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36 Posts authored by: Susan Naomi Bernstein Expert

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

The end of any semester inspires reflection on successful projects and areas that need improvement. This semester, I hope to take that reflection a step further by making plain what I usually try to keep invisible. I want to write about teaching with depression.  


In offering this story, I do not want to indulge in what the late comedian Stella Young called “inspiration porn.” Trying to recalibrate depression medication was not inspiring. It was painful. I have written a great deal about ADHD (See David Bowie, Difference, and Basic Writing) and how the quality of resilience has inflected my teaching. But I have not written at all about depression, which also impacted my work this year. When I was growing up, depression was greatly misunderstood and largely kept secret from outsiders. “You take life too seriously,” people would say, “just snap out of it.” I did not know why I could not snap out of it. For many years, I internalized the shame of feeling “different” and even “difficult.” My ADHD diagnosis felt liberating, and allowed me better access to understanding difference and difficulty. Depression, hovering over this term in an ongoing fog of sorrow, touched every aspect of my life.


After oral surgery a year ago, my anti-depressant medication seemed to stop working. For months, my doctor and I experimented with trying to find a solution. Since I had taken that medication for several years, recalibration and withdrawal became physically painful. I felt tired all the time. I tried going to bed earlier, and found myself awake before dawn. For the first time in many years, I began drinking coffee again. That also did not work. Coffee lessened the effectiveness of my ADHD medication, and also my resilience. Once I realized what the coffee was doing, I gave it up immediately.


Indeed, ADHD resilience helped me gather up the strength to teach. In class, I knew I could hyper-focus my attention completely on students and writing.  Outside of class and the office, depression took hold. I felt distractible and disorganized. I cried often. It became harder to read, harder to write, and harder to grade. The future felt immensely bleak, even as I knew many people experienced great unhappiness through the long election season. When the symptoms did not abate, I knew that I could not blame everything on the election.


I paid attention to the qualities of unhappiness, afraid to speak out because my depression seemed invisible to others. People commented on my optimistic outlook. Like a cat, I felt an instinct to hide my despair. I did not want to listen to comments I had heard in the past: “Everyone feels bad now.” Or: “You need to stop overthinking everything.” I admired Disability Studies scholars who wrote openly on mental disabilities. I did not yet feel comfortable with that openness, and I carried in my thoughts the lifelong caution that I was raised with: keep depression secret. The difference this year is that I learned how to teach with depression. Or rather, by observing the work my students accomplished as writers, I have more perspective on the nature of secrets.


This year my depression was not invisible, and I cannot keep it secret any longer.  Yes, I made it through the semester, and felt relieved to read the writing that came from time spent with students. The students in my Stretch classes wrote powerful extended definitions of resilience, innovation, and compassion. The essays we read and the TED talks we watched focused on these topics because, despite our differences in age and background, these concepts offered strands of hope. In the Basic Writing Practicum, the graduate students and I designed a pedagogy website, which includes assignments, activities, and annotated bibliographies. We launched the website last week under the title Eclectic Scriveners Writing Beyond Catastrophe.


With the website that evolved from BW Practicum, we focus on the necessity for all teachers to cultivate compassion for our students and also for ourselves: efficacy, creativity, challenge, and difference. On the homepage, we offer this description of our group’s name and of our pedagogical purpose:

Our eclectic group meets—and writes—with the daunting purpose of meeting head-on the crisis that surrounds basic writing, to show how basic writing may be used effectively in college settings, to show that for as many limits it implies and places for/on students, it offers just as many possibilities.”


To name the crisis allows us to honor the struggle. Depression is not a metaphor, and neither is Basic Writing.

This post is a continuation of Teaching and Learning at Midterm: Free Empathy (Meditation 1)

Second Meditation: On Creativity and Slow Grading

This semester, the graduate students enrolled in my Practicum course have initiated many thoughtful discussions on the role of creativity in teaching basic writing and learning to write for academic audiences and purposes. For a practitioner/inquiry project devoted to this theme, a participant in practicum developed and guest-taught a lesson for my students enrolled in Stretch. The lesson included a performance by Evelyn Glennie, whose TED Talk “How to Truly Listen” has been a significant touchstone for our writing project.

After we listened to Glennie perform Steve Reich’s "Clapping Music,” our guest-teacher asked us to write in response. In my own graduate school training, we were encouraged to write with students, to experience the challenges of process and product writers ourselves. I rarely write poetry anymore, but this poem emerged as an attempt to gain understanding and empathy for struggles with neuro-diversity. I presented the poem to students as an introduction to my frustrations with slow grading.

Organized Chaos (after Evelyn Glennie's performance of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music”)

Flow-- breathing in flow--
and sound evolving from the tips of fingers
and the sound beating of a heart

(My brain these days
My sewing in odd moments)

Organized chaos

(Needle pushing through cotton
Quilting pieces
layering cotton over rayon over cool polyester)

creating new offerings from old notes
trying and trying again
organized chaos
the sound of flow

Right now, my brain is moving in pieces and fragments that need quilting together. Glennie's work reminds me of this, of Difference as asset and not deficit. She reminds me how and why art is created. She reminds me of the need to create art, and to remember writing as art and quilting as art, the seaming together of disparate pieces to create larger wholes. I used to write a lot of poetry. Now I write in many forms. Powerpoints are quilts and quilts are 1000-page books of short stories and essays. In my mind, through the tips of my fingers, I clap with Glennie. Organized chaos. I flow.



The practice of Free Empathy comes with its own challenges. For example, I need to constantly check long-held teaching practices and processes for relevance in current contexts. Often this checking happens in the moment, as new and unexpected conundrums arise. But as we move through midterm into the final weeks of the course,  Free Empathy offers the most consistent lesson plan I know for changing times.



This post is dedicated to all of us who, at midterm, amid a wide variety of distractions, grapple with catching up on grading and class prep, keeping track of meetings and  social media (including email), and research and writing for forthcoming presentations. My memory tracks back to a Free Empathy sign I saw at Occupy Wall Street five years ago. Yes, I think, free unconditional empathy would be most helpful for all of us at this particular moment. Sowith this particular rhetorical situation in mind, I offer fragments of recent teaching and learning experiences for anyone in need of free empathyteachers and students alike!



At Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park (October 2011), a white sign with large black font reads: Free Empathy. Photo by S.N. Bernstein



First Meditation: On Growing as Writers and Human Beings

originally posted on Council on Basic Writing Facebook page

This is my quilt, completed yesterday: "2016In Hope and Sorrow." While it's not specifically basic writing content, it is basic writing related. Many of the students I've taught over the years (as well as this year) are artists and musicians. At one institution, these students were not allowed to take art or music courses because their test scores placed them in "remedial" courses. My own ACT scores would undoubtedly have placed me in "remediation," if it had existed in the time and place of my undergraduate education, and my GRE scores could have kept me out of graduate school if those scores had mattered as much then as they do now. In other words, we need to eliminate the label "basic writer." It essentializes students, and it limits how institutions understand the potential of students enrolled in BW classes. Many of us would not be where we are now if we had been called "Basic STEMmers" including me. Even my English ACT score was below average, because the ACT did not measure my quirkiness, my proclivity for "thinking outside the box"what is now called "innovation." Apologies for the length of this, and for sharing what doesn't conventionally fit the category of basic writing, but which, for me, is deeply connected to the continued efforts of students and teachers working hard toward growing as writers and as human beings.


To be continued...

As I prepared for my fall classes, I grappled with questions that students often ask on the first day of the basic writing course: “Is this course remedial? Is it a review of high school?” In the past, I had always responded with an emphatic “no.” But this year, my hope was to offer sound rhetorical reasons for how and why this basic writing course would be different from high school.


I remembered the last basic writing course that I taught in graduate school, in an abbreviated summer session. That summer, back in the 1990s, we were still many years away from federally mandated testing for No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core. We also did not have widespread access to the internet. All of the students in that course were six weeks out of high school. Many of them were away from home for the first time in their lives, and all of a sudden, the students found themselves in an environment that tested the limits of their knowledge, but had not been part of their high school curriculum, such as national politics and birth control. These subjects, first addressed in their lives outside of basic writing, became the critical materials for their reading and writing that summer.


In other words, the course introduced students to academic writing and to rhetoric, to considering their purposes and audiences for writing and for reading. To survive as students in an environment with rigorous educational requirements, and a plethora of social distractions, the students would need to become scholars inside and outside the classroom.  The main challenge of this work was the time-honored prerequisite of learning to “think outside the box.”


As I planned for Fall 2016, I wanted to develop a means of tapping into the lessons of that long ago classroom. But it was not nostalgia for a pre-social media world that moved me most, or even nostalgia for milder summer sunshine, or teaching and learning under the apple trees near the agriculture building where we often worked together that summer. Instead, I hoped to offer a course in which students would have opportunities to stretch their own learning as writers and readers, and to process their thinking and writing to shift their learning forward.


Such a process can best be described through another commonly used expression. I hoped that students as writers would learn to go outside their “comfort zones.” Leaving the “comfort zone,” moving beyond the familiar, often offers any of us the best opportunity to flourish and grow as writers. But how to explain this concept to students who had come of age in an era shaped through social media? How to translate my twentieth-century students’ risk-taking efforts in twenty-first century terms?


Reader, I began with emojis, and at first I drew them by hand on the board in our classroom. Here is the first photo:



In the above explanation, I incorporated Facebook emojis because I wanted to illustrate the differences between the deeper thinking of academic writing, and the often more impromptu responses of social media. But in emulating Facebook, I had forgotten to include the “ha-ha” emoji, the symbol for laughter. Additionally, Facebook has no symbol for “questioning.” The emoji I tried to draw in its place, with question marks for eyes and a squiggly mouth, looked more like confusion than inquisitiveness.The information for our textbook, 50 Essays, also was incomplete.


In the revision, pictured below, I used Google’s gumdrop-shaped emojis, and found two images of the kind of questioning I had in mind: deep, contemplative, and not frequently uncomfortable. I also demonstrated how to use internal citations from our textbook, and included a Work Cited section.

At this moment in the term, we are learning to develop less formulaic approaches to thinking about writing and reading. We read videos as well as non-fiction essays, and experiment with moving from in-class writing to think-pair-shares to class discussions to journals, to still more in-class writing, back to journals, and to developing journals from drafts. The process is slow and not always deliberate, and there are always questions that address the worries of this new and much slower process for creating an essay. I look forward to reporting the results of our work together in a future post.

Near the beginning of the semester, once my students have had time to digest the syllabus, the assignments, and my teaching style,  we engage in a file card discussion. The activity unfolds in five basic steps:

  1. Each student receives a blank file card.
  2. Students are requested to write down their questions, comments, concerns, suggestions, and complaints regarding the course.
  3. Students are asked to turn in the cards anonymously.
  4. I collect the cards and shuffle them, so as to rearrange the order in which the cards were returned.
  5. I read the submissions on the cards and begin a discussion with students regarding course design, including the syllabus and assignments.

I often make revisions to the course design based on these discussions. Even as standard outcomes and assignments must be maintained, I can adapt course activities that appear to be a better fit for the needs of the students in the course. In other words, the File Card Discussion helps to facilitate revision of course delivery to achieve goals stated in the syllabus and the assignments.

The file card discussion also works for community building, as the center of class discussion becomes dispersed. The questions of students who would rather not speak in a larger group receive the same attention as students who enjoy talking in class.  Additionally, as they hear their own written questions repeated again and again, students realize that their classmates share common concerns.

As the facilitator of this activity, I have an opportunity to address questions and to listen for for the repetition of questions. Repetition indicates to me that either I have not explained a policy or in sufficient detail, or that I may need to tweak the assignment to create a better fit for the needs of the students in the classroom.

Perhaps teachers may prefer the distance of a course management virtual discussion board. A virtual discussion board can be read at a more leisurely pace away from the possibility of direct confrontation in the classroom. But, unless teachers fear for their safety, the file card discussion offers more fulfilling opportunities for us to offer compassion and support for the worries that students may feel more comfortable expressing anonymously.

While the virtual discussion board offers anonymity,  the process of submitting questions may unfold quite differently. For example, students can easily see if another classmate has already asked the same question. The incentive to repeat that question may disappear, and neither students nor teacher would experience the critical mass of their classmates’ shared concern.

Even as the questions are written individually and the writers remain anonymous, our face-to-face classroom environment offers the potential for students to create a collective and embodied community voice. Often, as the file card discussion moves forward, and their comfort level increases, students may decide to speak aloud with elaboration or additional questions. Face-to-face, as their teacher, I can learn more about our community, clarify confusions, and address suggested changes in the syllabus or our assignments in real time with immediate feedback.

Afterward, holding the material evidence of anonymous questions and suggestions in my hands, I can begin to contemplate equitable and informed responses based on the file card discussion.

Destiny– Version 5.jpg

What can we do to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for our students? How can we connect writing and reading instruction with our students’ concerns? The following reading lists offer links to short takes on a variety of topics that cover issues such as course design; pedagogical terms and frameworks; racial, linguistic, and cultural identity; and suggested readings for course syllabi. The heading for each list is briefly annotated.


Photo: My cat Destiny, in search of a good read.


Transitions to College

As students transition to post-secondary education, they face new academic and social situations that present challenges, but also offer opportunities for growth as writers. Whether students transition directly from high school or military service, or are returning to college after a hiatus of many years, the sources in this first list focus on creating equitable classrooms for first-year students from a variety of backgrounds. The final item on the list shows the results from a recent survey on the expectations of high school teachers, college instructors, and employers in core content areas, including writing. The differing results offer a starting point for discussion about the purposes of post-secondary writing courses, as well as the needs and expectations of recent high school graduates attending college for the first time.


Pedagogical Frameworks

These sources offer lucid and succinct explanations of terms and frameworks that are frequently presented as keywords in post-secondary writing courses. The first two links are comprised of goals crafted by national organizations that shape our field. These lists can be shared with colleagues interested in national standards for first-year writing programs, which can and should include Basic Writing in their scope. The last two links offer a brief introduction to rhetorical concepts, and a revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.


Moving Beyond Self/Other

Many of us teach in communities that are new to us, or work with students whose points of view and learning needs initially seem far removed from our own.  At the same time, we can create a classroom environment that offers respect for all students and gives them opportunities to grow as writers. The links on this list offer suggestions. 


Addressing Racial, Linguistic, and Cultural Identities

Students claim identities from many intersecting racial, linguistic, and cultural contexts. Although students should not be required to represent their particular identity groups, we as teachers can benefit from learning more about how and why students’ perspectives may have been shaped in previous schooling and in experiences beyond our classrooms. The readings in this section come from a variety of academic sources and can help to inform our understandings of the world in which all of us live.


Course Planning: Recent Readings on Contemporary Issues

In the last several years, local, national, and global catastrophes have disrupted our lives, whether directly or indirectly. Educators have compiled a series of syllabi with books, articles, films, and other multimedia that address four of these traumatic events. These syllabi were published on the web in response to killings of people of color and LGBTQ people in the United States in the cities of Ferguson (2014), Baltimore (2015), Charleston (2015), and Orlando (2016). Individually and collectively, the syllabi offer readings and approaches that inspire a wide variety of writing topics, which may, in turn appeal directly to students contemporary concerns and interests. 

This past April, at the Council on Basic Writing’s Wednesday Workshop at 4C16, Houston’s Writers in the Schools teaching artist Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton offered a session on writing and movement.  In the late afternoon of a very long day, Deborah had teachers of Basic Writing out of our seats and striking pose after pose. The purpose of this exercise was twofold. First, we learned how and why to use movement to break the frame of classrooms generally tethered to desks and often glued to screens and social media. Second, we learned to apply our learning to facilitating a more embodied and physically present writing situation for our students.


The directions for the exercise are simple, and that simplicity allows students to understand complexity from a kinesthetic perspective:

  1. Invite someone to strike a pose.
  2. Ask the audience to describe the pose.
  3. Have someone else interrupt and change the pose.
  4. Discuss with the audience what changed and why the change was significant.


I brought this activity back to class when we were working on analysis. The students asked for a bit more direction, so I invited them to strike a pose that has to do with the writing process. At the end of the semester, we were actively seeking motivation to regenerate writing for a strong finish.


One student took a water bottle and enacted an exaggerated scene of partying, pretending to imbibe the water as if it were a magical elixir.


—What does that have to do with the writing process? I inquired.


—It’s why we’re having trouble writing, someone suggested. Too many distractions.


—Okay, I said, someone change the scene. Make it productive.


Students shifted a bit in their chairs, while the student holding the water bottle tried to stay still in the pose. Finally someone stood up to transform the scene. The second student held the water bottle up to their eye, as though it were a telescope. The first student sat down. All of us applauded.


—But what does that have to do with writing? we wondered.


The conversation that followed focused on turning around stereotypes and expectations. In the ninety-degree heat of the desert in April, one might think that all students would prefer partying to studying. Yet the movement activity showed how easily someone could break the frame. The water bottle, first an instrument of leisure, became an illustration of extreme focus, a necessary part of the writing process.


—Does the scene also show resilience? I asked.


We had discussed resilience quite a lot in class, about finding the strength to carry on when dealing with the contradictions and frustrations of student life in 2016. How was it possible to create quality time for writing in the face of gatekeeping first-year classes and full-time jobs to pay high tuition and fees?


—Yes, the students answered, the scene shows resilience. It shows that it’s possible for us to stop partying and go back to studying when we need to.


Additionally, I used this scene to discuss the idea of rebuttal. Some people complain, I said, that all students want to do is party. However, as you have suggested, that assumption is incorrect. Students need balance in their lives. After taking time away from their studies, students are better able to focus. The two scenes illustrate these seemingly opposing views by showing how an instrument of distraction becomes an implement of deep concentration.


Strike a pose.jpg

By the next class period, I knew I wanted to write a blog post about this idea, and I asked the students to take photos as I reenacted their poses from the day before (above). Doing this work helped me to remember my own experiences as a teaching artist with Writers in the Schools, just after the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed in 2002. Some of the second graders that I had taught during that time had already graduated or were about to graduate from college. I remembered the movement activities from our time together and how much those activities contributed to our focus on writing.


NCLB was repealed in 2015, and the world has changed a great deal in this last decade and a half as these children have grown to maturity. Perhaps we are more apt to argue for the importance of screen time and multimodalities to facilitate writing. But movement also is a modality, and we need to remember the significance of breaking the frame. For these reasons, I remain grateful for Writers in the Schools and Deborah Mouton’s work with the Council on Basic Writing. She reminded us of the potential of movement as an inseparable step in the deeply transformative process of writing.