Beyond the Basics

Susan Naomi BernsteinSusan Naomi Bernstein’s most recent book is Teaching Developmental Writing, Fourth Edition. Her articles on basic writing, social justice, and learning differences have been published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Journal of Basic Writing, Modern Language Studies, and elsewhere. She is a past co-chair of the Council on Basic Writing and a past co-editor of BWe: Basic Writing e-Journal. Susan taught her first Basic Writing course in 1987 and has worked with students for more than two decades in urban and rural settings in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Angela Y. Davis at 4C14: Hope for Basic Writing

posted: 4.7.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

On Thursday of 4C14 in Indianapolis, convention participants listened to a featured session talk by Professor Angela Y. Davis, Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Black feminist activist for prison abolition. From my early adolescent reading, I remembered Professor Davis’s struggles in prison, when she was accused and later acquitted of a crime that she did not commit. Since that time, she has continued her work on the intersections of feminism, prison abolition, and struggles of people of color. Professor Davis participated in Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, and I had been privileged to hear her speak at the New York City Public Library with Toni Morrison, who edited Professor Davis’s Autobiography.

Several weeks later, Professor Davis’s talk at 4C14 remains much on my mind because three key points offer immediate implications for basic writing:

  •  The unequal access of students of color to major public universities because such students are defined by lack: lack of finances; lack of health insurance (if they or their parents do not have documentation as U.S. citizens); lack of adequate scores on standardized tests.
  • The need to imagine what public universities would look like if they truly engaged with larger communities
  • The hope to work for the future toward a truly open democracy. Professor Davis offered a history of post-us civil war reconstruction – about the years of Radical Reconstruction that ensued in the former confederacy under the enforcement of federal troops—when Black Americans that had been enslaved had held public office and when free schools were opened to serve the needs of all children who had not had access to schooling before the war—poor white children as well as poor Black children. Under the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877, the federal troops were removed from the south, and Jim Crow laws ensued into the second half of the next century. But that promise of true democracy, democracy that would include everyone, Davis suggested, was what we need to continue to work toward.

The week after I returned from #4C14 in Indianapolis, I caught up with my students’ writing projects. My students caught up with me on the issues that presented blocks to writing. These blocks, generally speaking, result from time constraints. Not time management concerns, but concerns growing out of the longstanding impacts of economic inequality and structural racism.  These concerns include not only the everyday micro-aggressions of embodying “difference” on a large university campus, but also lack of access to basic resources that many of us take for granted: health care, preparatory education, housing, gainful employment, U.S. citizenship, and financial capital.

Attempting to find hope can seem an impossible challenge in the difficult roads students often take to our classrooms. For some students, the extrinsic motivation of the putative degree— and the almost illusory specter of post-graduate employment opportunities—will not offer enough external rewards to stay in school.  In the continuing aftermath of the great recession, when financial capital remains more unequally distributed than ever, such challenges pose never-ending complications and interruptions to students’ daily attendance. Yet if we cannot foster hope and intrinsic motivation in such difficult conditions, then when exactly should we begin? If we expect someone else to work toward the future, then can we claim surprise and dismay when the future does not suit our deepest dreams? . In her talk that Thursday morning in Indianapolis, Professor Angela Y. Davis’s suggested why this work remains relevant. Finding hope can inspire intrinsic motivation, and the resilience to move forward. Offering these sources of hope—to our students and to our selves—can become the most significant topic that we undertake in any basic writing course.

Many of the students’ writing projects take up these issues, and I look forward to reading the results. I had asked students to take on projects that would allow them to work on what they needed to write about right now—writing projects would help students find intrinsic motivation to stay in school. No one chose to write about popular music or video games. Most students chose to write about conditions that potentially impede their success at school. In trying to take on these difficulties, students take up the challenge of writing about material conditions for audiences that will benefit learning what many writers face on a day-to-day basis in their first year in college. We also try to build hope for the future, which remains equally significant.  Indeed, at the end of her talk in Indianapolis, Professor Davis quoted James Baldwin: “The impossible is the least that one can demand.”

In the singularly most troubling moments of US history, at the end of Reconstruction, during Professor Davis’s imprisonment and trial, and in recent times since the dawn of the twenty-first century, we have had to demand the impossible to move forward. In learning to voice those demands, we learn again why writing matters. We learn again to breathe in every word as the most significant moment of working toward a future that offers hope to us all.

[Photo Credit: Susan Bernstein at CCCC 2014]

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Grammar Issues—and Writing

posted: 3.26.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Last week’s Conference on College Composition and Communication in Indianapolis included the Council of Basic Writing (CBW) workshop session, “CBW Talks Back.” As part of this workshop, organized by incoming CBW co-chair Michael Hill, we presented short talks to address issues with technology software marketed for our students. 

Then, we convened tables to offer more intensive conversations about how and why these issues play out on our home campuses. Our table worked on the CBW policy for grammar issues in writing. A small group of face-to-face participants and live online contributors commented on our Google Doc to craft the following statement:

The Council on Basic Writing, a Standing Group of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, supports course instruction and student/teacher interaction for all introductory and multilingual writing courses in college English.

Writing Studies research finds that students in Introductory and Multilingual College Writing courses learn to write most effectively when conventions of writing are:

  • Presented as part of complex and multimodal rhetorical structures, interconnected with audience, purpose, genre
  • Embedded in the processes and products of writing
  • Perspectives of faculty and students in Introductory and Multilingual College Writing courses should be included in decisions regarding course delivery and curriculum content

The policy is unofficial, an experiment in claiming an ethos for ourselves as teachers of courses called Basic Writing or, as we call it in the draft, Introductory Writing.  As we revised the draft, we worked on:

  1. discovering what attitudes and beliefs we hold in common concerning grammar instruction
  2. discerning why we need to make those attitudes and beliefs clear to our selves in particular, and to teachers, students, and administrators of Basic Writing.

In order to enhance our credibility, we looked at evidence from a brief annotated bibliography that can be found in the Google Doc. From the research, this statement from the National Council of Teachers of English stands out: “students should have guidance and frequent opportunities to … collaborate in writing many whole texts, not answers to exercises.” To better understand this process, we worked, as we often do as faculty, together as a whole, considering and rearticulating ideas in the clear, concrete language of writing studies. If the stakes for creating a non-binding policy seem low, the stakes for our students remain exceedingly high. As we build a professional ethos by “speaking back,” we also gain strength in facilitating occasions for our students to speak back as well.

Students also might benefit from reading and revising this draft, as well as the research collected on the Google Doc. The process of reading and revision could serve as an example of best practices in writing studies as a field inclusive of Basic Writing. In offering a close reading and input on any draft of instructional policy, writing assignments, or assessment rubrics, students become central to the creation of materials for their own course of study. As part of this creation process, students can present ideas that challenge our assumptions, offering opportunities for all of us, teachers and students alike, to grow as writers and thinkers.

Indeed, this lesson was presented again and again at CCCC, especially as part of Cynthia Selfe’s talk to CBW, Howard Tinberg’s keynote plenary address, and Angela Davis’s speech in a featured session. Consider all of our stories. Yet consider especially the loss to all of us when those stories are put aside, or even silenced. Time spent on fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice grammar exercises (whether online or in hard copy) takes time away from the hard work of thinking through ideas and creating sentence and paragraph structures appropriate enough to sustain those ideas in writing. Surface features can improve over time. But such features cannot improve if we do not offer students continual practice with writing.

To make grammatical error the center of an introductory writing course curtails students’ goals and desires as writers. Filling in the blanks of grammar exercises remains a task devoid of meaning. Yet as writers grapple with words and available multimedia to create new approaches to writing, they gain the confidence to attempt longer and more complicated sentences and paragraphs, and to interweave image and sound with more traditional approaches to language. Nearly midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century, writing offers a great deal to all of us. Our moment to attend to that work begins now.

[Photo Credit: CCCC Workshop "CBW Talks Back" by  CBW executive board member Lynn Reid; Pictured (left to right): Michael Hill, Wendy Olson, Michelle Stevier-Johanson, and Susan Naomi Bernstein]

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History and Rhetoric: The Case of Arizona

posted: 3.10.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Once upon a time, back in graduate school, we often discussed the place of political discussion in composition classrooms. Back then our textbooks included exemplar essays from 20th century political activists such as Clarence Darrow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Richard Wright.  Now, more than two decades later, I remain puzzled by the idea that we were required to teach essays by men who risked their careers (and their lives) for political activism, but that we ourselves, as new teaching associates at our institution, ought to consider staying silent on similar questions of our own era. What would our silence say to our students about their own abilities to form opinions, to interpret the new experiences they were encountering with language and with thought?

Now, of course, we do composition differently. Twentieth-century activist writing does not appear as frequently in our textbooks. In the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, many textbook readings are culled from hot-button issues of the last five years; yet these reading offer little-to-no historical context. Economic inequality and structural racism often appear to be the problems of individuals or individual institutions, rather than the long-standing systemic problems that contribute to current societal dilemmas.

However, here in Arizona, we have attempted to remedy this situation. My classes began our semester with reading Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech. This reading led to a discussion of the history of Arizona’s state government’s refusal to recognize the national Martin Luther King Day holiday in January. In 1990, this refusal led to the NFL’s decision to move the Super Bowl out of Arizona to Pasadena, California. Class discussions ensued about whether or not or how much life in Arizona had changed in the last twenty-one years. Some students discussed their participation in walkouts at their schools to protest the governor’s signing of the 2010 anti-immigration legislation AZ SB 1070. We also grappled with a racist event held on our campus at the beginning of the semester.

Then, along came AZ SB 1062, a bill that purported to support “exercise of religion,” but that many in the state saw as an opening for viral discrimination, especially of LGBT individuals and communities. Arizona was once again the butt of national jokes and the focus of national outrage. Once again, the NFL considered moving the 2015 Super Bowl out of Arizona. George Takei promised to lead a boycott of the state. Once again, with Aristotle, we needed to consider how— and why— to write in order to move people to action.

Indeed, the work of persuasion offers compelling challenges for students enrolled in a Basic Writing course. By persuasion, I do not mean rehearsing two sides of an argument, for and against. With legislation such as AZ SB 1062, many writers would find the “for” position too painful to render. Instead, persuasion invites writers to consider approaches for critical presentation of their own interpretations of the issues at hand. What examples would prove appropriate? How could these examples be organized to have the greatest impact? What tone would offer most compelling support for the evidence?

In crafting our writing, such questions never grow old. Rather, we encounter these questions over and over again not only as we gain experiences, but also as we attempt to process and make sense of our experiences, and the connection of our experiences to a larger history. With the turn to popular culture, a focus of many current first-year writing textbooks, that sense of history seems to have become replaced by the transitory and the ephemeral. Yet a generation ago, anthologized essays by Darrow, King, and Wright offered not only exemplary models of persuasive writing, but also a view of early-mid-twentieth-century popular culture. Without that view, we may be stuck with reinventing the wheel. But with that view, we have the opportunity to learn what happens when activists speak back to injustice.

In Arizona, the governor could not ignore that activism; her veto prevented AZ SB 1062 from becoming state law. Yet even as the bill was struck down in Arizona, lawmakers in other states were considering legislation similar to SB 1062. Rather than assuming that Arizona is the exception to the national narrative of continuous progress, perhaps we ought to remember that Arizona could be anywhere. Our students, wherever they reside, can learn to ask questions that will impact the quality of their daily lives, now and in the future. Our job, as their teachers, is to challenge our students’— as well as our selves—to rise to the rhetorical— and the historical —occasion.

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Writing Economic Inequality: Composing A Presentation for CCCC

posted: 2.24.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Note well: As usual, these suggestions are focused on the WHY more than the how. In other words, this post ISN’T about how to write a convention talk. Instead, I want to focus on what I need to remember as I compose a convention talk for the Conference on College Composition and Communication next month in Indianapolis. The subject about which I will speak feels immensely challenging: What can we learn from the trauma of teaching and learning after Hurricane Sandy to help create stronger classroom communities for students enrolled in Basic Writing?

I want to talk about everything: the new assignments that came after the hurricane, students’ responses, the connections between writing after a national disaster and during an ongoing recession, the link between recession and the many people who have lost access to supports that help ameliorate economic equality (such as food stamps and extended unemployment benefits). But I know I need to keep on point and keep it real. So here are three general suggestions that I hope will help me (and by extension, other writers struggling with difficult topics) to concentrate on where and why to focus:

  1. Attention to Privilege: First, remember the incredible (and unearned) privilege of attending and speaking at CCCC. Remember this privilege even if the session is scheduled against a popular special session or early in the morning or the last session on the last day or if the audience is otherwise small.  Remember this privilege of being present at CCCC even as the expense of attending can feel overwhelming and frustrating.
  2. Attention to Ameliorating Lack of Access: As a means of ameliorating lack of access, offer virtual venues for interested audiences of non-convention attendees. Also consider creating blogs for the talk that can be posted at wordpress.com, blogger.com, tumblr.com, or elsewhere. Links for the blog can be posted on the Council of Basic Writing (CBW) Facebook page. Also consider having someone tweet the talk on Twitter, using the hash tags #cccc14 #traumaBW.
  3. Attention to Difference: Demonstrate this privilege by creating a talk that engages the audience with attention to difference.  Not everyone can hear the talk or read the power point slides.  Include a handout that makes the talk accessible to all participants. Handouts can be posted here before the convention begins. Also check the Composing Access site (see the Disability Studies Special Interest Group site Disability Rhetoric, disabling writing in a good way) for suggestions and support.

Economic inequality forms the backdrop of the larger contexts of CCCC in Indianapolis this year. Its victims may be invisible because CCCC attendance will be limited to those who can afford to pay, those whose departments or other benefactors can pay for them to attend, and those who are willing and able to incur debt for attending.  Indeed, because some of us in the academic world have limited or no experience with economic inequality since the beginning of the Great Recession of 2008, we may not recognize the far-reaching impact that economic austerity and disparity has brought to our colleagues and our neighbors.

Yet if we remain mindful of that absent presence—if we direct our talks not only to those who are in the room, but also to those who cannot afford to attend—then we can begin joining with others who are speaking out about economic inequality in our community. This is another focus to remember for writing a CCCC convention paper. The necessity of a wider web of inclusion can help to create more honest scholars of us all.

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Pete Seeger: An Ethics of Direct Action

posted: 2.10.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

In the late 1970s, Pete Seeger visited my small Midwestern college and we crowded together to see him in the college gym. My sharpest memory of that day remains how he managed to convince most of us to sing with him. Together we sang, “If I had a Hammer (The Hammer Song), a song I’d learned back in grade school:

 If I had a hammer

I’d hammer in the morning

I’d hammer in the evening

All over this land

I’d hammer out danger

I’d hammer out a warning

I’d hammer out a warning

I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters

All over this land

I adore this memory, but not without regrets. For white college students like me in the late-1970s, who had come of age in what has been called the “Post-Civil rights Era,” the consensus seemed to be that the danger and the warning (our childhoods punctuated by the assassinations of King and the Kennedy brothers) had passed. Pete Seeger was a kind old man who sang beautiful songs. We did not recognize that, as he led us in “If I Had a Hammer,” we were singing ourselves into history.

But thirty years later, I would have the good fortune to learn otherwise. During Labor Day weekend of 2008, I was present when Pete Seeger sang inside a tent at a pepper festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. He was nearly 90 by then and “If I Had a Hammer” gained its place in my heart as a song of political protest and ethical direct action. The country in 2008 was involved in two wars—and voters had a chance to elect the first African-American president in the history of the United States. According to Seeger, we needed to pay attention—and we had better not mess up.

In the winter of 2009, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” another staple of my grade school songbook, and of 1960s peace rallies, at President Obama’s inauguration festivities. The next year, I would be unemployed, and the next year, 2011, still unemployed, I would sing “This Land is Your Land” in Times Square with other demonstrators at an Occupy Wall Street rally.

So when Pete Seeger died in late January at the age of 94, his loss felt personal. In remembering the concert I attended in college, I understand, in retrospect, how Pete Seeger’s music helped me to awaken me from an intergeneration lethargy, and to begin to search for my connections to history. I have found those connections everywhere, yet chiefly in basic writing classrooms across the country. No matter our age or our politics, our classrooms offer us opportunities every day to practice the ethics of direct action or, more simply, to practice the need to pay attention and to remain awakened to a sense of possibility. I believe that this practice is possible no matter our situation.

Teaching basic writing is not missionary work and learning to write does not only prepare our students to write for transfer courses or for the workplace. If we are paying attention, writing may become an act of bearing witness: “the hammer of justice,” as Pete Seeger sang, “the bell of freedom.”  Writing, in its most positive sense, can teach us the ethics of direct action, of showing up, of taking part, of recreating daily life as more than just the banality of waiting for another pay check, or — if we are privileged enough—of planning for our comfortable retirement.

Yet Pete Seeger never really retired. He remained active until the end of his life, singing his songs all over this land. He reminds me of what it meant for me to become a college student, and later, a teacher of basic writing—of why passionate engagement with learning offers an opportunity to awaken, to reach out, to progress— far beyond the basics.

[Photo Credit: Pete Seeger 1986 by Josf SCHWARZ; Wikimedia Commons]

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Racism Happens

posted: 1.27.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

On the Tuesday morning after the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the third class day of the new semester, I struggled to make sense of an old problem for many of us: why do two sections of the same course offer two completely different responses to the same lesson plan? In both sections, students read King’s speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In both sections we discussed the contexts for King’s presentation of the speech (a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee and King’s work for organizing a Poor People’s Campaign) and the long-term impact of Kings assassination the day after the speech (communities disrupted by outpourings of grief and virulent racism, as well as dramatic social transformation).

For this first writing project, I had asked students in each section to create their own writing prompts based on significant ideas from “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The first section came prepared to discuss quotes from the speech that might anchor their ideas. Working without my intervention in peer groups, the students connected King’s calls for unity and for wrestling with longstanding problems to current topics such as women’s rights, immigration, and healthcare.

In contrast, the second section expressed concern that the directions for creating their own prompts remained unclear. I know this because of our small and large group class discussions, and because of an end-of-class writing the students in both sections completed. The prompt for this writing was: “What have you learned so far? What (about the class and/or the assignment) do you still find confusing?” In the first section, students composed ideas for research, while in the second section, students wrote asking different versions of the same excellent question: “What are we supposed to do?” In other words, the students clearly stated that they needed much more direction from me and that my suggestions for topics were too vague and confusing.

I left the second section torn between offering the students time and space to practice creating topic proposals, or providing the students specific directions for how to proceed. After returning to my office, I decided to take a break by catching up with social media. Almost immediately I discovered the overt racism of events that had occurred in our region over the holiday weekend of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday celebration.  As a newcomer to the region, I felt a mix of emotions, from anger to frustration to devastation. I knew I needed to take action, but that action also needed to be relevant to students’ learning about writing. Moreover, I needed to clarify the assignment for our first writing project, and to make sure that students were offered a road map for the process of creating their first writing project.

But first I needed to do research, for my own peace of mind. I needed to learn more about the history of the King holiday becoming a law in our state. Although many of the very complicated details were etched in memory, I hoped to find a timeline so that I could find a connection between the history of the past that connected to our present moment, and that would offer hope for the future. In completing this research, I created a template in response to the questions that students had asked on Tuesday, and also to provide further guidance for students that had already chosen topics for the first writing project. The plan is to explain the template step-by-step, while simultaneously addressing the irrefutable fact that racism happens.

APPENDIX: The Road Map

Anchoring Quote from “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “… we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it.”

Topic: Do the historical circumstances of enacting the Martin Luther King holiday in our state connect to current attitudes toward racism?

A Moment of Opportunity for Writing: Over the weekend of the Martin Luther King Day holiday, our region witnessed overt racism by Whites against Blacks.  Such overt racism calls into question the historical circumstances of the King Holiday becoming law in our state.

Possible audiences and purposes:  Because the King Holiday was created before most of them were born, the younger generation remains largely unaware of the history of the holiday. Meanwhile, many older people may have forgotten the events of the 1980s and 1990s that led to our state to enact the King Holiday into law.

My purpose is to help readers remember that history and to understand how and why the past may be linked to the present—and to the future.

Organization:

Introduction:

  • Explain why current circumstances demand an investigation of this question.
  • Include a thesis that demonstrates the main point.

Body paragraphs:

  • Present the historical circumstances of enacting the Martin Luther King Holiday in our state
  • Show current attitudes toward racism
  • Define why (or why NOT) I find a connection (the writer’s interpretation of the facts based on evidence presented above)

Conclusion

  • Sync the conclusion with the introduction— elaborate your ideas in even more powerful language for added emphasis.

Research possibilities:

  • Arizona newspaper archives
  • Arizona state government archives
  • Martin Luther King archives at Stanford University
  • Popular magazines from the 1990s that discuss the 1993 Super Bowl

# of sources (including “Mountaintop”): At least 4-5

 Length:  5-7 pages double-spaced using MLA style

Addendum: Developing Ideas:

  • Fact: Controversy surrounding creation of MLK holiday late 1980s mid 1990s (research)
  • Fact: Overt Racism 2014 (research)
  • Interpretation (opinion): The controversy over the King Holiday and the current display of overt racism are related (this is what I need to prove)

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A View from the South Rim

posted: 12.18.13 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Over Thanksgiving weekend, thanks to the relatively close proximity of my new home, I had an opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon. I braved the vertigo rising in my stomach, and headed over to Mather’s Point on the South Rim. There awaited me the indescribable vistas that I remembered from a previous trip half a decade before. But this time, the view was accompanied by the coldest weather I had experienced in months. In some places, a thin crust of snow remained on the ground from a recent storm.  I wore mittens on my hands and the unfamiliar cold made me happy. This change of scenery, I hoped, would help invigorate the last stretch of classes and grading marathons to come before the semester ended.

In my own work as a writer, I struggle to ground reflection in that notion that there remains a world waiting for all of us to discover and grow. I try to extend such opportunities to students as well, and yet I wonder how to evoke a sense of writing as adventure in what might seem like the mundane task of composing end-of-term reflections to accompany final portfolios. As many of us do, I invited students to address traditional criteria, such as:

  • Describe the changes in your writing (the process, your drafts, and your completed essays) between the beginning of the term and the end of the term
  • Consider and comment on your participation in other course requirements, including:
    • Attendance
    • Handing in coursework on the assigned due dates
    • Completing assigned readings, in-class writings, and peer review

Yet at the same time, I hoped that students had begun to think about writing in more comprehensive terms beyond our coursework.  On many occasions throughout the semester, we had discussed “thinking outside the box” and “writing outside your comfort zone.”  In other words, had students developed a larger view of the possibilities and promises of writing?  With this idea in mind, I restructured the prompt to ask if students had become more mindful of opportunities to apply their learning about writing to other courses besides our writing course, or to other non-school aspects of life:

  • Do you find connections you see between your out-of-class experiences and our coursework?  For example:
    • How and why are you using writing in courses besides English?
    • Are you experimenting with writing outside of class, such as by writing a blog or journal?

Finally, in contemplating the often-invisible learning, social, or cultural differences that may underscore students’ silences in class, I offered an additional question:

  • How present and alert was your focus in class, even if that presence did not involve speaking or other visible participation? For instance:
    • What were some memorable moments of class for you and why were they memorable?  What do you recall about learning about writing in those moments?

Based on the responses I receive, I may consider including these reflection points on my spring syllabus, or as part of an in-class writing early in the term. I also would anticipate asking students to add their own criteria for “participation” and “engagement,” above and beyond the more traditional expectations to which they may be more accustomed.

Indeed, what are the broader implications of a more personalized assessment for our students, many of whom grew up under quantifiable rubrics of NCLB, and have come of age in the midst of a more-than decade-long war, economic austerity, and the restrictions of the new alphabet soup of DHS, ICE, and NSA? How do we encourage our students to explore the larger vistas that may have inspired some of us to want to teach writing in the first place?

That indescribable image of the South Rim stays close to my thoughts as this semester draws to a close. As I dive into the vertigo of end-of -term grading, and begin to prepare for the wider view of spring semester, I look forward to learning what writing can do for all of us, if only we remain open to exploring its possibilities—over and over again.

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Into the Light

posted: 12.2.13 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

This late autumn, my classes are writing about President Obama’s 2008 speech, “A More Perfect Union,” sometimes called the “race” speech. The speech touches on three aspects of American cultural life that are often described as taboo subjects for polite conversation: race, religion, and politics. Yet if we are to succeed as writers beyond the basics, moving out of our comfort zones can often help to push us forward. I do not offer such advice easily or happily. Instead, I offer it from memory.

I remember that first moment of moving outside of my comfort zone in an overcast November afternoon light fifty years ago. The streets were filled with children walking away from the school on a brisk late autumn afternoon. I remember that afternoon light and I remember walking in that crowd of children, all of us chattering away. The school had dismissed our afternoon Kindergarten class early, and the older students also had early dismissal. Indeed, the school had closed much earlier than usual and with no warning at all. The President was dead. All of us walking home on that catastrophic afternoon instantly became part of a moment that many of us, fifty years later, cannot find the language to describe.

Indeed, as Adam Clymer suggested in the New York Times, 26% of Americans alive today were at least five years old on November 22, 1963. Clymer collected people’s memories of that day, and suggests that many of us who were younger remember most “the vivid effect on our parents and teachers.” The New York Public Library offers a collection of memories on its Facebook page. The memory-writers use words like “stunned, upset, devastating, unbelievable” to try to capture a time frozen in horror for so many of us.

President Kennedy’s assassination was the signature literacy event of my Kindergarten year, the first event I remember that connected me to the world outside my home, outside my extended family, outside my school, and outside my community. Yet I understand that children my age who grew up in Washington D.C. may have experienced such literacy events earlier in 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or children from Birmingham, Alabama may count as their first literacy the Children’s Crusade, or the Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that assassinated four young girls little more than two months before President Kennedy succumbed to that bullet in Dallas, Texas.

I also realize that children my age living in Prince Edward County, Virginia did not share with me the privilege of beginning Kindergarten that year. Their town refused to follow desegregation laws. Instead, the town closed the public schools, and private schools were set up for white children. 26% of all people alive on November 22, 1963 were alive on a day when separate and unequal still held sway across our country. As we remember Camelot, we need as well to remember the suffering of those of us who were denied the keys to the kingdom—and the consequences that all of us face fifty years afterward.

Each of us who remembers that terrible day remains bound to a collective moment of US history that seems to have taken place only yesterday. Our failures can offer a bracing humility that can remind us of the struggles of our students. None of us can easily find the language to articulate the most difficult moments of our lives, even as we may have spilled many words in our attempts. But we have to try. We owe our students the patience and compassion that comes from owning our struggles. Resilient triumph may not evolve naturally from such struggle, but we must begin somewhere, even as we move out of our comfort zones and into the light.

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Extended Time

posted: 11.19.13 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

What do we talk about when we talk about learning differences? I used to think I was a verbal learner—until Hurricane Sandy when I began to think in photographs. Even a year later, words to describe that moment come only with great difficulty. Then, after Lou Reed died a few weeks ago, I remembered learning from sound and music as well. Can learning be reduced to a preference of one sense over many?  Can learning differences be attributed to a flooding of the senses—so much so, that we who learn differently must focus outside the box in order to learn at all? And what happens when focusing outside the box becomes the new normal? Do we then promote anarchy or chaos?

Or do we arrive, instead, at extended time?

Extended time offers an invitation into the unknown. Indeed, conventional wisdom suggests that 5-minute writing prompts work best to jumpstart the collective stalled engines of writing. A Google search for “5 minute writing” reveals 185,000,000 hits in .14 seconds. Clearly a great many people believe that five minutes is the charm, and sometimes five minutes is all we have.

So extended time, often a basic accommodation for students with diagnosed learning differences, can seem like a catchall category, a band-aid for a problem with no easy solutions. Yet the illness metaphors of diagnosis and band-aid reveal a very limited understanding of learning differences—and also of the writing process. Instead we might ask: what is the purpose of extended time—and why can extended time help us grapple with the unpredictability of the writing process?

In my own experiences as a writer with ADHD, I have come to value extended time as part of an ongoing classroom experience with learning to write. Rather than suggest a truncated five minutes for free writing, I regularly offer fifteen to twenty minutes—and then take a deep breath to participate in the experience of watching multiple writing processes unfold at once.  Extended time, if undertaken with attention, caring, and compassion, can provide some of the following rewards:

  • Daydreaming en route to a point of focus
  • Diving in deeply with unconditional focus
  • Experimenting with a variety of main ideas
  • Writing and erasing and writing (and repeating as often as necessary within our specific contexts and constraints).

These processes require patience from all of us—as writers and teachers learning together about what works best for any individual or group of writers. We may gently suggest that updating a status or commenting or liking another post of Facebook is not an appropriate use of writing time—except when it is. We may offer very specific suggestions about how to approach a very specific prompt for a very specific audience and purpose. We may provide what initially may feel like too many choices on too many themes—and then may discover that writers take one of those choices and make it our own with new and unexpected forms of content, audiences, and purposes.

If we are willing to work through our discomforts with writing’s unpredictability, extended time may present a space for reflection that allows us to move beyond our own perceived limitations as writers. When we experiment with free writing as more than an exercise in jotting down our most obvious and immediate ideas, any number of positive outcomes may become possible.

Perhaps most importantly, as I consider extended time and writing in general, I try to avoid teaching techniques or tips. I want to focus more on the idea that all of us write and struggle with writing. As writers together, we can learn to negotiate and overturn the frustrations that can impede our thoughts and actions in writing. Together we can think about the future and the present moment—and we can consider our own intersections with history. As we move into our own spaces for writing, we can create persuasive points and we can take into account audiences and purposes for writing. We can consider many possible catalysts for beginning our writing—and we can learn to work with extended time for moving forward from this moment into the writing that awaits us.

Photograph: Free Writing contributed with permission by my colleague Jules.

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Circle of Learning

posted: 11.4.13 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

How do we learn to want to learn? As I ask this question, I mean not only students, but also teachers. The world we live in now, with its fixed outcomes and proscribed methods, leaves little space for grappling with the unknowns that most writers, if we are honest with ourselves, face when we tap fingers on a keyboard or move the pen along the page. We do not have time or incentive to pose the existential questions of identity– much less to eat breakfast. But still we push forward, expecting our students to explore the wilderness while we evaluate the results without having fully explored that wilderness ourselves.  Then we express chagrin when students seem not intrepid but bewildered, flummoxed by language but not empowered.  What to do?

After students have created their own rough drafts, I often undertake a three-part process to discern what activities might prove helpful for revision. Part one consists of reading. As I scan through drafts of a new writing project, I take on once more the role of learner, noting collective strengths and areas of needed revision.  For part two, I suggest a class activity that builds on students’ strengths and addresses areas of needed revision. Part three is asking students to evaluate what they are learning and what seems confusing. Then the three-part process begins all over again.

In one example of this circle of learning, I discovered that students drafted introductions that attempted to repeat the writing prompt. This skill had served students well in writing for standardized tests. However, since our writing projects began with more open-ended prompts, composing introductions proved more challenging. Often the introductions would last more than a page without reaching a satisfactory thesis. So it became clear that students needed an additional strategy to add to their developing toolkit for approaching academic writing projects.

Through this process, I recently set up an activity for students to focus on practice with including citations in introductory paragraphs. Using citations in prompts addressed three different issues: students would be compelled to include recent quotes, paraphrases, or summaries early in their essays; to introduce and analyze the quote early in the essay; to find alternatives to the three-part thesis. The three-part thesis, another vestige of writing in response to test prompts, offered an easy means of creating a thesis. However, the body paragraphs often became disconnected from each other without clear transitions or connections between them. Instead, students had to extrapolate a more analytic point of focus for their revised essays.

The activity looked like this:

  1. Gather in groups.
  2. Decide on a quote from a recent text presented in class (these included both print and multi-media texts).
  3. Revise the introduction from your rough draft in one paragraph, using the group’s quote however you choose (direct quote, summary, analysis)
  4. Read your introductions aloud in groups
  5. Compare notes on how/why people use the quote
  6. Report back to the class. As part of this report, we were able to discern distinct patterns of organization for introductions. I transcribed these on the board as mathematical equations (see photograph).

Because this activity took place at midterm, students had already become comfortable as a class and had practiced reading and reviewing each other’s writing. At the same time, students needed experience in learning to trust their own judgment as writers, as well as their interpretations of texts. This aspect of the activity is perhaps the most difficult for any writer.  How do we pin down our thoughts and connect them to another writer’s ideas? How do we trust ourselves enough to make good decisions about how to analyze a text for a specific audience and purpose?

The final part of this process, my assessment of its effectiveness for students, is twofold. I look at revised student writing and I also ask students to write to me. “What did you learn?” I inquire, “What is still confusing?” These brief 1-2 paragraph responses are written at the very end of class. Students can remain anonymous in these responses, if they so choose. Anonymity offers students a chance to write a critique without a name attached, and allows me to discern our next step in creating the essay, with direct input from the students

A key goal for this work assumes that students develop maturity as writers over time and with consistent feedback to the instructor about their involvement in their own education. Another goal asserts that teachers reflect on our selection of course materials and lessons, maintaining an openness and flexibility for the benefit of our students. Creating a messy process remains an additional, if often-unanticipated goal. None of this work ought to be easy, even as the work remains necessary for the circle of learning to move forward.

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