Thursday, December 17, 2015

My Grandmother's Courage and Using Writing to Reveal Different Truths

For me, the story starts May 6, 1929, when my grandmother, Frances Corridino Carbone, appeared before the Board of Pardons to plead for my great grandfather's release from prison. Research from my Aunt Fran discovered that Victor R. Le Valley, writing in the Hartford Courant on May 7, 1929, had the following item among a list of pardon reports he filed that day:
Pleads for Father. 
Flushed with a girlish beauty, Frances Corradino of 48 Morgan Street made a tearful plea for the pardoning of her father, Gaetano Corradino, alleged member of black hand gang and charged with luring one Saladino to his death in Suffield nine years ago. 
“I’ll be 15 years old next Sunday,” she cried, “and it would be a real pleasure to have my Dad home again. Daddy,” she said, turning to the fair-haired, handsome man she so much resembled, “do you want to say something? 
Corradino spoke in spread-eagle fashion of his life before the crime, and Assistant State’s Attorney Donald A. Gaffney replied with the concluding statement, “I don’t think his family needs him so much.” 
Frances flared up at this. Undaunted by the presence of the august board of pardons, she stood up and retorted, “Well, I still think I need him. I ask you to put yourself in our place and ask yourself if you wouldn’t want him back. My father is no murderer.”
She went away weeping on her sister’s shoulder, and her father went back through the door he had come, to resume the drill and discipline of his weary prison life.
Isn't that language something? You don't hear or read phrases such as "flushed with girlish beauty"; "handsome man she so much resembled"; or "resume the drill and discipline of his weary prison life" all that much anymore. They were commonplace for a daily paper in 1929 but sound poetic now, or maybe even overly sentimental and melodramatic.

And so the writing teacher in me imagines an exercise where students draft a similar small piece, just a few graphs, describing some small human interaction -- a conversation at lunch, a meeting, a disagreement over a bill. They might draft in their native vernacular, just to get something down, and then be asked to revise using more, florid?, melodramatic?, fictional?, poetic?, language. The exercise would be one, perhaps, in shifting the purpose of the story telling for a different effect or audience. And maybe for contrast from to the other, since we'd be playing at an imitation game, students might also recount the same event using the language and tropes of police report, or insurance investigation report, or some other account that generally affects dispassionate (so called) tone.

The idea in all this imitation is simply to play, but also to explore, in the play, what is true, or rather what truth is emphasized and in what way for what purpose.

For there is truth in the words Le Valley used.

Here are two pictures, my great grandfather and my grandmother, so you can see why she would be described as having "girlish beauty" (though the portrait of her is well after the parole hearing, we think a high school class photo) and he as a "fair-haired, handsome man."  You'll certainly see the resemblance of her to him.

The photo of her, I believe, is from her senior year of high-school, when she would have been 18. In 1929, when she marched into the Board of Pardons hearing, she was only 15.  When her father was arrested in 1919, she was five. As my second cousin Nick recounts here, in a speech about his grandparents given at a Toastmasters event, the family believed our great grandfather was framed. Nick recounts how gangsters threatened Gaetano's family, specifically to kill his wife, my great grandmother, if the family spoke out in his defense at the time of trial.

Gaetano Corridino, my great grandfather, 1885- 1935

His daughter Frances, my grandmother, 1914 - 1990

What went unseen for years in my family was this story. My great grandfather died in prison, despite my grandmother's persistence in trying, before she was 18 even, to prove his innocence.  My second cousin Nick's grandfather, Nick, (whom Nick was named after), was Frances's brother. In his speech, my cousin Nick recounts his grandfather describing how shortly after the police stormed into their home to arrest his father, two members of the mafia came to the house and threatened to kill Gaetano's wife, our great grandmother, if she spoke to his innocence.

Gaetano was convicted.  Gaetano had been a master mason, and because he could read and write,  was a masonry foreman on the building of the G. Fox Department store in Hartford. So while not rich, he earned enough income to support a family six children. After my great-grandfather's arrest, the family had no income. This was before the New Deal, so no welfare, no aide. As my cousin recounts, his grandfather Nick dropped out of school at 6th grade to work. My great grandmother went to work in menial service jobs, and the older kids watched the younger kids. The family was ostracized, the children taunted at school;  they grew up either in or barely out of poverty for many hard years. And memories in the neighborhood lingered, the story stayed current, and even after 10 years, my grandmother heard taunts. Still, she persisted, going to the parole board with her sister, speaking for her family where he mother could not (Nonny spoke the same very broken English Gaetano spoke).

Still, despite the setback described in the item above by Le Valley, my grandmother persisted in her father's defense. This is from a May 8, 1934 round up of board of pardon hearings:
Daughter Makes Plea 
When the young daughter of Gaetanno Corradino, who has been serving a life sentence since October 29, 1920 for a murder committed in East Hartford, appeared for the sixth time and made a sympathetic plea for her father, State's Attorney Alcorn replied that he would not accept any responsibility if the board released Corradino. He denounced the crime as a brutal one and said the man was killed because he knew the facts of another murder. Mr. Alcorn said he sympathized with Corradino's family and praised the girl for her loyalty but told the board, "You are asked to endorse a particular form of favoritism."
Writing teacher aside: You'll note the above item, written just five years after the first item by Le Valley, comes closer to a contemporary newspaper idiom. It is more dispassionate. Yet there are details that hint at the emotion exposed in Le  Valley's account: "made a sympathetic plea" and "sympathized with Corradino's family and praised the girl."  But the repeated use of  'sympathy' in root form requires readers to supply their own details, or at least more details than Le Valley's account.

So the writing above tells as much about the outcome, but reveals less about the flavor and emotions of the hearing. Contrasting these kinds of passages, or having students create their own variations and making their own contrasts, helps get at the one of the delightful things about writing -- the choices writers make about tone, details, voice, point of view. Those choices empower writers, and for student writers especially, who often feel insecure and unsure of power they do have, learning to engage these small sentence level choices is offers them a chance to write, for a passage or two anyway, with some power. Now the writer may not succeed -- the choices made, the attempt made may fail. But that's okay; the value is in the freedom to try.

Meanwhile, back to truth. There is truth in the sympathy attributed to Mr. Alcorn.

My grandmother told my father that Mr. Alcorn later offered to pay her way to law school, so impressed was he with her poise and preparation. I don't know if my great grandfather was ever pardoned; I find no record of it, but his obituary from February 5, 1935 indicates he died at home.
Gaetano Corridino of 611 Wethersfield Avenue died Monday at his home after a short illness. He was born in Palazzolo, Italy, and was 50 years old. He leaves his wife, Mrs.  Frances (Zgro) Corridino; three daughters, Mrs. Mary Maltese, Miss Frances Corridino and Miss Rose Corridino of Hartford; three sons, Nicholas Corridino, Thomas Corridino and Bruno Corridino of Hartford, and a sister in Italy. The funeral will be held Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. at his home, with a solemn high mass at 9 o'clock at St. Augustine's Church. Burial will be in Mt. St. Benedict Cemetery.
The above obit notice possibly obscures a truth and reveals a desire. My great grandfather's death certificate showed his place of residence at time of death to be a state prison that was in Wethersfield, CT.  The funeral notice above was crafted with the aide of  funeral director. It's short, and sad on its own -- 50 is young, even back in 1935 it was young. But it also hides as it was intended to do, by averring death at home, the larger family tragedy and trauma. Because the truth is saying that he died in prison would have caused more pain and embarrassment, more taunts at school, and opprobrium from neighbors.

And so it is that sometimes we need and want writing to hide certain truths. The important facts in the obit notice are not where Gaetano died, but that his wife, sister in Italy, and children had lost a husband, brother and father. What matters is where the funeral, mass and burial will be, so those who care about Gaetano's survivors can offer their support. The death notice, as an act of writing, is a turn to something more normal: more families are absent fathers and husbands from death than imprisonment. It must have, on some level, become easier for my grandmother and great aunts and uncles, to say, "I am a widow," or "my father passed away," as a means to address his absence as life moved forward.

It certainly seemed that way for my grandmother.

Over time my grandmother and great aunts and uncles managed to pull themselves and their mother out of poverty. My great Uncle Nick became a successful business man, and his brothers Bruno and Tommy worked with him before Nick moved to Arizona. Bruno and Tommy served in combat in World War II. My grandmother met and married Carl V. Carbone, who became a successful restaurateur, and started her own family.

She worked at her father's innocence as though a lawyer, doggedly, doing the leg work. But he died in prison, and the shame of his fate, that she couldn't win his release was a personal humiliation despite her courage and pride, her willingness to stand up before the justice system on his behalf.

And so she never spoke of her father to her children.

Until one day my father came across a bible that was hidden away in the attic. He saw the name Gaetano, the dates and newspaper clippings, not only of the parole hearing, but from years before that, at the trial. For though she was a newborn at the time of his arrest, and a toddler when her father was convicted and sentenced to life, my grandmother, in her early teens, researched the case, the law, and gathered news accounts, trial transcripts, police reports. She talked to lawyers and judges looking for a way to overturn the conviction or to win his parole. She wanted back the father she mainly came know from prison visits.

My father, of course, asked her about the bible, and she told him under the condition that he not say anything to his siblings, my aunts and uncles. The bible had been my great grandfather's prison bible, his consolation and stay against "his weary prison life." My grandmother kept it hidden, stored and saved. I imagine she kept it as a touchstone, and perhaps a token of memory she could return to when the house was otherwise empty, or think upon knowing it was stored when she tended to her siblings, and later her children and then her mother, who came to live with her after she married.

I wonder if my great grandmother and she sat over it together, or if they spoke of Gaetano, or whether both women kept their thoughts and longings silent.

Still, for all her shame, my grandmother, as the court reporter's sketch shows, was also proud and determined, keenly intelligent.

And the writing I wish the family had, and surely it existed, would be the writing my grandmother did in her pursuit of her father's exoneration -- letters to pardon boards, drafts of appeals, petitions to the courts, notes from her research.

I wonder what truths, and despite her anguish, what determination, her words would reveal.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Evaluating Student Peer Review Feedback -- Putting Eli's Advice into Action

What is Quality Peer Review?

Today a question came up on POD-L seeking resources for evaluating student peer review, with a request for books, possible rubrics and other tools. Happily, two of the respondents pointed to one of my favorite peer review resources -- Eli (, in particular this professional development module, written by Eli's team for teachers called "Feedback and Revision: The Key Components of Powerful Writing Pedagogy" at

In the module, there's a section, part 3, called "What Feedback Is and How to Teach It." The team writes about peer review:
So So what, then, are the qualities of helpful feedback?
  1. It is formative — it helps learners get better at a task or increases their understanding.
  2. It is timely — it happens at a moment when it's possible to learn and change (e.g., revise).
  3. It is descriptive, goal referenced and directed. 
As teachers, our goal should be to prepare students to give feedback that helps a writer understand: 
  1. What they accomplished (descriptive).
  2. What they were asked to accomplish (goal referenced).
  3. What they must do next (goal directed). 
Of course, we help our students when our own feedback has these characteristics. But how can we help our students learn to provide better feedback? Three specific things we can do include: 
  1. Modeling effective feedback.
  2. Providing ample opportunities for deliberate practice in giving feedback.
  3. Constructing effective review prompts.

A Peer Review Assignment is a Writing Assignment

If you look at the outline above from Eli's team, you see in it all the necessary elements of a writing assignment.  The first three items gesture toward the writing situation -- touching on purpose and audience. The second three name explicit goals and features of the review written -- moving into the elements of the genre Eli's team.  And the third three elements get the kinds of things that go around writing assignments -- models, practice, and good prompts to elicit the kind of writing one hopes to see.

You don't have to agree with the nine ideas above for every peer review activity you plan. And if you're going to grade the peer review, or evaluate it in some way, you might add a tenth item that describes how you will assess the reviews given.

With that in mind, then the question of how to evaluate peer reviews written by students is in inextricably linked to the design of the peer review assignment and its prompt. Eli's middle three items --- features that reviews should have present and should address -- can, for example, be recast as rubrics for a quick scoring tool,  or used as the basis of formative feedback on the review given by not only the professor but also the writers who received the feedback.

Teach Students What They Need to Know to Be Able to Write the Kind of Reviews You Want Them to Write

A writing assignment works better if the student has some instruction and guidance in how to write the kind of writing being assigned. So too for peer review feedback, which is a form of assigned writing. Consider the idea above from the Eli team that good peer review describes what a writer is doing well. Students might be readily able to deem something good, mimicking teachers past who maybe wrote "nice" or "good job" in the margins of papers those students had written. But that passive use of adjectives is not the same thing as describing why a passage is good or nice. The art of describing why writing works can be taught; it can be practiced.

So it wouldn't be enough to say to students "describe why and how the writing works" if their review is going to be judged on that criteria. One has to take a few minutes to teach active description, something like -- "This passage really works well because the details ('the crisp crust of cheese snapped on first bite' and 'I could hear in each bite of pasta the music my mother always played when she made her sauce from scratch') made me pause and painted a picture of what your meal looked like and tasted like. Great verbs helped it to move." And how that active description differs from passive description in a comment like this -- "I liked the dining room passage; it was good." One has to teach why the active and detailed description better helps a writer, and why the review activity, to succeed, requires that kind of writing from the reviewer.

And very often, in peer review, one has to give writers the chance to return to a review type -- the description of what is working -- again and again, so that writers can practice the technique, make mistakes in applying it, revise even.

So setting examples and criteria for the kind of comments one hopes to see, and then teaching students how to write to meet those criteria, and letting them try it more than once -- weekly or biweekly peer reviews is what Eli's team recommends -- builds the ability of students to become good reviewers.

Just as any writing assignment, done well and done often, makes any writer, over time, better at writing the kind of thing the assignment calls for.1

If assessment of student performance is tied to clear articulation of what is expected in peer review comments, and if that expectation is taught so that writers understand and can find a path to meeting the criteria, with practice, then assessment serves a formative and celebratory purpose. Which is always a cool place for assessment to be.


1. Yes, there be a fragment there.

Friday, August 07, 2015

#worthassigning: Eli Review's Lessons for Students on Feedback and Revision

I am preparing a faculty development workshop on how to teach students to give good feedback to one another on writing, and how to help students use that feedback to revise.

I just came across a wonderful site by the team at Eli Review that introduces Feedback and Revision to Students. 
Feedback and Improvement: Becoming a Better Writer by Helping Other Writers --
Rethinking and Revising: Using Feedback to Improve Our Writing --

These introductions for students are part of a larger curriculum guide -- -- written for teachers. The curriculum guide explores how to use Eli specifically to enact the ideas presented to students in the introductions above.

Here's what I like about the student materials. First, consider this screen shot from "Feedback and Improvement."

Screenshot showing step two of lesson, "everyone can be a helpful reviewer"
Image 1: Feedback and Improvement Navigation is Clean and Fast
You see that the lines are clean, the space uncluttered. Navigation is clear via the numbered parts navigation top center. Note too the positive assertion -- "everyone can be a helpful reviewer," which is both true and friendly in its assertion.

That emphasis on "you can do this" carries into the prose and videos and images that make up the unit. Here's a sample:
Trust is particularly important because feedback can lead to big changes in our writing. But trust has to be earned. Gaining confidence in the quality of the feedback we get and give occurs over time, with practice. 
SUNY-Albany Professor Emeritus Peter Johnston observed in Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives:
If students can provide productive feedback, then collectively they will tend to get more feedback. And it will be more immediate feedback, because, rather than waiting for the teacher, their peers can provide it. More feedback improves learning, and immediate feedback is more effective than delayed feedback.
Even in small classes, instructor feedback is limited by the amount of time instructors have to respond. But more feedback and faster feedback is possible between peers. That feedback can sometimes be more helpful than instructor feedback.
The Eli Review team doesn't skirt the issue at hand -- writers have to trust reviews; and that trust needs to be earned. One of the biggest qualms faculty have about doing more peer feedback centers on this lack of trust: writers don't trust the feedback they get; reviewers don't trust their ability to give good feedback. The pedagogy explored, the advice given to students, gets directly at ways of building that trust, that confidence.

Note too that the piece quotes research from the field. The lesson builds a case for peer feedback, gives students concrete advice, and sites relevant research on the value of making that advice work in practice.

The larger curricular piece for instructors, "Framing Feedback and Revision," written by Melissa Graham Meeks and Mike McLeod, gives instructors a lesson plan sequence, ready to use activities, they can use in Eli Review. But even if you're not using Eli Review, both the two introductions for students and the curricular plan for teachers, can be adapted to other settings and tools. 

And that's what makes the lessons for students on Feedback and Revision worth assigning, and the curriculum guide for faculty worth visiting and adapting.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Vacation Experiment: Deleting All Work Email As It Comes In While I Am Away

I am on vacation. A true vacation, the kind where I won't look at work related items until I get back in the office. No work reading, writing, or (in the case of expense reports), arithmetic. And definitely no work e-mail.

Not only am I not going to even look at work e-mail, but to avoid the pointless and soul-crushing backlog of messages I'd find on my return in two weeks or so, I've done the following, all captured in this auto response message people who e-mail my work address get:

July 9, 2015
If you are getting this after 12:31 pm on Friday July 10 and before Monday, July 27, 8 am, know that I am automatically deleting the message you just sent. 
I'll be vacating -- truly and surely -- work thoughts, work office, work e-mail, work state of mind during the two work weeks that fall in that window. 
Consider me digitally vaporized, as it were, from this inbox.  My laptop will be secreted in a secure location over 200 miles from where I will be. My phone's data plan will be turned off, its Wi-Fi shut down; it'll be just a phone, one that I won't answer unless I know the person behind the number I see incoming and also know that the person is friend or family confirming where we will eat or what we will drink or when we will go and who else will be there. 
And because I am digitally vaporizing myself, so too will be your incoming email.  To avoid a backlog of messages on July 27 at 8 am, I am setting an inbox rule to automatically delete anything that comes in. If you are writing me on something urgent, resend it on July 27th. Though chances are very likely that you will have resolved the item before then and what I will be missing is a long chain of messages that at the end reveal the problem is solved. 
I know this may seem rude, inconvenient at best, for me to tell you that I'm deleting what you've sent with a request that you resend it. But consider this: with the backlog I would've had on July 27th, you very likely would've been sending me a beseeching reminder by the 28th or 29th or 30th anyway, were my response still needed. So this is better. You know that I am not going to see your message at all unless you send it on the July 27th, when it will arrive fresh to my eyes, on top, and not sitting there two weeks old and buried among the zombified deluge of the unread. 
And if my response is not needed, then what difference does my deleting the message make?
Paste this -- -- into a browser  for a note on the rhetoric of auto responses.
Nick Carbone
Director of Digital Teaching and Learning
Bedford/St. Martin's Imprint, Macmillan Education
nick.carbone AT macmillan DOT com

Now I really do not know whether this will go over well with all recipients, but at least it's honest. And as a strategy, it makes sense. Conservatively 200 messages times 10 work days is 2,000 messages. Why lose a whole day or two just sorting through that when there will be other, more important, work to be done?

I suppose some you reading this may hesitate to try it for fear of being viewed as irrelevant and replaceable; will bosses ask, "if (to use me as an example) Nick can ignore fully two weeks of email, including company pronouncements and announcements; colleague queries and requests; and customer beseechments and entreatments, just how useful is the schmuck?"

Two things on that, and why I think this policy makes sense. First, the practice demonstrates efficiency, not indifference. Important things will rise more quickly to the top of my attention this way and get taken care of more quickly. Second, I don't kid myself -- of course I'm replaceable. Looked at one way, I am, like everyone with a job, a hiring line, a budget item, human resource, by definition not permanent nor stable because people and their jobs change. People retire, the work goes on. People leave for better jobs, the work goes on. People are fired, the work goes on. People die (which in my case, were it to happen, would be, I admit, tragic and untimely), but work goes on.

So it goes.

But in the end, work works better when it's workable, and this new vacation from work e-mail method allows me to do more of the work that matters when I get back. And that's important to me, the professors I work with, and the company I work for. So I think this will work.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On Why I Call People Who Are Writing Writers

You are a reader. You are reading this now, and as I write this (making me the writer), I am thinking of you, dear reader, because as the writer, that's one of my many jobs. I am the writer of this blog post, thus I am a writer at the moment, even though my title is Director of Digital Teaching and Learning. But while I write, I am a writer. Seems logical, doesn't it?

Still, the term 'writer' carries some very specific cultural connotations. In our literate culture it is an elevated term, an honorific of sorts that one earns, or takes on, by virtue of  job title and/or aspiration. It is also a term some people guard or that others are wary of claiming for themselves.

Rachel Toor, whose Monday, June 15 profile of Anthony Grafton, a historian who writes and teaches his history students to write, finds the generous application of the term irritating.  She guards the term. In the interview, which I recommend, Grafton, a good writer, modestly denies the term applies to him.  Her piece came to the attention of an e-mail discussion list for writing center directors and scholars when Steven J. Corbett, Assistant Professor  at George Mason, sent the following:
Colleagues, hope your summers are going well so far. A new post on the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ from Rachel Toor, "Scholars Talk Writing: Anthony Grafton: The Princeton historian is a teacher, scholar, collaborator, but not, he says, a writer" starts off talking about a writing center:
Every time I walk to and from my office I pass a big poster for the Writers’ Center at my university. The poster features an oversize photo of Ernest Hemingway, and next to it, in proud and arrogant type, the following assertion: 'Everyone is a writer. Period.'
I try to avert my eyes, because I get irritated every time I see this poster. I go into class and start ranting. No, I say, everyone is not a writer. Just because you write — because you have to write to get your degree — that, my friends, does not make you a writer.
What do you think about this way of characterizing writers and/or writing centers? (Note: see for full email.) 

The conversation unfolded and several good e-mail messages came round, but most useful in helping me frame my own thinking were two from Scott Pleasant, Writing Center Coordinator at Coastal Carolina University. He wrote a smart take that echoes Toor's and Grafton's sentiments, but unlike Toor, Pleasant doesn't avert his eyes in irritation:

I was just saying there's a perspective from which the phrase "I am a writer" means something very different from "I write" or "I can write."

I write all the time. For pay, even. . . . But if someone were to ask me, "What ARE you?" I kind of doubt my response would be "I'm a writer." I'd probably say I'm a teacher if I really had to characterize my existential essence. . . .

. . . I've now contributed two e-mails to an online discussion, probably because I'm looking for ways to get a break from the tedious document I'm writing. If all of that makes me a writer, then fine, I'm a writer, but right at the moment, I really just feel more like a person who happens to be writing than like "a writer."

. . . If it helps them learn to write, then by all means let's call them all writers. But I'd have to see some convincing data before I would accept the idea that simply calling them "writers" helps them to write. 

(For full e-mail, go to:
While my experience isn't convincing data, it has convinced me that calling folks in my courses and workshops writers helps. But like so much in teaching, it helps because I work at making it work for me. I do not want to suggest that what helps is "simply calling them 'writers.' That's not enough. What helps is both calling workshoppers and students "writers" while also teaching them to act and think the way writers -- or people who are not "writers' but who do write an awful lot in their professional capacities --  do.

And you can see from that last sentence one reason I like to call students writers. It's easier than saying, "person who is not a 'writer' but who is learning to write based on some approximation of what I as a teacher of writing understand writers do for a probable future where they will need to write, if not a lot, well enough to succeed at the work their writing needs to do.

I have been calling students writers for a long time, and I fell into it because I had a teacher who called me and my classmates writers and made it fun to be called a writer. I took an advanced writing course my first sophomore year (I had three of those in my peripatetic road to a BA.) with Leo Rockas at the University of Hartford in a class that met for three hours, 5 - 8 pm, I think on a Monday night. The class started with us getting in a circle, and Dr. Rockas telling us we were all writers in this course, and that he wanted us to think like a writer, argue like a writer, call our work "stuff," like he said writers did, and, he too he said, we should drink. Writer's drink he said, and from a brown super market paper sack he pulled up a gallon Gallo sherry (This was in in '78 or so, before the winery went more upscale.), paper cups and invited us to imbibe (The drinking age was 18.) if we were of a mind to. He set a scene (He also taught a playwriting course, so no surprise.) and invited us to play at being, as a way of becoming, writers. In fact, the class had folks in it who wanted to be writers (myself among that crew).

I don't serve sherry in my courses or workshops -- though when I've had a class of all adults, I've met them for drinks and spotted them a pitcher of beer or two -- but I like the fun of calling students writers, of getting them into the role-play of being a writer while being in my course. And I start that from day one. Consider this first day of class writing prompt from 1993:

Hello Writer,
      Since for most of you thinking of yourself as a writer may be a new notion, I'd like you to recall your history as a writer. Your history can include talking about any writing experience you've had in the past, including shopping lists, essays in high school, letters, journals, any and all writing you've ever done.
      You can talk about how you feel about writing. You can talk about the best writing you've ever done. You can talk about what kind of writing you like to do. You can talk about what you think makes writing good. You can talk about what has influenced your writing.
      You can talk about your writing habits--where do you write best?, when do you write?, how many drafts do you do? You can be specific or general.
      Here, for example are some things other writers have said about writing. I'll start with one that is especially true for me.
      "I hate writing but I love having written."
     --Dorothy Parker.
I can imagine this kind of prompt might disturb Toor -- equating even the making of a shopping list with being a writer.  But you can see too that idea was simple -- when you write, you're a writer is the formulation here. You may not be a particularly competent writer, I tell my students, no more than I am a competent (all right, if you must know, I stink) golfer when I golf.

But when I play golf now, in my increasingly late 50's, I play with the same kind of imagination I played any game as a kid: I imitated and imagined I was Reggie Jackson at the plate when I played baseball; was Jack Nicklaus when I played golf; Jim Brown when I was a running back; and James Bond when I played baccarat (which I played only once and only so I could pretend to be James Bond). I pretend to be, when I play, if only for a little bit, those who are good at what I am about.

Of course it's hard to imitate a writer per se. The only novelist whoever wrote for an audience in a stadium, with a play-by-play announcer and analyst was Thomas Hardy, and most students don't know him. But my courses and workshops focus on teaching folks who are writing some of the things writers do: the habits of mind they follow; the strategies and work habits for writing and revising and revising and revising they explore.

Stephen North, in "The Idea of the Writing Center" (1984), famously wrote,
Let me use it, then, to make the one distinction of which it still seems capable: in a writing center the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction. In axiom form it goes like this: Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing.
One step in making better writers, a fun step, is to start by calling the students writers. I do not expect students to identify themselves as a writer ever more, though some of them may go on to careers where they do that, write for a living and with a job that has writer in the title, careers, maybe, in journalism, the literary arts, professional writing, ghost writing, research writing, speech writing, copy writing, comedy writing, and so on.

No, I call them writers in large part too, on top of the fun of it, to get them to understand some of the responsibilities a writer takes on. In the game of writing, the writer must find a purpose for writing, an argument to make, and an audience who will read their stuff. To learn to do that, the student must inhabit the writer role, and must be able, to analyze and reflect on how they are doing, step outside of themselves, seeing themselves as a writer in that context, in that course or workshop writing activity. So the appellation, then, serves for me a necessary metacognitive function.

Grafton, the subject of Toor's profile, a man who writes well but doesn't think of himself as a writer, does, however, even if he may not call them such, think of his students as writers. He says to Toor, "Where writing is concerned — as with scholarly research — I work very hard with my students, and the better the writer, the harder I push him or her."

It's hard when you teach writing -- whether in a course you teach, a workshop you lead, or a writing center where you tutor -- to not think of students as writers. It makes the teaching and learning of writing less fun in the end. Where good learning is hard fun, less fun hurts instead of helps.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

#worthassigning: five online essays by Charles Moran

In Case You Don't Know Charlie Moran, An Introduction

On Father's Day, June 21, 2015, Charlie Moran died at home, with his wife, Kay, and his two children, Seth and Amy, by his side. He lived a wonderful life, energetic and generous, as this profile, published after his death in the North Hampton Gazette, illustrates. I recommend it for a fuller sense of the man and his remarkable contributions to teaching writing, his community, and his family.

As for me, I first came to know Charlie, I think, back in 1991, when I began as a graduate student in the PhD program at the English Department of U. Mass, Amherst. I started teaching there in a computer networked classroom -- a local area network built on Novell, with WordPerfect as the word processing software, a simple tool for making class announcements, and what was then a new program for real time online classroom discussions in writing called Daedalus Interchange.

Charlie, along with Marcia Curtis, oversaw the graduate student teachers who taught in the two networked classrooms; both he and Marcia innovated pedagogically, she focusing on perhaps one of the best basic writing programs ever developed, and he on traditional first year writing courses. Most of my time in those classrooms came with Charlie as my course director. Through that, and as I also took graduate courses with him on teaching with technology, he opened up doors to an online world of teachers who taught writing with computers (a novelty then), a world where I found a way of intellectual and professional life I enjoy and cherish to this day. 

Things You'll Notice About Charlie's Academic Writing

The other thing Charlie did, besides being a great teacher, and did productively, was write and encourage his graduate students to write and publish. He was a teacher-scholar who pursued both parts of the hyphenate equally, the art of one and the discipline of the other informing each other. He shared his insights with the field at large in his body of published works, at conferences, and via voce in the classrooms and offices at Bartlett Hall. His work models how to be a teacher-scholar.

He collaborated with graduate students on essays. He collaborated with colleagues. And even when he solo authored, his work often referenced or thanked those who read drafts, helped his thinking. This is no small thing, this collaboration.  The UMass Writing Program encourages GTA's to explore and use collaboration in the design of courses, via peer review, the sharing of drafts, discussions to foster ideas, and for asking for co-authored projects by students. Charlie practiced what he taught his first year students; that practice made him a better teacher of those things he asked his students to learn.

In looking over the pieces I've found online that he's written or co-written, I notice some wonderful things. The chief quality that comes through is his devotion to teaching and learning, evidenced by a deep respect for students and teachers. His pedagogical inquiries, his application of theory, always put students and their learning at the absolute center, and teachers in close proximity. Even when an essay doesn't evoke a student directly, reading it you can see that students are central to his concern. 

A look back shows that Charlie's brilliance as an academic writer came from his ability to observe and reflect. So many of his pieces observe students, or his own or colleagues' teaching practices, or larger trends (automatic writing assessment engines; testing mania). Whether looking at small acts of practice or and larger trends, he looked to see how they supported or distorted the central mission and necessary relationship teachers and students share. 

A Tangent: Charlie as Observer and Teaching Mentor

I remember, in rereading some of his essays, how great he was at doing teaching observations of graduate student teachers he was assigned to mentor. Charlie would come into the computer networked classroom, find a terminal that wasn't going to be used, and sit unobtrusively. Charlie would sit and write on the keyboard, creating a running narrative of what he observed about the class, the teaching and the dynamics, noticing things the teacher could not. I don't have those reports any longer, but I remember things like, to quote approximately, "this class has a row of male jocks, all with ball caps and broad shoulders sharing the back terminals, almost like a frat row in the classroom." Or, "as Nick leans over an helps two students, students a row back, swap files and both type feedback into one another's draft, they are discussing the drafts as they type, but also other things, using off tasks asides, it seems, to keep them largely on task."

He'd capture the telling detail, the nature of interaction, and do so on the fly in long, generous reports that came from continuous typing as he looked; his hands operated independently of his eyes and ears, transposing what his mind made of things as he continued to watch and listen.

Discussion afterwards about what he noticed, what interpretation he had based on what he could see, became apprenticeships in reflection. He'd ask questions that would lead, at least in my experience, to teaching insights, finding strengths, and finding weaknesses, and talking about both with equal comfort and candor.

Reflection imbues so much of Charlie's writing in the essays below. Some of pieces are about his adjustment to technology -- or in one case, going to a classroom where it was absent. One essay frames modestly his work based on his own classroom observations as auto ethnographic, not seeking to make a big claim. But those pieces are finely wrought, hand-crafted jewels of insight that, even though the technology in question may be twenty years past, offer lessons in adjustment, observation, reflection, patience, and humility which matter still. They serve as useful models in faculty professional development, as ways faculty can explore their own teaching, can explore whatever technology they have on hand, whether it is very new or somewhat bewhiskered. 

Other pieces are more contemporary, and many of the links, you'll see, are made available via the National Writing Project, an organization Charlie devoted some of his best thinking, leadership, and writing to. 

All of the pieces, too, are well-written. Charlie has an accessible academic writing voice, making his work especially useful for people new to a field as well as important to those long versed in the literature. Charlie cites important and complex thinkers as needed, but still writes in a way that uses specialized terms and jargon minimally, in sentences of ordinary length with strong verbs. He writes, really, what seems to me speakable prose; that is, you can read it aloud and hear a cadence easy on the ear. 

So for all these reasons, I think the following works of Charles Moran are worth assigning, and if you do assign or read them, I hope they open the door to reading some of the excellent work he's done that doesn't happen to be readily available online but can be found easily enough in a campus library's academic journal catalogs, or his work in books, perhaps the in stacks. 

Five Online Essays by Charlie Moran that  Are #WorthAssigning

I've included a small excerpt from each essay, so you have a sense of its flavor, and sometimes a note two about the essay and why I recommend it specifically. These are in chronological order, oldest to newest.

with Nick Carbone, Margaret Daisley, Ed Federenko, Dix McComas,Dori Ostermiller, and Sherri Vanden Akker, "Writing Ourselves Online." in Computers and Composition 10(3), August 1993, pages 29-48.

At the beginning of our project, six of us divided into pairs. We looked at each other's online language in "Class News" bulletins, in online prompts and messages we left for our students, and in the comments we volunteered in Daedalus INTERCHANGE sessions. In addition, we observed our partner's classes, focusing on our partner's live classroom presence. Then, with our partners, we co-wrote drafts of the three sections that follow. We also met regularly as a full group during the semester and the subsequent summer to reflect upon what we were seeing and writing and to focus and refocus the project.  
As we proceeded with our project, it became clear that each of us had a different online voice. Yet each of us was, according to our student-teacher evaluations, a "good" teacher. Like the Lake Wobegon children, we were all above average. We could, therefore, freely speak of "difference," but we could not so easily speak of "good" or "bad" ways of presenting ourselves online.  
Further, it became clear to us that our online presences existed in a complementary relation to our live, off-line presences. Together the two worked, though in each case differently. We knew of a strand in the literature in our field that assumed that we should each adapt to the computer-equipped classrooms in the same way (e.g., Barker & Kemp, 1990; Handa, 1990; Kiefer, 1991; Klem & Moran, 1992; Spitzer, 1990).  
These studies begin with the assumption that technology drives change. Because we were teachers, what we saw was perhaps inevitably different: that different teachers will successfully use technology in different ways, adapting it to their different goals and needs. We came to believe that the relationship between teacher and technology was what Paul Levinson (1990) has termed a "flexible, feedback process" (p. 7). We write, therefore, as soft technological determinists (Pool, 1990, p. vii) who know that we influence, and are influenced by, our environment. How the teacher uses a given teaching environment depends upon the character of that environment, of course, but it also depends upon who that teacher is. As William Carlos Williams tells us, "It all depends. . . ." 

Note My recollection -- apologies to my co-authors if I am wrong -- is that Charlie wordsmithed most of the excerpt above, from the article's "Note on Method" section. I draw on this essay because it shows a bit how Charlie mentored graduate students -- all of us listed as his co-authors were graduate students who were part of his course director group. We meet regularly as a team on a range of issues related to teaching. Charlie used the project to help us learn how to observe teaching, to work with fellows as peer mentors, to practice good teacher reflections, to collaborate on an article, and to meet the needs and goals his role as a course director required. So as a teacher-scholar, the experience was as much about how to work productively, getting as much value from the work we had to do as possible. I also remember that after the article was accepted, and final draft sent in, Charlie turned to us and said something like, "my habit is to put these behind me once their done and turn to the next project," and so we didn't talk about it after it was sent, but moved on.

"From a High-Tech to a Low-Tech Writing Classroom: You Can't Go Home Again," in The Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 3, Summer 2000. Available at

I begin to resent, too, the amount of new work I seem to have to do. For instance, I've had to go all the way to my office to get to my computer to put together a writing exercise for the class, print multiple copies on blue paper, and cut the pages in half to distribute to the class. I wrote, "All this cutting and copying is time- and resource-consuming!" 
I resent the grade book I have to construct for myself and my need to discover a new way of organizing the course. I wonder: should I purchase a three-ring binder? And an ominous note: I begin to feel that as a teacher I have to become more active, because I'm feeling that not much is happening.

Note This is one of my favorite pieces, and I share it in workshops with faculty who are just beginning to take deeper dives into using technology. It focuses on what is lost when one goes back to not using the technology after coming to rely on it, and so it reverses the anxiety many faculty feel when they start to use technology. Charlie does a great job of making a simple brick and mortar classroom feel strange. The essay also shows Charlie at his reflective best, for example in this expert you see it in his "ominous note" about starting to do more in the classroom -- filling time and air -- because it's harder for him  to get students engaged without the technology he became used to using.

"Computers and Composition 1983–2002: What we have hoped for" in Computers and Composition 20 (2003) 343–358. Available at

In accounting for the optimistic and positive tone of our journal, the cultural cross-currents I’ve referred to are important. But at least as important as these cultural forces has been the agency of particular people at particular times. As a community we reflect the values of our leaders (they’d hate to be called this, but they are and have been)—three generous, energetic, and hopeful teacher–scholars: Kate Kiefer, Cynthia Selfe, and Gail Hawisher. These remarkable teacher–scholars have drawn to their work others who share the same generosity, energy, and optimism. This group, call it a de facto (and partially de jure) editorial board, has shaped the journal and the community, infusing both with temperament, enthusiasm, and vision.

Note I love this short excerpt because it captures so much the spirit and generosity of Charlie. In this project, he acted as both emcee to, and historian of, the nearly 20 years the central journal in the field of Computers and Composition had been publishing, rereading every issue to prepare the article. That he rightly acknowledges the founding editors, citing their work as a team that engaged collegially with their readers and authors, bespeaks too, in a single-authored piece, his belief in collaboration and community building. As a piece that looks at the history of one journal, it's a great survey piece for an introductory course on teaching writing with computers.

In 2003, the same year Charlie published this piece, Computers and Composition initiated The Charles Moran Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Field. The editors write:
The award celebrates the first 20 years of the journal (1983-2003) in which Charles Moran not only contributed over 30 publications-books, articles, chapters-to the profession but also supported the growth of the journal and field in multiple ways as a valued member of the Computers and Composition Editorial Board. We can think of no other person who better exemplifies what it means to be an esteemed scholar and colleague in these rapidly changing times of the information age.

With Anne Herrington, "Challenges for Writing Teachers: Evolving Technologies and Standardized Assessment." in Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom, edited by Anne Herrington, Kevin Hodgson, and Charles Moran. Copyright © 2009 by Teachers College, Columbia University. Available at

Writing teachers have inevitably felt pressured to change from the forces we have listed above. But more important, teachers, and in particular those who have contributed to this book, have felt the world of writing shifting under them and have wanted to account for this change in their teaching. These teachers are embracing technology in their teaching, to support not only the learning of traditional essay texts but also new electronic text types—what Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (2006) call “post-typographic forms of texts” (p. 23). These new electronic texts—a Web site with words and images, blogs where multiple readers and writers contribute—challenge our basic notion of written texts as linear, verbal, single-authored texts.
At the same time that new forms of writing—and thus literacy—are emerging in our culture and in our classrooms, forces of assessment and standardization exert a counter-pressure, asking us to prepare students to produce conventional, formulaic print texts in scripted ways. Paradoxically, technology is also being harnessed for these purposes by educational publishers and testing companies, taking the form of machine-scoring and responding to student writing. So it is that technology seems to be leading us forward to new forms of writing, but, as used by standardized testing programs, backward to the five-paragraph theme.
Teachers are caught in this conflict, for their students’ sake wanting to respond to the changes taking place in this thing we call writing, and at the same time wanting their students to do well in the 19th-century school essay called for on standardized tests.
Note As the first chapter of an edited collection, this piece surveys the evolution of computer technology in writing courses, moving in particular to assessment technologies. I chose this excerpt because it includes the kind of trenchant observation Charlie was so good at making: that instead of using technology to move to 21st Century writing needs, testing is preparing students for 19th Century writing. The full chapter is online and excerpts from other chapters, as well as ordering information for the book, can be found in the link with the book's title above.

With Anne Herrington, "Writing to a Machine is Not Writing At All," an essay hosted online by The National Writing Project. Undated, but guess is about 2010 or 11 based on the citations. Available at

Imagine the effect of this 95%-wrong feedback on the student writer and on the teacher. The feedback would at the least confuse the student writer, leaving the teacher somehow to counter the confusion—although if the student were using her Criterion card on her own, as purchased from the bookstore, there would be no teacher to intervene. If the student accepted the feedback, here are some of the lessons that would be learned: do not use e.g., or texting, or peloton, in any of your writing; do not use the dash as a mark of punctuation; shorten and simplify all sentences so that the program will be able to parse them accurately; do not use inductive, specific-to-general, sequences, but stick with deduction—topic sentence first. Among our goals as writing teachers are these: help students discover and use their voices; help them take risks with their writing; help them master the grammar, usage, mechanics, and styles of written English. In this trial, and in earlier trials we have reported on (see Herrington and Moran 2009, Herrington and Stanley), Criterion has proved not a useful assessment tool but, to quote Ed White again, “a major impediment to what we need to do for our students” (1994, 3). 
Note The essay looks at how Criterion, ETS's automated writing feedback tool, treats student writing. As you can see, Anne and Charlie found it treats students shabbily, in ways counter to what good teachers seek to do and what students need to learn about writing. Charlie's early work, as you saw above, looked at teachers adapting their pedagogy -- enhancing it, or trying to -- via technology. Here and in other later work, especially with Anne, the focus is on what comes when technology is imposed between student and teacher.

Friday, June 19, 2015

#worthassigning: Paul Ford's What is Code?

Adam Whitehurst, a colleague at the Bedford/St. Martin's Imprint of Macmillan, shared this link with folks in house:

It's a long, funny, sane piece that posits an audience of people-in-charge of big things or departments approving or overseeing a project that involves coding, and spending a lot of money on coding, and not quite getting what the is meant by code and how coding and software design happens.
So it explains that, but in eminently readable prose, like this
This man makes a third less than you, and his education ended with a B.S. from a large, perfectly fine state university. But he has 500+ connections on LinkedIn. That plus sign after the "500" bothers you. How many more than  500 people does he know? Five? Five thousand?
In some mysterious way, he outranks you. Not within the company, not in restaurant reservations, not around lawyers. Still: He strokes his short beard; his hands are tanned; he hikes; his socks are embroidered with little ninja.

“Don’t forget,” he says, “we’ve got to budget for apps.”

This is real. A Scrum Master in ninja socks has come into your office and said, “We’ve got to budget for apps.” Should it all go pear-shaped, his career will be just fine.

You keep your work in perspective by thinking about barrels of cash. You once heard that a U.S. dry barrel can hold about $100,000 worth of singles. Next year, you’ll burn a little under a barrel of cash on Oracle. One barrel isn’t that bad. But it’s never one barrel. Is this a 5-barrel project or a 10-barreler? More? Too soon to tell. But you can definitely smell money burning.

At this stage in the meeting, you like to look supplicants in the eye and say, OK, you’ve given me a date and a budget. But when will it be done? Really, truly, top-line-revenue-reporting finished? Come to confession; unburden your soul.
The piece is multimodal, playfully so,  making a little sly fun of code and coding too as it goes. For example, when you get to the end, you're told how many words you "read" and how fast. (So yes, go to the link, read the first paragraph or two, then scroll to the bottom to see what I mean.)

The piece is worth assigning in writing courses with technology themes or issues, cultural study courses, technical communication courses, philosophy (yes, philosophy) courses, where any goal of the course is to understand humanity's relationship to machines. Turning again to Ford, he reminds us that the role of code in our lives, how we perceive ourselves and our world, is deep and vast:
What I’m saying is, I’m one of 18 million. So that’s what I’m writing: my view of software development, as an individual among millions. Code has been my life, and it has been your life, too. It is time to understand how it all works.

Every month it becomes easier to do things that have never been done before, to create new kinds of chaos and find new kinds of order. Even though my math skills will never catch up, I love the work. Every month, code changes the world in some

images illustrate words -- robot walking on bricks for interesting; child using technology to connect with another person for wonderful;  and 3-d printed gun for disturbing
Images come from Ford's piece, collected as a single image to here to fully quote the closing sentence, its use of images and its layout.
The idea that coders or programmers are the unacknowledged legislators of our world, a riff on Percy Bysshe Shelley's concluding sentence in "A Defence of Poetry," that Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, is not new observation. Ford, however, while never using that riff, explains in a sustained and detailed way, how that legislation-by-coders gets written and enacted, with far more nuance and as much mirth as School House Rock's "I'm Just a Bill."

Depending on your approach and what you want to emphasize, you might want to ask students to first read this short HP interview Ben Cosgrove had with Douglas Rushkoff about consumers increased need for media literacy. Ford's piece goes a long way to giving students the kinds of context and understanding useful for understanding the kinds of web literacy Rushkoff advocates. The interview is short too, serving as useful pre-reading activity that can activate the minds of students, giving them ideas to link to, play off from, and discuss with one another as they read Ford's longer work.

Ford's piece touches not just on coding, but too on coding culture, making connections to the culture at large or aspects of the culture at large most faculty (and many students in the age of *Cons) will recognize:
Technology conferences are where primate dynamics can be fully displayed, where relationships of power and hierarchy can be established. There are keynote speakers—often the people who created the technology at hand or crafted a given language. There are the regular speakers, often paid not at all or in airfare, who present some idea or technique or approach. Then there are the panels, where a group of people are lined up in a row and forced into some semblance of interaction while the audience checks its e-mail. 
I’m a little down on panels. They tend to drift. I’m not sure why they exist. 
Here’s the other thing about technology conferences: There has been much sexual harassment and much sexist content in conferences. Which is stupid, because computers are dumb rocks lacking genitalia, but there you have it.
Who among us has not noticed or remarked, if only has part of graduate school rites of passage in the academic realm, on the "primate dynamics" at our own academic, industry or company sales conferences (and yet not nearly so smartly as to use the phrase 'primate dynamics' when doing so)?

Ford's piece also serves as model of bravura writing, of multimodal composing, mixing in not just the usual elements of image and video, but also the coding element of the recurring bot I urged you to see by scrolling to the bottom of the text.

So there's a lot to work with in the piece, but I especially like it because of its length and range. I think too often we worry about student attention spans, about keeping readings short, and about the belief that long reading is serious and dense. This piece finds a sweet middle: its long and fun, requires time, but makes the time pass well enough. It's a good piece for helping readers develop the skills needed to stay with a longer text, giving them practice in doing so, and could be useful in setting up a later long reading that may not be delivered with as much joy.

There will be things, and this is a good thing, students may need to re-read, to look up, to ask questions about, to talk to classmates about to see how they're understanding the piece. But that kind of reading is needed in courses because it helps bring learners to conversation.

And as you can see from just the few snippets I've quoted above, Ford's piece can spur worth discussions, and thus is worth assigning.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Notes Toward a Rhetoric of the Curmudgeonly

cross posted at

When my daughters watched Sesame Street -- the t.v. show or one of the movies -- back when they were little girls, and I watched them, my favorite moment came when Oscar the Grouch sang "The Grouch's Anthem" in a movie called Follow that Bird :
Oscar the grouch singing by his trash can with U.S. flag as backdrop.
Oscar singing the Grouch Anthem. Click the image to see and hear its glory over at YouTube.
I love that song and believe fully in the spirit captured in the lines, "Don't let the sunshine spoil the rain/Just stand up and complain."

And today it is raining and it is Monday, so it's a grouch's kind of day, no sun to complain about. And it got off to a grouchly start too, which made me happily grumpy: I woke to the sound of the garbage truck trundling down the street, with the trash-container-grabbing reaching out, squeezing, lifting, dumping, and dropping the plastic barrels. I woke and realized our container still sat in by the side of the garage and not at the curb. So I rushed from bed, threw on a rain coat and boots, rushed out of the house dressed like a flasher and dragged the barrels out just before the truck reached the house, much to the mirth of the driver.

And then to make me even grouchier, I find myself out of my favorite breakfast meal -- potato chips and beer, forcing me to rely on brandy and toast instead.

So I am home and grumpy and writing. And that to me seems a good combination for getting work done, don't you think? Sometimes writing, or rather some kinds of writing, works better with a sour disposition: love poems, self-evaluation performance reviews, letters to editors, revising a prior draft, writing the utility company to dispute a bill . . .

It's not that one wants to be mean, but that one wants to be unsentimental, unblinded by the sun, unfooled by a blue-sky view of things. So the rainy and cloudy days, oddly enough,  when making certain kinds of judgments and finding the words to go with them, inspire, for grouchy curmudgeons, clarity.

And its good practice, writing while grumpy, for putting a writing teacher into students' shoes. I write today on some projects forced on me, assignments, if you will, that seem to me pointless busy work even if on one level I know they are not. Certainly the work is dull. But it has to get done; goes into the h.r. grade book; will be read and scored. I'll be sorted, ranked, and tracked by it. And like many students, I'll be content with passing it in and getting it behind me and then forgetting it. Like so many assignments before, it will be writing forgotten, left in the box outside the professor's door, never to be picked up.

I'll save my energy and enthusiasm for more important-to-me projects like how do I avoid giving my students work that makes them feel like I feel now?

What I want to avoid is lecturing to them about how sometimes you have to write things, do work, that you don't like writing, don't care a lot about, and so you have to suck it up and do it because blah, blah, blah. Of course that is true, and they know it and I know it. So maybe the other thing to do is come up with a pedagogy for teaching writers to write when they do not want to write. A lot of time we focus on making assignments attractive, trying to find ways to tap intrinsic motivation while at the same time meeting curricular outcomes. But what if we acknowledge that we all sometimes write under grouch conditions? Is there a way to celebrate that as well? Maybe developing a rhetoric of genial subversion, like the Advanced Placement students who wrote, then crossed out so examiners could not help but see and read the phrase but couldn't count it in scoring, "This is Sparta (… ).

The right kind of grumpiness, grouchiness, curmudgeonly-ness can be puckish fun, for the writer, so that at least the tedium finds relief, and that relief, that steam-let-off, might be just the thing to make the writing work a bit better for the poor sap who required to read what was required to be written.

Friday, June 12, 2015

On Editing My Father's Memoir

My father, Nicholas R. Carbone, whose work as a progressive city council majority leader in Hartford, CT from 1969-1979, established him as national expert on urban issues, hired a ghostwriter to help him write a memoir.  The memoir uses those years as a prism for exploring his political the personal and intellectual roots of his moral-political philosophy, and his take on what skills and approaches leaders -- council members, city managers, mayors,  community activists -- need to embrace for cities to thrive in the future based in an increasingly global economy.

My role will be as a development editor, working with him, his researcher, and his ghostwriter on the manuscript. The project's been fun so far, with a chance for me to look back to a time that was formative for me as well in many ways. I'm finding that it involves a lot of writing, notes to the ghostwriter, revising manuscripts, emails, drafting some sections of the memoir to supplement the writer's work.  It's writing for different reasons -- to support a writer who works by dictation and a ghostwriter who is shaping that dictation into drafts, but it's writing still. And fun for being so.

So while the project is his memoir, my own memoria plays a role in how I see and think and feel about the work. The project is fun for what I am remembering and learning.

 I was ten in 1969 when my father started on the council, and twenty when he lost an election for mayor and stepped out elected offices for good. During that time, as I got older, I attended the occasional council meeting, or meetings at schools or senior centers where he answered questions about taxes, bonding issues, school construction, policing, and other municipal issues from Hartford residents, often meetings where constituents were angry about or afraid of the ideas on the table.

I'm remembering all kinds of names, controversies, events, campaigns (city councilors and the mayor serve two year terms), and politics, local, state, and national. Just a few things by way of example. During a dispute with the police union on contracts and guidelines for police behavior, we would routinely get calls at two or three in the morning from distraught people hoping to get bail for a son, daughter, mother, father or friend who had just been arrested. Some members of the police department were giving our home phone number out when people asked for a bail bondsman. My father didn't want us to just hang up or be rude -- the folks were in distress. So we were told to explain what the officer was up to, and had handy the number and names of one or two bondsman to give them.

I also remember meeting President Carter towards the end of my father's time in office (and Carter's too for that matter), and Vice-President Humphrey, who was running for President, earlier, in 1968, a year before my father was appointed to the council to fill one three vacancies.

But what's key in those years is that they came at a time when I was old enough, and interested enough, to begin understanding what he was doing as a councilman and political leader and boss, and why. So my progressive views were shaped by growing up and tagging along with a progressive public servant who used his political muscle, which muscle peaked with Carter's primary and then general election wins in Connecticut, wins my father largely engineered, to serve city residents.

Picture of my father, Nicholas R., seated, me standing, in front of campaign sign that says "Nick"
My father and I in 1979, when I was twenty, at the headquarters for his mayoral campaign, which he lost. The photo came from a campaign mailer that also featured photos of my mother, and my four brothers and our sister, the youngest.

17 - 20 are formative intellectual years for many teens, and I was no exception. I went from a catholic high school to the University of Hartford, where I read a lot of literature, philosophy, and wrote for the campus paper, following the news, still going to meetings, that marked some of my father's work. So I came to understand the importance then of equity, education, treating everyone with respect, and as well the forces and systems that, without being challenged and remade, without being questioned, disadvantage the poor and powerless. So much of the work in those years centered around addressing the poverty in Hartford, and the things poverty is linked to and perpetuated by: struggling schools, crime, drugs, adversarial policing, racism and classism, broken homes, ruined property (which weaken the tax base for addressing issues), and more.

What I'm learning now, and never knew then, is a bit more about how he got things done -- the strategic economic planning as the city's resources and revenue streams shifted, as well as the strategic thinking in how to move things not only through city hall, but also the state legislature and from Washington, where lobbying agencies and congressional committees for grants, legislation, and speaking to them about national city issues became part of the work necessary to govern well.

I'm also discovering that a lot of what was accomplished was first, and only happened through persistence and careful strategy in persuading and aligning the votes necessary to get things done. For example, Hartford, in 1979, passed an ordinance that Hartford would not discriminate in hiring, choosing vendors, because of sexual orientation nor ex-offender status. Coming ten years after Stonewall, and in the era of Anita Bryant, it was a brave ordinance to write, one of, if not the first, such city ordinance in the country. To pass it had to go through a year or so of planning, lining up votes, working with council members on language, coordinating with gay rights activists on timing, and still overcoming some strenuous objection from radical right groups like the Blue Berets and a mayoral veto by then Mayor George Athanson, who signed the veto statement from Idlewild Airport while waiting for his delayed flight to Greece to be rescheduled then ducked out of town to avoid the heat.

So it's a fascinating project in many ways, and I am looking forward to seeing what the first draft of writing brings, and then editing it, working with my father on clarifications, and hearing him talk about what he knows and thinks.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Reading about Reading Apprenticeship and Thinking about Textbook Publisher Technology

I'm reading about reading, which right now is more fun than writing about writing. The book is Reading for Understanding: How Reading Apprenticeship Improves Disciplinary Learning in Secondary and College Classrooms by Ruth Schoenbach, Cynthia Greenleaf, and Lynn Murphy.

Based on research into best practices for making students better readers, the book explores classroom approaches instructors can use to make even the weakest readers stronger, able to read the kinds of longer, more complex works students will engage in courses and outside of courses.

You can see the basics of their framework here, in chapter two, which they provide online:

Two quick take aways that go to textbook publishers' software product development efforts.

First, there is no quick-fix, and skills practice technologies, where students go to Web services offered by publishers and others selling in the developmental market might exacerbate rather than ameliorate the problem. From page 8 of the text. At the bottom of this post, I've put in the citation their footnote references.
Instead, the quick-fix or "skills-in-a-box" programs commonly promoted as suitable for solving a range of reading difficulties feature discrete skills practice and decontextualized reading of short paragraphs or passages. Some of these programs focus on word-level exercises and vocabulary drills; others divide comprehension into a suite of skills such as find-the-main-idea, sequence sentences, draw conclusions -- all with decontextualized snippets of text. Some other skills programs put students through batteries of test preparation exercises: read a paragraph and answer "comprehension" questions, read another paragraph and answer questions, and so on. These, too, fail to help students gain the kind of deeper comprehension skills and practice that are needed for high-level literacy demands. 
Simply put, there is no quick fix for reading inexperience. Decades of research have shown that reading is a complex cognitive and social practice and that readers develop knowledge, experience, and skill over a lifetime of reading. In building reading aptitude, there is no skills-only approach that can substitute for reading itself. On the contrary, repeated studies have demonstrated that isolated instruction in grammar, decoding, or even reading comprehension skills may have little or no transfer effect when students are actually reading.15
This summary gibes with what many teachers know to be true about writing and the teaching of writing -- isolated skill practice doesn't transfer into better writing habits of mind, drafting and final copy editing skills.

In addition, the nature of these programs -- or textbooks that take this approach -- dispirit the learner, mark him or her as unable, and leech joy from learning, motivation from reading (and writing when skill and drill is used there). What does work, write Schoenbach, Greenleaf and Murphy, is quite wonderful for a teacher who seeks an energetic class:
Recent literacy research has identified the instructional characteristics necessary to meet the unique needs of low-achieving adolescents: treat all students as capable learners, create a collaborative climate of inquiry, build on students interests and curiosity, tap into students' knowledge and experience, and harness their preference for social interaction to serve academic goals.5 (4)
The Reading Apprenticeship authors also warn against the tendency of professors to find ways around reading -- explaining what was in text via lecture or slides that summarize key ideas, an over-reliance on video, using unchallenging texts where text is used, and other practices.

I work for a college textbook publisher, and we do have books and software which offer developmental readers support through decontextualized reading practice and drill. Those are legacies from market requirements (teachers and programs ask for this stuff), competitive pressures (other publishers win business by having them), and not quite knowing yet what an alternative offering is.  As one who does professional development for faculty, my workshops encourage instructors to move in the direction the literacy research identifies as best -- a belief in students, finding ways to tap into their intrinsic motivations, collaborative reading and writing activities, scaffolded support that moves students into reading more complex texts instead of finding ways to work around reading, bringing learner experience into the mix, and so on.

But those shifts can be hard for folks to make because they can be messy, require more patience, in the world of seat-time and fixed-weeks in a semester, make it harder for all course goals and outcomes to be reached. So the challenges are real.  I think publishers can do more. While the market may demand and teachers may crave discrete skills products, adding to them or offering as alternatives software and books that move in the direction literacy research points to becomes essential.

Many of our books go there now, but the technology is slower to follow because its harder to develop and what we offer may not be necessary given the plethora of good alternatives.  We have, at Macmillan where I work, a tool for shared annotations -- a tool that can support social reading, guided writing around reading, where students can share experiences, insights, questions, answers to make their reading experiences in the course richer and deeper (see But as useful, and perhaps more powerful because they were designed around social reading first, are tools like those outlined here -- -- that one of my workshops focused on.

At any rate, two things: I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the Reading Apprenticeship book, and am looking forward to what it can teach myself and my colleagues in publishing about how to make better books and software to support reading.


5. Lee, C. D., & Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the disciplines: The challenges of adolescent literacy. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

15. Fielding, L. G., & Pearson, P. D. (1994). Reading comprehension: What works. Educational Leadership, 51(5), 62-88; Cartwright, K. D. (Ed.) (2008). Literacy processes: Cognitive flexibility in learning and teaching. New York: Guilford.