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.

Every Day a Writing Day

posted: 10.21.13 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Last week we celebrated the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) National Day on Writing (usually designated as October 20th), originally created in 2009to draw attention to the remarkable variety of writing we engage in, and to help writers from all walks of life recognize how important writing is to their lives”. On our campus, our Writing Studies program offered indoor multimedia writing and an outdoor booth on a campus mall for passersby to stop and write. The booth, filled with writers/teachers from our program, presented an opportunity for writers on campus to create prompts or questions for children in language arts classes at local elementary schools.

I spent my time with the writers at the booth on the mall. The southwestern blue sky loomed large overhead and all around us the autumn flowers bloomed in pinks, purples, and oranges. This day, as so many others, held close the deep promises of writing to open hearts and minds of all those who stopped by for a visit.

One passerby asked: “How do you persuade children to leave their computers and tablets and phones to write?”

“I know that program,” he said. “I mean without the electronics– writing curled up in a corner with a notebooks or a journal? You know, like we used to do when we were kids.” With that revised question in mind, I spoke about virtual blackout days, for which everyone turns off their electronic devices for a designated time period. The passerby nodded and then was called away to another event on the mall.At first I misunderstood the question. I opened the notes section on my phone to demonstrate a 21st-century mode of writing that has often proved helpful for my composing. But the passerby was insistent.

The mall was very busy that day. A group next to us, shouting at the top of their voices, hawked free snow cones. Music pumped out of nearby speakers and dance music electrified the air. With so much activity happening at once, I felt as I used to feel in New York City. My senses overflowed to bursting and I could focus at last on transforming thought and emotion into language for real and imagined audiences and purposes.

In other words, I felt ready to write—and at the same time, I felt homesick. The cacophony of the city rarely ceases. The activity on the mall would be over within a few hours. Yet I knew that the need to write would remain. I remembered those moments of Free University of NYC, for which I taught “Writing for Home School and Everyday Life.” What would I do if I were back in the park, writing and facilitating writing with writers who happened to gather together at that particular moment on that particular day?

I moved out of my daydream and back to our booth on campus. The booth faced an intersection between two malls, and the warm concrete seemed unusually inviting. I rose from my chair and sat down on the ground with note cards and pens, ready to write—and to invite others to write as well.

Soon enough, more writers arrived. “What can we write for children?” they asked.  I thought about the question that the previous passerby had posed. I remembered the possibilities that writing in NYC public spaces had created. I remembered what purposes writing had served in my childhood and the audiences for whom I wrote—and why I felt impelled at such a young age to want– indeed to NEED– to write.

“Write a prompt or a question,” I suggested, “that will open hearts and minds— that will allow young writers to think outside the box– to use their imaginations.” If the response was silence, I reframed these suggestions as questions. “What did you like to write as a child? What inspired you?” The writers at the booth took a breath, smiled in memory, began to write– and then shared the writing that they hoped would move the next generation of writers to try their hand at making meaning from thought and feeling.

Moving each other to write remains the goal, the action, and the object of our persuasive arts. This National Day on Writing offered a moment for us to engage with the challenges of writing. Indeed, every day we take on writing promises us still another new beginning.

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