Pedagogy for Basic Writing Practicum: Revisiting the Literacy Autobiography

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What if we experienced every classroom, and every moment spent in that classroom, as holding the potential for transformational teaching and learning? I try to remember this question at the beginning of every semester, and to revisit the question in challenging times. Last semester, pigeons built a nest underneath the sunshade blades in the window well of our classroom.  All spring, we watched the parents nesting, observed the mother sitting on the eggs, witnessed the arrival of the baby birds, and reveled as the entire family spent time together. The semester ended before the babies tried to fly on their own, but the lesson reinforced the work of the classroom: take notice of the details. Pay attention to transformational moments.

This year, as I revised the Basic Writing Practicum course, I considered how to create a literacy autobiography assignment that would prove meaningful for teachers of Basic Writing.  Perhaps as teachers of Basic Writing, we can easily point to those moments in our personal histories that led us to become teachers. But what happens when the teaching honeymoon ends? What causes us to stick with our careers, especially under the difficult labor conditions of engendered by economic austerity—low pay, limited or non-existent benefits, crowded classrooms, and too many duties within those classrooms seemingly unrelated to the teaching of writing? How do we avoid burnout?

Throughout the many years I have spent in classrooms across the United States, those transformational moments have helped me to stay focused.  In writing about such moments, I find that the deep concentration on specific details helps me to tease out the larger lessons from everyday circumstances. Indeed, in charting the progress of the pigeon family last spring, I remembered again the awe I felt at each separate stage, especially that moment so late in the term when we realized that the babies had arrived.  Suddenly the wonders of the natural world became visible up high in the window well, and the mood in the classroom brightened.

That memory, germinating throughout the summer, has inspired a new version of an older assignment in my teacher education toolkit. The new version is copied below. I look forward to reading the response.


Literacy autobiography: Transformative learning experience with implications for BW pedagogy (theory and/or practice)

RATIONALE: The literature of writing studies pedagogy offers many accounts of “teachable moments”—epiphanies that led the teacher/writer to a deeper understanding of pedagogy (theory and/or practice). Such moments fall outside the category of “lore,” which concentrates mostly on the “how to” and may present the teacher as hero or savior. Instead, transformational moments connect to the larger systemic and historical contexts of teaching and learning, and are more accurately described as epiphanies—transformational moments that lead to a change in theory and/or practice. Examples of transformational moments are offered below. Here are the details:

TASK: Describe a transformational moment and/or learning experience in your life as a teacher that caused you to reflect more deeply on theories and practices of teaching writing. This piece should include references or hyperlinks that demonstrate the systemic and/or historical contexts of this moment.

AUDIENCE: Imagine that you are writing a piece for submission to the “Instructional Notes” section of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, a guest blog for Bedford Bits, or another venue that publishes narratives of theory/practice.

PURPOSE: To become more mindful of the exigencies of teaching and learning, to foster deeper awareness of the student-centered classroom as a site for developing theory/practice, and to add to the pedagogical literature in writing studies.

FOCUS: For a central focus, your piece could concentrate on:

1.       A specific writing assignment;

9780312602512.jpg2.      A specific reading assignment;

      • "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You": Self-Disclosure and Lesbian and Gay Identity in the ESL Writing Classroom” Teaching Developmental Writing

3.      A specific class discussion;

4.      An outside-of-class moment;

5.      Or some combination of the above.

      • “Wounded Healing: Forming a Storytelling Community in Hip-Hop Lit” TDW 4e
      • “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan” TDW 4e
      • “Raw Material” TDW 4e

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About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.