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43 Posts authored by: Susan Naomi Bernstein Expert

Before the beginning of the spring semester, as I planned our assignments for the course, I tried to imagine where we might be by the end of the semester. I thought of skills to be practiced and outcomes to be measured, and I also considered multiple means of fostering persistence and resilience through the processes and products of writing. Through these means, I returned to a genre I had used in the past, the graduation speech.


The end of the semester and the end of the school year can be a difficult time for many students in ways that they understandably may not be willing to share with us. They may struggle with intersecting issues of community and family, with food insecurity and racism, with the need to hold several jobs and to take a course overload to try to accelerate their education. In other words, the end of the year is a time when students need to keep most focused even as low energy levels may impede concentration.


What to do?


At the end of the semester, through the #redfored movement, public school teachers demonstrated against prolonged state defunding of K-12 education. The demonstrations began at the end of the last week of classes, impacting our community economically, politically, and emotionally. School defunding began during the recession of 2008, and accelerated over the ensuing nine years, or for half of the time that my traditional-aged first-year students had been alive.


In the early part of the recession, in the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama had been invited to give a graduation speech at our institution. The speech became controversial, as described in the links connected to the assignment, when some people suggested that the President had not yet accomplished enough to earn an honorary degree. President Obama decided to speak at graduation anyway and wove the controversy into his remarks that demonstrated an exemplary understanding of kairos, or the rhetorical circumstances of the situation.


Because this story held local interest for my students, I offered the speech as a reading to help understand the genre of the graduation speech. Also included was a website that listed fifteen themes and other suggestions for composing graduation speeches (see the link below).


But the main point of assigning the graduation speech as a final assignment was to give us an opportunity to imagine the future in a positive light. Students not only needed to write a speech, but also to envision themselves as graduating and being chosen to address their classmates. They had to consider the kairos that had produced such circumstances, and to focus on what it would mean to arrive at that historical marker in their own lives.


In the conclusion for their speech, one student wrote:

Take this speech as a lesson, pass it down to others, give them courage, and give them confidence. Tell them they can do it, those 4 little words mean a lot to people. Makes them push that much harder. Be the one to make the difference in someone’s college experience, and college career. That’s what I am here to do today, you guys don’t need this, you already made it. Give this to others and help them be better, you could be the difference maker.

Under the intense pressures that students endure in the culmination of their first year experiences, offering courage and confidence to others can be a significant gift not only to students’ sense of community, but also to students’ developing sense of themselves as writers. As this student suggests, that gift can make all the difference.


Take what you have learned and experiment with a different genre: a speech that you have been invited to deliver to your college graduating class

  • Revise the letter that you wrote to a younger audience as a speech for your class and audience members at your graduation
  • Include your reading from earlier writing projects as references
  • See this link for a list of 15 themes and suggestions for writing graduation speeches. Choose one of these themes for your graduation speech.
  • Look at former President Obama’s 2009 graduation speech at ASU-Tempe for another example. See these links for the transcript, the video, and the historical background of this speech.

    Music educators performing in the #redfored band at the Arizona state capitol in Phoenix on April 30, 2018. The writing on the drum says: “The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and his life for the welfare of others.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.       Photo by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Teaching basic writing involves imagining more accessible classrooms for students that account for hearing losses of all kinds. That is, the loss of audible sound, and the signs of loss or trauma that may be inaudible and invisible for us, but not necessarily for our students. What if the seemingly glazed look, the head on the desk, the fingers busily at work on phone screens do not signify boredom or disrespect?  What if we, as teachers, learned to read “inappropriate behaviors” as part of a system of cognitive dissonance, a frustration with the incongruity of home, school, and working lives? What would it mean to think of hearing loss as the absence of audible sound, and also as listening to loss as expressed through audible and inaudible actions of our students?


HEARING LOSS: Several years ago  I began to notice the benefits of universal design at conferences that I attended. For instance, I watched emotions unfold on the faces of the sign language interpreters at general sessions and discovered a dimension to language that I had not imagined before. At a meeting of the CCCC Committee on Disability Issues, I learned about CART and felt more relaxed reading the captions. I added closed captions to videos we watched in classes, as well as at home and in the office.


Then I noticed in class that the steady hum from the projector seemed to muffle sound in the classroom. Students’ voices grew softer. I wondered if the changes were issues with auditory processing, a difference that can be associated with depression. But rather than self-diagnose, I visited an audiologist who confirmed moderate hearing loss. Universal design and the consciousness around accessibility gleaned from Disability Studies helped to ease the way.  Indeed, this is the purpose of accessibility, to create inclusiveness, to transform the stigma of difference. In a more accessible world, seamless transition is precisely the point.


LISTENING TO LOSS: The writing process may involve dealing with emotional self-disclosures that students will rightfully not wish to reveal to teachers or classmates. This semester I am attempting to honor this wish while still offering students access to emotion through other means. In reading and writing about the works of Gloria Anzaldúa, James Baldwin, and Terry Tempest Williams, students can identify with the emotions of loss and resilience without having to write about such events in their own lives. At the same time, if students do make the choice to disclose their experiences, they are offered a resonant perspective for comparison and exploration.


In practice, writing about “difficult times” often appears as writing that needs more development, specific details, and extended analysis. After reading through a recent round of rough drafts, I composed a letter to students that offered suggestions for riding out the storm. Here is a key recommendation:

Be as specific as possible throughout the essay. Rather than saying “times are difficult,” mention specific events that SHOW your perspective on why times are difficult. Here are some examples (insert your own experience or opinion in place of these statements, and of course, as ever, only what you feel comfortable sharing):

    • Tornado drills and school lockdowns made me feel unsafe in the classroom.
    • The startling differences between the troubles of Oakland, California, and the fantastic beauty of the uncolonized nation of Wakanda, moved me to tears. Throughout the second half of Black Panther, I wept openly.
    • The #metoo movement helped me to better understand my own situation because so many people openly discussed pain that had once been silenced.


I invited students to consider my “English teacher” style as an example and not as a model, further suggesting that students explore their own styles of academic writing. In discovering how our style grows and changes over time and through particular genres, we also can gain access to hearing our own loss.


By hearing the losses of others, we bear compassionate witness to experience in the lives of students and colleagues, no matter how different those lives may seem from our own. In recognizing hearing loss, I gain new perspective on the lives I encounter, moving closer to softer voices, and learning along with students to be as specific as possible to carry the weight of difficult times.

This semester, students have been invited to engage with reading a whole nonfiction book from a choice of three twentieth-century texts: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge. I chose these three books because excerpts from them are frequently anthologized in first-year essay collections, and each text deals with a still-contemporary issue of relevance to my students: decolonial theory (Anzaldúa); racism (Baldwin); and climate change (Williams). Students could chose to work individually or in groups on a creative project that would merge in-school and out-of-school concerns.


The assignment for the creative projects is copied later in this post. The general invitation asks students to create a multimedia piece that is not necessarily digital, but that can be digitally documented, such as a handmade collage or mural that can be photographed, or spoken word lyrics that can be transcribed to a document and uploaded to our institution’s eportfolio system.


A creative project, according to the assignment, is essentially a rhetorical act that asks students to seize the circumstances of the moment (kairos) to persuade audiences to move toward action, or at the very least to pay attention to issues that have long been ignored and that continue to provoke dire consequences.


One example of a previous creative project that I shared with students (and previously on Bedford BitsA Single Story (audio file)) was a song based on Chiminanda Ngozi Adiche’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” The song riffs on the theme of Adiche’s talk, inviting listeners to consider the complexities of identity that resist stereotypes and that move beyond a “single story.” The three assigned books also address complexities of identity, and work rhetorically to persuade readers to consider everyday life as deeply embodied in its complications.


This semester, the introduction to the creative projects was preceded by a moment of silence for victims of gun violence. Our classes met the day after the walkout efforts initiated by the students in Parkland, Florida, to commemorate the first-month anniversary of gun violence and the murders of seventeen people at their high school. The walkout and activism surrounding the many recent occurrences of gun violence are examples of creative projects, as a student noted by drawing the class’s attention to a recent exhibit of murder victims’ shoes on the lawn of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.


At the end of this project, students will write an analytic essay that asks them to reflect on their processes of making their creative project and the insights gained from reading the book they selected. We are just at the beginning of this work. I hope to report back later in the semester.



Writing Project 2: CREATIVE PROJECT

For WP 2, you are asked to make a creative project based on the book you have chosen. The creative project contains two parts:


PART 1: Create a multimedia piece that shows your relationship with the book.

  • For the multimedia piece, you can create (alone or in collaboration with others in class):
    • photography, music, video, artwork, poetry, spoken word, podcast, interview, poster, collage, graphs, charts, experiments, blueprints, demonstration, performance, fiction, memoir, zines, graphic novels, service project, and so on.
  • The piece can relate to your major, to interests outside of your major, or to interests outside of school.
  • Post your piece on our eportfolio system. The original piece need NOT be digital, but make sure that you can make a digital record of your work to post online.


PART 2: Write an analysis that focuses on your relationship with the book, your process work for the multimedia piece, and your final multimedia product. Here are some questions to begin, but remember to go deeper as your work moves forward:


  • Your RELATIONSHIP with the book
    • What seems most significant?
    • What causes cognitive dissonance?
    • What connections did you find to 21st-century thought and action?
    • What points seemed confusing?
  • Your PROCESS work for the multimedia piece
    • How did you decide what to create?
    • What steps did you take?
    • What successes did you have?
    • What frustrations did you find?

  • Your final multimedia PRODUCT:
    • Does the multimedia piece truly reflect your relationship with the book?
    • If so why?
    • If not, why not? What would you change?


“Yet one must also recognize that morality is based on ideas and that all ideas are dangerous — dangerous because ideas can only lead to action and where the action leads no man can say.” Student-selected quote from “Stranger in the Village” by James Baldwin (Notes of a Native Son 1955).



The following activity is adapted from several journal entry assignments that students were invited to write as part of preparing to draft the first essay of our spring semester course, the second semester of Stretch. Many of the students spent the fall semester of Stretch reading and writing about Baldwin, and some had requested that we continue this work in the spring. Because several new students joined our cohort, we began the semester with new material from Baldwin, a refresher for students enrolled in the fall semester and an introduction for students new to the cohort in the spring semester. We began with the often-anthologized essay “Stranger in the Village,” then continued with “Letter to My Nephew,” which serves as a model for the first writing assignment in the course.



Our first writing project asks you to write a letter to a younger audience about a contemporary issue of significance to you and to future generations. An example of this genre is James Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew,” first published in The Progressive in 1962, and republished in 1963 as part of Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time.


James Baldwin uses this genre to introduce his main idea to his immediate audience (his nephew) and his wider audience (the general public and readers of The Progressive). After reading this letter, return to the first three paragraphs to observe how Baldwin creates an extended introduction.


  1. The first paragraph details Baldwin’s writing process and shows Baldwin’s relationship to his nephew and to his nephew’s father (who is Baldwin’s younger brother). Baldwin also introduces his main purpose for writing.
  2. The second paragraph describes Baldwin’s relationship to his brother.
  3. The third paragraph elaborates on Baldwin’s purpose for writing.


You can model your own opening paragraphs on this template:


First paragraph = direct connection to audience

  • Describe your writing process
  • Discuss your relationship to the audience
  • Introduce your purpose for writing


Second paragraph = background about why I am writing (choose from the following or add your own):

  • Events as you imagine them to be in the future
  • Current or recent events
  • Historic events that still hold relevance


Third paragraph = develop your specific purpose for writing:

  • To describe a specific problem faced in the current moment
  • To discuss a specific hope for the future
  • To create a specific plan for the future


The following is a student’s draft of a first paragraph, based on the model.


I have tried writing this letter and have evidently struggled to find the words to express the importance of words. It’s strange that something used in our daily lives could be so influential and important if used correctly. Words can either damage or heal and most importantly change the world. My hope is, dearest readers, that you never lose the fire in your soul. That you face the monsters under your beds with the utmost confidence and vaporize them with the power of your voice.


We workshopped this paragraph as a whole class, and discussed specific revisions:

  1. We pointed out the main idea of the paragraph (in bold), and suggested revising the paragraph to clearly present this main idea
  2. We were concerned that “dearest readers” was too broad an audience for the specific focus needed for this assignment.


Our suggestions here centered on finding a more concrete audience, even if that audience was imaginary for traditional-aged first-year students (grandson, grandniece, great-grandchild of my best friend, etc).


There is, I know, a vast amount of privilege that comes from making an imperfect rectangle on the first day of class. The chairs and the tables have to be moveable, not nailed down to the floor. We—the students and I—have to be situated in the same room, face-to-face. It helps that there is natural light streaming through windows that face the sky.


But having taught in windowless classrooms, in damp basements and old-fashioned science labs with sinks and immovable tables, I no longer take for granted any of these seemingly mundane details. Indeed, even our presence together in a face-to-face classroom seems an immense luxury.


The first week of class, the classroom computer and projector did not work, so we created a “slow” classroom dependent on analog technologies, including paper, handwriting, and the dry erase board. I invited students to write letters to me, first on what motivates them in their work, then on their expectations for the course. I answered questions about the course and about myself.


For me, one of the highlight of the week was an icebreaker that invited students to find three things that they shared in common. These three things needed to go beyond the mundane. For instance, the groups could not say that they were all students, all studying at the same university, and all enrolled in this writing class. After several minutes in groups of 2-4 students, the smaller groups were asked to join with another group, and to repeat the exercise, this time finding five common attributes among them.


I participated in this activity in a community diversity discussion group at our local public library. Unlike the library group, which included high school students and retirees, most of my students are the same age and are beginning their second semester on our university’s largest campus. But at the same time, similar to the diversity group, the students are diverse in ethnic, language, racial, and social class backgrounds. The similarities they found ranged from having dogs in their lives, having traveled out of the country, and liking to cook—especially grilled cheese sandwiches.


The icebreaker is an introduction to the idea of synthesis, finding commonalities beneath the surface of obvious differences. We live in a moment when synthesis is not much practiced in our lives outside the classroom. It seems as if we are in the midst of composing an ongoing comparison/contrast essay, focusing on what divides us, what separates us, what makes us deeply different and isolated from each other. In a sense, comparison/contrast is an easy approach because these differences seem obvious, on the surface, readily available.


The similarities are more difficult to find, but perhaps not as uncommon as we have been led to believe. The imperfect rectangle allowed us to slow down to find these connections. In the past in that classroom building, the students sat in rows, all pointed toward the teacher, the computer, and the screen as the centers of attention. Many students sat in the back row, and saw only the backs of their classmates as well. The imperfect rectangle shifted that center. Like Socratic dialogue in high school, a student remarked.  


The winter desert sunlight played on the tabletops. A new semester had begun.


Key words: #first day activity #icebreaker #first-year writing #synthesis #community

Today's guest blogger is Meghan Kelsey, who is completing the MFA program in poetry at Arizona State University. An experienced teacher and zine artist, she has just finished her first semester of teaching in ASU’s Stretch First-Year Writing Program.

 On beginning my first semester teaching Basic Writing, I created my syllabus by choosing a handful of essays from my textbook and created projects centered on text response and argumentative writing. It was flat and I could feel its depersonalizing effects during the first week of school; I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to really connect with my students because it felt too structured, not even close to approaching learning in a more viable, alive, and humanistic way.


When I got to know my students better, I learned quite a few of them were enrolled in the School of Business with a focus in Sustainability. They began making connections from some of the assigned readings like Gandhi’s On Moral and Economic Progress to conversations about how their own lives fit into the political and economic equation, and how sustainability was factored in. For most of my students, this was their first semester at the university, living in a dorm away from home; we also explored the social and cultural implications of this lifestyle during discussions.


Organically, my projects began to take shape and were re-written into the syllabus. The new accompanying readings were strange and different on purpose, taking after a Surrealist tradition I now know as Ostranenie, or defamiliarization. I gave them poems ranging from contemporary American to Italian Futurist, we looked at photo essays written by young adults from the suburbs of LA, and I made them participate in Autopilot, an activity in which writers deconstruct an automatic movement or thought of their day and become an active participant in changing that routine. My idea was that if I wanted students to arrest their current thought patterns and learned formulaic ways of writing, they needed to be exposed to unique and non-traditional texts and writing activities.


With this idea in mind, for the first writing project of the semester, I invited students to explore space using only primary research (see project description below). This was at first challenging for the students, as they seemed to be more comfortable using outside research to say something about the world instead of drawing on their own experiences. My hope for this project was that once students began seriously deconstructing the physical spaces they embodied in the university, they would become more adept at breaking open the vastly creative interior spaces that perhaps had been stifled or ignored. The French writer Robert Escarpit once said, “Place is an object under the assault of your imagination and little by little, it changes its form, without entirely dissolving, and reveals unknown dimensions.”


As a poet, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of space: cosmological space and its influence on our small world, architectural space and how it dictates our lives, the blank space in poems between words that represent caesuras of the unknown, the possibilities of what could exist on the page, ideograms, languages and their infinite combinations and connections.


Project One: Investigation of Space

What constitutes the memory of a place? Who decides what places hold specific meanings and uses? Often we drift through spaces unconscious of their meaning, purpose, and history. Your goal for this project is to help your audience see a public place differently from how they might otherwise through primary research only (evidence you gather on your own, rather than evidence gathered through books, research articles, or online sources.)  This analysis will offer the reader a cultural observation of a public space in or around ASU that will raise questions of social relevance. For this project, you will write a four page, double-spaced essay examining, by observation, your space. Your goal will be to develop effective primary research methods in order to study and closely examine your chosen space, take careful notes based on your own observations and analysis, and ultimately defend your personal interpretation of this space and its implicit or explicit arguments and values. You might ask:


  • What activities does this space encourage or discourage?
  • Who uses this space—why this group of people, and not another group?
  • What features of this space strike me; how do they make me feel?
  • Why is this space arranged or constructed in this way? What planning might have gone into this arrangement?
  • What are the historical influences of this place/area and how does that affect people today?


The students’ response was enlightening. They seemed to have liked writing from their own experience. They discovered something about themselves, their peers, or the university—both positive and negative. The project gave them the space to explore their own feelings and opinions about their daily lives which often can fall by the wayside with such a large educational institution serving as their backdrop.


The discussions around the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) convention in Kansas City, Missouri, are provocative and inspiring and offer substantial motivation for me to search my conscience on where I stand and why. Because of Missouri Senate Bill 43 and the NAACP Missouri Travel Advisory, CCCC caucuses and standing groups have announced plans to withdraw from face-to-face meetings in Missouri out of concerns for the safety of their membership, primarily people of color and other historically marginalized groups.


This post ends with a final writing project for the fall semester, a commentary on the call by James Baldwin and others for a boycott of Christmas 1963. I begin, however, with my reasons for boycotting the CCCC 2018 convention in Kansas City, Missouri. The more I researched the past and current histories of white supremacy and civil unrest in Missouri and the surrounding region (especially in my home state of Illinois), the more a boycott of the convention made sense.


The town of Ferguson, Missouri, is not unlike the town in Illinois where I lived until the age of seven. Both towns have shifted from majority white to majority black populations in the postindustrial years of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. My Illinois town, on the other side of the Mississippi River and far north of the Missouri border, was created after World War II. Private developers built a planned community to address a Chicago-area housing shortage. However, the developers decided that the new housing would not include black people, which at that time was legally permissible. From the late 1950s onward this plan changed so that Blacks were allowed in certain areas of the town, designated by the town city council members, one of whom was my grandfather. In the early 1960s, he was instrumental in adopting this idea of “planned integration.”


The town that was my early childhood home in Illinois is not unlike Ferguson in that years ago, it welcomed white people almost exclusively. Then, as industry and development moved elsewhere and gentrification increased in the cities, older suburban housing was left to deteriorate. The city of Chicago decided to implode its housing projects, without providing new housing equally available to displaced residents. This initiative was called The Plan for Transformation. Many of the houses in my Illinois town became part of Section 8 and the federal housing vouchers that followed. A divide grew in the town between the middle class white folks who remembered an idyllic past, and the newcomers who were often poor and often Black. The newcomers did not share in the nostalgia of the townies. How could they, when they were not allowed to participate in shaping the future of the town that they now called home?


My schools in that town were segregated. My classes, which included new and experimental programs for teaching reading and writing, were de facto for white children only. In that atmosphere, I learned how to read and write through alternative methods. Later, when my family moved to an older and more conservative school district (also segregated), I could overcompensate through reading and writing. Because of undiagnosed ADHD, I struggled in subjects that relied on rote memorization and small motor coordination. But I could write my way out of anything, a skill I acquired through white privilege.


Those years are long ago and far away. But as white adults raised in segregation, we may feel unable to act, and we may think that our boycott of CCCC in Kansas City, Missouri, will not have an impact on the problems of white supremacy in Missouri or elsewhere. If we attend CCCC, white privilege in hand, we will advance our careers and we will be able to talk to others in the field. That, we may believe, will have more lasting results than refusing to spend money in Missouri.


Nonetheless, it is significant to note that there is a precedent for boycotts in our profession, and that in two cases the boycotts were for causes that marked racial injustice. CCCC moved the 1993 conference out of Phoenix, Arizona, and NCTE in 2010 moved their conference out of Phoenix, Arizona—both in response to national boycott initiatives The two events that triggered these boycotts were Arizona’s refusal to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday holiday in 1993, and Arizona SB 1070, the 2010 anti-immigration bill, some of which was later declared unconstitutional.


I am boycotting CCCC because I need to take responsibility for my own actions that, unwittingly or not, contribute to white supremacy. I am using the word boycott because it was the word used by James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others in times as troubled as our own. I am boycotting the convention because, for me, it is a matter of white privilege to assume that my presence as another nice white lady in Kansas City matters more than standing in solidarity with the caucuses and standing groups who choose not to compromise their safety by travelling to Missouri.


I also stand in solidarity with colleagues who are compelled by their employment situations to attend CCCC, regardless of the physical burdens and mental anguish attendance may incur. Matters of necessity and matters of conscience are deeply personal. As Adam Grant recently suggested in the New York Times, I also believe in the need to “make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.” Over the years, CCCC has played a significant role in my professional development. I value CCCC as a venue for presenting new research and pedagogy, and for learning about Writing Studies projects that are taking place across the country.


It could be argued that many states are in the position of Missouri, and it also could be argued that not honoring a boycott allows us to bear witness to current conditions and to honor workers in Missouri, as well as the Executive Committee of CCCC who made the decision to keep the convention in Kansas City. I am not convinced by these arguments. Missouri’s ongoing issues with white supremacy and racism are evident, and provide a compelling case for the NAACP Travel Advisory and a boycott.


My perspective also is shaped by the difficult decision I needed to make shortly after the 2010 boycott of Arizona was called. I travelled to Phoenix to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday. I bought my airline ticket before the boycott was announced, and I considered asking for a refund.


In that case, I was an individual travelling for family reasons, not part of a large group of people convening in that state to spend time and money for business and tourism. This reason is not an excuse, but a statement of our common dilemma. My decision to travel to Arizona was marked by frustration. Since 2010, I have learned a great deal more about the history of white supremacy, and the structural racism which may seem invisible, but in which so many of us participate everyday.


Indeed, my decision to travel to Arizona in 2010 informs my decision to boycott CCCC in Kansas City. My personal experiences of inconvenience and existential frustration cannot compare to the consequences of current and historical violence and oppression against people of color, which includes not only civil unrest in Ferguson and St. Louis and campus uprisings in Columbia, but also the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre in Illinois. The East St. Louis Massacre terrorized and devastated the lives of Black people on both the Illinois and Missouri sides of the Mississippi River. Blacks migrating from the south settled in heavily segregated East St. Louis because Missouri segregation laws limited available housing in neighboring St. Louis, and settled in Illinois suburb of East St. Louis. White workers felt threatened by job loss, and used this perceived threat to terrorize the black community in July 1917. As many as 100 black people died, perhaps more, while others escaped over a bridge to St. Louis, and after the bridge was closed, took to the waters of the Mississippi River separating the two states.


In attending CCCC, I would be choosing to travel on business to an event that brings in a substantial amount of money spent on site for food, lodging, and other expenses. This choice demonstrates to the business community in Missouri that I am comfortable to travel to and to do business with a state with a law that discriminates against marginalized groups in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations, and where violence toward communities of color is commonplace. If the business community earns less money than expected from CCCC in Kansas City, then perhaps attention will be paid.


That has proven to be the case in Arizona, and the results of the Arizona boycotts also matter in my decision. Although I did not live in Arizona at the time of either boycott, I moved here in 2013, and I have seen the difference that withholding business and tourist dollars can make. This difference was especially present in the veto in 2014 of a religious freedom bill. The governor vetoed that bill because another boycott was threatened. The previous boycotts had been financially difficult, and thus very sobering for Arizona’s economic interests. The threat of a new boycott was enough to convince the governor to veto the bill, and for no other religious freedom bills to be passed by the legislature, or signed into law by the current governor (as of 2017).


In 1963, when James Baldwin called for a boycott of Christmas, I was in Kindergarten and my family did not celebrate Christmas. But that did not exempt us from the benefits of white privilege. At home and at school, we did not discuss the murder of the four little girls in the church in Birmingham. Perhaps the community believed the murders were not an appropriate subject for young children. Indeed, when President Kennedy was assassinated a few months later, school was dismissed early and confusion left our community unable to address its shared sadness. This lack of attention to tragic consequences of terrorism shows the depth of what segregation does to all of us. We, as white people, are removed from an understanding of the situation and its relationships to the larger structures of power, and we are then unable to connect with the anger, pain, sadness, and helplessness evoked by such catastrophes.


So I will not see you at CCCC in 2018, dear readers. But like you I will keep teaching and writing and trying to make sense of a difficult world. With this in mind, here is the final writing project I will assign this term, based on James Baldwin’s call for a Christmas Boycott in 1963.


Writing Project 3: Presenting an Argument

For WP 3 you will need to read “Support Christmas Boycott,” an article by James Baldwin written with performing artists and writers Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Odetta Gordan, John O. Killens, and Louis Lomax. You also need to imagine that the readers for whom you write do NOT share your opinion. Your job in WP 3 is to respectfully invite readers to consider your opinion, and perhaps to persuade readers to change their minds. Choose one of the following prompts to focus your writing.

  1. In 2017, James Baldwin (who died in 1987) would have turned 93. Imagine that he is still alive and still writing strong—and that, as the 2017 holiday season approaches, he is considering republishing “Support Christmas Boycott.” In addition, imagine that Baldwin has written to you asking your advice on whether or not to post “Support Christmas Boycott” on social media. What advice would you give him? Why?
  2. Imagine that it is 1963. Write a response to Baldwin’s call for a boycott. Engage his most significant ideas. From this engagement, figure out your own position. Do you agree or disagree? Do you agree with some ideas but not others? Do you find contradictions? What would you do if you were an adult in 1963 faced with this decision?
  3. In 1963, James Unger, a Boston College student wrote “Santa Claus Boycott” for the Boston College newspaper In the Heights. Most significantly, Unger suggests that people have grown tired of reading about Civil Rights and that the situation will improve with time. It is better, Unger writes, not “to press too hard and too fast.“ 55 years have passed since the boycott proposal of 1963. Write a response to Unger from 55 years in the future, addressing how Unger’s predictions for the future actually turned out.
  4. Christmas 2017: Boycott—yes or no. Explain your response in detail.

As a transition between Writing Project 1 and Writing Project 2, I invited students to watch and reflect in writing on a video preview of Raoul Peck’s film “I Am Not Your Negro,” published in The Guardian when the film opened in the UK. In the preview, James Baldwin speaks at the Cambridge University Union in 1965. Baldwin’s subject is the “American Dream,” and he states unequivocally that “what [America/Americans] are not facing is the results of what we’ve done.”

What Baldwin means here is that white supremacy denies that African Americans and other people of color did the hard labor to build this country: “under someone else’s whip. For nothing.”


In reading the reflections, I discovered that students have found in Baldwin’s work a profound inspiration for their own writing. Students have been moved by how Baldwin inserts himself and his experiences into his essays and speeches. By doing so, Baldwin offers a model for writers to create their own profound connections to pathos and ethos, even as he has been dead for three decades. From the students’ perspectives, Baldwin’s writing on the struggles of his time hold significant implications for the world in which students are coming of age.


For these reasons, I decided to design Writing Project 2 so that students would have more time to study an idea in depth. The assignment sheet below offers a glimpse of what we will embark on as we stretch toward midterm and beyond.




Choose one of the three sample prompts below or create your own prompt. The prompts ask you to work on the following skills, which will serve as grading criteria for WP 2:


  1. Choose a significant aspect of “I Am Not Your Negro”  
  2. Explain the significance through supporting examples
  3. Explore research to learn more about your examples
  4. Develop reasons for your own opinions



RESPONSIBILITY: What, in your opinion, does Baldwin mean by “taking responsibility for your own life”? What examples from the movie support your opinion? When you research these examples in more depth, what do you learn?  Why did you choose this option? In other words, what does the phrase “taking responsibility for your own life” mean for you and what relevant experiences support your examples?


AMERICAN DREAM: How did you define the “American Dream” before watching “I Am Not Your Negro”? What specific examples from the movie support and/or contradict your definition? When you research these examples in more depth, what do you learn? Has your definition of the “American Dream” changed as a result of watching the movie? Why or why not?


HISTORICAL MEDIA ARTIFACT: What historical media artifact (music, photography, film, advertising) draws your particular attention in “I Am Not Your Negro”? What specific examples from the movie support your ideas? When you research these examples in more depth, what do you learn? Why did these particular examples draw your attention? Why do these examples seem especially significant in 2017?


CREATE YOUR OWN PROMPT: Follow the four steps above, and take a look at the example included below.



James Baldwin’s Lesson for Teachers in a Time of Turmoil” by Clint Smith might serve as an example for WP 2. In his essay, Smith illustrates each of the four skills to be practiced for WP 2. Smith:

  1. Chooses a significant aspect of “I Am Not Your Negro” (using education and Baldwin’s essay “A Talk to Teachers”)
  2. Explains the significance through supporting examples (providing significant events of 1963)
  3. Explores research to learn more about your examples (comparing past history with current events)
  4. Develops reasons for your own opinions (addressing why he believes his ideas are significant)



See Paul Thomas’s course archive for Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of Black Lives Matter.


Photo: Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Author James Baldwin and actor Marlon Brando.] From National Archives Catalog.

Vignette 1: American Sports History

Perhaps, dear reader, you have just read the title of this week’s post and you are thinking:

“Because the writers in my classrooms do not know the conventions, they do not know when they have broken conventions.” Or “My department/program/institution requires students to produce a writing sample for assessment that shows adherence to conventions. I don’t have any choice but to teach the conventions.”


Yet I invite you to consider recent US sports history. On September 24, 2017, according to the New York TImes, “N.F.L. players across the country demonstrated during the national anthem on Sunday in a show of solidarity against President Trump, who scolded the league and players on Twitter this weekend.” In doing so, these football players were following the lead of of Colin Kaepernick who, in 2016 in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement, would not stand for the national anthem.


The convention appears to be, “Everyone stands for the national anthem before a football game.” However, with Kaepernick’s protest and with the protests of other NFL players on September 24th, a rule that seemed written in stone has been broken again and again. Historically relevant to these protests are the direct actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in the months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, as well as the more recent example of Knox College women’s basketball player Arianya Smith in St. Louis County in the wake of civil unrest after the death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, who was African American, at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

When considered from a rhetorical standpoint, the action of breaking with convention is not only a matter of how, but also a matter of why. Kairos, the rhetorical context of deciding to break convention also is significant. Shannon Carter and her colleagues from the Remixing Rural Texas project offer an especially moving example of the importance of paying attention to Kairos in their video John Carlos: Before Mexico City.


Shannon Carter, John Carlos, and Susan Naomi Bernstein at 4C13 in Las Vegas, Nevada.


Vignette 2: Grammar Conventions

Dear reader, forgive me for taking the long way around in responding to your initial concerns about conventions. In order to respond, however, I need to trouble the idea that students have no knowledge of conventions. Perhaps, as Mina Shaughnessy and others have offered, our students know the rules all too well. When they are internalized with inflexibility, rules can become serious roadblocks to successful writing. In Errors and Expectations, Shaughnessy offered that students interrogate the reasons for conventions, and then work on revising and reapplying their approach to conventions. Shaughnessy’s suggestion was adapted as a class activity in early editions of Teaching Developmental Writing.


This year, on the third day of class, I offered another adaptation that included a close reading of James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” Here are the questions I wrote on the board:

In small groups:

  1. Make a short list of rules for writing that you have learned over the years
  2. Find examples of places in Baldwin’s text where the rules are broken
  3. Discuss why Baldwin may have decided to break these rules
  4. Discuss the questions: Are these rules appropriate for you to break in Writing Project 1? Why or why not?
  5. We will discuss this activity as a larger group.

This activity provided us with opportunities to read Baldwin’s work more deeply. Students’ examples of Baldwin’s writing breaking with convention were clear and direct: Baldwin writes run-on sentences, they said. Baldwin writes with comma splices. Baldwin writes fragments. A conversation about form and content followed:


SUSAN: Perfect. Let’s take on the fragment rule. Where did you find a fragment?

STUDENTS: On page 51, there are a series of fragments. The first is: “Soldiers don’t.”

SUSAN: Okay, let’s try breaking down that fragment. Note that don’t is a contraction.

All of sentences in the series begin with “don’t.”

SUSAN (writes a grammatical convention on the board):

Soldiers + don’t. = Soldiers + do not.

Subject + Verb = Complete Sentence

SUSAN: Why might Baldwin use this series of contractions on page 51?


STUDENTS: For repetition. Repetition emphasizes Baldwin’s point about poets and artists

understanding the truth about people.


SUSAN: Yes. Baldwin is showing us the relationship between form and content.

Can you try something like this in your own writing?


STUDENTS: We don’t know. Can we?


SUSAN: Yes, you can. You can do it strategically based on audience and purpose.

For some academic audiences and purpose, contractions may be too informal. The verb disappears in a contraction, and some reader may mistake your sentence for a fragment. We know from the example, however, that the verb is still there and that the sentence is complete. In this way, language is like music.

The writer can practice shaping form to fit content.


Later, as I read journal entries, I discovered that students were intrigued by this activity. A seemingly unbreakable rule turned out to be a rhetorical convention that writers could adapt as needed to fit their message and their rhetorical context.


Anarchy did not ensue.


Vignette 3: James Baldwin

Reader, I ask your patience once more while I offer you personal context for the Kairos of reading James Baldwin, a circumstance I could not have anticipated a month ago when I wrote my initial post for the semester.


On the Wednesday after Labor Day, I learned that my beloved had been taken to the hospital emergency room after collapsing from heatstroke on a public sidewalk. The high had been 109 degrees that day. I spent that Wednesday night on a loveseat in a hospital corridor near the ICU, not knowing the damage my beloved’s body had sustained, and whether his condition would worsen or improve.


Over the next twelve days, through hospital care and rehab, we learned that my beloved, with time, was expected to recover. Only later did we realize that we had broken with healthcare conventions, especially when my beloved spent eighteen hours in rehab with no medical attention for severe stomach pains. My beloved could not digest the food in rehab, and staff perceived our request for healthier food as a demand for special treatment. Even so, we found one dish, a vegetable medley, particularly concerning. Neither of us could recognize the vegetables, and we worried about the efficacy of any patient’s recovery in such circumstances.

Indeed, our worry was reinforced when the discharge nurse reminded us to make sure to eat a healthy diet. In rehab, this had not been possible.


What pulled us through this experience was reading Baldwin together. One especially difficult evening, I read to my beloved the words the students and I had discussed in class over and over again:

Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what torments you is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive.

Then in a whisper, I breathed out the next sentence: “This is all you have to do with it.”


Both of us held back tears. We grasped the significance of the events that had brought us to this space, of all that we had shared together as teachers, as writers, and as human beings.


In Baldwin we found meaning enough to move toward the future.

This semester, our first writing project in Stretch is called: “Why is writing so hard?” The title is inspired by our first reading of the semester,  “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” a 1963 talk by James Baldwin (1924-1987), given at New York City Community Church and also broadcast over New York radio station WBAI, and republished in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin.


In “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” James Baldwin addresses the conditions of human suffering, and reminds the audience of the artist’s responsibility to pay attention to and to alleviate human suffering. At the same time, Baldwin suggests that most people are too “mistrustful” to pay attention, and too “panic-stricken” to intervene. Baldwin offers that, “[We are dealing with] a people determined to believe that they can make suffering obsolete. Who don’t understand yet a very physiological fact: that the pain which signals a toothache is the pain which saves your life.”


Baldwin’s talk is informed by the ongoing and historical presence of violent white supremacy in the United States. This link provides photographs that offer literal snapshots of major events in 1963, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrest in Birmingham in April and the funeral of Mississippi activist and NAACP lawyer Medgar Evers, assassinated in June by White Citizen’s Council member Byron De La Beckwith. Both Dr. King and Medgar Evers were friends of James Baldwin.



The year 1963 is of personal significance as well. I started Kindergarten in the autumn of 1963 at a school that was as segregated as our suburban Chicago village. Because of residential segregation, real estate agents and landlords legally could steer African-American home-buyers and renters away from available housing in our town, and banks could refuse to loan money to African-American applicants. There were no federal orders to desegregate our schools, and throughout my public schooling there were almost no lessons in social studies, history, or current events on the Civil Rights Movement, with a few notable exceptions.


On the first day of Fall Semester 2017, these intersections of national and personal history, and the very recent events in Charlottesville (see the Charlottesville Syllabus) provided significant contexts for teaching “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” Catastrophe offered an unfortunate rhetorical situation and a frightening kairotic moment.


Baldwin’s talk implicitly addresses the cataclysms of 1963 -- and of our own time as well. The writing prompts for “Why is Writing So Hard?” also invite implicit rather than explicit responses. Baldwin, forceful about the causes of struggle, remains tentative regarding absolute solutions for a long standing national crisis. In the assignment for Writing Project 1, all of the questions focus on rhetorical problems, for which students can find, perhaps initially, their level of comfort in responding. Yet the more overarching goal for Writing Project 1 is to provide students with opportunities to reach beyond the constraints of their comfort zones.


Why is writing so hard? The answer awaits us in that kairotic negotiation between opportunity and constraint, a negotiation that holds potential for all of us to write and to grow as writers in difficult times.


In memory of Dick Gregory (1932-2017): Activist, artist, and friend to James Baldwin.



Suggestion 1: AUDIENCE

James Baldwin composed “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” and “Sonny’s Blues” in the years after World War II, during the Civil Rights Movement. In other words, Baldwin wrote during a period of great social and cultural transitions, and his writing is well over 50-60 years old. With that in mind, consider these questions: What risks does Baldwin ask the audience to take? Why? Would an audience in 2017 be willing to take such risks? Do you believe that James Baldwin’s writing remains relevant for audiences in 2017? Why or why not?


Suggestion 2: PURPOSE  

James Baldwin, in speaking of the artist’s work asks, “But what do you do?”  What is the artist’s “frightening assignment”? How does Baldwin address this question? What does Baldwin suggest are the purposes of the artist’s work? What is “the price” of this work? Using Baldwin’s criteria, do you consider yourself to be an artist? Why or why not?


Suggestion 3: PATHOS

James Baldwin writes, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.” Pathos is the appeal emotion, to “how we suffer and how we are delighted.”As an African-American man, Baldwin wrote for a global audience. How does Baldwin account for Black history and culture (such as the Blues) in his work? Does his account add to the emotional appeal of Baldwin’s writing? Why or why not?



[image source: By Allan warren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons]

At the end of spring semester, which is also the end of our year-long Stretch Writing program (English 101 stretched across two semesters), I request that students respond to the question: “What is your philosophy of writing?” These brief responses serve as an introduction to students’ e-portfolios and are separate from the longer reflections required in the final section of the e-portfolio. The writing presented here is divided into two sections: philosophies of processes for writing and philosophies of motivations for writing. Happy summer, everyone!


Philosophies of Processes for Writing

Writing helps you take a subject and digest it by synthesizing it to get a better understanding.


When it comes to my writing process I do my best to follow an outline. My outlines to my paper then, follow a series of facts, or points related to whatever topic I am discussing in my essay. In addition, to making sure I write in an outline I make sure I use language that  can allow me to connect and relate to my audience who is reading whatever work I have produced. I find that with these two simple concepts I am able to create great works of writing.


The philosophy for writing i have is to always pick a topic that you truly love, otherwise the writing project will not be enjoyable to you. Once you are done writing always keep writing at least another paragraph this when great essays or stories are formed.


My writing projects all are based around the same theme and that is find the truth in the story.


Philosophies of Motivations for Writing

We need writing for us now and for the future. Just like speaking, it is a way of interacting for us.


I believe that writing is important because without it people would not have an outlet to express themselves. Also writing is crucial for documenting important events.


Writing is significant to the world because it allows an individual to express themselves and tell their story. Writing is an opportunity to be creative and express ideas, beliefs, and personality.


Writing is important because it is good to get what you are feeling out in the world through the power of word. It shows others what you see because the world it a complex place that no two people see the same way. This is why I enjoy writing; it shows you the world.


I believe writing is important for our society in order to communicate ideas and thoughts. With our great technologies and advancements, it could be all due to our development in communication.


I believe that writing is a form of free expression that not necessarily has to be shared with everyone. I think that writing helps a person find freedom within themselves and learn much more about their individual character than they thought.


I believe that writing is important because it helps each individual to grow and change. Writing in a sense helps you discover who you really are.



[Photo: Screenprinted Patch – Write Everywhere, by ofcourseyoucan]

As the semester moves toward its final month, students have asked for a final writing project that would allow them to choose their own topics. They wanted, they said, a chance to show their creativity and to find a subject that would inspire passionate writing.


Although students had been required to analyze and synthesize ideas from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave for most of our writing projects this semester, Allegory would not be required for the final project. Nonetheless, the project ought to evolve out of significant ideas from Allegory.


I was unsure how to write this final assignment. For weeks, I wrote and rewrote, thought and rethought.


Then, on the last Saturday night in March, I had emergency surgery to remove my gallbladder and spent the night in the hospital. Even after a few days’ rest, it was difficult to return to school. I could not stay on my feet for very long and, worst of all, my brain kept stopping. I would have a sentence neatly in my head and could speak its first half, but by the second half the words would fall away. Healing felt overwhelming and impossibly slow.


Fortunately, I had scheduled an open writing workshop for my first day back to class. Students could consult with me and with each other and could have in-class writing time. This workshop turned out to be just what was needed. As students worked on a project with an approaching deadline, I worked again on the final writing project. I reread my weeks-old draft and gained a bit more clarity from the processes of tweaking, deleting, composing, and revising.


The next week, I shared the assignment with students: 




Propose a project to be supported by the foundation “Make the World a Better Place or Else (MWBPE),” Dr. Susan N. Bernstein, CEO. Our brand is human rights and our slogan comes from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”: “they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life.”


Realize that MWBPE receives many proposals every year and its CEO needs to be very discerning in selecting proposals to support. You must write your most persuasive essay of the year to convince the beleaguered CEO that your proposal is appropriate for MWBPE support.


As the project develops, students are beginning to imagine possibilities for a better world. Their proposal topics range from creating first-semester peer learning groups for new first-year students to improving foster care; from stopping human trafficking to supporting women who are interested in STEM majors.


From an internal focus on becoming better writers, the students moved outward in their discussion and engagement with each other and the world beyond our classroom. My gut still sore and my brain still slow, I felt grateful that the students had found resilience in their struggles toward academic agency.


Even as Plato’s Phaedrus examines Socrates’s troubles with writing, this truth remains: Writing heals. From the shadows of pain and frustration, writing holds potential to release us into the light.

Dear Students,


An important goal for writing this literature review is to practice thinking outside the box for drafting and revising an essay. We have spoken about the differences between written product and writing process. But it has come to my attention that many of you have still attempted to draft your essays by beginning with the thesis and the introduction.


In longer essays and especially with researched essays, beginning with the introduction may lead to significant frustration. You may not have found your subject yet, especially if you are at the beginning of your research. With that in mind, I offer four photos with helpful hints for completing the Literature Review assignment.


Photo 1: The product is different from the process.

This first photo illustrates the product. Inside the template are 9 rectangles, each representing a section of the final essay. The introduction will address the connections between Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and a third subject that will grow out of your review of the literature. The seven middle sections focus on the summary and analysis of each separate source. Please note that your writing for a single source may be 2-3 paragraphs long. The conclusion is a recap of your essay. The printing on the side of the template indicates that your third topic will be a combination of 5-7 sources that show connections with “Allegory” and “Letter.”


The final essay, as you can see from the template, looks neat and precise. This is the finished product. But the process of achieving that final product looks quite different, as we have discussed.


Photo 2: The process is messy and includes much trial and error.

Here are the 7 steps to help complete the Literature Review:

  1. Find your sources
  2. Summarize and analyze each source. A summary responds to the question: “What does this source say?” An analysis responds to the question: “What does this source mean?”
  3. a. Find the common theme between sources and b. Between Plato and King and c. write it down!
  4. Choose 5-7 sources from #1 and #2 above.
  5. Arrange sources in appropriate order for body paragraphs.
  6. Write introduction.
  7. Write conclusion.


Photo 3: Use file cards to keep track of your sources.

Index cards (a 20th-century technology) serve several purposes. First, using handwriting can work kinesthetically to enhance memory. Plato Theatre also was a kinesthetic activity, using movement to connect to “Allegory” and its persuasive appeal to emotions (pathos). Second, the index cards allow writers to file the sources in categories that make sense. Here, I have color coded the different sources. Yellow for books, red for legal encyclopedia entries, blue for articles, green for archival documents, and purple for films. Third, summaries and analyses can be written on the back. Be sure to use additional space as needed. Finally, please note that there are a total of eleven sources here. In other words, use strategic over-thinking for this part of the process. As sources are summarized and analyzed in writing, the third topic for the literature review will eventually emerge.


Photo 4: Sort, arrange, and rearrange the file cards in an order that makes sense. This process will help with selecting the third topic.

In the end, I chose five sources. Each sources is a historic account of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March. I arranged the sources according to points of view. The first source is an article written by a journalist immediately after the March in 1965. The second source (a book) and the third source (a documentary) are records of the events of the March composed by historians. The fourth source (another documentary) and the fifth source (a graphic narrative) focus more specifically on Congressman John Lewis’s experiences of the March. I chose these sources based on my interpretation of Plato and King: that the light of the sun shows us that there is no “alternative truth,”, especially where racism is concerned. Note that I arrived at this connection between sources through abstract thinking and interpretation. From the initial sources (Photo 3), I could have chosen a number of different connections. The experience of emerging from the Cave engages my attention the most, and I found this connection in each of the sources in Photo 4.


Good luck with your work, and please let me know if you have questions or concerns. I will be happy to address them.



Dr. Susan N. Bernstein

The setting: The Cave: a face-to-face classroom on a cool and cloudy desert southwest winter morning.


The text: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (previously described in First-Day Activity: What Is Truth?)


The task: Teaching integrated reading and writing through appeal to pathos: how and why “Allegory” creates persuasive language through emotional appeal.


The questions: What emotions does the text evoke? What does the writer hope the audience will think and do as a result of evoking those emotions? In other words, what is the writer’s purpose for evoking the writer’s emotions?


The problem: The lesson that you have beautifully planned is going nowhere. You have not successfully appealed to your own audience (the students) and you definitely have not evoked any emotions.


The process: As you stand before your students, you explore the recesses of your brain, much as a word processor searches for a file buried deep in the hard drive or the cloud. You remember that one of the most important skills for teaching basic writing is flexibility. That is, learning to reframe a lesson to address students’ immediate needs.


The emergence from the Cave: With your students, you will co-create an activity called “Plato Theatre,” an approach that will demonstrate the significance of integrated reading and writing.


Steps for Plato Theatre:

  1. Select a short passage for analysis. Copy and paste the passage into a Google Doc.
  2. Ask for student volunteers to come to the front of the class.
  3. Read the passage aloud. Invite students in the audience to stop you when they encounter descriptive language (phrases or whole sentences) that evokes emotion (appeal to pathos). One example of emotional persuasive language is “he will suffer sharp pains” (Plato).
  4. Ask the students in the audience what emotions Plato evokes with this language. You and the student volunteers act out those emotions - the more dramatic, the better.
  5. Invite students in the audience to discuss Plato’s purpose for evoking those emotions. In other words, what does Plato hope the audience will think or do as a result of this emotional appeal?
  6. In the Google Doc, highlight the language that the students selected. Then, summarize the students’ thoughts (from 3-4 above) in a comment for each highlighted phrase. (See screenshots for finished project).
  7. After Plato Theatre ends, have students write anonymous feedback that comments on the lesson. What did students learn? What questions, comments, or confusions do students still have?
  8. The next week, in group conferences, refer to Plato Theatre as a reminder of the differences between analysis and summary. The embodied and performative aspects of the lesson, as well as the Google Doc, can serve as kinesthetic and visual catalysts for integrated reading and writing.


Creativity: Creativity also plays a role in Plato Theatre. Students have an opportunity to act out and give voice to complicated emotions as a means of critically thinking outside the box. The text literally jumps from the page to demonstrate the innovations of emotional appeal, and students take part in multimodal work to arrive at deeper understandings of how and why language works to create meaning.

Truth: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave offers an example of truth that disrupts the contemporary model of “alternative truth.” Even as they leave the Cave, the prisoners emerge into a sunlit world that allows space to grapple with shadow and illusion.

Four years ago in the Bronx, I taught Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in a first-year writing course. New York City was still emerging from the impact of Hurricane Sandy, and the trauma of unanticipated change was very much on all of our minds that spring. “Allegory” was a required text in this student cohort’s Introduction to Liberal Arts class, as well as in our writing course. In our course, the program required that we read a novel from a preselected list. That was how I came to teach The House on Mango Street with “The Allegory of the Cave.” Our focus, growing organically out of students’ writing and class discussions, became the significance of education, and the development of resilience in difficult times.

Four years later, “Allegory” seems equally relevant, and brings back memories of studying this text as a first-year student many years ago. My first-year liberal arts education did not include a first-year writing course. Instead, I wrote weekly papers for Introduction to Philosophy, gaining an understanding in basic concepts of theory and rhetoric that has kept me grounded both in and out of the academy.  As a result, I remain convinced of the value of a liberal arts education for all students, across majors and disciplines.

From that experience of education emerged a key question that still holds value for a first-year students: “What is truth?”

Because students enrolled in our institution’s Stretch program have the benefit of having the same teacher and cohort across two semesters, I already had an awareness of students’ concerns with growing as writers. Indeed, as I read students’ reflective writing after the election this past November, I began to brainstorm readings for the spring semester. My goal was to begin in January with a reading that would take up the themes of change and transitions with the question of “What is truth?”

In the fall, we had briefly discussed Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, and over break I listened again and again to Patti Smith’s rendition of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” which she performed in Oslo as part of the Nobel ceremonies. “Hard Rain” is the story of a prodigal son who has returned to his community to tell the truth of his experiences. “Allegory” is the story of leaving the Cave for the light outside. When a person returns to the Cave, the Cave’s inhabitants do not believe the truth of the world in the light outside.

Different experiences, different truths: How does the audience for “Allegory” make sense of these differences? In other words, “What is Truth?” remains both a contemporary issue and an ancient rhetorical question.

In teaching and learning Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” or any difficult text, an important strategy is not to abandon the text at the first signs of students’ struggles. Indeed, those struggles can become significant points for discussion and close re-reading. At the same time, it can be helpful to pair the text with more contemporary and accessible sources so that the students can synthesize rhetorical and thematic relationships across time and place. Those sources may be required by our writing programs, open for us to choose, or selected by students in collaboration and on their own. In any case, the search for truth continues and I look forward to why and how we will address this subject in class this semester.


With these thoughts in mind, we completed the follow activity on the first day of the course, in preparation for taking on the first writing project of the semester:

Consider the meaning of this following passage from Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave."


And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads? (Plato)

Then consider the connections to these two interpretations of the song "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" by Bob Dylan. The first interpretation is sung by Bob Dylan in 1963. The second interpretation is sung by Patti Smith in 2016.

What connections do you find between “Allegory” and the two interpretations of “Hard Rain”? Make a list of those connections, offering specific examples to support your ideas. Use this list as your study guide for your first reading of “Allegory.” When you reach a difficult place in the text, consult the list. We will discuss and write about “Allegory” in our next class.


Image source: By Veldkamp, Gabriele and Maurer, Markus [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons