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.