What motivated you to develop an Open Education textbook?
In early 2020, we started thinking about the possibility of writing our own Open Educational Resource textbook to take advantage of the opportunity from the UMass libraries. This seemed like a daunting task for just two people in a short amount of time, and, in fact, we almost decided that it would be too much for us to handle. However, when COVID-19 forced UMass to go online and we were closed up in our houses, we decided to find a silver lining and to start working on the project in earnest, funding or no funding. When it was suddenly not possible to connect with friends, students, and colleagues in a physical space, the need for community and inclusivity seemed more pressing than ever before. As a result, not only did we create our OER textbook that is designed to be a point of connection for others, but this collaboration for us personally also provided much needed connection, purpose, and levity in a time of almost complete isolation.
In writing this book, our goals were to reduce costs for students in the hopes of making Italian a more inclusive language learning experience, as well as to offer the opportunity to learn about Italian language and culture to a more diverse group of learners. Through this project, we want to reduce the technological barriers to learning and create a resource that reflects more diverse experiences, as traditional Italian texts are often heteronormative and tend to minimize more progressive cultural elements and the minority experience in Italy. Even the title of the book, Tutt* a tavola!, represents this idea of inclusivity. It translates to “everyone at the table” or, as an invitation, “everyone to the table!”, and is typically a summons to gather round and enjoy a meal together. The asterisk, along with the @ symbol and sometimes the schwa, is a way to indicate a gender-neutral word ending in written Italian. The intended outcome is for more students to reach higher levels of proficiency, and to grow our community, especially including traditionally underrepresented groups.
How did you approach the task of creating your materials?
We have both taught at other colleges and universities in the Northeast and have used nearly every elementary level Italian language textbook on the market, so our familiarity with these books and their typical structures and activities was a definite starting point. We have also authored content for some of these textbooks ourselves in the past, as well as created a great deal of our own pedagogical materials over our collective teaching careers. All of this experience certainly helped to begin the writing process for our own book.
Tutt* a tavola! is for Elementary Italian (Italian 110 and 120, over two semesters). It consists of two volumes, one for each course, with six chapters in each. Once we had settled on this initial structure, we made lists of everything we wanted to cover, grammatically-speaking, and also brainstormed chapter themes and cultural topics that would best match with the linguistic aspects we were focusing on. Generally speaking, each chapter addresses three to four grammatical topics and includes a vocabulary section related to a cultural theme. The vocabulary is also incorporated into the grammatical presentations and exercises. There is also a short reading in each chapter regarding different aspects of culture and language, to address those questions of diversity and inclusion that are often missing from the textbooks we have used in the past. To include as much culture as possible, we also included multimedia: each chapter begins with a song that is used as a starting point for the inductive presentation of the chapter’s content, and ends with a video (a film clip, an interview, social media) that summarizes the ideas covered.
It should also be noted that the “we” here includes more than just the two of us. We are particularly proud of the “team” we put together, in a short amount of time and at a distance, to make this resource possible in less than a year. It was truly a collaborative effort and would not not have been possible without the contributions of Jeremy Smith and Erin Jerome from UMass libraries, Melanie Griffith (graphic design--thank you to Patricia Galvis Assmus from the Department of Art for helping us find her!), Marco LoBascio (author of the workbook and lab manual and the cultural notes interspersed throughout volume 2), Hannali Meyer (Blackboard expert), Michael Papio (moral and financial support), and Morena Svaldi (editing). Our contributors ranged from undergraduates, to graduate students, to UMass professors and librarians, to Five College colleagues.
What has been the impact of this strategy on your students?
Since we haven’t used our OER for a full year yet, it’s hard to say exactly how the book has impacted our students. The economic impact is maybe the easiest to evaluate, since elementary Italian was completely free at UMass this year for the first time. That amounts to, collectively, thousands of dollars saved (approximately $10,000 since Fall 2020). By eliminating the need to buy a book and having all of the materials ready on the first day of class, we’ve also made it possible for students to start on a level playing field, with no time waiting for books to be ordered and shipped (sometimes when funds permit). We’ve also made a real attempt to include our students and our graduate student TAs in the process, to invite their feedback and encourage them to find errors or typos or things that don’t make sense. We want them to feel like the resource is really theirs. The real impact of this strategy will be seen in the years to come--this is our hope!
What considerations or tips do you have for faculty?
Collaboration and cooperation are everything! We would not have been able to take on a project like this alone. Find a colleague who shares your vision and who complements your style and approach. And involve undergraduates and grad students in the process if possible. Then, just start writing! The beauty of an OER is that you can really do whatever you want in terms of style, content, structure, multimedia, etc...so if you don’t “see yourself” in the textbooks you’ve been using, this is an amazing opportunity to put the material into your own voice and to shape it into what you want.
To browse the Tutt* a tavola! Textbook, visit its PressBooks site (password: Italian110).
To learn more about Open Education Resources that can be adopted, adapted, or created, visit the UMass Amherst Libraries’ Open Education Initiative page.