15

 Advice for new first-year college writers often can focus more on neat and complete products rather than on the process itself. For instance, these 10 Ways to Ruin a College Paper seem appropriate for preparing a final product, but such tips do not account for the messiness that often accompanies a writer’s first efforts at composing.

Indeed, in following such a checklist, students risk reducing writing to its most surface features: thesis, support, and correctness. While necessary for a finished written product, these features do not include the hard work of the physical act of writing.

In other words, even if they know these features by heart, their knowledge of the list does not guarantee that students can generate a perfect written product for each new set of audiences, purposes, and settings. Additionally, with the transition to college writing and the more analytic requirements of academic essays, as well as new social situations and time management issues, new college writers may feel disappointed with the outcomes of their first completed essays.

With that said, the best teachers for new students may be students that have recently experienced and survived these frustrations. Who better to address new students’ immediate concerns than writers that have recently dealt with similar circumstances—and survived to tell the tale?

On the final day of April and the last day of classes, writers in the second semester of a yearlong Stretch class offered their insights to next year’s Stretch students. These now-seasoned writers propose that writing remains not only a skill set but also a practice of learning and doing. Indeed, writing involves several intersecting practices, such as reading, working with verbs, choosing difficult topics, and participating in class. Unlike a checklist of basic skills, these writers’ suggestions demonstrate the amount of time and energy that students need to devote to the writing process itself in order to create a satisfying written product.

From the Students
The following descriptions from my students offer a compelling record of now-former Stretch students’ best practices for becoming better writers.

 USING BOLD VERBS: Using bold verbs that make a statement gives the text more depth and makes the text sound smoother in some ways. I used this process in Work Project 2 to give my writing more detail and to be able to easily relate passages from the text to the golf course. An example of using a stronger verb is instead of saying “the metal was heated until it was red”. I could say “the temperature of the iron immensely increased till it gleamed a vibrant red”. This is also an example of giving more detail to make the text more interesting.

 READING: Once English 101 comes to an end I am going to have to continue to get better not only as a writer but a reader as well.  I am going to have to continue to write papers, letters, what ever the case may be to get me more comfortable with putting things on paper.  Other than writing, I also want to start reading more.  I believe most of the problems I face [with] writing come from my lack of reading.  If I started to read more I could expand my knowledge of plots, vocabulary, transitions, main ideas, etc.  And these are what will bring my writing to the next level.

CHOOSING DIFFICULT TOPICS: I learned to choose harder topics rather than the easier ones. I would always choose the easier ones not because they had easy topics to understand, but it would also create an easier thinking process while writing the paper rather than struggling the whole way through. Now I choose the harder topics because I realized that I could actually write about the harder topics and get better grades with them because of how well they were written.

PARTICIPATING IN CLASS: I found that participating with these three strategies really brought my writing together as well as helped me create the best papers I could for each project:

  1. If I prepared myself to write in class for the whole hour of workshop, then I would get further with my writing. As opposed to just coming to class and not really knowing what to expect because then I’d be side tracked or concentrated on other stuff I had to get done.
  2. Contributing to class discussion or small groups also made a huge impact in my learning. When things were discussed in class some stuff that other classmates said instantly clicked and helped bring together my paper. Also, adding in my personal thoughts and sharing helped me figure out whether I was on track or not.
  3. I definitely think communicating with the teacher really made a difference. I made sure to always go home and read through what I had to do, and prepare questions for the next time I was in class. I made sure to always ask questions if I was unsure even if my questions seemed to be silly I still asked.

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Writing Review: A Kinesthetic Group Activity in Seven Steps

posted: 4.13.15 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

As the end of the term draws near for many of us, we may wish to provide a writing process review for students. We could rehash textbook pages or websites that offer basic information about writing processes, as well as written products and genres of academic writing. But spring has sprung for many of us, and summer looms and attention drifts. How can we offer students opportunities to remember what they have learned about writing—and putting their learning into practice?

A kinesthetic approach to review can help. In kinesthetic learning, students turn away from laptop and tablet screens and use whole-body movement to rehearse significant concepts. For review purposes, the activity I present in class is called “What do we already know about writing and how can we apply our knowledge to our current writing project?”

  • Step 1: On the board, create four separate columns: Introduction, Body, Conclusion, Other
  • Step 2: Students use sticky notes to write as many concepts as they remember about the writing process and about the appearance of the final product.
  • Step 3: Students stick their sticky notes to a blank space on the wall and observe what everyone else has written.
  • Step 4: Students divide into groups based on each of the four columns: Introduction, Body, Conclusion, Other.
  • Step 5: Each separate group moves the appropriate sticky notes from the wall to the column on the board designated for their column.
  • Step 6: Each group of students explains to the rest of the class which sticky notes they chose for their column and why they were chosen.
  • Step 7: Students and instructor discuss the choices made, and also clear up contradictions, discrepancies, and overlaps between the processes and products listed on the sticky notes.

Results almost certainly vary between classes, and each group of students can add its own flourishes. One class member, for instance, shared heart-shaped sticky notes left over from Valentines Day. Paired with a variety of dry-eraser marker colors, the final display was detailed and bright, with hearts popping to emphasize significant points. This display brought up design questions that intersect with online multimedia writing.

In another class, students debated about the order of the writing process: should writers always write an introduction first? Or is it possible to write an introduction near the end of the process, even though the introduction needs to be placed at the beginning of the essay? The students decided that it depended on the genre of the writing project. Essay tests might require a more linear process, while a 1500-word researched essay might be more open-ended—or not. Students offered differing versions of how and why they grappled with their individual processes and products of writing.

As the instructor, I enjoyed the experience of watching students demonstrate what they already know about writing and how they could apply it to their current writing project. But perhaps most significantly, it was even more thrilling to bear witness to students’ intellectual engagements and commitments to writing. Through participating in kinesthetic activity and discussing the results, students developed a stronger sense of what they knew as individual writers, and also of what they could create through collective participation. This exercise proved useful as a writing review—and also as an activity for moving forward together.

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Selma and “Selma”: Writing Assignments

posted: 1.20.15 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

For the past several years, I have assigned readings by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in my basic writing courses. When I have been required to use specific textbooks, I try to choose texts that offer Dr. King’s work in the readings. When I can choose my own texts or have been able to use supplemental texts, I have linked to multimedia texts at the King Papers Project at Stanford University, the King Center Digital Archive, and American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches.

This semester, I will once more assign Dr. King’s work (see Assignment Appendix at the end of this post), but with a decided difference.  Students will now have a case study from popular culture: Ava DuVernay ‘s Selma, a film that portrays the events surrounding the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in Alabama in 1965. This film, which is now playing in theaters across the United States, was shot on location and is beautifully photographed. The score takes its music from Civil Rights Movement Freedom songs, as well as from contemporary artists such as John Legend and Common.

Selma does not pretend to be a documentary, but more an artistic depiction of history. For documentary footage from historic events at Selma, students can reference the Eyes on the Prize video series, much of which is available on YouTube.  The similarities and differences between these two versions are quite striking, and they offer ample opportunities for comparison essays. Students can pay attention to visual and auditory details, and also can observe how two different texts portray the same story.  Dr. King’s speech at the Alabama state capital in Montgomery also is available as a text in on Stanford’s King Papers Project, referenced above.

Because the film is an artistic depiction, aspects of Dr. King’s personal life can be explored in scenes not available in the historical footage. For writing teachers and the writers we teach, perhaps the most significant of these aspects is Dr. King’s life as a writer. The new Selma film shows Dr. King in Sweden, rehearsing his Nobel Laureate speech, just before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Other scenes show Dr. King writing with pen and paper, working late into the night, carefully weighing and choosing the appropriateness of his words.

These scenes offer inspiration and hope to writers working to develop and improve     their writing practices, processes, and products. Writing is hard work, and Selma shows us that hard work, from invention, to revision, to publication, as we see and hear the actor David Oyelowo as Dr. King speak to electrified audiences.


Because I do not know how many of my students will have seen Selma by the first day of school, I will base our opening assignments on comparisons between the film trailer for Selma (above), excerpts from the documentary footage of Eyes on the Prize 1965, and the audio recording of Dr. King’s speech at the Montgomery, Alabama State Capital. Here are possible assignments drawn from the sources linked throughout this blog post.

 Directed free-writing question:

What major events or images stand out in the excerpts from Eyes on the Prize 1965 and the film trailer for Selma?  What are the similarities and differences between these two videos?  Is each of these videos relevant for a 2015 audience? Why or why not?

Essay assignment question:

What are the functions of sound and music in film? Compare the sound and music in the excerpts from Eyes on the Prize, 1965, the trailer for Selma, and the audio version of Dr. King’s speech at the Montgomery, Alabama State Capital. Are these functions relevant for audiences in 2015? Why or why not? Include significant details from both videos and the audio. Describe any words or phrases, sounds, and/or music. Imagine that your audience has not yet seen either video or listened to the audio.

Accommodation for deaf students, students with hearing loss, and students with auditory processing differences: Focus on the visual elements instead, including the visual images of the videos, and the visual elements in this excerpt from historic video footage of Dr. King’s speech in Montgomery at the conclusion of the march.

Multimedia assignment:

Include a multimedia argument to illustrate the text your essay text. For the multimedia argument, first choose a quote or passage from Dr. King’s speech at the Montgomery, Alabama State Capital. Then invent a meme, compose a song or sound compilation, or make a film, slide show or photo gallery. The multimedia component must coordinate with the thesis of your essay and must be your own work.

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Nothing Is Fixed: For Ferguson

posted: 12.8.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

As a white woman with a vivid childhood memory of the uprisings that followed Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, how could I make sense of the Ferguson grand jury verdict— in and out of class?

At the time of the announcement, our classes had dispersed for the Thanksgiving holiday. I had already assigned the term’s final writing project and was deeply ensconced in catching up with grading students’ essays. When we reconvened for the last week of classes after the holiday, all attention would be focused on completing the coursework. Yet the work of the course, as an introduction to academic writing, would remain deeply intertwined with all of our lives.

In the midst of grading essays, I found myself riveted to events in the aftermath of the grand jury verdict, flipping back and forth between our course management system and social media to stay current with developments. I hoped to find a quote that might give voice to my own complicated thoughts, and found one at last on the James Baldwin Facebook page:

 “For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

– James Baldwin (from Nothing Personal)

With Baldwin’s words, I found inspiration for returning to the classroom after the holiday. I considered how we might offer each other writing spaces for process and resilience, places to experience in writing the sense that “the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing.” In the last week of classes, we would need to reestablish our weekly routine, however briefly, after the holiday disruption.

Nonetheless, so much depends on context. Our differences can lead us to view the same events through drastically dissimilar lenses, as I recounted in a 2013 blog post on Trayvon Martin. The students in my courses come from a cross-section of academic, regional, racial, ethnic, and political backgrounds. They may well have discussed Ferguson over holiday dinner tables or perhaps participated in demonstrations. I remembered the need to become mindful of the role that civil unrest plays in the lives of our students, no matter their background or their community of origin.

Even as civil unrest may appear outside the norm, we need to interrogate the meaning of normal for our students and for our communities.  For some students, normal may signify the appearance of civic order, and absence of discord on race and class. For others, order and tacit agreement may represent business as usual—as are the stultifying conditions that silence the truths of lived experience, and that close down opportunities for realizing hopes and dreams.

Regardless of how and why teachers attend to the events of Ferguson, we can approach our students’ responses with nonjudgmental awareness. Indeed, in modeling nonjudgmental awareness ourselves, we can invite students to support each other in the same fashion. In doing so, we can work toward the ideal of a supportive community in which all students may grow and flourish as writers. As Baldwin would have it, we hold the responsibility to bear witness to the glimmer of possibility that comes in changing light.

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Trauma in the Classroom

posted: 11.24.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Guest blogger Abby Nance has an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University and is an instructor at Gardner-Webb University. This is her seventh year teaching in the first year writing program. Her research explores the relationship between trauma and writing in the college classroom.

Last year at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I spoke about the role of trauma in the writing lives of first-year college students. Whenever I talk about trauma, toxic stress, or mental health with other writing instructors, I feel deeply aware of my own students and the stories of abuse, neglect, violence, and anxiety that they hint at or explore outright in their own writing. If statistics can provide a baseline or a map, then many of our students are entering our classrooms with histories of trauma. Consider the following research:

  • The staggering statistics surrounding sexual assault and rape. Nearly one in 5 women reported experiencing rape at some point in their lives (CDC, 2010). Nineteen percent of female undergraduate students reported experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault (Journal of American College Health 2009). Read more about both studies here.
  • The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (or ACE Study). The ACE Study is an ongoing epidemiological study of more than 17,000 participants by the CDC and Kaiser Permenante, which established an association between traumatic experiences in childhood and physical and emotional health risks in later life. In doing so, it also measured the number of people who experience trauma during childhood. 2/3 of participants reported at least one adverse childhood experience.
  • The percentage of young adults with mental illness. 25% of 18-24 year olds have a diagnosable mental illness (National Alliance on Mental Illness)

If trauma among young adults is as ubiquitous as these statistics and studies seem to indicate, what can instructors do to ameliorate conditions for writers enrolled in our courses? How can we create and sustain safe professional spaces with our students? How do we model empathy and coping in our classrooms? And how do we teach emotionally difficult texts in such a way that students opt in, rather than out?

I don’t have answers, but I have a few suggestions:

  • Ask your students.  In the first week of class I ask my students to write a letter (in response to a letter I write them about me). I ask them to address a few questions, including “What behaviors, language or subject matter offends you? What are some of your pet peeves? What content shuts you down?” In the letter I write to the students, I tell a little bit about my own story. It varies what I tell them, but I always write about something that is tender and unresolved. I make an effort to be present with them and to answer the questions that I’ve posed.
  • Introduce students to James Pennebaker’s work. One of the ways we marginalize students who are triggered by literature and art is that we fail to allow them to work through that response for fear that they (or we) are too uncomfortable. I think in the moment, it’s okay to shut down a conversation that is causing extreme discomfort, but I think it is important to ask our students to unpack what happened later— not necessarily in the context of class or for an audience, but because it helps. On the rare occasion that I’ve had a student who seemed overwhelmed or panicked, I’ve privately shared with them some James Pennebaker’s work on writing to heal, which links expressive writing to improved emotional and physical health. This link takes you to a great resource that includes an assignment and some tips for writing to heal.
  • Use your words. If a student has had a panic attack, and if that student later visits your office hours or hovers after class, figure out a way to talk about panic, anxiety, or trauma in a way that is both comfortable to you and personal. If you have experiences that you can share, or if you have a friend or family member who experiences anxiety—describe them. If not, adapt this awesome post about glitter balls from the Momentous Institute’s blog.
  • And your senses. I have a glitter jar on my desk—it’s a great conversation starter for discussions about anxiety. I also keep a few other sensory toys (a stress ball, a smooth rock, and a koosh ball) that students often pick up and play with when they need to keep their hands occupied. Essentially, I created an adult-version of a “calm down basket” when I noticed how many of my students were playing with a smooth glass paperweight during my office hours. To learn more about calm-down baskets, check out this post. Or, if you have a Pinterest account, there are several boards devoted to calm down baskets.
  • Ask your colleagues. Now I want to hear from you. How do you handle trauma in the classroom? What resources have you found to be helpful? What do you say? And what do you do?

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A Paperless Perspective

posted: 11.11.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

On the first day of this semester, the first day of my new paperless face-to-face classroom, the course management system crashed. When the system revived, the projector quit. In short,  in the first seventy-five minutes of opening day I experienced my greatest fears about going paperless. More than once I longed to throw my laptop out the window, and to return to a time before Facebook and smart phones, when we sat outside under trees with ripening apples, doing independent free writing and discussing our writing processes together, unaware of the genie about to emerge from the bottle.

Yet, at the first sign of nostalgia, I blinked. The memory of that seemingly better world held deep imperfections of its own.  At the same time, I find unexpected connections between those paper-centered BW classrooms of a generation ago, and the paperless classrooms of today.  Students then and now struggle with juggling a multitude of academic, personal, and economic responsibilities that often come in direct conflict with the requirements of our courses.

Rather treat these issues as flashpoints, or to ignore the existence of such issues altogether, we can work with students to foster resilience and persistence for the future. Additionally, we can create moments that remind us to humanize our classrooms by re-purposing the space that binds us to the classroom.

Here is one example of re-purposing space: On a bright autumn day,  I invited students to leave the classroom, or to use the classroom as a place for independent study. What would students learn from creating their own activities for promoting writing? I offered students approximately 45 minutes of a 75-minute class period to work on this activity, with the goal of finding specific examples to support an education narrative.  At the end of the 45 minutes, students return to the classroom to report their findings to the class, and to take attendance. Four specific responses followed:

1)    Writing with the lights off: Several students chose to stay in the room. With fewer students in the classroom, the remaining students worked quietly and independently on their education narratives. We kept the lights off so that students could write and read without the glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. Students found sufficient natural light from the Arizona sun, filtered through the high shaded windows.

2)    Mindfulness walk: A small group of students took advantage of the midmorning mild desert temperatures to take a mindfulness walk. As these three students walked across campus, they brainstormed ideas, and offered each other suggestions for developing their narratives.

3)    Interviews: Other students had wanted to conduct random interviews on campus to supplement the main persuasive point of their narrative. The interviews helped students gather ideas, and also gave them opportunities to converse with strangers on campus. One student tweeted that her interviewee had given her information that she found contradictory.  Because of the contradiction, the student did not think she could use the interview as an example. Instead, I suggested including the rich material of  the interview as a point of refutation.  Not all examples needed to work in harmony with the thesis.

4)    Photos: Many students decided to take photographs that might work as visual arguments for their education narratives. The outdoor spaces feature large crowds of people moving quickly between buildings on multiple modes of transportation (walking, skateboards, bicycles, golf carts). Additionally, the campus offers a landscape thick with trees, including palms, evergreens, and orange trees, that attempt to shade the inhabitants from desert heat.  As a next step, students would need to discern if their photographs would serve as appropriate visual arguments.

Much like that class discussion held long ago under the apple trees, our class activity included student-centered elements of re-purposing space and independent study. Yet this work also approaches writing from a paperless perspective. Instead of being tied to technology as we were once tied to paper, we included a variety of multimedia and kinesthetic resources that students had at their disposal. Instead of viewing the paperless classroom as a threat that interrupts writing,  we can learn to reclaim technology and humanization as a point of intersection, rather than as oppositions at odds with each other.  That point of intersection offers us the hope of living without nostalgia, and becoming fully present for the writing of our future.

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Qualifications to Teach BW: Questions from the CBW Listserv

posted: 10.14.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

In a recent conversation on the Council on Basic Writing’s listserv (CBW), a correspondent asked about minimum qualifications for teaching Basic Writing. A listserv discussion ensued about appropriate degrees and necessary training. As minimum qualifications remain a long-standing question for the theory and practice of BW, we examined this conversation as part of our Teaching Basic Writing Practicum.

On the listserv, key theorists and practitioners from our field offer their insights. Peter Adams (whose co-authored article on ALP is included in Teaching Developmental Writing [TDW] 4e) and Gerald Nelms address the promise of studying student development as an essential part of BW teacher training. Michael Hill, new co-chair of CBW, inquires about the need for national policies on teacher training. Hill asks if policy work and best practices statements remain of concern to CBW members.

For my own perspective on this conversation, I turn again to Adrienne Rich’s “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” and her recently published course notes and syllabi for teaching Basic Writing in the SEEK program at City University of New York. In “Teaching Language,” Rich offers what she sees as the most significant qualification for a teacher of BW courses: “a fundamental belief in the students is more important than anything else….This fundamental belief is not a sentimental matter: it is a very demanding matter of realistically conceiving the student where he or she is, and at the same time never losing sight of where he or she can be” (TDW 4e 25). In other words, the student is not a problem to be solved, but a human being learning to write as a socio-cultural subject, within and beyond the constructs of a BW course.

As Nelms suggests, students in BW do not arrive in our classrooms as “blank slates” (also see Shannon Carter’s work in TDW 4e).  However, for me, the issue of this issue moves in a somewhat different direction from Nelms’ concern that “prior knowledge can both help and hinder learning.” Instead, I want to turn the question back on our selves, as new and experienced teachers of BW:

What about our own multiple literacies? What stated or unstated assumptions and values—as expressed in syllabi, writing assignments, and course activities— may become barriers to our own students’ learning?  What can we do to recognize such barriers, and to begin to ameliorate them?

In the practicum class, we attempt to address these questions through activities such as

  • Reading what others have written about the roles of their own socio-cultural backgrounds as learners and as teachers of BW
  • Writing about and discussing our own socio-cultural backgrounds as learners and as teachers of BW
  • Addressing the diverse intersections of students’ socio-cultural backgrounds
  • Teaching model mini-lessons
  • Tutoring at an off-campus site that does not have a writing center.

As in other BW theory and practice courses across the US, we attempt to create a community of teacher/scholars who actively interrogate our own theories as we develop new practices. As individual teachers, even as all of us are apparently white, our socio-cultural backgrounds represent a diversity of life experiences, fields of study, and approaches to teaching and learning. Often we find that we need to agree to disagree. Perhaps just as often, I grapple with expanding my own comfort zone, so that I remain aware of the need to learn from students, as well as merely to teach.

Because of the intersecting needs to interrogate and innovate, I welcome a national discussion of qualifications for teaching BW. Yet even as we undertake such a discussion, we need to recognize the diverse roots of our field. Adrienne Rich, who had only a BA when she taught BW at City College, remains one of field’s foundational teacher/scholars. Her work offers a keen understanding of the role of critical awareness for teachers of BW and also helps us to address a key issue for aspiring teacher/scholars in BW: Not only what we need to know— but perhaps more significantly, why we need to know it.

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Grammar and Persuasion: Teaching Ferguson, Missouri

posted: 9.22.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Recently, the students in my teaching basic writing practicum class asked me to teach a lesson that I had presented to students. I chose a lesson in rhetorical grammar, inspired by the work of Martha Kolln, and clarified by Laura Micciche in “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar,” an article included in chapter 6 of Teaching Developmental Writing 4e. Micciche writes: “This shaping of meaning through writing is intimately connected with a writer’s grammatical choices” (225). In other words, we can understand grammar more critically if we examine a writer’s sentence-level choices, rather than reducing grammar to a basic skill that writers address only at the stages of proofreading and editing. Rhetorical analysis of grammatical choices can foster a deeper comprehension of the writer’s meaning, and can allow the reader to perceive crucial connections between language choices and making meaning.

The sample lesson for my practicum students came from a Stretch class early in the new semester. We were discussing the recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. My purpose in presenting this lesson was twofold: first, to illustrate the significance of teaching difficult subjects that resonate with students as members of a multi-racial and multilingual society; and second, to demonstrate the necessity of approaching grammar beyond basic skills. Grammar in this sense offers more than a series of rigid and unbreakable rules. Instead, rhetorical grammar offers teachers and students in basic writing a process of gleaning the persuasive possibilities of language and its usage.

I began the practicum lesson with my class notes from the Stretch course:

To find details in the language and the words of the text, look carefully at how and why the writer uses parts of speech. This analysis is called rhetorical grammar. The details that you look for in the TEXT also hold importance for YOUR OWN WRITING. Reading and writing are interconnected. When you read, you are also learning important ideas for writing.

This example shows how rhetorical grammar works in a quote by John Dos Passos. Charles P. Pierce begins his recent article, “The Body in the Street,” with this quote by Dos Passos. The article focuses on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  We can examine the rhetorical use of blank space in the article, and the evocative photograph chosen to accompany the article. However, let us begin here with an analysis concentrated on the most basic parts of speech.

Analyzing the Dos Passos quote for parts of speech demonstrates the significance of nouns and verbs to convey meaning, and how strong verbs convey that significance more directly than forms of the verb “to be.” After highlighting the parts of speech, the students in Stretch noticed the lack of adjective in this paragraph. Additionally, they discussed the contrast between the adjective “pleasant”—and the impact of the majority of the nouns and verbs that convey not only a sense of unpleasantness, but also a description of catastrophe. Describing this sharp contrast helps us cut to the chase.

“How does persuasion work here?” I asked the students in Stretch. “What does Dos Passos want us to do?” “To pay attention,” the students offered, “and to take action.”

In re-teaching this lesson to the students in the practicum, I hoped to advocate for a process of professional development that suggests learning and flexibility at all stages of our careers. Through rhetorical grammar, we can present a system of investigating language and its uses and move beyond grammar as a rigid structure of basic skills. Instead, we can offer our students a means to approaching language that, as the new WPA Outcomes suggest, strengthens the habit of “…composing and reading for inquiry, learning, critical thinking, and communicating in various rhetorical contexts.” We also gain a language for addressing difficult subjects that speak to our students’ concerns as members of a multi-racial and multilingual society. In the wake of the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, attending to such concerns can move us from hopelessness and helplessness toward persuasive possibility and rhetorical action.

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Basic Writing Back to School Specials

posted: 8.11.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

This should have been an easy post to write. Who doesn’t love a back to school special? Yet, so many of us, students and teachers alike, experience contradictory emotions as August begins. Although summer doesn’t end officially for more than a month, August commences the season of longing. The summer—apparently endless by mid-July— seems so short. Even in those summers when I was involved in teaching, service, or looking for work, the arrival of August gave me pause.  Whether we are teachers or students, we have begun the season of transitions. Time to take a deep breath. Time to take on the back to school specials–or in this case, to take a look at sites that might prove helpful as we start this new academic year.

Advice from Students
Last spring, I invited students to create multimedia sites for the class of 2018, the incoming class of first-year students. Since this assignment was an option for the final writing project of the academic year, the mood was reflective and also celebratory. Because we were also reading The Myth of Sisyphus, our conversations focused on persistence and resilience. We discussed why the class of 2018 would be the most difficult audience yet: “For years, people have been warning this audience that college will be ‘different.’ The audience might be tired of these warnings, and may be past the point of wanting to hear more advice. They may believe that the warnings do not apply to them and that, since they are invincible, they can easily overcome any difficulties that arise. How will you speak to them? Why should they listen?”

While some of the advice the students offered remains specifically applicable to our large state university campus (“join a sorority or fraternity,” for instance), other suggestions addressed some of the most difficult points of transition. One student focused part of his site on coping with the unexpected challenges and stresses of the first week of college. Another student concentrated on several different aspects of how to handle independence, which this student identifies as learning that “we must push a boulder up our own hill.” A third student created a Twitter page offering tweets best summed up by the phrase “stay determined.

Advice for Students
Sarah Juliet Lauro, blogger for HuffPost College and visiting assistant professor at Clemson University, offers “Ten Things to Do in College (Probably) More Important Than Going to Class.”  Lauro ends her list with what she considers the most significant advice: “go to office hours,” and she also touches the significance of developing intellectually by urging students to learn about political views different from their own, and by following and speaking with others about the news and current events.

Advice for Students’ Parents
Claire Potter, a history professor at The New School in New York City, writes the Tenured Radical blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In her post, “Bye-Bye Birdies: Sending the Kids Away to College,” she offers no-nonsense advice about common issues that students face in the transition to college. Potter provides a bulleted list of “the differences between college and high school as academic environments,” including “READ THE SYLLABUS OFTEN.” She also suggests having a conversation with students in which parents “address alcohol and drug use concretely, not as a moral, legal, or family discipline issue.” For Potter, the emphasis is helping students become aware of the consequences of breaking the rules, and understanding the impact of substance use on attendance and performance in class. As my students’ multimedia work indicates, “partying” can be an issue for students of all ages, whether they are living on campus or commuting to class, and Potter hopes that students will recognize the “links [of] poor achievement to excessive partying.”

Advice for BW teachers
This summer’s global, national, and local struggles remain deeply connected to our own lives and to the lives of our students. When these struggles become reflected in students’ essay drafts, and part of our online and classroom discussions, words may become heated—or conversely, may generate silence, as when students feel disrespected or frustrated. For these moments, Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Democratic Deliberation offers Deliberation in the Midst of Crisis, a website created in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked Penn State in 2011 and afterward. If the twelve Deliberation Guidelines are geared toward students, teachers also can find support for negotiating difficult moments in classroom or online interactions. The third guideline, for instance, emphasizes respect for everyone “by ‘being present’ and listening actively.” Further guidelines illustrate best practices for active listening, which can lead to more engaged writing, as students learn to collect their thoughts. As teachers, we benefit from active listening as we learn to hear our students’ concerns and work actively to find points of connection.

Advice from You
What advice websites would you recommend to your students in BW that would help to ease transitions to college? What do you like about these websites? Please leave your responses in the comments below.

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