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.

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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One Response to “A View from the South Rim”

  1. Rochelle Says:

    Not only did your trip to the Grand Canyon invigorate your work, but so did the questions you asked of your students. I like—love—how, by asking students to gauge their own engagement, you provide opportunities for students to meaningfully connect with the work…These are good ideas, Susan, that keep the interest flowing.

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