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Category Archive for 'Learning to Write'


`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Words have meaning. We all know that, but sometimes like Humpty Dumpty college students think they can use words without taking into account the actual meaning of those words.  Student writers often forget that on the other side of those words, a real reader (a faculty member grading their papers) is reading and struggling to understand words that have been misused.

First-year students, especially, try to fit into the college experience both socially and academically. In their writing, they use words they think the faculty want to read, words they hope will make them seem part of the academic community. Too often, they have, at best, only a half-knowledge of the meaning of these words. When students use words they have not mastered, the end result is confusion and miscommunication, and we write the dreaded word, “Diction” in the margin.

Frequently, when I discuss their papers with my students, I hear myself asking, “Would you actually ever say this word in any conversation with anyone?” If the answer is no, I suggest they find a word they feel more comfortable using.   Often when I ask students what they think a misused word means, they shrug or laugh self-consciously. Sometimes I even get an honest, “I don’t know,” or “No idea.”

I encourage my students to convey their ideas in the words they have mastered. As they read more and absorb more, they naturally will grow into a wider vocabulary, and they will become comfortable in the language of academic discourse. Along the way, I ask them to treat their words and their readers with honesty and respect.

My summer was marked by several events. First, I spent three weeks working with a faculty group looking at examples of student writing from the class of 2010. To do so, we worked collaboratively to create a rubric to assess college-level writing. The rubric-making process was as enlightening as the information we gleaned from the assessments.  The faculty members came from various disciplines–literature, film, math, foreign language, and political science.  Ironically, my assessments were closest to those of the math professor!  Second, we presented some of our findings at the 22nd International Conference on The First-Year Experience in Montréal (July 23, 2009).

Jane Austen's house in Chawton

Jane Austen's house in Chawton

In June I took a longed-for trip to England with my younger daughter to visit Jane Austen sites.  I hope to write more about this trip later. (In a few weeks, I will be on leave and will be immersed in all Austen all-the-time), but here are a very few of the over 3,000 pics I took on my trip.

This fall, I’ve spent most of my professional time tutoring writing, an experience I have thoroughly enjoyed. I have some thoughts about the process of turning good high school writers into good college writers that I hope to write about once the semester is over. Another thing that has filled my time is Middlebury’s  Web Redo project. With two other colleagues, I’ve been working on the four sites for our offices (Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research; Office of Learning Resources; Writing Program, and First-Year Seminar Program).  I’m not linking here because the old sites will disappear, and the new ones aren’t ready yet.  I’m saving my opinion of Drupal until the process is complete.  I’m guessing when the process is finally  complete, all the work and frustrations will have been well worth the effort.  Stay tuned.

The National Resource Center 21st International Conference on

The First Year Experience

Dublin Ireland

June 23-26, 2008


FYS as a Locus for Faculty Development: Creating Mini Learning Communities



Yesterday, I was asked how to conduct a writing workshop without a particular paper due. Although nothing can quite replace the immediacy of a newly-written paper, we and our students can benefit greatly from a look at past work. In fact, sometimes a little distance from the due date of the assignment can add a much-needed perspective to the writing discussion.

One of my favorite non-specific paper exercises is Sentence Clinic. I ask students to do the following before class.

Write down two sentences from your paper or journals we will discuss today :
1. A sentence that you think worked well, one that makes you feel proud (Why do you like this sentence?)
2. A sentence that never quite worked, one that we will look at in the sentence clinic (Why do you think this sentence does not work?)

During class, we use this worksheet. What happens in this exercise is two fold. First, students articulate what they like about their good sentences. From this discussion, we can develop norms and expectations for sentence writing. Second, they bring their bad sentences to the clinic. Depending on the size of the class and the time we have to devote to this, the clinic will either be the whole class or smaller groups within the class. Students discuss what these sentences fail to do, and the other clinic members make suggestions for improvement. I like to do this exercise in the middle or towards the end of the semester when students have developed their vocabulary for discussing writing as well as some trust in each other. Always I want to emphasize the “Why” factor—Why did you like this sentence? Why did you not like that sentence? The “Why” discussions are the best part of the whole exercise.

Another quick exercise I like around the middle of the semester is Thesis Blitz. Students write a current or past thesis statement at the top of a paper, and we send it around the class, so everyone (including the faculty member) and comment quickly. I do this after I have already introduced and discussed thesis statements quite a bit, so this exercise is usually a wake-up call to students. By looking at some better thesis statements, students quickly become exposed to good models. By seeing not so good models, students understand better the importance of the thesis statement. Finally, this exercise has the value of producing a preponderance of evidence. When students see that nine people think a thesis is not specific enough, they begin to take that comment seriously.

Finally, some of my favorite workshops are the ones on style. I usually conduct these between drafts two and three of a paper, but they can work any time. For these, I use the work of students long graduated to illustrate style concepts, such as clarity, coherence, emphasis:
Finally, some of my favorite workshops are the ones on style. I usually conduct these between drafts two and three of a paper, but they can work any time. For these, I use the work of students long graduated to illustrate style concepts, such as clarity, coherence, emphasis:

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At ten o’clock at night in the second to last week of class, I feel as bone-tired as my bleary-eyed students. Strangely, though, I cannot wait for my Friday class. Why? We play SENTENCE CLINIC tomorrow.

Write down two sentences from your paper or journals we will discuss today:

1. A sentence that you think worked well, one that makes you feel proud (Why do you like this sentence?)
2. A sentence that never quite worked, one that we will look at in the sentence clinic (Why do you think this sentence does not work?)

Tonight, chuckling to myself, I devour their responses. They LOVE their good sentences, and they know exactly why they are good: flow, analysis, emphasis, brevity, strong verbs, complexity, and clarity, precisely capturing an idea. My students revel in their best sentences. They have worked hard all semester, draft after draft, paper after paper, workshop after workshop, conference after conference, and their pride shines as they write:

I think this sentence perfectly demonstrates how succinctness, brevity, and lack of “to be” verbs creates a coherent, flowing, sentence.

Additionally, it does not contain any code words like important, vital, essential, etc; it rather specifies what makes the situation so.

I like it mainly because it took me a long time and a lot of effort to get it to sound quite right. I think it flows well, doesn’t include any “to be” verbs, and lays the outline for my paper perfectly. It’s a complex sentence and expresses specifically everything that my paper will talk about. It addresses the characters directly and gives specific proof.

This is also a sentence where I am “analyzing,” and we all know how important analyzing is (especially with Mrs. B!)

I think this sentence flows and I like the content conveyed in it.

It is the final sentence of one of my body paragraphs from my P&P essay and I think it brings the paragraph together really well with good grammar and no “to be” verbs.

I like this sentence because it is my first ‘love it’ from Mrs B. The sentence itself is not very extraordinary except for six words that I used within it to describe Elizabeth’s feelings for Mr Darcy.

But, oh—they loved to hate their bad sentences so:

First of all, there’s a dangling participle. The second clause of the sentence is placed next to “talents” but it isn’t describing talents, it’s describing Mr. Woodhouse’s behavior. Secondly, it contains a “to be” verb (“all that is good”). It also, begins, instead of ends, with new information. And finally, I just don’t like the way it sounds.

This sentence is bad because the known information should be at the beginning of the sentence, but it’s not.

The structure of this sentence and its resulting length render it unclear and awkward. . . The ending of the sentence seems so wordy and strangely ordered that it just does not sound harmonious when reading it out loud or to myself.

First of all, semicolon. Second of all, my participle doesn’t agree with the whole sentence. Third, I wrote pretend and intend in the same sentence. Re-reading this, I was wondering what I was thinking. This sentence needs to go to the sentence clinic.

Not counting their summer journal, they post their 22nd journal entry tonight on SEGUE before midnight. Tomorrow, we will tackle the sentences that have arrived bruised and bleeding to the clinic, but as I read the online journals tonight, I marvel at both how much my students have learned and how playful they can still be at this point of the semester. As I sit here, with the computer warm in my lap, I wait for each entry to drop until all fifteen have responded by midnight. Their on-line entries motivate and challenge me. In less than twelve hours, the sentence doctors will show up for class, and I can’t wait to teach them again.


Originally uploaded by mebertolini.

The semester winds down, leaving behind papers, portfolios, blog posts, digital stories, conversations and memories. Students check out the weather, and hope their planes, trains and rides will take them safely home. or to vacation destinations. The work my students leave behind now sits conventionally in folders for me to grade and less conventionally on DVDs and on live class sites for me to evaluate. In the last few weeks of the semester, I fought desperately agains the urge to add new demands and assignments to my students’ overflowing plates.

At Middlebury, we call the last two weeks of the semester PPZ: the “Professorial Panic Zone” because we want to ADD MORE before the semester is over. Like parents sending children off to college (and I’ve done this twice), faculty want to give the final bits of wisdom, information, evaluation before the door closes and our children or students are gone. Of course, the end of the semester and the car ride to college are the worst times to impart wisdom. In both cases, tired, frightened minds are looking ahead–if they can look or think at all. BG speaks eloquently about the end of the semester burnout when she asks:

Isn’t there something odd about this? Shouldn’t they leave craving the next course, the next opportunity to hang around a bunch of motivated fellow thinkers and work through some relevant, interesting problems together? There’s got to be a better way to end a semester, a more creative, satisfying, rewarding way to move out of a course?

BG pulled a final assignment from her course in order to allow her students more time for reflection. I turned the final week of my course over to my students who gave Research-based oral presentations. They had finished reading the last novel of the course before Thanksgiving, and they wrote the first draft of their final papers two weeks before their final portfolios were due. By somewhat clearing the decks of new work, I hoped to give my students some time for reflection, and for each paper, each digital story, and each portfolio submitted, my students included reflected cover sheets through which they confronted the intentionality of their writing and intellectual choices.

In his “the making of” entry, earth wide moth considers the challenge of tracing narrative of intentionality in his own work;

I have been thinking quite a bit about how things get done, how scholarship gets made, what methodologists want, and where the methodical (as more typically associated with a researcher’s trail) blurs with writing. Furthermore, in light of the recent interchanges on WPA-l, I’m thinking about the limitations of any published monograph to reveal the subtleties of the research and writing that went into it. Yet a conventional model for knowing method~ologies is through inference. Read something likely to have been researched and, from the text, extrapolate. Another model: specific procedural explanations or how-tos (the way to ethnographize, the way to discourse analyze). So what else can we do with method~ology beyond the domesticated regimen (albeit a stabilizing and study-able force) of this is how you do x? What can we do with method~ology beyond the reverse-ordered and confounding in-through-the-exit of method read back through the monograph? Maybe a collection of “the making of” essays that looks back on the production of the project, attends to the special effects, and so on.

I love the “making of” metaphor, he employs here, and I’ve come to see my students’ reflective pieces in their portfolios as a “making of” the semester. The final questions I always ask students on their portfolio cover sheets are

What goals do you have for your writing in the future?
How do you plan to achieve those goals?

Intead of offering my students useless pearls of advice as the end of the semester, I push them in their natural inclination to look ahead and ask them to form their own goals and decide thier own ways to reach those goals. Sometimes I have the pleasure of seeing their goals come to fruition when they take another class with me, when I read their writing on a colleague’s class blog, or when six months later as I make my way across campus they stop me to say “It clicked! I get it!.” Once, when I had given up teaching at the high school level, a student stopped me two years later as I pushed my first-born in her stroller. I hadn’t been able to prevent his dropping out of school, and I’d chalked up my efforts with him as a failure. “Thanks for everything,” he told me. “I went back and finished high school. I just couldn’t do it then.” Remembering his words always helps get me though the PPZ at the end of the semester and gives me hope that even though the semester ends now, the dance of learning goes on.


Originally uploaded by mebertolini.

Picture postcards of fall in Vermont may show turning leaves of all one color, but most trees change gradually, with green, yellow, red, orange and fallen leaves–all from the same tree.

My students write at least three drafts of every formal paper, and I emphasize a different concept for each draft: organization, argument, and macro issues in the earliest drafts, style, grammar and micro issues in the later drafts. I place my point of intervention in draft two, after students have conferred with each other and the tutor. Theoretically, they have moved beyond organization when I meet with them, but that is not always the case. In my meeting on their papers, we could be discussing anything about their work from the finer points of style to addressing the topic.

As I circled the class on Friday, as the class workshopped Paper #3, I saw that they had become familiar with the language of talking about writing. Student who had struggled with organization on their draft twos a few weeks ago now made insightful suggestions to their peers about their organization. The combination of workshops, conferences and revisions manages to hit a number of different learning styles as students do and read and speak and listen and write on their own and their peers

“Think twice, write once,” I was taught 50 years ago when the execution of writing meant inkwells, and a blotted line equaled slovenliness. Now immersed in the writing process, we encourage our students to create draft after draft, to write one, twice, a hundred times, if needed, in order to create clarity, organization, and a logical, compelling argument.

“Rethink, revise, re-see,” is our mantra now, and it is a good one, but sometimes, our students revise themselves out of a voice, and if they have no new thoughts or no new opinions from outside of themselves, their rethinking resembles an overcooked stew. Peter Merholz praises the immediacy of blogs and their importance in open up the thinking process beyond the self:

I still believe that the power of weblogs is their ability to immediately put form to thought–that I can get an idea in my head, however poorly baked it might be, and in seconds share it with the world. And immediately get feedback, refinement, stories, etc., spurred by my little idea. Never before was this possible.
Peter Merholz
Our Blogs, Ourselves. Posted on 01/25/2002.

I’ve been thinking of the value of the immediacy of blogs in encouraging thinking in regard to this online discussion my class had last year.

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