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I’m heading back to our Annual Writing Retreat tomorrow, to talk about Syllabus Building and Assignment Sequencing again. My top three points for this presentation are:

  • Start at the back end, and know your goals.
  • Build forward, adding challenges and difficulties to achieve those goals.
  • Make your pedagogy transparent to your students.

Last fall, I followed this last advice to the extent that I shared part of my presentation to the faculty with my students and discussed with them the way I structured the course to achieve specific goals.

In an optional journal entry, some of my students discussed whether or not we had met our goals. Here is one of my favorite comments:

We achieved all these goals! Wow, we did learn a lot in this class, didn’t we? In retrospect, I am so glad I got into this seminar and wrote/revised papers every week because they really shaped me as a writer. We achieved Goals #1, 2, 6, and 8 through posting online discussions, Goals #2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 through writing papers, and Goal #9 through participating in class discussions and giving oral presentations. I definitely learned how to compare and contrast between the novel and the film and to compare three different things in a paper. We all did an awesome job in our digital media projects, and of course, after Jane Austen dance dinner, we can call ourselves dance masters 🙂

Syllabus for this course is here.

The following is part of the Middlebury College panel: “Keeping the Fires Burning:
Ongoing Innovation in a Nineteen-Year-Old Program presented at the “First-Year Programs and Liberal Arts: Best Practices and New Thinking” June 2007 at St. Lawrence University.

In order to help faculty achieve their First-Year Seminar goals, Middlebury offers each instructor a support team composed of two professional staff members and two student peers. Instructors may choose the whole team, parts of the team, or no team if they wish.

Two components of the team, a research librarian and peer writing tutor, are well-known support components of many first-year programs. In addition, Middlebury has added two other members to our team, an Educational Technologist and an ACE or Academic Consultant for Excellence. All team members are attached directly to a specific FYS, and I’ll briefly give you an overview of the contributions of these four team members.

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In my first-year seminar, I move my students through exercises and assignments aimed at:
1. Helping them feel comfortable with their own voices.
2. Helping them organize their thoughts before making formal oral presentations.

I consider these exercises and assignments important both for their success as college students and for success in their lives beyond college. Most of our students come to us as good high school writers, and through our first-year program and through subsequent college writing classes most become good to competent college level writers and many become excellent writers. There are, of course, exceptions, but in general we achieve our writing goals for our students.

On the other hand, these highly intelligent students often do not sound articulate or intelligent when they speak, especially when they speak in formal settings. In order to help my students sound intelligent and feel comfortable, I move them through increasingly challenging sets of assignments and exercises.

o First start small. Try an exercise to move students to the front of the class to introduce themselves. Teach them to use deep breathing to control their voices. Teach them to be aware of their bodies during presentations.
o Let them get comfortable presenting informally from the middle of the class.
o Have them record and listen to their own voices while creating an i-movie.
o Give them tips and strategies to help them give better oral presentations.
o Move from shorter to longer more complex oral presentations.
o Have them evaluate classmates’ presentations for clarity, volume, organization, content, and poise.
o Add a public dimension: online or with an audience.

Student comment:

Aside from learning how to write deep, well-thought out, analytical papers, I think that the most valuable thing that I have learned is how to present orally in front of the class. Before this class, I really didn’t feel comfortable speaking in front of a class or group of people. After presenting several times in this class, however, I really do not mind giving oral presentations. In fact, I have found that I really enjoy crafting my words just so, and seeing the audience’s reaction to what I have written. I like anticipating their reactions and playing off of them. My confidence in public speaking is at an all time high thanks to Jane Austen!

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Just as faculty benefit from having their peers read their work prior to publication, so too, students benefit from having their work read by their peers before it is graded. In both cases, the readers bring their experience as writers of the same sort of works–to their experience as critical readers. Peer writing tutors can continue the conversation professors have with their students about writing. Peer Writing Tutors do not help students with writing in place of the professor but in addition to the professor. Tutors are trained to be the authorized help for students, to ask probing questions about the papers they read, and to make positive suggestions for improvement of those papers. </blockquote

What to expect from a Peer Writing Tutor

Sessions Work Best

* When the tutor has a clear idea of the professor’s writing expectations for students,
* When students in the class see the sessions with the tutor as an important part of the writing process for all students in the class, and
* When the professor emphasizes the importance of those sessions by making them mandatory.

Best Practices

* Meet with the peer writing tutor early in the semester or before the beginning of the semester.
* Give a copy of your class syllabus to the peer writing tutor.
* Make expectations clear to the writing tutor and to the class.
* Introduce the writing tutor to the class.
* Make at least some sessions with the writing tutor obligatory.
* Encourage the writing tutor to circulate a list of specific appointment times before meetings.
* Allow the writing tutor ample time to meet with students.
* Stay in contact with the writing tutor through meetings, emails, and phone.

Some guidelines and advice for faculty using Peer Writing Tutors

If you attended my session at the CCCC in NYC this March, you might like to see more about the assignments for my course. Discussions and papers will not be open to you, but you can check out my syllabus and assignments.
Here is the Movable Type Blog I used to communicate extra information to my class.
I, also, used a class management site, SEGUE, which is Middlebury’s home-grown course management tool. It’s actually quite a robust program, and allowed me to stream in a del.icio.us feed as an RSS feature. I love this feature, and I’ve used it for other classes, too.

To protect their privacy, I do not have links to digital stories done by Writing to Heal class, but here are links to digital stories done by some of my other classes.

I blogged about my Writing to Heal class last year when a high school class visited Middlebury. You might be surprised at what happened.

I’ve included some sources that helped me prepare my course:

Anderson, Charles M. and Marian M. MacCurdy (ed). Writing and Healing. Illinois: NCTE,     2000.
Ballenger, Bruce. Beyond Note Cards. New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook, 1999.
Center for Digital Storytelling
DeSalvo, Louise. Writing as a Way of Healing. Beacon Press,     2000.
Pennebaker, James. Opening Up. New York: Guilford Press, 1990.
Rico, Gabriele. Pain and Possibility. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

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Our CCCC Presentation:
Healing and Transgression: Exploding Identity Genres

Session: B.25 on Mar 22, 2007 from 12:15 PM to 1:30 PM Cluster: 109) Creative Writing
Type: Concurrent Session (3 or more presenters) Interest Emphasis: race/ethnicity
Level Emphasis: 4-year

“Writing to Heal,” “Voices Along the Way,” “ The Art of the Personal,” and “Writing Across Differences”—these writing courses at x College challenge students to explore issues of identity by confronting loss, nationality, sexuality, class, gender, spirituality and ethnicity. In this presentation, three faculty members from Middlebury College discuss hybrid writing assignments from courses that combine creative and critical writing with the use of digital media. Discussing and writing about complex issues of identity and loss have transformed the lives of students taking these courses. Teaching these issues has involved personal and professional changes in the lives of the faculty members as well.

Hybrid genres that combine critical with creative writing provide students with theoretical knowledge and background from which to better explore their lives and identities in a thoughtful, informed manner. Digital media projects from weblogs to digital stories that combine words, music, photography and video encourage students to explore issues of their own identity through media often more in tune with 21st century students than conventional linear forms of writing. The music and visual images students choose in these projects often evoke deeper, tighter writing than students have produced before. A combination of formal and informal writing in public and private writing spaces allows students the opportunity to write for self, for others, or for a private few.

The different kinds of disclosure and identity writing in these courses explode the typical boundaries of assignments and genres when memoirs transform into short stories and research papers and projects use theoretical, creative and personal sources as evidence. In the process that unfolds in these classes, students and faculty learn to control and define their own narratives and explore who they have been, who they are becoming, and who they might yet be. Writing and media assignments that encourage students to understand their own identities better can lead students to understand and imagine better the identity of others. These assignments and courses have transformed personal pain into healing and forgiveness and have transformed self-disclosure into both self-acceptance and political mobilization.

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Midterm evaluations are the optimum teachable moment, and we should think hard about what the process of those evaluations teaches our students.
At the midpoint of the semester, I have my students’ complete attention because they believe there is still time to change their fate, and so I take that opportunity to push, to poke, to prod, to encourage, to set the bar higher, to inspire, and sometimes, to frighten if necessary.

The first step in this process is to increase students’ self-awareness of their progress and achievements during the semester and at the same time to encourage them to be self critical about their work. To this end, students hand in a midterm portfolio, which includes a written self-examination of their progress in the past semester and of each major assignment they have completed.

Assessment Questions
• What have you discovered about yourself as a writer so far this semester?
• Which of the following have you found helpful: (workshops/online journals individual conferences/blog/class discussions) so far, this semester?
• Which particular techniques and strategies have you found most useful? Why?
• What are your strengths as a writer?
• Where are you still struggling as a writer?
• What are your goals for yourself as a writer for the remainder of the semester?
• How will you achieve those goals?
• What have you learned from the experience of preparing your midterm portfolio?
Assignment Questions
• What changes have you made on this paper from draft to draft?
• What did your peer editors suggest?
• What did your peer writing tutor suggest?
• What did I suggest?
• What have you learned from working on this paper?
• What would you still like to work on in this paper?
Assessment Questions for digital media project
1. Title of your digital story: _________________________________________________
2. Exact name of folder and file of the final version of your project:
Folder: ________________________ File: _________________________
3. Which section of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park did you choose? Why?
4. What did you discover about the novel (or your section of the novel) from creating this project?
5. Why did you choose the visual images that you used in your piece? What did they add to your project?
6. What music did you choose? Why? What did it add to your project?
7. How did all these elements (voice-over, music, visuals) work together? How did they influence each other in your final project?
8. In a paragraph or two, describe your work process for your digital story. Include:
a. Who helped you?
b. How did you start your project?
c. What was the most frustrating aspect of this project?
d. What was the most fun aspect of this project?
e. What did you learn from doing this project?
f. What advice would you give a student starting a digital story?
g. What would you change in your digital story if you hand more time (and/or more technical knowledge)?
9. If you somehow forgot to cite the source of any music or visual images in your digital story, please do so now:
10. Write a no-more-than 75-word introduction to your project that will introduce it on our site.
11. You will receive one combined grade for your digital story, for your oral presentation, and for your analysis on this sheet (10% of your total grade). Realistically, what do your think your grade should be for this project? Why?

An important part of students’ self-examination entails their setting goals for themselves for the remainder of the semester. In this way, students begin to assume ownership of their progress and success. If time permits, I’ll use part of the class on the day the portfolio is due for class discussion about challenges students faced in the first half of the semester and goals they have formed for the remainder of the semester.

As I begin my part of the midterm student assessment, I question how much I’m assessing what I have actually taught that semester as opposed to assessing what skills my students had before they walked into my class. My aim is to have students’ grades reflect the former.

After I have finished my written assessment and graded assignments, I arrange for an individual conference with each student. We start that conference with the student’s self-assessments, move on to graded work, and conclude with goals for the remainder of the semester. My goal is for students to leave the conference excited and ready to approach the remainder of the semester with renewed energy and determination.

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austen dancing

Originally uploaded by mebertolini.

This fall (and last) I hosted a Jane Austen Dinner Dance for my first-year seminar (FYSE 0144), Jane Austen and Film. I used my Atwater Commons money to mount each event. In each case, I invited another Atwater Commons FYS to attend (and use its money) for the event. Both dancing and food play an important part in Jane Austen’s novels. In fact, the marriage prospects of Austen’s characters often depend on their willingness and ability to dance, so the experience of dining and dancing as Austen’s characters do enabled my students to better understand both Austen’s characters and their milieu.

I used my FYS funds to hire an expert on English country dancing. You can see pictures from the two events here: (F06) & (F05)

The dinner provided by catering consisted of authentic Regency recipes, many form the Jane Austen Cookbook. Each dish on the menu, also, paralleled a quotation from an Austen novel. The green tablecloths reflected our Atwater Commons affiliation. Here is our menu.

Here is a short i-movie I created for my students with pictures and video of this year’s event: Dance i-move.

At the end of the semester when students chose individual research topics, several chose dancing or dining in the Regency era.

The office next door to me will be unnaturally quiet for a while. The intrepid bg goes on leave at the end of the semester. While some of you have enjoyed reading about bg on her blog or have seen her at conferences, I’ve had the pleasure of working in the same department with her these past twelve years and have had the office right next door for the last three. bgelee.jpg She has pushed me into blogging and developing new courses and pulled me across the country to places and experiences I’d never encountered before. While she sails off to new adventures, countries, continents, I’ll hold down the fort right here, unable to pop around the corner for the face-to-face time that crowns her on-line presence, but grateful that wherever she lands, she’s only a click away.
Fly well, and thank you, bg. Until you return home, I’ll see you on the blog.

One of the topics I have presented to faculty who will teach first year seminars is how to incorporate writing goals into college-writing courses, and since I frequently talk about making my pedagogy transparent, I was not surprised to receive a question earlier this year asking me how much of these goals I share with my students. It was a great question that sent me back to thinking about my goals in my classroom. In fact, while I had been great at making part of my pedagogy transparent, I had never laid out for my students the way I structured a whole semester to achieve those goals. This semester I did just that. I gave my students the same talk I give to faculty, and showed them the way I built their assignments over the semester.

Here are the goals I share with my students and some of their reactions at the end of the semester:

Make-up Journals > Makeup #1–Goals” href=”https://segue.middlebury.edu/index.php?&action=site&site=fyse1144a-f06&section=15533&page=66674&story=113099&detail=113099#33413″>FYSE1144a-f06 > Make-up Journals > Makeup #1–Goals

Makeup #1–Goals > in depth

Way, way back in time, I introduced you to the FYSE and my goals for you for the semester:

1) Identify, summarize, and analyze the arguments of others; and summarize, paraphrase, and quote the ideas of others in support of their own arguments
2) Formulate topics appropriate to writing assignments
3) Find and cite appropriate sources for an assignment
4) Shape unified paragraphs and connect them to achieve flow
5) Control a five-page critical/analytical essay using more than one source
6) Use informal writing techniques (freewrites, responses, field notes, postings): writing to learn.
7) Use editing/revising techniques, including responding to advice from peer review and conferences with the instructor
8) Follow and contribute to in-class and online discussions
9) Lead a discussion or present work orally

Meb’s additional goals for FYSE 1144

* Demonstrate understanding of film and novel genres
* Able to handle complex topics
* Able to compare & contrast

And I hope you learned a little about. . .
* Creating a digital media project
* Regency dancing

So—given these goals, what did you learn (if anything) from the list above? How did you learn that?
Here is what they responded.

because tomorrow morning is my last class with my first-year seminar. I love this class–their enthusiasm, their willingness to learn, their exuberance, their concern for each other, all of these things have made showing up to class, to films, to conferences with them—fun!

I’ve thrown papers and drafts at them, oral presentations and digital media projects, Regency Dancing, and even electronic journals before classes began, and they constantly exceed my expectations.

When I finished my practice teaching (about 35 years ago!), I lamented to my mentor that I would never again have a class like them. She wisely told me that I would have many wonderful classes, and, of course, I have had wonderful classes since, but I never had that class again, just as I will never have this class again. Tomorrow’s class will be bittersweet. I’ll have to console myself with their final papers!

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.

Teaching a first-year seminar affords faculty the opportunity to explore their interests and expertise and to connect with first-year students in a way usually associated only with senior-level work. Part of the challenge of teaching a first-year seminar is balancing the seminar’s distinctive blend of subject matter, writing instruction, and advising. As faculty members teaching these courses, we often struggle to find the time to fit together the content we love, the writing goals we know are essential, and the advising moments vital to the academic lives of our students. The trick to finding the time for so many worthy goals is not to have the three aspects of the seminar compete with each other, but rather to have them work together. For the last two years, I have found a way to begin to do this even before a single first-year student has arrived on campus.
As advisors, first-year seminar faculty get to know their students well in a matter of weeks. I wanted to speed up the process and get to know my advisees before they came to campus. Thanks to Middlebury College’s own course-management tool, SEGUE, the students in my last two “Jane Austen and Film” seminars learned about each other, discussed the content of our course, and displayed their writing skills on line before they packed their bags and left home.
Because of the ease of the SEGUE interface and because most of the entering first-years are computer savvy, my instructions for entering the on-line discussion were brief:
Log onto our segue site with your Middlebury user name and password. Once you are on the Segue site, click on Summer Assignment, click discuss, and then new post, and then you can type in the box or upload a file with your response. After you have responded yourself, check back and try responding to two other students’ responses.
In early August, I wrote to my students (both by e-mail and by snail mail), and asked them to respond on line to four questions before they came to campus, and to respond to each other’s answers before they came to class. The questions ranged from academic to personal. Here are the questions I asked this year:

1. Tell us what you know about Jane Austen. Do you know anything about her life or when she wrote? If you don’t know anything about her, that’s fine–just say so. Why was Jane Austen & Film one of your first-year seminar choices?
2. Which novels by Jane Austen have you read before? Did you read them in school? On your own? As part of a book group or club? If so, which of the novels did you like best, or find most entertaining or provocative? Why? If you have never read a Jane Austen novel before, tell us another novel that you like or that you have found entertaining or provocative, and why.
3. Have you seen any of the film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels? Have you seen any modern film adaptation of Austen novels, such as Clueless or Bridget Jones’s Diary, or Bride and Prejudice? If so, which did you like best, or which did you find most entertaining or provocative? Why? If you have never seen an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, tell us another film that you like or that you have found entertaining or provocative, and why.
4. Now tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you come from, and how did you end up coming to Middlebury? How would a family member, close friend, special teacher or mentor describe you? What are some subjects you want to study at Middlebury? What are your interests and passions outside of class? What do you wish you could bring with you to Middlebury that you cannot bring? Tell us anything else you want about yourself that will help us get to know you better.

The three-week electronic discussion that followed these questions revealed students’ prior knowledge of Jane Austen and prior knowledge of film and novel genres as well as their academic aspirations and personal interests. From across the country and around the world, my students debated the merits of the 1995 and the 2005 film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and vowed to attend each other’s games and to debate each other about politics, the NFL and Keira Knightley’s performance when they hit campus. While students posted with each other, I wrote to them on our course blog, where I was able to track them checking in on our blog from across the globe. ja6map.jpg
This year, reading my students’ comments allowed me time to make changes in my syllabus and move some of my film showings around because I knew which Jane Austen novels most of my students had read in advance. My students’ 59 summer posts helped make our class a community before any of us met face to face. Now that we have put faces to names, our discussions about Jane Austen, writing and life continue in the classroom, in my office, over a movie, in the dorms, and yes, they continue on line, too.

Jane Austen in a horrible new world: “Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?”

As an assignment two days before, I had asked my Middlebury College students to write about the incident in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey they considered the most “horrible.” But the day was September 12, 2001, and their drawn faces, so eager and shining on September 10th, revealed that they weren’t thinking much about Jane Austen.

We took a moment to write quietly before we began class. I needed it as much as any of them. Many students and faculty at Middlebury have friends and family in New York and DC, and we had spent hours on Tuesday dialing phones that would not answer. Most like myself (I had finally reached my daughter in New York) had been spared; others had not.

When we finally put down our pens, we began, haltingly at first, to discuss both of the “horrors” of Northanger Abbey and of the world we had come so suddenly to inhabit. Like Catherine Morland, the novel’s heroine, my students felt they, too, had lost their innocence. Together, we looked particularly at Henry Tilney’s speech to Catherine after she incorrectly suspects his father of murder. “Does our education prepare us for such atrocities?” he asks her.

Nothing, in our education had prepared us for the atrocities we had just experienced. To clinch his argument, Henry urges Catherine to “Remember the country and the age in which we live,” and in the days that have followed, this argument has seemed more compelling. Some of us have remembered our country in ways we had almost forgotten.

On a crisp September morning in Vermont, as we struggled to reconcile the words on the page with the atrocities of our own times, it helped to remember that Jane Austen, herself, wrote in a time of war and revolution. And she demonstrated that the functions of the human heart and the desire to know the truth (what other writers might consider small things) were even more precious in perilous times. Jane Austen begins Northanger Abbey warning us of the insignificance of the subject of her novel: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” Not surprisingly, by the end of the novel the young woman not born to be an heroine has, of course, become one. Perhaps, like Catherine, there will be hope for us too.

TIME.com: Why the Family Meal is Cooking Again — Jun. 12, 2006 — Page 2

Families who make meals a priority also tend to spend more time on reading for pleasure and homework. A whole basket of values and habits, of which a common mealtime is only one, may work together to ground kids. But it’s a bellwether, and baby boomers who won’t listen to their instincts will often listen to the experts: the 2005 casa study found that the number of adolescents eating with their family most nights has increased 23% since 1998.

See my post Across the Kitchen Table. Have I started a trend since my last post?

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