Feed on

When my children were small, they did their homework on the kitchen table. I love the idea that the same physical space produced food for the mind as well as food for the body and sometimes even food for the soul. Coming from Italian-American roots that link breaking bread with conviviality and sharing, is it any wonder that I want to combine eating and learning? Throughout the academic year, the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research, where I work and teach hosts lunches with faculty members and special events for students, such as Thesis Nights for seniors. where specially trained Peer Writing Tutors help students with their theses, and we provide seniors with tasty, nourishing snacks.

Perhaps my favorite event of the year is the Thank You Lunch for the graduating seniors who work in our Center.
We bring together Peer Writing Tutors, ACEs (Academic Consultants for Excellence, Study Group Leaders and Student Office Staff at the start of Senior Week, before.jpgand we treat them to a sit down lunch. In turn, they treat us to stories about what working for the CTLR has meant to them.

Originally uploaded by mebertolini.

Seeing them go off is always bittersweet–like parting with our own children, so I’m glad we serve dessert.

USNews.com: America’s Best Colleges 2006: Writing in the disciplines


iddlebury College has popped up here, too! U.S. News and World Report has named Middlebury Colleges’s Writing in the Disciplines Program one of the 36th best in the country in 2006!

Praxis: A Writing Center Journal

A year ago, I began blogging in a very small way–mostly to articulate some of my thoughts about teaching writing and using social software and partly to have an on-line presence to share with colleagues at home and away. I named my blog for Alfred Hitchcock’s description of his own films: Some films are slices of life; mine are slices of cake.”

Originally uploaded by mebertolini.

I certainly have disappointed some viewers/readers who have come to my blog looking for slices of edible cake, but I hope that others have enjoyed the slices of writing, teaching and technology that I have served up here. Fifty-two weeks and approximately 35 posts later, I continue blogging in my own small way, glad that I have left a record of some thoughts and experiences for myself and for you.
Dig in, and enjoy!

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.

NITLE-sponsored Social Software Users’ Group at the College of Wooster (Ohio) January 2006.

Among many great conversations that took place at SSUG, one stands out for me. It concerned the different ways faculty and librarians look at copyright issues–especially for multi media projects. Faculty tend to look at what’s best for my class, my students; whereas, librarians tend to look at what’s better for the institution. Emotions rose–even in this very genial group–around this issue, but we all left more respectful of the issues our colleagues face, so thanks again, Barbara, for dragging me along!

Barbara presenting at SS

Originally uploaded by mebertolini.

Few people could convince me to fly from Vermont to Ohio in January, but bg is one of them.
Lucky for me, or I never would have found myself at the College of Wooster for the NITLE Social Software Users Group. One of the great things about this group is the blend of faculty, IT professionals and librarians present and the respect and collegiality between all these players. After a few days there, I felt like a child passed out under the Christmas Tree, exhausted from playing with new toys: Wikis,
Peanut Gallery,
Skype, and
on and


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.

Dinner Dance

Originally uploaded by mebertolini.

Candles flickered, and tables sported green and white linens for the Jane Austen Dinner Dance. <a href=”Menu items came from foods mentioned in the six major Jane Austen novels:

  • White Soup from Pride and Prejudice
  • French Bread from Northanger Abbey
  • Salmon from the stewponds at Delaford in Sense and Sensibility
  • Asparagus, Apple Tart and Rout Cakes from Emma
  • Negus from Mansfield Park
  • “Too Many Sweet Things” from Persuasion

My students have been reading and writing and talking about Jane Austen all semester. For one night, they dined and danced like Austen too. They learned why Charles Bingley “seemed quite struck with Jane as she was going down the dance” and why Bingley was correct in chastising Darcy for ” standing about by [him]self in this stupid manner” instead of dancing. I hope they did not learn the “misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give,” but rather like Fanny Price who although. .

pursued by the ceaseless country–dance, feverish with hopes and fears, soup and negus, sore–footed and fatigued, restless and agitated, yet [felt], in spite of everything, that a ball was indeed delightful.

My Jane Austen & Film class is a First-Year Seminar here at Middlebury where faculty may elect to have their students live in the same residential Commons (represented by Atwater green in the table linens)> In this case, two Atwater Commons First-Year Seminars (one, mostly girls; the other, mostly boys) met to combine the academic and the residential, and to learn not only by reading and writing but by dining and dancing in English Regency style.

I’ve a long list of things I have been meaning to blog about: my students’ mid term portfolios, the i-movies they made based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the Regency Dinner Dance I’ ve planned for my seminar tomorrow night, but travel and midsemester business have slowed me down. In October, a trip to the lake in Massachusetts lake.jpggave me an opportunity to shoot pictures I used for demo i-movies to introduce the software and techniques for using it with my class. I stole this idea from bg who demonstrated the use of different music tracks with images in her class this fall.

During the first part of the semester, weekly lunches with faculty kept us hopping, but provided us with the opportunity to share ideas about teaching writing.

In November, a trip to beautiful Sewanee, the University of the South Sewanee.jpg left us full of new ideas and a deep appreciation for another part of the country and a gentler way of life.

More blogging will come on the topics mentioned above, but now I need to find my dancing shoes for tomorrow night.dance.jpg


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


Technorati Profile

I use on-line resources myself, and I love developing and providing them for the students I teach and faculty with whom I share techniques for teaching writing. Whether they access the resources at 3:00 a.m. student time or 7:00 a.m. faculty time, my thesis development links and our first-year seminar faculty resources will be awake. Despite my increasing use of tech tools, I still believe that as a teaching tool nothing beats face-to-face meetings. My colleague Barbara Ganley, who is pushing against the tech boundaries here at Middlebury, always considers her tech use as merely a part of the important work she and her students do inside the classroom. Update: Barbara discusses the attitude of present and former students to writing on and offline in a recent post.

Recently, I have experienced the importance of face-to-face meetings on two fronts. First, I have met with all my students on the second drafts of their papers. My meeting with them followed meetings with their peers and their peer writing tutor on draft one of their papers. In one-on-one or small meetings, students feel freer to ask questions and be vulnerable, and I can tailor my responses and advice to the individual student and to his or her learning styles. Face to face, I can, also, see the glazed over look that means, not getting it yet, or the aha moment when lightning strikes.

Second, the Director of our First-Year Seminar Program and I have hosted three lunches with members of our FYSE faculty so far this semester. For those who cannot come to lunch, we have posted handouts and links discussed at these lunches. However, one of the great things about attending the lunches is the flow of ideas back and forth across the table when faculty members share with each other and with us the books and assignments that make their classes successful. Couldn�t they share this information on line�probably, if they had the time, but isn�t there something about breaking bread together that lubricates conversation? And though my computer seems to have an abundance of cookies, I have yet to figure out how to download a brownie. brownie.jpg

Four Years

In four years, almost all of the students who were here that day have gone. On that day, we wrote the names of families we knew were safe on the chalkboard in our office. All day, people came by to check our board and to tell their stories. Someone’s mother usually cleaned in that building, but she had started work uptown that day instead. Another student didn’t hear from her brother, a NYC police officer, until later that day. Four four hours, I didn’t know where my daughter was, but then I did, and she was safe, but could smell the burning even in her apartment in the nineties. Some families never made it to the chalkboard. Later, we assembled under the blue, blue sky to hear Francois Clemmons sing, “His Eyes Are On the Sparrow.” Somehow we made it through the day, the week, the year, and now four years. We went back to our classes and our research and our lives. We will never be the same though, will we?

First Blush

First Blush

Originally uploaded by mebertolini.

As the leaves begin to change here at the end of August, I’m finalizing plans for my first-year seminar. For the first time, I’ve added a summer assignment to my class, and almost all of my student have responded on-line to date. They are also responding to each other and back again. I’ve asked them questions about their knowledge and opinions about Jane Austen and her works and to tell us a bit about themselves and their backgrounds. What a motivated and interesting class they are already!

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