Betwyll: Studying Pavese in New York

Pavese in New York City: with my students, I tested an innovative approach to study Italian language and culture by reading and commenting on Cesare Pavese on Betwyll.

betwyll new york


Studying Italian by “twylling” on one of the most famous novel of the Italian writer and poet Cesare Pavese, receiving feedbacks from the professor in real time. This was the main purpose of the social reading experiment I proposed to the students of the two Italian classes I taught during the Spring Semester 2018. Hunter College is one of the constituent colleges of the City University of New York, an American public university located in New York City.

Betwyll: reading La luna e i falò to learn Italian

I am a PhD student in the Italian Specialization of the Comparative Literature Department at the Graduate Center of CUNY. As an Italian mother tongue, I teach Italian grammar as an Adjunct Professor. There are four levels of language classes, and I taught Italian 101 (Beginners) and 201 (Intermediate I): in the 101 class I had 21 students, in the 201 I had 23 students, all Americans. Students choose to study Italian due to their family origins or because it is close to Spanish.

Since Italian is very difficult to learn, as professors we are encouraged to employ methodologies or teaching strategies that involve students to practice the language. For this reason, I offered my students up to 10 extra credit points on their final grade for their participation in a social reading project on Betwyll. Betwyll is a social reading app based on the TwLetteratura Method. I designed two projects, available only for the students: on Betwyll I published the beginning of the first chapter of Pavese’s La luna e i falò (The Moon and the Bonfires) and each Sunday, for four weeks, a prompt. The students had to reply to these prompts, focused on grammar or on the book content, in twylls, short messages of 140 characters to be published on Betwyll. I followed the syllabi and focused on different aspects of grammar and lexicon. I published the instructions of the projects in English and the prompts in Italian and I made clear that they could use dictionaries or other tools (also online), but that their twylls had to be published only in Italian.

The two classes

In the Italian 101 class the prompts were:

  • LA FAMIGLIA: il protagonista parla della sua famiglia. Come si chiamano il suo papà, la sua mamma e le sue sorelle? Lui è stato adottato: come si chiamano in italiano il padre adottivo, la mamma adottiva e le sorelle adottive? (THE FAMILY: The protagonist talks about his family. What are his father, mother, and sisters’ names? He was adopted: what are the Italian words for stepfather, stepmother, and stepsisters?)
  • SINGOLARE E PLURALE: riscrivi la seguente frase, trasformando le parole singolari in maiuscolo in plurali e le parole plurali in maiuscolo in singolari. “Ma intorno GLI ALBERI e LA TERRA erano cambiati; LE MACCHIE dei NOCCIOLI sparita, RIDOTTA una stoppia di MELIGA”. (SINGULAR AND PLURAL: rewrite the following sentence, changing the words in capital letters: if they are plural, write them in the singular form, and vice versa.)
  • CULTURA ITALIANA: il protagonista scrive “ci rubavamo la polenta”. Che cosa è la polenta? Scrivi nel tuo twyll una definizione. (ITALIAN CULTURE: the protagonist wrote that “we stole each other the polenta”. What is polenta? Write the definition in your twyll.)
  • PREPOSIZIONI SEMPLICI E ARTICOLATE: “Io venni su con le ragazze, ci rubavamo la polenta, dormivamo sullo stesso saccone, Angiolina la maggiore aveva un anno più di me; e soltanto a dieci anni, nell’inverno quando morì la Virgilia, seppi per caso che non ero suo fratello”. Quante preposizioni (semplici e articolate) ci sono in questa frase? Scrivi nel tuo twyll l’elenco di tutte le preposizioni. (PREPOSITIONS: “I grew up with the girls, we stole each other the polenta, we slept on the same mattress, Angiolina – the oldest – was one year older than me; and only when I was ten, during that Winter when Virgilia died, I discovered by chance that I wasn’t her brother”. How many Italian prepositions are there in this sentence? In your twylls write a list with all the prepositions.)

With the first prompt, I tested their understanding of the book content and of the Italian words for family terms; the second and the fourth prompts were focused on grammar (singular-plural and prepositions), which were part of the syllabus, while the third one was focused on Italian culture (polenta being a typical meal, made with corn flour.)

In the Italian 201 class the prompts were:

  • GEOGRAFIA: In questo capitolo, ci sono molti nomi di città: Canelli, Barbaresco, Alba. In quale regione dell’Italia e in quale provincia si trovano? Si trovano a Nord, a Sud, a Est, a Ovest o al Centro dell’Italia? Come si chiama la città capoluogo della provincia dove si trovano Alba e Canelli? (GEOGRAPHY: In this chapter, there are many names of Italian towns: Canelli, Barbaresco, Alba. In what Italian region and province are they located? Are they in the North, in the South, in the East, in the West, or in the Center of Italy? What is the name of the administrative city that includes Alba and Canelli in its province?)
  • LA CITTÀ E LA CAMPAGNA: Secondo te, la storia è ambientata in città o in campagna? Elenca almeno 4 parole che ti fanno capire se si tratta di città oppure di campagna. (CITY AND COUNTRYSIDE: According to you, this story is set in a city or in the countryside? List at least 4 words that make you understand it is set in a city or in the countryside.)
  • COSA FARESTI TU? “L’altr’anno, quando tornai la prima volta in paese, venni quasi di nascosto a rivedere i noccioli”. Immagina di essere il protagonista: torni dopo tanti anni a vedere il luogo dove hai vissuto da piccolo. Che cosa faresti? Che cosa penseresti? Rispondi usando il condizionale. (WHAT WOULD YOU DO? “Last year, when I returned to the village for the first time, I came almost secretly to see the hazelnut trees again”. Imagine that you are the protagonist: you come back, after years, to see the place where you spent your childhood. What would you do? What would you think? In your reply, use the conditional.)
  • COSA SI FA? “Su queste colline quarant’anni fa c’erano dei dannati che per vedere uno scudo d’argento si caricavano un bastardo dell’ospedale, oltre ai figli che avevano già”. Pavese descrive qui la situazione dei figli adottivi in Italia negli anni ’20. Cosa si fa oggi, negli Stati Uniti, per adottare un bambino? Rispondi usando SI + VERBO. (WHAT TO DO? “On these hills, fourty years ago, there were cursed people who – to gain a dollar – adopted an illegitimate child from the hospital, in addition to the children they already had”. Pavese is here describing the children adoption policy in 1920s’ Italy. What do people do, today, in the US, to adopt a child? Reply using the impersonal form made with SI + VERB.)

The first prompt focused on the geography of Italy, the second one tested the comprehension of the text, especially the contrast city/countryside (relevant in Pavese and in one of the chapters of their textbook), the third one asked them to employ the conditional to speak about themselves, and the fourth one focused on the adoption policy, asking them to compare the situation described in the book with the one in their own country (and using a specific grammar construction.)

The project: an evaluation

The project was not mandatory and was aimed to help the students with the lowest grades. In the Italian 101 class, the participants were 15 out of a total of 21, who published 72 twylls; in the Italian 201 class, the participants were 21 out of a total of 23, who published 92 twylls. In the following gallery, you can see some samples:

The prompts were focused on specific questions, so the students provided clear and specific replies, which were easy and quick to evaluate. More importantly, the project actively involved the students who tend not to participate in class: with Betwyll, I could better understand their level of proficiency. From a pedagogical point of view, I relied on the “learning by doing” principle: students had to search for information (about Italian geography, for instance, or culture, or the current adoption policy in the US) and to use the correct grammar form to communicate such information. Betwyll allowed me to focus on grammar and on the book content or culture, which often overlap. Finally, I established the duration of the project, giving students enough time to prepare, to find information, and to use the correct Italian grammar forms. I followed their participation and progress on Betwyll step by step: being a Betwyll user, too, I could give them feedbacks in real time, and the students usually replied to them with other twylls where they corrected their mistakes.

Chiasmi conferenceIuri Moscardi (@IuriMoscardi) – Born in 1986, he graduated in Milan with a thesis on Cesare Pavese. He discovered TwLetteratura thanks to Pavese, one of the first authors to be read with this methodology. He believes that TwLetteratura is an innovative approach to literature: for this reason, after a MA in Italian at Indiana University (Bloomington), he started his PhD at CUNY focusing his research on TwLetteratura as a new form of the reception. He is a project manager for TwLetteratura, he writes on journals and newspapers, both on paper (La Stampa, Giornale di Brescia) and online (Il Lavoro Culturale, La Voce di New York, Esquire). During his free time, he reads and supports Juventus. His blog has the curios name of Il Tubero (the Tuber).

Betwyll, TwLetteratura’s webapp for social reading is available on App Store and Google Play.