Author Archives: SSchmerler

My first month story includes no “Narrative”

So I realize that I’m guilty. I didn’t really do a Literacy Narrative in my UNIT 1. I think/hope that I can take forward those skills that I fostered with my UNIT 1.

Intuition. Recognizing how we are all hardwired with language — and how to re-wire ourselves, create different pathways.  Self actualization: its benefits, and a little bit of How to Do It — how writing can be a tool for it. How scary and powerful writing is. It’s not safe. It’s also totally accessible.

In addition to the feedback I got from the classes, this is what I, personally, am telling you I felt we got.

Nobody really taught me how to access my own intuition in an English Class environment. I learned that in the arts and in the performing arts.

I also have long done a “literacy narrative” lecture of my own. Only, I didn’t know that’s what it was called. And I’ve done it late in the semester, not early. I will try to cycle all this around, like some sort of charcoal in a fish tank.

Thanks for reading. I’ve found all your writing so inspiring on Literacy Narrative. Now, I (the teacher) know what it is.That’s a start for next time.

P.S. We talked a lot about Process. Still, it’s not the same.

UNIT 2, here I come.

Epistolary Rap: What Passes?

Hi Aaron: you wrote a while back asking about Hip-Hop songs that reference writing or the act of writing and I meant to respond. Apologies.

Stan” by Eminem. That’s a whole heartbreaking story told in letters. And it’s rap and I am guessing that hundreds of students at this school can recite it by heart.

Lots of rap references writing directly, to answer your question. Unfortunately, the lyrics are quite rough. I wonder if we can talk about what is “ok” to use in class? Not just the words, the messages…for instance, Kendrick Lamar is probably the best contemporary artistic voice out there. Period. To Pimp a Butterfly is quite literary. But…

Berlin, sans my own personal Wall

Well, I guess I found myself. Berlin places me squarely within the Expressionistic Rhetoricians’ camp.

“The underlying conviction of expressionists is that when individuals are spared
the distorting effects of a repressive social order, their privately determined truths
will correspond to the privately determined truths of all others: my best and deepest vision supports the same universal and external laws as everyone else’s best
and deepest vision.”

I used Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers back in 1999 when I first started teaching  at The New School. I was working in the Fine Art Dept. — the only person teaching “writing” in that department — and my student body was made up solely of visual artists. I had never taught writing before, and had to go with my gut. I chose his book because I liked the title, and because his approach was spot on for what I needed. Empower individuals who are already creative to own their own sh*t, promote themselves, and — most importantly — come to (find : -)) terms with what is making them create in the first place. Voila. Power to the Individual, and that’s what I was hired to do. I also sincerely felt that these individuals were connected to a larger river of all Experience and that their self actualization would help Humanity. Whoa.

“Murray is even more explicit in his first edition of A Writer Teaches Writing: ‘the writer is on a search for himself. If he finds himself he will find an audience, because all of us have the same common core. And when he digs deeply into himself and is able to define himself, he will find others who will read with a shock of recognition what he has written.’ Now there’s another book I wish I’d used back then…

I haven’t changed all that much. Reading Berlin makes me question my own approach and ask myself if I really like what I see. I am, and always have been, super quick to denounce “economic, political, and social pressures to conform.” This must come across to my students in myriad ways of which I am not cognizant. I am just one camp of many teaching rhetoric. I ought to know more about my own agenda and how it may not be giving power to the student body I currently teach. To be an artist is to be part of an elite group. It assumes a greater access to freedom than a lot of my students may feel. I may not speaking to them when I am speaking to “The Individual,” because they may not see themselves as such. I have some work to do.

Social-epistemic rhetoric and Ira Schor. Helping students to “identify the ways in which control over their own lives has been denied them, and denied in such a way that they have blamed themselves for their powerlessness” may be in order. I could certainly use my “creative” skills that I’ve culled from the elite fine arts to help them do that, could I not? If my own rudder was pointed the right way, or something to that effect? If I better understood my goal? My students are often (and they deserve to be) inspired. I would like to think more about how to, as Berlin says, let them not see their disenfranchisement as “inevitable.” My student, Zara, last night said that she felt there was “nothing she could do” to change politics, the world. She said she could only read about it on her phone. I stopped my lecture and looked at her and said, “There is a LOT you can do. Next to bullets and swords and guns, words are the most destructive thing out there. Words have made people do all kinds of things. You have power. Even as a freshman…” and then I went on a longer jag than I should have about how her small experience as a freshman now, in 2019, in an urban school, told with all the simple details of her life, would be super interesting to policy makers and people in power. She kind of shrugged. But I notice that she did write me a personal message in OpenLab, and intends to come see me in Office Hour tomorrow. So. Maybe it helped.

Okay, my personal crisis aside, I did like reading Berlin. I read him in bits and pieces over the course of a few days. I was skeptical at first (as you know we Expressionists are), but found his explanation of Flower and Hayes, of problem solving, of cognitive approaches to Process all very helpful to the discussions I have been having since I read them. I am more likely to pause just a bit longer and try to hear what sorts of assumptions a student is making when he or she is talking about how they think writing was taught to them in high school — and the assumptions that they are taking forward into my classroom. I had a great public talk in class with a student named Peter about how he felt personally judged by a teacher “as a student” when that teacher grades him. I asked him if a student is a person. If he is still my student when he walks out the classroom door.

I didn’t have a single answer for him, but Berlin’s discussion of ideology and Power empowered me to talk, and I think that the fact that I talked at all may have made the students listening to my open-ended questions feel more empowered for themselves.

Madonna, "Express Yourself"

Transitioning between Units 1 and 2 and 3…my “shelf” idea

A quick thought here about flow. A number of us commented about the fact that the UNITS lend themselves nicely to transition assignments. Or vice-versa? Anyway, as you know, I think rather physically / kinaesthetically / or just-plain weirdly. For the last week and a half, I have been having the students build a virtual “shelf” of their influences. This shelf/list/whathaveyou is a resource to which they can add, over time. It is visual, or physical, or just written down for now. I hope to use it as a kind of font from which we might draw  topics or arguments to which each student personally relates, and then use them in papers and projects in UNITS 2 and 3.

For instance, here is one of my (personal, I like to model) recent shelves, which I posted to our site:

My shelf of favorite influences, soon to be in bibliographic form.

Here’s an old one, to give you an idea of how I re-jigger them:

What will I do with that first one — with the numbers scrawled on it? Well, I’ve asked Monica and Nora in the Library to use our Library Instruction Session to give us information on how to create citations in MLA format using Zotero or Easybib…how easy it is…how helpful it is to have a clear and clean document. Anyway, soon my photograph/physical shelf  will transform into MLA format. Viola! Magic! It’s a start for de-fanging the dreaded Research Paper, anyway.

If you want to look, on our OpenLab site some of the students have their shelf/lists, but they’re really nascent, in progress. https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/schmerlereng1121e106spring2019/category/1st-unit-literacy/my-shelf-my-influences/

During UNIT 1, I made a low-stakes small-group discussion activity to watch/read/listen to something from another person’s influences list.

A Fortnight of New Curriculum…

My three (yes, that’s right, three) sections of 1121 couldn’t be more different in student body, vibe, tone. Two are at night, and I am finding those the easiest (thus far, anyway). My day section is more challenging, but very rewarding. Sorry to say it, but I feel that the reasons are largely physical, practical, and not at all as theoretical as this PD site might like.

Time: At night I have 2 and a half hours (as opposed to one hour and fifteen during the day) of contact time. Giving the students the sheer time they need to complete in-class writing exercises — and discuss them adequately — as well as to hear me comment/lecture/offer modeling or advice has been key. New concepts are always great, but the students need more sink-in time. This first UNIT asks for metacognition, and sometimes a nice juicy space in which to feel and hear helps.I work hard to get a flow going. Then — oops, gotta stop. Q: Could a new 1121 be a longer period?

OpenLab/Tech: Another, voiceless but very present, force is leading my current class structure and its name is OpenLab. Now that I am using it to harvest all my assignments, I need to more fully exploit its functionality or I fear it will be ruling me. Example: Student Portfolios. I know little about how to make these (yes, I have signed up for the Session later this month), and yet I think they can become a very necessary outgrowth of this new 1121 pedagogy. We want transfer? How great, then, to give them such a marvelous tool. Another Example of how OpenLab is affecting me semester is the simple fact that I still am funneling questions and tech problems inadequately. Many of the students are stuck in a tech rut. Can’t log on, etc., etc. I also feel much the same. I still don’t know how to use the grading plug-in properly. i am not as high functioning as i ought to be. As above, so below. How can I fault them?

Okay, those are some negatives. On the positive: yes, this has been a GREAT two weeks. I am reading materials I would not normally have read, I am engaging my friends and family and colleagues in conversations about teaching in ways I had not previously. I love my job. I always have. Now, I feel a sense of excitement and relevance. I also sense that the rocky path I feel below my feet at times is something that I am also helping to smooth by walking it. So: I won’t hold back my honest impressions. It is all for the good.

Needs: + Ways to incorporate the Baldwin essay that make me feel like “me” and not like someone else it teaching. I am struggling with it. + A TA or some helper to get my tech and grading structure in better order. +Time to talk to some of you, individually, so that I can remedy my small issues as they arise.

Gratitude: I am so glad I am on a platform for change. I pinch myself every now and then and tell myself I deserve it.

Low-Stakes, High Gain — Student Work in Unit 1

Before Orientation, I posted my first low-stakes assignment for UNIT 1. This week I made a few revisions to it, based on the needs of my sections, and will update it soon once this hectic week is over! Meantime, here is an early result — a first paper that is quite amazing by one student. He was asked to write without using the letters “p” “q” “y” “g” and “j” — in short, to use no letter that would allow him to “escape” below the line of text. I adapted this from the “Prisoner’s Constraint” used by the OULIPO group. For more background on using lipograms/OULIPO as prompt reading, see my previous post.

The topic/prompt I gave the class was: Write about something you fear.

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Bardolph’s Built-In Reflection Rings True

Megan J. Bardolph’s essay, “Modifying Classroom Routines to Provide Reflective Space” gives me some much-appreciated pedagogical go-ahead. Thank you, Jackie, for giving it to us. Bardolph’s suggestion that we begin this reflective process early on fuses well with what I’ve already attempted in this short time, and as it’s my first week with this new pedagogy, and the feeling of being overwhelmed is very real, I want to take a moment and say why.

Learning Unit 1. Literacy. Metacognition. The students in at least one of my sections are already flying (boldly!) into uncharted brain space. As I am talking to them, I sense that my desire to NOT reign them in, and yet, my need to give our FY folks some real deliverables, will start to clash soon. So: what I  told them (after giving them a quick overview of Wittgenstein and linguistic game theory) is: “Tell me, in ongoing notation, your:

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Miller time

Well, I wish I hadn’t saved her piece for last. Diagrams! Charts! She lays it down with no apologies. Once this is all over, I will want to read Halliday, and put publications like “Learning to Mean” and Language as Social Semiotic on my virtual shelf.

“I will be arguing that a rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish.” Okay with me for now. She mentions Campbell and Jameison (a good name for a bar), saying “they proceed inductively, as critics. They do not attempt to provide a framework that will predict or limit the genres that might be identified. Their interest is less in providing a taxonomic system than in explaining certain aspects of the way social reality evolves: ‘The critic who classifies a rhetorical artifact as generically akin to a class of similar artifacts has identified an undercurrent of history rather than comprehended an act isolated in time’ (p. 26). The result is that the set of genres is an open class, with new members evolving, old ones decaying.”

Those critic fuddy duddies! Just like…us. As I read, I kept thinking about Hip-Hop, and how many papers I’ve read about it, and whether or not it is dead, and what is it, anyway…

“I do not mean to suggest that there is only one way (or one fruitful way) to classify discourse. Classifications and distinctions based on form and substance have told us much about sentimentalism, women’s liberation, and doctrinal movements, for example. But we do not gain much by calling all such classes ‘genres.’ T h e classification I a m advocating is, in effect, ethnomethodological: it seeks to explicate the knowledge that practice creates.” Great, and getting better.

She then drops the term “language game” and I am having visions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Phiolosophicus and Artistotelian syllogism and all the other stuff I loved in college — and continue to bring into the 1101 classroom, just because I can’t ever seem to leave them at home.

“The understanding of rhetorical genre that I am advocating is based in rhetorical practice, in the conventions of discourse that a society establishes as ways of ‘acting together.’ It does not lend itself to taxonomy, for genres change, evolve, and decay; the number of genres current in any society is indeterminate and depends upon the complexity and diversity of the society.”

Gosh, I just want to keep quoting her. It’s like discovering an ancient tomb, and you light a match and see the walls for the first time: “Hierarchical relationships of substance, form, and meaning-as-action. The combination of form and substance at one level becomes an action (has meaning) at a higher level when that combination itself acquires form. Each action is interpretable against the context provided by actions at higher levels.”

Once the dust settles on our Committee, I would totally return to Miller. At present, I am eyeball high in dust.

Yancey may have more time on her hands than I

Taczak and Robertson tell us: “Yancey argues that reflection, when woven into a curriculum, becomes a ‘discipline, a habit of mind/spirit/feeling that informs what we do, always tacitly, sometimes explicitly, and that making such understanding explicit is a good’ and that when students use reflection, they ‘learn to know their work, to like it, to critique it, to revise it, to start anew’ while they also ‘invent [writing] identities’ (Yancey 1998, 201–2).”

Flatly put, do we have time in our short, one-semester encounter to adequately reflect? No. Now that we have the whole year, perhaps…

“Yancey’s definition of reflection in its attention to self-monitoring resembles the advice offered by David Perkins and Gavriel Salomon and by the researchers in How People Learn—we must help students become more aware of themselves as learners, which has been shown to increase the potential for transfer (Bransford, Pellegrino, and Donovan 2000b, 67; Perkins and Salomon 1992).”

Okay. Then, if we are going to make students more aware of how they learn, we also have a responsibility to give them terms/terminologies from psychological research, and also lay bare for them our own learning/teaching styles. That would square with the roll-up-your-sleeves attitude that some of the other authors we’ve encountered advocate. I like that. However, TandR don’t really give us much by way of resources. Sometimes, if a class is receptive, I will have us all complete a learning personality quiz Online, and see where we fit onto a grid. It feels a bit like horoscopes, and it’s fun. We also look at the Atlantic Magazine’s Timeline and plug in our birth years to see how different we are. Still, again, how can we integrate this kind of awareness into getting students to latch onto writing-specific terms?

TandR agree that some kind of new vocabulary (definitions, identifications) are necessary. So far, the results of using reflection were not painted as terribly heartening:

“What these findings mean, as demonstrated by the participants, is that reflection did help them in a composing moment to think about what they were doing with their writing, but it did not encourage them to become critical about what they were learning about writing. Thus, as a practice in doing writing, reflection had a limited usefulness. Some might argue that this utility is sufficient, but our research suggests that with a fuller curricular model—including key vocabulary, a reflective framework, and students’ theory of writing—students can and do transfer knowledge and practices about writing to other writing contexts.”