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Opening Up


Originally uploaded by mebertolini.

I’ve been thinking lately about why I let three months go by without posting here. One reason is that I was preparing for and have since been teaching a course in Writing to Heal. I keep asking myself how I can write about teaching this course without violating my students’ privacy–as if even my pedagogy in this course should be secret. Ironically, I’m always harping about the benefits of transparency in teaching, but whenever I teach this course, I’m super-conscious of the trust my students place in me and what I owe them in return for that trust. I’ve developed protocols about what information is public and what information remains private in this course. I have a Movable Type blog site were I post changing and very general information. Connected to this site, is Middlebury’s homegrown course management site with pages I can open and close to the public. Any reader on the web can see my course description, syllabus and weekly assignments.
No one but my students and tutors can see our on-line discussion and drafts of my students’ papers. Given all this, perhaps it may seem completely contradictory that I threw the doors of my class open on workshop day to 30 high school students and two of their teachers. I did not plan on opening my very private class in this way, but circumstances often lead us down unimagined paths.

For the past three years, some of my Peer Writing Tutors have had an on-line. tutoring relationship with students from Ticonderoga High School in upper New York State just across the lake from Middlebury. Teachers and students planned a trip to visit Middlebury to meet some of their tutors and other Middlebury College students. Most of the time they could visit in the morning coincided with the time of my Writing to Heal class and the workshop on our second paper. I wondered if a few of my students would mind modeling their workshop for the Ticonderoga students. I brought up the subject tentatively in class and followed up with an e-mail to all the members of the class in which I gave students the opportunity to workshop their papers in a private location if they did not want to workshop their papers in front of the visitors. I hoped that of my sixteen students that, at least, eight might volunteer to read their papers aloud and workshop them for the Ti High students, but all sixteen agreed!
To accommodate our thirty or so visitors, I moved my class to the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research in the Library. My sixteen students formed into four separate workshop groups with six to eight visitors each. As we had done before, my students read their papers aloud and commented on each other’s work by making positive, specific suggestions for improvement. My two class tutors moved between the groups and helped keep the conversations on track. Occasionally, the high school students asked questions or made comments—but mostly they watched and listened as the 18-20 year olds workshopped their papers like pros. My students received a big boost in self-confidence that day, and the high school juniors and seniors caught a glimpse at where they may be headed academically.
One of the reasons I dared to open my very private class to visitors is that they were face-to-face visitors and not on-line visitors. workshop.jpg Anything they heard or observed that day was transitory, fleeting while GOOGLE is forever—or seems like forever. More and more, as I continue to use Social Software and web-based tools for my classes, I feel aware of the future lives of my students and the powerful search engines that will track their on-line past for years to come. Thanks to Middlebury’s course management tool, Segue, I can choose what to open and what to close on our class site. Students can read each other’s discussions and papers on-line, but others outside the class cannot. A reader of this blog, for example, can find the paper topic and worksheet used that day, but will not be able to read my students’ papers. The window for that experience opened a crack for a group of high school students, but the hour has lapsed; the opportunity has closed.

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