susanSusan Naomi Bernstein’s most recent book is Teaching Developmental Writing, Fourth Edition. Her articles on basic writing, social justice, and learning differences have been published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Journal of Basic Writing, Modern Language Studies, and elsewhere. She is a past co-chair of the Council on Basic Writing and a past co-editor of BWe: Basic Writing e-Journal. Susan has worked with students for more than two decades in urban and rural settings in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Her essay is the second in a series of five installments where former WITS teachers tell how their WITS teaching taught them valuable life lessons.

4th Grade Goes to College: Writing in the World a Decade after WITS

By Susan Naomi Bernstein

In 2004, the fourth grade students I wrote with in WITS visited the introductory college writing class I taught at a local university. The purpose of the visit was for these two groups of students to write together across the differences that usually divide people from one another, including race, ethnicity, language, social class, and age.  I wrote more about that experience,“4th Grade Goes to College,” in the WITS publication A New Leaf.  Based on a lesson from the book We Dream of a World, the students documented their dream: “We dream of a world where everyone is treated equally and fairly because everyone deserves it.”

Nearly a decade later, three of us who gathered together on that day continue to enact that dream in our everyday lives. A, one of the college students at the university where I once taught, now teaches multilingual students at an urban elementary school. During the holidays, A and I visited in person for the first time in many years and discussed our shared interest in compassionate pedagogy.

Desireé Mina Baktiar, one of the 4th grade students in my WITS class, keeps in touch on Facebook. Desireé studies musical theatre and writes poetry and spoken word. Last year she published one of her villanelles on tumblr.com:

Ciao World of Old By Desireé Mina Baktiar

Ciao world of old, hello world of new.

I’ll hold your hand as we jump frame to frame.


Take what you’ve learned but not what taught you.



Oh! Glistening looking-glass to step through!


Even reflections are not the same.


Ciao world of old, hello world of new.



Heavy on my shoulders are anchors I rue.


On our journey we’ll sweat off all shame.


Take what you’ve learned but not what taught you. 



Through old world’s scorns, wings I grew;


Now I fly, though as an outcast I came. 


Ciao world of old hello world of new. 



The looking-glass shatters, that is my cue!


Still a victim, but now of wonder’s fame.


Take what you’ve learned but not what taught you. 



Past failures, heartbreaks, and happiness too


Transform into paint to fill the next frame.


Ciao world of old, hello world of new!

Take what you’ve learned but not what taught you.

Currently, I write a blog for Bedford/St. Martin’s called “Beyond the Basics,” which focuses on the writing process and social equity in higher education. Writing remains for me a conduit, a river moving toward an awakening of conscious. We pay attention. We take action. As local disruptions produce global transformations, writing carries us through the moment, and leaves a record of our strivings. Nearly a decade after teaching with WITS, I am dreaming still.

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