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A Limestone Way of Learning

SUSAN NAOMI BERNSTEIN. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Washington: Oct 10, 2003. Vol. 50, Iss. 7; pg. B.5

Abstract (Summary)
Bernstein teaches developmental courses in writing and reading at a
public, open-admissions university in downtown Houston. Bernstein
believes the courses are valuable because they help people with
unconventional ways of learning reach their potential.

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Full Text
(1317 words)
(Copyright Oct. 10, 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education)

More than 25 years ago, as an anxious freshman at a small, private,

liberal-arts college in the Midwest, I sat stoically in front of a midterm exam
in introductory geology. The course had been designed for geology majors,
but it could be taken by nonmajors -- like me -- to fulfill the distribution
requirement in science. Having grown up along with the environmental
movement, I was very interested in nature and ecology, and I had
especially appreciated the hands-on learning of our class's field trip to a
limestone quarry near the Mississippi River, not far from our college.
There, breathing the crisp autumn air and surrounded by dappled leaves
on the changing trees, I had felt at peace.

But peace was hardly what I experienced when I saw the charts and
diagrams on the midterm. Although I had studied for the exam for days, I
was lost without textbook illustrations that I could not reproduce from
memory, and confused as I tried to remember how the lectures had fit with
the professor's chalkboard drawings. I struggled through the multiple-
choice and short-answer sections, squirming with frustration at the thought
of my college career's ending as it was just beginning.

Then I reached the essay section of the exam. I knew I was saved: I could
write my way out of any pit that I managed to fall into. I don't remember the
wording of the question, but I do remember my response. I wrote about our
field trip to the limestone quarry -- about the natural setting of that
environment, including the features of the Midwestern landscape, the
geological history that had led to the formation of limestone, and the dew
on the spider webs almost hidden behind the trees.
I earned a C on that midterm, and at the end of the semester I passed the
course. Now, more than two decades later, I still remember the feel of the
limestone underneath my fingers and the look of the delicate water
droplets on the spider webs. I also remember the wisdom of my elderly
professor, who understood what I had learned from the course even if I
could not replicate the terms on a diagram. Clearly, I did not choose to
major in geology, but I left the course with a layperson's strong (indeed,
lifelong) appreciation for the subject.

I am a verbal learner, one who learns best by reading and writing. Today,
given my difficulties in elementary and high school with visual learning and
coordination (tying shoes, replicating cursive writing, throwing a softball,
drawing a geometrical figure, driving a car, reading peers' facial
expressions), I might be diagnosed as having a nonverbal learning
disability. Had my admission to college been determined by standardized
"basic skills" tests in mathematics, I might well not have gotten in. I
certainly would have been advised to avoid that geology course -- and my
education would have suffered immeasurably.

Now I teach developmental courses in writing and reading at a public,

open-admissions university in downtown Houston. The courses I teach do
not count for college credit, and many academics and lawmakers (not to
mention members of the public) wonder if the courses belong in a senior
public university. After all, if students did not learn the basic skills of writing
and reading in high school, aren't they uneducable? Why should they take
up professors' time and taxpayers' money?

Yet I realize that, were it not for the accident of my birth into a middle-class
background, those judgments could easily have been applied to me. I was
a quiet, well-behaved white girl with educated parents whose first language
was English, and I attended good suburban public schools. Once my
teachers learned how to decipher my hard-to-read handwriting (that was in
the days before computers), they were amazed at the mature prose I could

My writing ability kept me out of remedial classes, but so did my

background. If I had been perceived as uncooperative or slow, if I had not
understood from my experiences in honors classes how to create high
expectations for my schooling and myself (which helped me to navigate
and question the challenges of higher education), if my education had
been confined primarily to preparation for standardized tests and hadn't
included the creative and expressive arts, then I might well have found
myself failing.
So it is for many of my students. Urban public elementary and secondary
schools that feature inadequate instruction and overcrowded classrooms
(among other difficulties) have given my students unequal access to
education from their earliest years. Whether they were labeled "problem"
children or managed to get along in stealth or silence, they arrive in
developmental courses defined not by their strengths, but by their deficits.
Often such students face the same lessons in basic skills that failed to take
during previous years of schooling -- the same tired paragraphs to read
and to write, problems to solve, blanks to fill in. Often their classes are
overcrowded, just as they were in school. In addition, besides completing
their college courses, many of my students must work at full-time jobs and
deal with family situations complicated by poverty, like caring for sick
relatives who have no health insurance, or taking responsibility for younger
siblings or nieces and nephews because adequate child care is not

Nonetheless, my students arrive fresh in my classroom each semester,

and I owe them the fresh opportunity to challenge themselves -- in 15
weeks to learn more than they ever imagined possible, to move beyond
basic skills and get ready for college- level courses that will require
extensive reading and writing.

Teachers teach as they were once taught, and I have found the lessons
from my privileged education to be quite helpful. I remember my geology
professor's holistic approach to learning, the field trips that allowed me to
see and feel how geologists spend their days. That experience exposed
me to a different epistemology, one that has proved useful in my work with
developmental students, even if I no longer travel to limestone quarries to
do research.

However, if that geology course had not assumed that I would be an

intelligent and engaged learner -- if only the basic concepts had been
reviewed and the essay questions and field trips had not been
requirements -- I have no doubt that geology would have remained a
barely accessible subject for me, one to be quickly forgotten, just another
requirement to check off on my way to completing my degree. With the
challenge and the support I received, I was able to finish the course and
have a valuable experience in the process because of, not in spite of, my
learning differences. As a verbal learner, I had come to rely on writing and
language. Having the opportunity to study the new vocabulary of geology
allowed me to grow intellectually.

So it is with the students in my developmental courses in writing and

reading. Like me, they can rise to the intellectual occasion rather than just
fill in the blanks. Some of their approaches to learning may look
unconventional (one student did his best silent reading standing at a
podium; another wrote an acrostic poem to help her understand the
concepts of a text), but the results are clearly beneficial. Students grow
more knowledgeable and confident, and better prepared to become full
participants in the world waiting for them in other classrooms and outside
the campus.

With enough time and support for students as whole people with varied
interests and abilities -- and with unconventional ways of learning -- those
who need to take developmental courses can become valuable
contributors to the world at large. To deny them that opportunity, through
our own impatience and lack of understanding, is a terrible waste of
educational resources and of human lives.

Susan Naomi Bernstein is an assistant professor of English at the

University of Houston-Downtown.
Indexing (document details)
Subjects: College students, Curricula, Learning
Document types: Commentary
Document features: photographs
Publication title: The Chronicle of Higher Education. Washington: Oct 10, 2003. Vol. 50, Iss
Source type: Periodical
ISSN: 00095982
ProQuest document 444186551
Text Word Count 1317
Document URL:

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