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57 Posts authored by: Susan Naomi Bernstein Expert

This semester, I am teaching a second semester college writing class on writing about literature through a rhetorical understanding of academic writing. The class includes English majors and potential majors in the humanities, as well as students whose interest range from STEM to social sciences. The diversity of majors and the course constraints offer interesting questions for building a syllabus (as explained in a previous post) and for designing assignments. In selecting readings and tasks for the course, I considered the following challenges in critical thinking and motivation:


  • Critical Thinking.: What would encourage students to think outside the box of previous training? Whether students excelled as creative writers in high school, or studied literature for the sole purpose of succeeding in standardized tests, how might students discover new approaches to understanding literature?
  • Motivation. How can the class present students with opportunities to experience for themselves implications of literature for everyday life? How
    could students observe the persuasive power of language while challenging themselves to grow as writers through rhetorical practice?


Inspiration emerged as a keyword for both challenges. Inspiration allows us to think outside the box, while providing connections between the sublime and everyday life. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word inspire has these origins:


Middle English enspire, from Old French inspirer, from Latin inspirare 'breathe or blow into' from in- 'into' + spirare 'breathe'. The word was originally used of a divine or supernatural being, in the sense 'impart a truth or idea to someone'.


Inspiration as breathing is a powerful metaphor. Considering these roots, I understood that it would be important to choose the readings for our first day with great care. I offered the class this introduction to the course:


This section of the course is based on the principle of what the 19th-century poet John Keats called negative capability, inspirational power of beauty. Writing may not be easy, and sometimes writing is not very pretty -- but writing, both process and product, can be a powerful inspiration in our lives. Keats and James Baldwin (who we will read later this semester) believed this-- and so do I. This is the reason I became a writer and this is why I am a teacher. Welcome to this Spring 2019 community of writers!


Our next step would be to read and listen to the words of two seemingly different examples: Kendrick Lamar’s i (from the album To Pimp a Butterfly) and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the Marriage of True Minds.”). Yet these readings share a deep sense of the emotional labor of love and love’s connections to inspiration. Kendrick Lamar’s text repeats the refrain, “I love myself,” and his words and body language in performance underscore the hard work involved in honoring this love. Shakespeare’s sonnet, in describing what love is not, address the constant need for discovering what love is. Considered in the same moment, these readings point to literary approaches to questions of love, and the meaning of such questions for everyday life. I imagine that students will offer even more insights into these connections.


With these considerations in mind, we will work our way toward beginning the first essay of the semester that will hopefully inspire my students critical thinking and motivation in their writing.


Follow these steps to complete Essay #1:

  1. Write journal entries that summarize and analyze each of the poems in your own words. Use evidence from the poems and the literary terms to support your ideas. All journal entries are based on your interpretations and opinions using evidence from the readings.


  1. Select at least one of the literary terms|key words that interests you. Write a journal entry that applies the literary terms to one of the poems. Refer to previous journal entries to explain your selection. You can write the entry as a poem, or as a conventional journal entry in paragraph form. Refer to previous journal entries to explain your selections.


  1. Choose at least one of the poems from the list below as a focus for Essay #1. Write a journal entry that explains your choice. Refer to previous journal entries to explain your choice.


  1. Investigate negative capability in the poem, the inspirational power of beauty (Poetry Foundation Website). Write a journal entry that responds to this prompt:


Which Literary Terms|Key Words allow you to better understand this inspiration? Why? Offer as many details as possible. Include details from previous journal entries as appropriate. This entry serves as a draft.


  1. Revise drafts for a  final essay that showcases your best work on Unit 1. Make a google.doc for your final essay and share it with me. Copy and paste a link to your google.doc in the course management submission portal. Only submissions with shared google.doc links can be evaluated.


POEMS: Eight poems spanning more than 400 years of British and American Literature:

Sonnet 116: Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds (William Shakespeare 1609)

The Tyger (William Blake 1794)

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers (Adrienne Rich 1951)

Harlem by Langston (Langston Hughes 1951)

kitchenette building (Gwendolyn Brooks 1963)

My Brother at 3 A.M. (Natalie Diaz 2012)

A Small Needful Fact (Ross Gay 2015)

i  (single version)(Kendrick Lamar 2015; performance 2014)


LITERARY TERMS: A poem is as intricate as a motherboard and just as complex. Just as there are specific words that can help users to explain a motherboard’s wiring, there also are terms that allow readers and writers to explicate the circuitry of a poem. All of the terms are applicable to your own writing for the course, and can be for rhetorical analysis to better understand the meanings of persuasive language and the impact of this language for the audience (Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric). Here are several of those terms: imagery, irony, personification, tone.

This spring I will teach a second-semester first-year writing course that engages literary studies through the lenses of rhetoric and composition. In other words, the course aims to present literary readings (poetry, prose, drama) and invites students to engage these texts rhetorically, with careful attention to language and its uses, audience, purpose, and persuasion. In creating this course syllabus, I will adhere to the writing program constraints, but will be able to choose my own readings to fashion the required assignments.


It helps to teach my passions, of course, but it is necessary as well to consider how to introduce students to readings and means of approaching readings that will open doors in their own living, thinking, reading, and writing. Reading and writing need to be more than school subjects and a set of strategies or commodities.


At the same time, I also want to include readings that will open the way to help me learn from my students. Perhaps this was the most important lesson learned from last semester’s Final Writing Project: Create Your Own Course Syllabus. Since students could choose their own subjects for this assignment, I was able to gauge a wide variety of general interests through three sets of classes of racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse traditional-age college students at two different institutions. The most common subjects included:


  • Creative arts classes for non-majors (music, filmmaking, comics)
  • Health: (mental and physical health, self-help, food studies)
  • Courses in a special topic not offered by their colleges (sports science and history, religious studies and social justice,  business theory and practice)


My sense in planning the syllabus is to introduce literary readings through these general lenses, while keeping in mind the concerns of students. “I don’t like poems that don’t rhyme,” one student told me last semester, and then recommended that I listen to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” of which, at the time, I had only passing awareness.


The students’ interests in comics offered additional considerations. After we finished our second writing project on Black Panther (Listening to Students: Revising an Assignment and Teaching Black Panther) last fall, and they wrote their reflections, two students included long lists of movies I needed to see to better understand Black Panther’s place in the Marvel Universe. For students who have come of age in diverse racial, ethnic, and linguistic spaces, Black Panther and other films in the Marvel Universe are not only allegorical, but also material reality.


In other words, in real life students have faced situations equivalent to Black Panther’s most symbolic moments, such as journeying to the ancestral plane or creating community in the aftermath of war and destruction.In transitioning to college, students often struggle with unanticipated borders between home and school communities. In choosing readings for the spring semester course, I remember that such borders can be deeply complex and contested. I also remember how my own encounters with literary works helped me to navigate and negotiate the struggles of college transitions.


For example, I think back on my experience of reading Rimbaud’s poetry for the first time as an undergraduate. For my advisor, a specialist in French 19th century literature, Rimbaud’s work was an exemplar of French symbolist poetry. Yet for me  Rimbaud’s poems felt as real and as full of transcendent possibilities as life itself. In “Novel,” (“Roman” in French) Rimbaud writes:


Night in June! Seventeen years old! —We are overcome by it all

The sap is champagne and goes to our head . . .

We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips

Trembling there like a small insect . . .


These lines felt as ethereal as the popular culture worlds in which I lived as a teenager in the 1970s.  Rimbaud’s words were as resonant as the theme from Star Wars, and as poignant as Bowie’s genderqueer teenager in Rebel, Rebel. Popular art fused with the language hidden away in literary works unknown to me before college. In the midst of that fusion, the future opened before my eyes, allowing me to reach toward language and life experiences I had never before imagined. Literature, in my experience, remains a significant means of engaging with worlds outside of my own, and of envisioning futures beyond the limited scope of everyday life.


My hope is that the new syllabus will create a more fluid universe and collapse the binaries between the old and the new, remixing canons and drawing connections and similarities in spaces where the mind and the heart have been trained to perceive only difference and separation. These difficult times call for nothing less.

There are moments in our teaching lives that can feel epic, as much for what happens outside the classroom as inside. This semester was my first semester teaching in New York City after five years away, and it has often felt like a journey with a strong sense of purpose: non-linear, a quest or picaresque narrative, where kairos matters more than destination. Nonetheless, we have arrived at the end of the semester, and it is time for final reflections.


The reflection assignment for this term invites students to consider their first semester in college and their first college writing course as a journey. My hope is that this reflection will invite students to consider writing as a process that goes hand-in-hand with their self-discovery in their first semester.


Good journeys to all!


End-of-Semester Reflection

Consider your work in this writing course as a journey that began in August 2018 and that culminates in a significant destination in December 2018. As part of that journey, reflect on the significance of our theme: The Rhetorical Power of Stories. Your reflection should be 600-800 words and can be arranged in paragraph form. Select at least 3 (or more) of these questions to frame your reflection.


  1. What are some of the most important stories about this journey?
    • Beginning or end points?
    • Stopping places?
    • Places of celebration and/or frustration?
  2. Where does your WP 3 fit into this journey?
  3. What did you learn about the rhetorical power of stories from our course texts?
  4. What is your philosophy of writing?
    • What wisdom did you gain that you can call on in future writing experiences inside or outside of the classroom?
    • What awareness did you achieve about writing that you would like to share with others, including the professor and students just beginning the writing course?
  5. What do you want to add that isn’t included here?

Our final writing project for the fall semester is based on an assignment created in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Adrienne Rich, poet, feminist theorist, and SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) teacher at City University of  New York. The assignment comes from Professor Rich’s collected papers in the CUNY Lost and Found Series. Professor Rich imagined the assignment, in part, as follows:


Write a description of a course you would like to take some day-- on any subject, or covering any kind of material. Talk about how you feel this material could best be taught, and what you would hope to be doing in that course (Rich 8, Adrienne Rich: Teaching at CUNY, 1968-1974).


I chose Professor Rich’s assignment for two critical reasons. First of all, one of the courses I teach at City University of New York is part of the SEEK Program, one of the oldest surviving programs in the United States for students from economically undeserved communities. Mina Shaughnessy, as part of her original vision for SEEK, hired poets and other creative writers to teach students in courses called Basic Writing. Many writers participated, including Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Toni Cade Bambara, in addition to Adrienne Rich, who wrote about her experiences in the essay Teaching Language in Open Admissions and the poem The Burning of Paper Instead of Children.


Second of all, the writing programs for which I am teaching this semester require a research paper for the final writing project. It is part of our work in first-year writing to offer tools for students to transfer knowledge across the curriculum. In creating their own syllabus, students can gain insight into how and why syllabi are constructed, and also can take part in the research needed for syllabus construction.


As a model, I offered students “Images of Women in Poetry by Men,” a syllabus found in Rich’s

collected papers (24-35). The syllabus offers Rich’s assumptions behind creating the course, as well as long and details annotated bibliographies and other sections. I suggested to students that their own syllabus could borrow from Rich’s template, which I delineated as follows:


  1. Course Title: What is the course called? Why is this title significant?
  2. Course Description and Goals : What will happen in the course? What will students and the instructor learn and do? Why are these goals significant?  (4-6+ paragraphs)
  3. Rationale: Why is the course needed? (4-6+ paragraphs)
  4. Assignments: What writing, multimedia, service learning, or other projects will students be asked to do? Why are these assignments significant? (4-6+ paragraphs)
  5. Assumptions and Biases: What are your assumptions about the course and about students who will take the course? What are your biases as as a course designer? Why are this assumptions important for grounding your course?  (4-6+ paragraphs)
  6. Annotated Lists of Texts (Reading, Viewing, Listening Lists): What texts should be required? Why? What texts should be optional? Why? (4-6+ annotated texts = Citation + short summary of the text)


Students have begun brainstorming course titles for their syllabus. Following are some of their favorites. An update will follow as this assignment continues.


History and Stan Lee

The Science Behind Singing

FL (Fruity Loops Music Program) Studio 101

Learning Basic Instrumental Technique and Posture

Sports Analytics (Statistics for Sports Fans)

Introduction to Cultural Contexts of Harry Potter

History of Dance (Hip Hop)

Politics and Immigration

An Outsider Comes Home: The Story(ies) of Black Panther

In Memory of Stan Lee (1922-2018)


Writing workshop for our Black Panther synthesis project.

The words printed in black ink are:

Most important: If it seems too hard, WRITE ABOUT  IT ANYWAY.


I was reminded of the power of listening to students when student input led me to revise our second writing project for this fall semester. The original project would be an analysis of a multimedia storytelling artifact, chosen by the student: either a music video or a TED talk. The end goal was to create a synthesis of three texts: two course readings and the storytelling artifact.


To introduce the idea of a storytelling artifact, I played a music video that initially appeared to be a suitable subject for analysis. My students began a heated discussion about how the video portrayed race, class, and privilege. While the students seemed thoroughly engaged by the discussion, they were not inspired by the transparency of the video’s message and they did not admire the lack of complexity in its composition. It was clear that while the assignment I had envisioned prompted discussion, students felt that it was neither inclusive enough, nor addressing suitable cultural and technological complexities.


As the discussion about the video was coming to a close, a student and I began a side conversation about the film Black Panther, which is now available on Netflix. I had not initially considered Black Panther for two reasons. The first was, as much support as I could offer for synthesizing the film with more academic texts, I know next to nothing about the Marvel Universe. But my student argued that, even without knowledge of the Marvel Universe, the film is culturally relevant and accessible to a very wide audience, nationally and internationally.


While the first reason was reconcilable by relying on my students’ knowledge of this subject, the second reason was the one that gave me most pause. In the anonymity of the movie theater, I had wept openly for the entire second half of Black Panther. I worried about the impact that my emotions would have on my ability to teach this film as an objective text for practicing synthesis. But my student, yet again, re-framed my emotional response as an asset, reminding me that many people had very emotional reactions to Black Panther. My emotional response to the film thus became a teachable moment regarding the appeal to pathos.


Indeed, given the ongoing discord of our current world, recent events outside the classroom had disturbed students profoundly. If I wanted this classroom were to become a safer space, I needed to remember my utopian goal: achieving classroom community through shared experiences and common aims. What to do?


Revising the assignment at this late date to explore not storytelling artifacts but Black Panther – which was clearly speaking to my students in a way music videos and TED talks were not – would require significant shifts in lesson plans, and we would lose time to watching the film together as a class. However, could I re-envision lost time as time regained? I became a writing teacher because I love to write, and to share the passion, power, and beauty of good writing. Black Panther as a film had the potential to offer the kind of shared experience that most compels my work as a writer and a teacher of writing, and that would fulfill the aims and goals of practicing synthesis. Perhaps most significantly, sharing a film that we knew and loved would allow us to do our best work together.


And so it was decided. I would revise the assignment and we would watch and write about Black Panther together.


There were so many different pieces to this assignment that it was difficult to choose just one for this blog post. However, the activity that follows gave me a chance to share my thought processes with students, and allowed us to work together to take on the problem of creating clear and precise writing from strong feelings and seemingly inexplicable emotions.


Guest blogger Ann Green is currently a professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University where she teaches in the Inside/Out Prison Exchange Program. She also teaches “Hospital Stories,” a service-learning course in narrative medicine and other immersion and service learning courses. She received the 2017 Outstanding Leader in Experimental Education Award from the National Society for Experiential Education. She has published in The Intima, CCC, The Huffington Post, and The LARB Blog, and she grew up on a working dairy farm in North-Eastern Pennsylvania.


I regularly teach in the The Inside-Out Center program, in which half of the students are incarcerated and half of the students are traditional college students. The class meets once a week in a local prison or jail, and our class, a team-taught philosophy and English course, is called “dimensions of freedom.” Inside/Out, as described by the founder, Lori Pompa, is a space where “the process of investigation and discovery is both communal and collaborative” (Prison Journal, 132). Started by Pompa at Temple University, Inside/Out classrooms are half “inside” or incarcerated students and half “outside,” or traditional university students. (I/O is now an international program with 800 trained teachers in 130+universities and 130+correctional facilities.)


The creation of classroom community and the importance of boundaries around people’s lives is particularly important in my experiences teaching in the Inside/Out Prison Exchange Program. In her essay “Macaroni and Cheese is Good Enough,” my colleague, Jenny Spinner, writes that not every classroom or every student needs to reveal intimate details of his/her/their life in class or in writing. Community building does not need to rely on over-sharing or false intimacy, but can draw from the significant details of our lives from which we can find common ground. In other words, community building paves the way for empathy.


When bringing inside and outside students together, building an intentional community is crucial as students from both groups harbor assumptions and stereotypes about the other. Classes typically meet once a week from two and a half to three hours and often begin, or end, with an exercise that gets students to engage with one another. These community-building exercises create space for students to decide when and what to disclose; in fact, since many of our “inside” classmates are waiting for trial, it is particularly important that icebreakers do not ask anyone to reveal details of their alleged crime. (Inside/Out students sign agreements not to have contact with one another beyond the classroom community.)  


Here are five exercises (and links to more details) that you can adapt to different moments in the semester as building blocks for community, to address a difficult class dynamic, or to use as a brainstorming activity for a writing assignment. With gratitude, all of these come from different experiential learning communities I have experienced (the Inside/Out community; Corrymeela, Ireland’s oldest Peace and Reconciliation Community; and the work of Sharon Browning on “JUST Listening – …for the common good.”)


  1. Name on the Board: Each student writes their name on the board and explains, in a sentence or two, where their name came from. It is also good as everyone hears how names are pronounced. (Thanks to Colin Craig, Corrymeela.)
  2. Wagon Wheel (orConcentric Circles”): Half of the class makes an inner circle facing out, the other half forms an outer circle facing a partner in the inner circle. A question is posed, each person has a minute or two to answer the question, and then the outside of the circle rotates to the next person. Questions can be adapted for brainstorming, to address a class dynamic, or to any need.
  3. Listening Circle: The set up is the same as the Wagon Wheel, but participants who are listening are instructed to “just listen,” not to nod, affirm, or ask a question while the partner speaks for one to two minutes. During the debrief, participants are asked to consider what it was like to “just listen” and to consider whether it was easier to talk or listen.
  4. First Sentence of Autobiography: Participants write down the first sentence of their imagined autobiography and then share with the group. The group listens for both what is included and what is left out. (Thank you to Pádraig Ó Tuama of Corrymeela for leading us in this exercise.)
  5. Six Word Memoir: Participants write the story of their life (or part of their life) in six words, then share. This is similar to the first sentence of the autobiography except for the conciseness of the words, but both are great if typed and shared with participants at a later class.


Classroom communities require ongoing attention and maintenance, and they are important for our students’ learning. If we are asking students to share writing with one another, both through formal peer review and informal activities, it is helpful if students “know” one another. I place “know” in quotation marks because our community building should also strive to create a space for the introverted and/or shy. While no space can be entirely “safe,” we can create classroom communities through sharing the details of our lives that Sonya Sotomayer suggests, “build bridges and not walls.”

A recent discussion of the Writing Program Administrators listserv asks the questions,How many of us have asked students their voter registration status?” Respondents submitted practices based on their varying perspectives and teaching locations. Some respondents offer their students extra credit opportunities to register to vote. Others bring registration forms to class or show voter registration websites. Additional respondents believed that offering extra credit was coercive, while others stated that extra credit for registering to vote would not be equitably available to all students because of immigration status or status in the criminal justice system, and still others suggested alternative extra credit options, noting that voter education plays a vital role in rhetorical education.


Here is my experience. Many years ago, in the months leading up to a presidential primary, I brought to class a stack of voter registration forms procured from a table in the lobby of our classroom building. I presented the cards in what felt like a neutral, non-partisan manner, discussing the history of voting rights, the importance of voting no matter one’s political affiliation, and so on.


My students listened patiently. A few students politely pocketed the cards. But by far, the majority of students in the class said:


“Dr. Bernstein, I am not a US citizen.”


In that moment, I experienced a sense of humility that I have carried with me to this day. That moment is held with other sacred memories of voting-- and not voting: accompanying my mother into the voting booth as a preschooler and watching her flip the little levers of the old-fashioned voting machine; registering to vote for the first time at eighteen; voting for president for the first time absentee as a first-year college student far from home (and watching the debates for that election on television at night in the student union).


Yet the memory of my students, disenfranchised even as they paid taxes, troubles me still. As recently as 2016, some of us in the county where I was living-- myself and my colleagues included-- were denied the right to vote in the presidential primary because our voter registrations were misfiled as “independent,” rather than with a specific political party needed to vote in that state’s closed primary system. At the same time, in that same county, other citizens found themselves waiting to vote for many hours. The county government had drastically reduced the number of polling places. Poor communities of color were especially hard hit with the reduction of polling places.


All of these experiences have helped me to consider the necessity, and the difficulty, of addressing the intersections of political and rhetorical education in the classroom. Given the speed with which events cycle in and out of the news, my inclination is to return to my training in close reading gleaned from rhetorical history and comparative literature, and to share practices of textual explication with students. We first apply these practices to Civil Rights Movement readings, and texts that are densely packed, such as speeches by James Baldwin, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then I invite students to apply those same practices of persuasion and analysis to their own writing.


Currently in my classes, students are nearing the completion of their first writing projects, a culmination of a series of assignments that have unfolded over the last six weeks. The process looks something like this:


Reading: Read not only for main idea and supporting evidence, but also at the sentence level and for word choice and repetition.


Writing: Write the body paragraphs first, and summarize the text, not only in terms of thesis and support, but again, for how the text is constructed, and the role of construction in effective persuasion of the reader.


Revising: Divide long paragraphs into shorter ones, and make sure that each new paragraph has an introductory and concluding sentence to help with transitions between them, adding additional citations from the text as needed for evidence.


Reframing: Add an introduction that dives directly into the main idea of your own essay. Offer a conclusion that presents the main idea as powerfully as possible, so that the reader is persuaded to accept, or at least to consider, the significance of the main idea.


These steps then become the grading criteria for the essay.


In fast-paced times, this work can feel slow, difficult, and painstaking. Yet the aim of this work is that students will learn not only to analyze dense material through reading and writing, but also that, through reading and writing, they will learn to explore the possibilities of imagining in challenging historical moments, with Baldwin or King and others a more hopeful and productive future.

Over the summer, I moved across the country, from the southwestern United States back to New York City, and from full-time lecturer back to work as a term adjunct. These changes have allowed me to pay close attention to new classroom situations, and the necessity of reexamining my approaches to teaching in order to fit ever-changing circumstances.


My work with charting such shifts began on the second day of class as I reconsidered an activity I had adopted a few years ago, the File Card Discussion: A Beginning-of-Semester Activity. Two years ago, I wrote about this activity because I appreciated its relevance for building classroom community, especially for students who appreciate alternatives to traditional class discussion.


In the File Card Discussion, students worked individually to come up with questions about the course syllabus. Those questions, written at the beginning of the second day of class, were submitted to me anonymously, and I spent the entire class period clarifying writing and reading assignments, due dates and extended deadlines, grading criteria, and other course policies. This activity was intended to familiarize students with the course syllabus and with the work of the course as described by the syllabus.


But on the first day of class where I am teaching this fall, in each of the locations where I am teaching, the synergy felt different. The first day was spent diving into the work of the course, engaging briefly with the syllabus, then moving into the first reading of the year. Students seemed eager to engage with one another, and with the work of the course. So on the second day of class, the File Card Discussion very quickly became Ask Me Anything.


For Ask Me Anything, I invited students to:


  • Form groups of 2-4 members.
  • Introduce themselves to each other.
  • Compose 4 or more questions as a group, attending to individual questions as well as to questions that the group shared.


The questions covered a much broader range of subjects than anything I had tried in recent years. Students asked not only the usual questions about the course, but also questions about the readings, and questions about my own schooling. They wanted to know about my favorite books and authors, and why I felt so strongly about writing. Students also were interested in my reasons for choosing James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” as our first reading. (See Why Is Writing So Hard? A Writing Assignment for Difficult Times)


Additionally, I added a culminating activity for the first week, Exit Tickets. In the last several minutes of class, Exit Tickets ask students to:


  • Reflect on the first week of college, including our writing course and other experiences, inside and outside the classroom.
  • Respond in writing to the question: What did you learn this week?


This activity has two goals. First, student often will be asked to make sense of complex ideas in a short amount of time. Exit Tickets provide students with an initial experience to process those ideas in writing. Second, I read the Exit Tickets carefully to see what themes emerge from the students’ brief writing, often no more than a sentence or a quick paragraph. From these themes, I will become better able to plan future course activities.


At the end of each class, students left Exit Tickets on the table, and I eagerly awaited the train ride home to consider and absorb their thoughts and concerns. From this early work, our classroom communities would begin the arduous journey of learning and growing together as writers.

This post is the third in a series on Memorable Reading. For the first post and second posts, see Memorable Reading, Part 1: Fiction, Poetry, and Drama and Memorable Reading, Part 2: History, Philosophy, and Psychology


It is August, and the minds of many of us are turning back to school and the need for creating new syllabi, retooling old ones, or learning how to teach the ones that we are required to use. As I began the process of course preparation, I thought back to the many texts in my education that stuck with me. Especially significant were texts I discovered in times of transition, between high school and college, post-college employment and my MA, the MA and the PhD. I remember the readings that kept me motivated through difficult moments, and the texts that opened my mind to new possibilities.


I wanted to know what still inspired other educators in and out of school, so I posted my question to my Facebook timeline and to several Facebook groups engaged with writing studies. The responses are listed in two separate blog posts. The first post covers fiction, poetry, and drama and the second post concentrates on philosophy, pedagogy, and non-fiction. Some responders listed more than one text across genre lines. In this case, I have grouped their responses with the first genre mentioned.


The purpose of these lists is to reflect on texts that has inspired the responders over time, rather than to fashion a new canonical mandate. For me, these inspirations, read in aggregate, are powerful reminders of how much good writing matters, and how, for many of us, good writing, carefully read, can help to shape the course of life and vocational choices.


My hope is that the lists offer memories of our own inspirations and, in doing so, allow us to make wise choices as we prepare our courses for the coming term.


Hive mind: What is one reading from your education that you still remember? That transformed you, perhaps? That sticks with you, even though it's been years? NOT something that you taught, but something that impacted you deeply as a student -- in or out of school?

WHY do you still remember it? What impression did it make on you? Why was it relevant to the rest of your life?

I'm considering compiling these readings in a blog post, so let me know if I can use your name, or if you would rather be anonymous.

Thanks in advance for all responses !


Brett M Griffiths In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and 1955 by Alice Walker. Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, everything. I discovered them in the library on vacation around 3rd grade, bottom shelf, halfway back, poetry section at the Leland public library. Spent days each summer reading and memorizing and considering.


Bri DiBacco So many. But I keep going back to Lad Tobin's Writing Relationships. It continues to remind me that a sense of community is vital to good writing.


Caitlin Howell For grad school it was definitely The Rhetorical Stance by Wayne Booth. Something about how seemingly simple it was really struck me, and I do make it a point to cover the issues from that text in my teaching (and I teach it when I teach critical thinking courses). This article combined with various post-process theory research forms a large portion of my pedagogy.


Cara Minardi-Power Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary because it helped my understand some students' struggles as well as my own.


Charlene Cambridge Paolo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed did everything it said that literacy should do. It confirmed everything I instinctively knew about the way I was educated. It allowed me to have compassion for myself and my teachers.


Christian Sisack Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary, which I read early in my graduate career. This incredible book gave voice to my views on the relationships between class and education and the lives that could be changed despite/because of that. As importantly, the book (and all of Rose's work) was and remains for me a model of absolutely beautiful and precise and human(e) prose.


Deborah SanchezI Won’t Learn from You” by Herb Kohl! His own experience of subconsciously not learning Yiddish in order to be in solidarity with his mother sticks with me.


Debra Berry Peter Elbow—every student has something to say and the ability to say it.


Jim Lee Errors and Expectations by Mina Shaughnessy taught me that there is no normal in teaching beginning writing. I must meet the students on their level and work with them toward proficiency.


Lee Einhorn Herbert Kohl's essay "I Won't Learn From You"—the reflections of a K-12 teacher coming to terms with the resistance he finds from his students and learning how to meet them at a place of empathy, mutual understanding, and progress; turned me into a teacher and a better human being before I knew what either meant.


Paul T. Corrigan Parker Palmer's To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. It was recommended by a teacher during college. It really spoke to me at a time when I was deciding to be a teacher myself. I had a sense that I would spend my life trying to live out the vision of that book. I am rereading it now, more than a decade later, and it's interesting to see how the book feels now that I'm in a very different place.


Sandra Kolankiewicz “Just Walk on By”...Brent Staples. When I am in hostile environments or places where others might feel intimidated by me, such as the first day of class in a dev ed classroom, I whistle too.

This post is the second in a series on Memorable Reading. For the first post, see Memorable Reading, Part 1: Fiction, Poetry, and Drama.


It is August, and the minds of many of us are turning back to school and the need for creating new syllabi, retooling old ones, or learning how to teach the ones that we are required to use. As I began the process of course preparation, I thought back to the many texts in my education that stuck with me. Especially significant were texts I discovered in times of transition, between high school and college, post-college employment and my MA, the MA and the PhD. I remember the readings that kept me motivated through difficult moments, and the texts that opened my mind to new possibilities.


I wanted to know what still inspired other educators in and out of school, so I posted my question to my Facebook timeline and to several Facebook groups engaged with writing studies. The responses are listed in two separate blog posts. The first post covers fiction, poetry, and drama and the second post concentrates on philosophy, pedagogy, and non-fiction. Some responders listed more than one text across genre lines. In this case, I have grouped their responses with the first genre mentioned.


The purpose of these lists is to reflect on texts that has inspired the responders over time, rather than to fashion a new canonical mandate. For me, these inspirations, read in aggregate, are powerful reminders of how much good writing matters, and how, for many of us, good writing, carefully read, can help to shape the course of life and vocational choices.


My hope is that the lists offer memories of our own inspirations and, in doing so, allow us to make wise choices as we prepare our courses for the coming term.


Hive mind: What is one reading from your education that you still remember? That transformed you, perhaps? That sticks with you, even though it's been years? NOT something that you taught, but something that impacted you deeply as a student -- in or out of school?

WHY do you still remember it? What impression did it make on you? Why was it relevant to the rest of your life?

I'm considering compiling these readings in a blog post, so let me know if I can use your name, or if you would rather be anonymous.

Thanks in advance for all responses !


Aaron Kerley The Ethics of Ambiguity. It freed me from thinking being an individual as an intrinsically selfish pursuit.


Christina Fisanick Judith Butler's "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution" because it helped me understand how reality is social constructed AND that not only could I read thick cultural theory, but I could understand and teach it!


George Yatchisin Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Still so pertinent.


Jeff Cook Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything. He convinced me that seeing a work through multiple perspectives is better than trying to solve its riddle and find it’s ‘meaning.’  After Wilber, (which sounds like a Mister Ed biopic) I started asking those questions about all of my life. ‘What’s another way to see it?’ It got applied to dirty dishes, car crashes, and people who wear socks with sandals.


Joanna Howard I remember my grad school professor giving me a copy of an essay “I and Thou” in which Martin Buber discusses the difference between having a job and having a vocation—and while I can’t remember if it related to teaching, our discussion did, and I have thought of that conversation from time to time over the years.  The significance was that I was a grad student who wanted to be a community college instructor, a teacher, and this conversation and Buber’s piece validated my choice.


Let me add that theology classes in high school and my coursework in grad school often helped me reflect on what I was doing in my life, what did I want it to become, what did I want to do, which is why Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be Of Use” was (and is) a poem that I keep coming back to in moments when I feel I’ve lost direction. Buber and Piercy’s works are like rudders prodding me back to a considered direction. Buber reminds me to view my students as ”Thou” and not “It,” I have been my happiest and most successful with this perspective, and have gained the most as a fellow human being from it. (No pun intended.)


Lynn Reid As an undergrad When Abortion Was a Crime was transformative in my thinking about Roe v Wade. And a book called The Tattooed Soldier might be the one I most remember reading (and later teaching). Women of Sand and Myrrh, too. In grad school, Time to Know Them by Marilyn Sternglass.


Pf Lengel I and Thou, by Martin Buber. Buber, in collaboration with the beloved late Ken Morrison, opened a pathway between my mind and my heart, a path where life and relationships live in infinite Presence. I can't always find my way to that place, but it is my enduring vision and my most cherished aspiration.


Sophia Snyder A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I read it my freshman year of college and it was my first introduction to the power of academic feminism. I was familiar with popular feminist political writing about the present day (this was 2003, in the midst of the heyday of the feminist blogosphere!) but I had never encountered the idea that we never finish re-writing history, and that *who* writes the history books and sees value in what historical documents is vitally important.


Steve Cormany Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Try not to complicate things. Live life in an elemental way. Be conscious of your place in the universe. It allows you to live your life carefully.


Susan Naomi For me it was “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus. As a student struggling to transition from high school to college, life often felt like rolling that rock up that mountain, only to see it tumbling away me at the peak and having to start all over again. Now, as I reread The Myth, I focus more on the moment of joy, on Camus's notion that: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Valorie Worthy Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being— self actualization and peak experiences!  

It is August, and the minds of many of us are turning back to school and the need for creating new syllabi, retooling old syllabi, or learning how to teach syllabi that we are required to use. As I begin the process of course preparation, I think back to the many texts in my education that stuck with me. Especially significant were texts I discovered in times of transition. I remember the readings that kept me motivated through difficult moments, and the texts that opened my mind to new possibilities.


I wanted to know what readings inspired other educators in and out of school, so I posted the question to my Facebook timeline and to several Facebook groups engaged with writing studies. The responses are listed in two separate blog posts. The first post covers fiction, poetry, and drama, and the second post (next week) concentrates on history, non-fiction, pedagogy, philosophy, psychology, and writing studies. Some responders listed more than one text across genre lines. In these cases, I listed their responses under the first genre mentioned.


The purpose of these lists is to reflect on texts that has inspired the responders over time, rather than to fashion a new canonical mandate. For me, these inspirations, read in aggregate, are powerful reminders of how much good writing matters, and how, for many of us, good writing, carefully read, can help to shape the course of life and vocational choices.


My hope is that the lists offer memories of our own inspirations and, in doing so, allow us to make wise choices as we prepare our courses for the coming term.


Hive mind: What is one reading from your education that you still remember? That transformed you, perhaps? That sticks with you, even though it's been years? NOT something that you taught, but something that impacted you deeply as a student -- in or out of school?

WHY do you still remember it? What impression did it make on you? Why was it relevant to the rest of your life?

I'm considering compiling these readings in a blog post, so let me know if I can use your name, or if you would rather be anonymous.

Thanks in advance for all responses ! 


Angela Rhoe Sonia Sanchez’s We A BaddDDD People, my introduction to the Black Arts Movement. This collection of poems about the power, beauty, and strength of black people blew my mind and helped me to unequivocally love myself and embrace my blackness. Life changing!!


Ann Etta Green  Not an essay, but the first book where I recognized myself in an educational setting was The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute. It set me on a path so when I found Calling Home, Janet Zandy’s collection of working

class women’s writing, Dorothy Allison, Sandra Cisneros, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker all clicked.  In terms of short stories, “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker. I attempted my first piece of feminist criticism on that story and failed. But a good failure.


For me as an undergraduate, I was deliberately seeking out female teachers and women writers because there was such a lack of them in my experience. I didn’t have a theory of why—I was just looking. And I was also looking for examples of people like me who didn’t know people in college, other first generation college students or working class writers, but I didn’t have that word yet.


Simultaneously, I was trying to “catch up” by taking canonical courses because somewhere along the way, I had the idea that I should prioritize canon, to know the canon but reject it.


Bill DeGenaro Early in undergrad: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Was awestruck by the world-building and convention-exploding. I grew up loving horror novels so at the time the chapter narrated by a dead body blew my mind. Years later, the whole book’s audacity sticks with me, the idea that breaking rules as a writer and provoking readers smartly can unleash so so much.


Cecilia Ready When I started college women were absolutely marginalized. But though I identified with male characters, I never lost my identity as a woman. Thus Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist had a huge impact on me. Naturally I fell in love with Stephen Daedalus, but his statement, “Non servium” resonated with my already rebellious nature. Of course, my rebellion consisted of refusing to follow traditional female career paths.


James Wermers I took a class as an undergrad in modern Catholic novelists, and much of what we read in that class has stuck with me. Mauriac’s Therese Desqueyroux, Greene’s End of the Affair, and Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop in particular challenged me, consoled me, pushed me, and forever changed me. As much as anything I have ever read, they taught me the complexity of faith, failure, love, and humanity.


Keith A. Waddle This quote from George Eliot's Middlemarch: "for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

My appreciation for that quote and the overall wisdom of that novel grows the older I get.


Lisa Blankenship Undergrad: Egalia’s Daughters by Gerd Brantenberg; Toni Morrison; Shakespeare. Grad: Rhetorical Listening, Kris Ratcliffe; Anticipating China, Hall and Ames. ED is a satire switching gender roles in a (would it be?) dystopian society; opened my eyes about sexism and one of my first intros to feminism. Morrison same about black terror and trauma in the US historical and ongoing. Shakespeare: used to read it and weep alone in my dorm room, feeling maybe less alone than ever. Rhetorical Listening helped me as a white woman be quiet and listen to women of color hopefully a bit more. Anticipating China: most powerful book on comparative rhetoric and philosophy I’ve ever read.


Natasha Murdock The Yellow Wallpaper” had a pretty profound influence on me. It taught me to recognize the way I was being stifled and abused by my marriage, to be honest. It was monumental in helping me regain a sense of myself as a writer as I was going through my divorce.


Paulette Stevenson The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (in HS). I was appalled at the treatment of animals and workers. I remember thinking how much these people were getting screwed over by others for just trying to live a better life in the US. I was 14, living in a small town in the Midwest, and the novel allowed me to experience oppression like I hadn’t seen before. Oh and I also became a vegetarian after reading it. Note: I haven’t read it since, so I’m not sure if it holds up to my take.

Ted Fristrom "The Distance of the Moon." I always wanted to be a musician, but I had this weird notion at the end of high school that being a writer might be acceptable as well. After reading Cosmicomics, I thought being Italo Calvino would be more than acceptable. Perhaps that's circular answer to the relevance question. Why would I want to emulate Calvino? I don't know. Who wouldn't want to be Calvino? I had a short attention span and liked things that were a little surreal; it seemed to break up the monotony of my childhood.

[This post originally published May 23, 2011.]


This time of year, thoughts often turn to summer book lists. The International Writing Centers Association discussion list includes a query and recommendations for summer reading. The University California at Berkeley publishes a summer reading list with archives dating back to 1985; while intended for incoming first-year students, teachers will find many titles here that invite participation in the three Rs of summer: reading, reflection, and renewal.


My own summer reading list overlaps with my summer writing, which includes the revision of  Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings for a fourth edition. As I revise, I want to consider more of the historical context out of which basic writing and open admission college education emerged for poor and working people in New York City and other urban locations. So my reading list includes Mina Shaughnessy’s essays and Manning Marable’s new book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.


As a child born and raised in the American Midwest who now lives in one of New York City’s five boroughs, I am intrigued by the journeys of other Midwesterners to New York. Mina Shaughnessy (1924–1978: Lead, South Dakota; Evanston, Illinois) and Malcolm X (1925–1965: Omaha, Nebraska; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Lansing, Michigan) both took this journey, although their roots were quite different. Shaughnessy studied theater at Northwestern University and acted in summer stock productions. Malcolm X dropped out of school after eighth grade, moved from Lansing to Boston, and became absorbed in reading and writing while incarcerated in a Massachusetts prison.


Because Manning Marable’s biography is a cultural history, I look forward to learning more about this earlier generation and the world into which I was born. Like my parents and many of my teachers in K–12 public schools, Mina Shaughnessy and Malcolm X grew up in the catastrophic years of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and came of age in the midst of the tumult of World War II in the 1940s.


In 1965, I was a small child living in a segregated suburban Chicago, and I do not remember Malcolm X’s was assassination in New York City. I first read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, cowritten with Alex Haley, several years after I finished my BA. My copy of the book was old, and the yellowed pages often fell out of the binding as I read. That first reading left me confused, intrigued, and hungry for more. Although it was never assigned in any of my classes in undergraduate or graduate school, I have many times since reread and taught the Autobiography.


Similarly, I did not learn about Mina Shaughnessy’s work until I began my MA program in English in the mid-1980s, not quite a decade after Shaughnessy’s death from cancer. Yet in becoming a writer and in teaching writing, I recognized the struggles and potential transformations described in Errors and Expectations, and in Shaughnessy’s essays, and I felt a strong attraction to basic writing and to urban open admissions education.

So my summer reading focuses on political, historical, and cultural contexts that helped shaped basic writing and urban open admissions programs for poor and work-class college students. With these plans, I look forward to a summer of passionate engagement with reading and writing—and perhaps a time or two at the beach.


What will you do for the three Rs of summer? What are your plans for reading, reflection, and renewal? Where do you hope your reading will take you? And what will you do once you get there?

Written with guest blogger Steve Cormany.


For this month’s post, I have asked my life partner, Steve Cormany, a writer and retired writing teacher, for an oral history of his first published piece of writing. His first publication was written under personally traumatic and historically tragic circumstances in 1970, one day after the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University, where Steve was a nineteen-year-old first-year college student.


In our home, as in many others, we are following the devastating developments at the US border with Mexico. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is arresting adults who are legally seeking asylum in the US. ICE has separated the adults from their children, and both children and their parents are incarcerated as they await immigration hearings. Steve and I wonder together what we can do, and what role writing might play.


In the course of our discussions, I invited Steve to tell me about what writing meant to him after the Kent State killings. We hoped that revisiting this event through writing would provide historical context for teachers and students to address current events, and the trauma invoked in our deeply embodied experiences.


To help Steve shape his response, I asked him to revisit the details of his writing process. My thought was that focusing on the writing would allow him to concentrate on providing concrete description. Similarly, in the classroom, I often suggest that students pay attention to specific detail as a means to develop their writing. I posed four questions that could be applicable to framing oral histories, or any assignment that invites students to consider a significant piece of their own writing.  


  1. What did you write and where and when did you write it?
  2. Who asked you to write it?
  3. Why did they ask?
  4. What were the results? How did you and your audience respond?


While the questions are simple, they allow writers to practice 5Ws + H, a basic journalistic process for evoking details which, by addressing kairos - or context and circumstances - also can serve to invoke ethos and emotion.


Here is Steve’s story.


On May 4th, 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University in northeast Ohio. The students were killed at a campus protest against the Vietnam War. As a first-year student at Kent State, I was an eyewitness to the killings, and the next evening, I was asked to write a brief newspaper column about what I had experienced.


I had come home from Kent because the campus was closed, and I was trying to talk with my friends at home about what had happened. All of us thought that the killings were legally and morally wrong. We were expressing our thoughts in response to a local television show. The reporters on the show also were against what the Ohio National Guard had done. However, viewers in the Cleveland area had called into the show to say that more of the students should have been shot because the students were troublemakers.


One of my friends who attended a nearby small liberal arts college invited me to a meeting of the college newspaper’s staff about the Kent State killings. My friend took me to the newspaper office where that evening, May 5th, 1970, I wrote a column for the next day’s campus newspaper.


I was excited to do this. It was to be a short piece, about 300 words, and it needed to be written by the deadline. It took me an hour to compose, while my friend, a reporter for the newspaper, was anxious for me to finish because he needed to drive both of us back home. Despite having to wait longer than he wished, my friend was pleased with the results and the column was published the following day, on May 6th.


It felt really good to publish this writing, even euphoric, because it was my dream to become a writer, and the column was on something that was very serious. I had tried to offer a detailed narrative of what I had experienced. People that I spoke with afterward liked what I had written because it addressed an important subject. They said that the column was very direct and didn’t mince words.


I felt gratified by this feedback, but I had written about an ongoing catastrophe. I felt conflicted about whether or not I did a fair job of describing what happened. It was difficult to recount the events because I was still in shock.


If the writing changed anything, it was inside the writer. It gave me some confidence in myself and confidence to write. Many years afterward, I earned a PhD in twentieth-century American literature, and I taught college classes in first-year writing and literature for twenty-five years. In the wake of my own horrific first-year experience, it is important for me to give back to others. That is why I agreed to tell this story, although it has not been easy.

Guest blogger Steve Cormany with life partner Susan Naomi Bernstein and their cat Destiny.

The late spring and early summer months are seasons of moving for many of us, and last month, my partner and I and our orange tabby cat Destiny left Arizona to return to Queens, New York. While uprooting from a familiar place and grounding roots in a new community may not be easy or seamless, such transitions offer challenges that can keep our minds sharp and resilient, even through difficult moments. The lessons I learn relocating across the country remind me of the hard work of moving into new classroom spaces, whether we experience these transitions as teachers or as students. 


Destiny, an orange tabby cat, looks out the window at a view of city apartment buildings from his new home in Queens, New York.


My reflection on transitions come from an experience that my partner and I could not anticipate in advance. The morning after we moved into our new home in Queens, we awakened to find Destiny panting in respiratory distress. It was 6 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and we needed to find a vet who could diagnose and treat him. This process eventually became a daylong journey, and at its inception a positive outcome was not guaranteed. While the diagnosis was inconclusive, it seemed at the very least that Destiny was suffering from anxiety. Destiny had come to us as a stray early in our stay in Arizona five years before. The desert was the only home he had ever known, and he needed time to adjust to the decidedly unfamiliar space of a small city apartment. We would need to make major changes to our plans to care for Destiny’s immediate needs. 


Destiny’s transition from college-town house cat to apartment-dwelling city kitty especially teaches me to hit the ground running, to build new forms of participation into transitions, and to expect the unexpected. Even as these lessons have become common practice in my classrooms, relocating has caused me to try to reframe these lessons for a variety of settings.


  1. Hit the ground running: Create a plan to become involved with your community as soon as possible. Dive right into the curriculum on the first day of class, and offer an activity that represents a core value of the community that you hope to create with students. For example:
  • Try not to read the syllabus aloud or highlight only the key points of the syllabus (texts needed, major assignments, attendance policy, and so forth). Alternatively, you can invite students to study the syllabus together in pairs or small groups to prepare for a brief syllabus quiz on the second day.
  • Listen to a reading or watch a video together, then discuss it afterwards in small groups. Be sure to offer students a chance to ask questions and to write about what they have experienced.
  • Co-create an activity together. Brainstorm topics for a first writing assignment, or have students make lists of what they already know about writing and what goals they have for completing the course. Share the lists to find challenges and commonalities.


  1. Not everyone wants to participate immediately. Build alternative forms of participation into the transition. Offer a more inclusive curriculum through universal design that can help shy students and allow students with learning differences and differences in attention span and executive function to engage on an individualized level.
  • Try not to offer a “diagnostic” writing assignment. Students are not patients with symptoms that need prescribed treatments. Instead, present the first day essay as an opportunity for students to introduce themselves to you as writers. What values or experiences do students bring to their writing? What do students want you to know about how they learn, about what helps their learning and what may be a roadblock to learning?
  • Offer lots of opportunities for ungraded, directed free writing. Even as topics can be co-created in class, students gain a great deal from individualized practice without the pressure of formal evaluation.
  • Create a forum for students to ask anonymous questions about the first writing assignment, or about the course syllabus and classroom policies.


  1. Expect the unexpected. Try to approach this new transition without expectations for anything going as planned. Give yourself space as a teacher to deal with challenges that may arise at the beginning of the term. The internet may crash, or inclement weather may cause difficult commutes and late arrivals, but your classroom community can learn to adapt to unanticipated changes or delays.
  • Return to analog activities. Have students practice writing with paper and pen.
  • Draw or write salient points on the board, leaving a record of your activities.
  • Use pair shares or small groups to have students introduce themselves to each other and to the rest of the class.


This experience with our move and with Destiny’s adjustment reminds me not only of the hard work that our students do to adjust to new circumstances, but also the work that we must do as teachers to move from the imaginary classroom constructed in the syllabus to the reality of the desires and needs of the students with whom we share our new classroom community. We can learn a great deal from observing not only our students, but also ourselves. Even as Destiny continues to adjust to his new and unexpected circumstances day by day, we work toward transitioning to new space in our shared community that we hope will benefit all of us.

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