Talking With My Hands

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I thought I had the dry erase marker in my bookbag, but it wasn’t there. Other sources for markers weren’t accessible. The department’s supply closet was in another building, and the rooms on my floor were filled with classes in session. We were discussing the possibilities for organizing essays, specifically alternatives to the five paragraph format of introduction with 3-part thesis, 3 body paragraphs (a paragraph for each part of the thesis), and a conclusion that summarized the main points of the essay. 

For several generations now, I’ve watched students learn how to expand on this template as their ideas expand beyond the constraints they have been practicing since middle school, and probably earlier. The five-paragraph format has served them well for exams, college application essays, and other rhetorical situations. But in College Writing and other courses, students are learning material and encountering assignments that don’t fit neatly within the five-paragraph model. 

It is a challenging moment, made even more challenging this semester by my lack of a marker for the dry erase board. Teaching from my gut, I thought to use my hands to show how an essay could be organized: Introduction, opening body paragraphs, transition between opening and closing body paragraphs, closing body paragraphs, and a conclusion. My hands were framed somewhat like in this photo:

Photo of Susan’s Hands by S. Cormany September 20, 2023Photo of Susan’s Hands by S. Cormany September 20, 2023

For the purposes of keeping a visual record, I asked my partner to take that picture of my hands in the same formation that I had shown the students. Once I saw the photo, I wondered if I could do something with it. Many of my students are visual learners, and I am a kinesthetic learner. Movement is important to me as a learner, and I talk with my hands, as the photo documents. I thought that I might be able to deconstruct the photo in a way that might be helpful for switching up the writing process, or at least for beginning to envision or move toward a frame for essays beyond the five-paragraph model. 

Or at least that is what I tried to do at first. Then I thought about how we were approaching form and content in class. This semester, I spent time modeling how to NOT do drafts in a linear format (introduction, body, conclusion). Instead, students were assigned journal entries that asked for unpacking and translating sections of James Baldwin’s work to twenty-first century Englishes. Baldwin’s sentences are very long, so we broke the sentences into component parts to try to find the independent clause– the kernel of meaning that helps make long sentences more understandable. I explained that Baldwin spoke French as well as English, and how his knowledge of multiple languages informed the form and content of his writing. 

In other words, we discussed translanguaging. Most of us in class speak multiple languages, and many of us, myself included, have experience knowing what we’re thinking and feeling, but discovering that English doesn’t have the words we need to speak and write what we need to say. We struggle with writing. Baldwin struggled with writing. This is why we read “Artist’s Struggle” as a model. This is probably another reason why I talk with my hands. Words alone aren’t enough to make meaning. As a kinesthetic learner, I often need my whole body to say what I mean and mean what I say.

With that in mind, I set out to make a diagram with the photo of my hands. At first I thought I could show an alternate form of organization. Then, I thought to frame the photo of my hands as a nonlinear form of drafting, but a form that would have discrete and recognizable parts, with thumbs representing the introduction and the conclusion, and the rest of the fingers representing opening body paragraphs, closing body paragraphs, and the transitions between opening and closing body paragraphs. That diagram looks like this:

Drafting Process Diagram by Susan BernsteinDrafting Process Diagram by Susan Bernstein

Different components of the essay could be drafted at different points in the process, and not necessarily in the same order the audience would find in a revision. To illustrate a possibility for reassembling the component parts of the draft, I created a more linear diagram:

Revising Diagram by Susan BernsteinRevising Diagram by Susan Bernstein


The main purpose of the diagrams, in a sense, fits the theme of our class, Creativity: Think Outside the Box. There is, I suppose, an irony in using boxes to frame the drafting and revising processes; nevertheless, the most important goal is to offer students practice with learning additional strategies for approaching a writing project, whether in English, the social sciences, or, as is very common for my students, assignments for courses in STEM majors. 

In other words, a ten-page researched essay in a marketing or finance course won’t fit within the frame of a five-paragraph essay. The frame has to be reassembled, and students will need to figure out the best way to reassemble and expand on their thoughts, as well as find patterns of organization that fit the meaning of their words and that their audience can productively understand.

This isn’t easy work for any of us, but experimenting with variations of form and content is worthwhile work in College Writing. For me, talking with my hands, learning kinesthetically, remains critical to the practices and process of learning to write beyond the five-paragraph frame.

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.