Archive for the ‘Developmental’ Category

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Persistence

posted: 1.23.12 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

When I was in my late teens, in the midst of the transition to college and young adulthood, I read and fell in love with Albert Camus’s the Myth of Sisyphus.  Published in 1942, in the midst of the catastrophic events of World War II, Camus presented a lesson on persistence that I have never forgotten. This brief synopsis of Camus’s retelling of this myth sets the scene:

Condemned by the gods, Sisyphus is ordered to push a boulder to the top of a mountain. Each time, as Sisyphus neared the top, the boulder would roll all the way down to the bottom again. Sisyphus would head back down the mountain to retrieve the boulder begin the task again, only to lose the boulder each time as he approached his goal. According to Camus, the gods believed “that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” Yet in the midst of his hopeless and absurd situation, Camus suggested that Sisyphus need not fall into despair.

“There is no sun without shadow,” he writes, “and it is essential to know the night.”

The present moment holds the possibility for change. The difficult hours prepare us for joy, just as joy remembered helps sustain us through difficulty. As a first-year college student living away from home, Camus’ essay moved me profoundly—not merely as literature, but as a lifelong lesson. Many years later, I shared this lesson with students in basic writing. My goals for presenting this lesson were twofold: first, I wanted the students to revisit their values and larger purposes for attending college. Second, I wanted to present Sisyphus’ dilemma as an analogy for the writing process. [read more]

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Categories: Developmental
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The Day I Learned to Occupy Revision

posted: 10.31.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

The day I learned to occupy revision was a fine autumn Sunday in New York City. I had been working without success on a particularly difficult revision, so I decided to leave the suddenly stultifying quiet of my apartment and venture downtown to Zuccotti Park (also known as Liberty Plaza). After 09/11, the park was rebuilt as a public sanctuary, a much-welcomed tree-lined space of tranquility in an often-restive city. A circle of granite benches surrounding a London Plane tree, located at the intersection of Liberty and Trinity, serves exactly this purpose for the people of Occupy Wall Street.  I found the outside of the circle filled with crowds of demonstrators, musicians, and tourists. All of us had walked away from the spaces of our usual lives, and were attempting to negotiate the ever-changing landscape of the park.

Sacred Space with FlagAt the base of the tree, people had placed objects that for them hold special significance: plants, apples, flowers, Mardi Gras beads, an American flag, all meticulously arranged and lovingly tended. On the wooden planks that support the sanctuary was written “It’s better to do something imperfectly than nothing,” and against the planks someone had propped a poster of Mahatma Gandhi that read “Action expresses priorities.”

As I took in the scene around me, I realized that both of these principles hold true for revision. To accomplish revision seems more than a matter of memorizing steps or strategies. When we attempt revision, we understand that the results may be far from perfect, but the attempt is more significant than giving up in midstream. [read more]

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Categories: Developmental
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Signs as Inspiration

posted: 10.17.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

The composing process involves gaining access to and wrestling with our most critical thoughts, then finding language to translate those thoughts into the action of writing. At times our thoughts, so clear and sharp as we devise them in our heads, may arrive on screen or page in muddled or muddied form. Our thoughts could be too personal or too remote, too vague or too explicit to state plainly to others. We may not have communicated our meaning according to the needs of our audience and our purpose. We need clarity. We need signs.

I especially love the signs in New York City. The signs not only mark geographic points or display rules or warnings, they also provide demographic and cultural details. Like all signs ought to, these signs help me to think beneath the printed surface to find more significant meanings. Signs give me an opportunity to ask questions that I might not contemplate otherwise.

For example, consider this sign at a busy intersection in Queens, New York:

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Who is the audience for this sign? What is its purpose? What story does the sign tell? Do you consider the sign convincing? Why or why not?

[read more]

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Developmental
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Many Roads to Writing

posted: 7.11.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

ferrAfter my last post “Crooked Seams,” Joanna Howard, Rochelle Spencer, and Brenda Tuberville posted thoughtful stories of their experiences as both students and teachers thinking outside the box of the standard curriculum.  Joanna and Rochelle asked me to describe the many roads that students take to writing.

I try to imagine writing as a love affair waiting to happen—and that unfolds through travel across time.  So rather than focus too extensively on roadblocks or potholes, I instead offer the signposts I discover again and again with students as we travel down the feeder roads and the superhighways, the unpaved streets and treacherous mountain paths that bring us all, through our various meanderings, close to writing.

  1. I reserve judgment, as I read the first paper, on infelicities of grammar and organization, or “deviation” from the standards, norms, or course outcomes. Instead I read mindfully and inquisitively, not as if I were the leader of an inquisition. That is, I read against the grain, as students are often required to do.  I read to find out what already is present in the texts – the strengths—and then address what’s missing. In my comments for revision, I encourage students to take note of their strengths, to reconsider audience, and to aim to create the missing pieces from their compositions. [read more]

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Categories: Basic Writing, Developmental
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Crooked Seams, ADHD, and Basic Writing: A Narrative of Personal Experience

posted: 6.13.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

600px-S6173aWhen I was in junior high in the 1970s, I did not know I had ADHD.  First of all, ADHD did not exist as a diagnosis. Secondly, girls in the “smart” class were supposed to be perfect. If we weren’t, we often heard that if we only tried harder, we could live up to our true potential and do what everyone else was doing—the same way everyone else was doing it.

Well, I know I can find my true potential, I would respond in my head. But the teacher might not even recognize that I completed the required assignment, because my work looked very different from customary expectations. In fact, if teachers were looking only for surface features, they would not recognize potential at all. They would see only what I could not do.

In a required home economics class, for example, we studied sewing and interior decorating. I failed a project because I chose to make a sleeveless smock rather than a piece with sleeves, and because my seams were crooked. After that I got in trouble because I wanted to design my “ideal bedroom”—all in black. There was more trouble when I changed the black to red. But no one explained to me why black and red were not appropriate colors for interior decorating. I was expected to know this fact, which I considered to be questionable. [read more]

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Categories: Developmental
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Writing Beyond Stereotypes

posted: 5.9.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

3925729921_53a3ea1e6eFor many years, I assigned written self-assessments at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester in the Basic Writing course. I invited students to focus on their own strengths, areas for improvement, what they felt they had learned, and how their writing demonstrated what they had learned.  Such assessments, I suggested, could help to build students’ confidence in their writing skills, which could enhance their ability and their desire to write.

However, after reading Geoffrey Cohen’s article, “Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap,” I decided to try something a bit different. Geoffrey Cohen and his research team found that a values intervention can serve as a powerful antidote to stereotypes and can help to sustain student achievement. Learning, as defined by this research, becomes possible—and powerful—for students as they become aware of their own values, and how those values connect to success in high-risk academic situations. Values intervention works by reminding students what is important to them—where they come from, what and whom they love, why they have succeeded in the past.  In addition, the students also learn still more purposes for writing: to intervene against negative stereotypes, to remember their strengths, and to focus their attention toward success. Here is the prompt I created after reading Cohen’s article (students responded in class near the end of the semester):

Reflect on the following prompt with at least 2–3 pages of writing.  The idea for this prompt is taken from, “Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap,” an article published in Science 17 (April 2009) by Geoffrey L. Cohen, Julio Garcia, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, Nancy Apfel, and Patricia Brzustoski. Their research investigated the connections between writing, values affirmation, and school success. [read more]

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Developmental
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Writing for the Catastrophic Moment

posted: 3.28.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

As I prepare for a presentation at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I reflect on moments in my teaching when I focused on current events for writing and discussion. Yet my own writing this year gives me pause.

I have spent much of this last year writing and thinking about 1968, the year I was ten and the year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  That moment—in history and in childhood—felt excruciating, and forty-three years later, writing about 1968 feels no less painful.

From this work, I learn that catastrophic events take time to process, and that writing can help with processing. But I also learn that writing in the moment of catastrophe is a challenge, no matter the amount of experience or practice.

For a moment, I imagine myself in the place of students in developmental writing. We may have absorbed catastrophic events via multimedia, participation witness, or our knowledge of people (perhaps family) who may be participants, witnesses, or casualties.

Some of us will write brilliantly, moving recursively through the steps of the writing process to compose our reflections and our manifestos. Others may need to write over and over again, often without outlines, crumpling up or deleting our rough drafts without rereading them—and without saving them for others to read. We discover that we cannot describe that catastrophic moment at all. [read more]

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Categories: Developmental
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Writing Beyond Statistics

posted: 2.28.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Patti, a young pregnant woman, drops out of college. Like many young women and men from working families, she cannot return to school. For a time, Patti lives in the laundry room of her parents’ home. Later her pregnancy becomes the scandal of her hometown, so Patti moves in with a young couple far from home. She gives birth, then gives her baby up for adoption. Patti finds a temporary factory job, but is laid off at the beginning of the summer. She soon leaves for New York City, homeless and penniless. She sleeps in doorways, alleys, and subways, and relies on the benevolence of strangers to make her way. Sometimes she resorts to stealing, and often she is desperately hungry.

Patti’s story in no way resembles the story in Juno, a film in which a pregnant teenager’s family and friends, and the baby’s adoptive mother, create a community of love and acceptance for a teenager who is transgressing social norms. Patti tells of a lonelier, more brutal, and more desperate situation. As the story of a young woman who leaves school because of difficult circumstances, Patti’s situation holds similarities for many students enrolled in our developmental writing courses that leave school, but do not return.

Some studies cite the high percentages of students that enroll in developmental education, but fail to complete college degrees. Recently, a variety of educational stakeholders have used these statistics to eliminate developmental writing courses across the country. This use of statistics disregards the real lives of students and reduces authentic people to numbers and stereotypes. [read more]

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Categories: Campus Issues, Developmental
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Physical Space and the Writing Process: Classroom Connections

posted: 1.31.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

How do our physical surroundings affect our writing? Do our writing spaces lend themselves to distractibility or to sustained concentration? How can we become more aware of our writing environment, and use it to our advantage, even if it is not an advantageous or inviting space? I consider these questions through a writing and revision practice that can help us pay more attention to our writing classrooms—and our needs as writers.

Over the years, I have worked with students in developmental writing in many different classroom spaces. My favorite space was under the apple trees at a large research university in the rural mid-Atlantic. It was summer, and I remember apples falling and the first dry leaves crunching under our books and notebooks. The grass served as soft and fragrant carpeting as the writers and I discussed and composed reflections on The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

I found a very different space for writing in a computer lab at an urban Midwestern university. The students’ computers were arranged in two separate rows at opposite sides of the classroom.  The teacher’s computer was on an island at the very back of the classroom. The room had no center, and the students could not see each other, or me. The computers made a loud and constant humming noise. No windows opened to the outside, and fluorescent lights flickered over our heads. [read more]

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Categories: Developmental
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Writing Challenges: From Developmental to Transformational

posted: 1.18.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

In this season of changes and resolutions, as a new year begins and as we observe Martin Luther King’s eighty-second birthday, I find myself in the middle of a flurry of writing projects, from book manuscripts to articles, to my first blog post for Bits. As I wrestle with this writing, I recall the writing challenges faced by the students enrolled in my developmental writing courses. As teacher and students working together, all of us had potential as writers, and all of us struggled with writing as well. We may have doubted our capacity to endure our struggles or our ability to achieve any measure of success (and especially those measures of success required by the institution). At the same time, many of us also were engaged in surviving as writers within the limited time and space that we had to devote to writing.

We are not all developmental writers, however. As teachers, whatever our varied histories, we are not now labeled by post-secondary institutions as “developmental,” “basic” or “remedial” writers. But our students, if they are enrolled in our developmental writing courses, do carry these labels, and often the unfortunate stereotypes and consequences that are attached. The reasons for these stereotypes and consequences often meet at intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age, language of origin, or other categories that identify students as different from “regular” students (an issue I take up in my work-in-progress, “Writing Through ADHD”).

Yet students labeled “developmental” can be as capable as any other student of achieving long-term academic success. Many of the students enrolled in my courses attended schools that did not have the economic and material resources to offer adequate preparation for college writing. They often needed access to multiple and intensive experiences with writing over time to learn and grow through the writing process. Developmental writing became a catalyst for some students to discover not only their potential as writers, but also a passion for writing to persuade and communicate with readers beyond the classroom. Some of these lessons we learned through reading works by Martin Luther King, and discussing and writing about King’s persistence and resilience through often insurmountable difficulties. [read more]

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Categories: Basic Writing, Developmental
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