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First Lesson for a Basic Writing Practicum: Cultivating Metaphors

posted: 7.14.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

This summer, I am planning a practicum course for experienced first-year composition teachers that are teaching Basic Writing for the first time. In considering our initial lesson, I realize that my thoughts center more on conceptual possibilities for approaching our classrooms. Tips and hints are helpful, of course, but without considering conceptual possibilities, we may well limit the scope of our contexts for teaching.

At the same time, I try to remember my own concerns about teaching my first Basic Writing class more than a generation ago, in my Masters program. My program did not offer a Basic Writing practicum, although we had a comprehensive full-credit course taken in tandem with our first semester of teaching our university’s equivalent to English 101. The rhetorical and composition program was relatively new at that time and, in retrospect, still carried that feeling of excitement that comes with beginnings, a sense of experimentation and openness. That experimentation and openness would be the first lesson I would want to share.

As a teacher of teachers, I want to present the activity of thinking of our classrooms metaphorically. Metaphor can allow us to become more mindful of the material realities at hand, and can help us to find the means to describe and analyze our work in the classroom. In other words, metaphor allows us to practice what Shannon Carter describes as rhetorical dexterity: finding the similarities between two seemingly very different activities. We engage in this practice to allow our selves to apply the knowledge from an activity that we know well, to an activity that we are just beginning to learn. For Carter, that learning activity is Basic Writing. For my future practicum students, that activity is teaching Basic Writing for the very first time.

To engage in this practice and to develop mindfulness, I might ask practicum students to engage in the following activity—first with me in class, then with the students enrolled in our Basic Writing classes. I also have included a sample illustration.


  1. Consider an activity that you enjoy doing. Describe that activity to an unfamiliar audience.
  2. Highlight the key words and phrases of your description.
  3. Write down your thoughts about Basic Writing, using the most significant key words and phrases to illustrate your thoughts.
  4. Invite students to read or summarize their writing aloud.
  5. As students are reading aloud, write down an idea from the writing that stands out.
  6. Write the ideas in a list on the smart board or dry erase board so that everyone can observe how thoughts develop, repeat themselves, and build on each other.
  7. Read the list aloud, and the class’s observations, as in the above step.


The teacher as gardener has long remained my favorite metaphor for the work we do in Basic Writing, planting seeds, watering the earth, keeping track for sunlight and shadow, pulling weeds as necessary, sowing and harvesting as the season unfolds. However, just recently I have discovered an additional layer to this metaphor.

When my spouse and I moved to the desert from New York City a year ago, we understood that the new climate would require us to make some difficult adjustments. One of the greatest adjustments would be leaving our proximity to oceans and rivers and the deep green deciduous trees—the nature that nurtured our spirits. The desert holds amazing natural beauty, emphasized by the arrival of the monsoon. At the same time, we knew that we were facing long summers that featured endless months of temperatures well over 100 degrees, with little relief after sundown. We would need to adjust to the heat and become used to living in perpetual air-conditioning.

This summer, our first full summer in the desert, our adjustment begins in earnest. As I began my crazy quilt, my spouse announced: “I want to have a vegetable garden in the backyard.” Our backyard consists of a concrete patio, frames by two stretches of dirt, rocks, and cactuses. I was skeptical. “That soil is all rocks,” I said, “how do you know it will grow anything?” My spouse grew up on a small farm in the Midwest, and every summer he worked with his parents in their large vegetable garden. He said that the dirt in the backyard felt fine and that he wanted to try. “But the sun will scorch the seeds, or the monsoon will wash them away.” My spouse was instant. He planted beans and summer squash, and waited, ever hopeful, for new growth among the rocks.

When the first sprouts appeared, my spouse invited me to celebrate with him. I offered to photograph the new growth. Every night after sundown, when the temperature dropped from 108 to 98, my spouse would step outside to water and weed. The sprouts have turned to leaves, and we hope to have vegetables as the summer moves forward. The leaves growing out from the rocks fill me with unexpected joy—and with a revised metaphor that I hope to share with new teachers of Basic Writing.

Any of us, when we teach Basic Writing for the first time, might have pre-conceived ideas about what await may us. We have heard rumors, read articles, and listened to opposing points of view. Perhaps we have already formed our opinions. Yet we ought not allow our opinions to calcify.  We need to adjust our thinking beyond our perceptions and to pay attention to new growth unfolding before our eyes. Sometimes the growth will appear imperceptible, but in the next moment (or day or week or month), if we remain mindful, we might find great happiness. We need to practice mindfulness for our selves in order to offer our students additional options to judging their work, beyond the paradigms of easy success or hopeless failure. We need to cultivate our gardens alongside our students, so that all of us, working together as a community, may reap the harvest of the brief time we spend together.

For in the end, teaching Basic Writing presents no more—and no fewer— challenges than any other human endeavor. We share more with our students than we realize, for we are all gardeners, working to create a fine and sustainable harvest, hoping to feed our communities beyond a single semester – or a single generation.

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