A New Semester


It’s August once again, and inevitably we begin thinking about the beginning of school. While many students in this country do not start until after Labor Day, most of us in the Rocky Mountain West start in late August. Our community college classes start on August 24, with faculty returning the week before. What spread out before me in May as a long and restful summer is coming to a crashing and busy end. But what I didn’t know when school ended in May was how my plans for the fall would change.

About a week ago, a friend of mine called and asked me if I would be interested in using her extensive research and material about American prisoners of war in WWII for a writing class, designing some way to help her begin to create curriculum to use the material she has collected over that last 20 years. All it took was one meeting with her to make me realize that I had just been given an incredible gift, a chance for students to work with primary source material, for them to learn history from letters, to learn about real people experiencing real hardship.

I have now rewritten the course outline for my English 1010 (college comp ) classes, designed a final project and decided on readings and on writing assignments. Luckily, I can do this easily, but what is important here, is not that I can do this, but that I should do this. As teachers, it is too easy to rely on the “same-old, same –old,” the tried and probably not so true material and techniques.   Writing texts are generally boring, generally not exciting, but going straight to a primary source, (in this case, letters from POWs) is fresh, is new and will fire the imaginations of students who are, for the most part, expecting school to be a not very exciting necessity.

The world is too rich a place for school to be dull, but school is dull if teachers are not excited about what they are doing. I am thrilled to have access to some new material even if it means a little extra work. I am lucky to have had this opportunity dumped in my lap. It is often too easy to say no, to come up with an excuse about not having time or not feeling comfortable trying something new at the last minute, but we miss out on so much unless we are willing to jump in, to take a chance, experiment. Writing can be taught in almost any context, and I, for one, do not want to read essays about what someone did on their summer vacation. I would rather read essays in which students struggle with new ideas that have been generated by reading things these students have never read before, generated by students grappling how others have coped with terrible experiences.

Besides the primary sources of the letters themselves, we will be reading two books, The Railway Man by Erik Lomax and Escape from Davao by John D. Lucas. The Lomax book is a first hand account of his imprisonment and torture by the Japanese during the war. Lomax ultimately, many years later, meets one of the men who tortured him. He comes to understand that the experience of torture is as damaging to the torturer as it is to the tortured. In this times when the United States has clearly engaged in torture of many people, this book will, I hope, provoke many conversations about the futility of war and of torture.

I cannot think of a more exciting way to begin my last year of teaching before I retire.


” I Believe in Books”



My granddaughter, who is in year six, at the primary school in her English village, participates in a Philosophy class in which the students, ten and eleven year-olds, engage in complex and difficult discussions. Recently her class was invited to hold their discussion on the stage in an auditorium filled with attendees at a Religious Education Conference held in a nearby town. (This being England and not the United States, there is no separation of church and state. Queen Elizabeth is, after all, called, among other things, “Defender of the Faith,” just as Henry the XIII was.)  These students decided on the question that they would be discussing, “Do people choose religion or does religion choose people?”  At the beginning of the discussion, the children introduced themselves and gave a small description of their own religious experiences.  My granddaughter was the first to introduce herself. She gave her name and then she said, “I have my own religion.” She stopped there and did not elucidate further.  Later in the car on the way home, her father asked her what her religion was. She answered that she believed in books, and then she went on to say that sometimes she asked characters in books to help her if she had questions about something.

Aside from the fact that she is my granddaughter, and I might be prejudiced, I actually think that this is quite profound on a number of levels. First, when children read books that have characters who get themselves out of difficult situations, or solve interesting problems, they see  examples of admirable behavior. I remember reading Little Women and thinking about a passage in which Jo asks her mother if she has ever been angry. Her mother answers that she is often angry but she has learned how to (and I am paraphrasing here) temper that anger, she has learned how to say nothing when what she has to say would be said in anger. This passage has stayed with me much of my adult life.  But we don’t need to read work as didactic as Little Women in order to learn something.  Many children have learned to be resourceful by reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and certainly Harry Potter shows us ways to grow up, even without magic wands.

My granddaughter is also participating in a far larger community than she realizes, since the Abrahamic religions that predate Islam, that is Judaism and Christianity, have both been called “People of the Book.”  Not only does this tell us that these religions have sacred texts, the Torah, the Bible, but also that participants in these religions understand that there is something important to be gained from reading, thinking about, and analyzing texts. Hermeneutics, or the analysis of text for meaning, was originally applied to sacred texts, the Bible in particular, and so what my granddaughter was saying about her religion being books really connects her to a far older tradition.  When we think about the stories in the ancient text, we think about what they teach us. What many ideas can we take away from the story of Ruth, for example, or the story of the Good Samaritan?

My granddaughter’s response reminds me again, as if I needed reminding again, that reading is critical, not only to developing analytical skill and understanding what stories have to teach us, but reading is critical  to developing empathy.  Several semesters ago, I taught three books as part of a second level writing course, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and Winter in the Blood  by James Welch. I wanted to teach the two novels by Native  American writers, but I wanted my students to have some background in Native American History before they read the novels, and therefore, I assigned the Dee Brown book. At the end of the course, I asked students to describe what they had learned in the course of the semester. One student wrote that he had learned to think about his own opinions and to decide whether or not those opinions were based on fact or prejudice. I cannot think of a more important thing for a student to learn. While it is possible that this student would have learned that elsewhere, reading books that took him out of his own experience and showed him the experiences of other people, helped him become a more empathetic person.

So, I, too, believe in books.


A Whole New World…. Musing on this month’s topic: technology



My 10 year-old granddaughter, Skye, sent me a video that she made not long ago that she told me was “Epic.”  She provided very little other explanation, so I had to ask her father, my son, to explain this black thing with blinking lights on it.  He told me that she was trying to recreate the partial eclipse of the sun that they had seen recently. He said that Skye was really excited by seeing the eclipse, so she took a black t-shirt, sewed some LED lights in a circle using conductive thread. Then she programmed a computer chip so that it would turn the lights on sequentially. She sewed the computer chip onto the shirt and attached it to the conductive thread. When the lights glowed around the circle, the display did actually look  sort of like the partial eclipse of the sun.

I am not writing this to highlight my granddaughter’s ability, but rather to think about ways that our grandchildren, even more than our children are using and will be using technology. Lots of people talk about the dangers of people too attached to their screens, or so attached to screens that they forget how to interact with real people, but I think that while these fears have some merit, they limit our thinking about children and computers.   We clearly are not going to put this genie back in the bottle. Computers are here, and will get more and more powerful and sophisticated. Our children and grandchildren will need to learn computer coding because these skills will be critical to helping them make many of the decisions they will have to make to help both preserve and protect the beauty and diversity of our planet.

We live on a planet filled with wonders, and a planet that is changing dramatically and it is my grandchildren’s generation that will have to deal with those changes in one way or another. My granddaughter, like many children of her generation, are well aware of pending extinctions, and the effects of climate change. Skye is lucky to have an uncle who has taken a lot of time to introduce her to the wonders of nature.  Young people like Skye  will need all the tools they can find to figure out ways for creatures, including humans, to survive.  These young people will, first of all, need to develop an appreciation of the diverse and beautiful world. This appreciation comes from spending time outside, from spending time watching ants, or breathing in the fragrance of fir trees. All people need to feel fresh air against their skin, need to go walking in a field.   We need to make sure that these things happen because only when people deeply experience the world in a sensory way, can they see that the world is worth caring for.

The human brain has difficulty grasping big stuff. We have difficulty understanding ecological patterns that take place over many generations.  One of the reasons, I think, for example, that many people have difficulty accepting human evolution is that is an extremely slow process, and even though we can understand development over several generations, we cannot understand development over thousands of generations, but computers can do these calculations. As computers become more and more powerful, they will be able to show us models of what the world will look like under many different kinds of conditions. Computers will be able (in fact already are) to develop models of what the long-term ramifications of certain kinds of decisions will be in a much more nimble way than the human brain can.  Computers can help humans make decisions that will benefit the ants and the fir trees and their human relatives.

Skye’s eclipse project makes me think about this because she started with an experience in the world. She watched a partial eclipse of the sun, through a pin-hole camera. She experienced the wonder of the universe (or at least our solar system).  Once she had had that experience, she translated it into an EPIC  technology/art/ project. (And art is always experience filtered through the sensibility of the artist).  Skye’s project is wonderful, but more importantly she is learning to integrate technology with her experience of the world around her. She doesn’t see a disconnect between technology and the rest of her world, but sees them as connected to each other.  As she continues to develop these skills, she, and other young people like her, will be able to make long-term predictions, develop long-term solutions and ultimately, create and value a world that continues to be filled with wonders.






Here We Go Again

Keri Sj janeWe’re all getting ready for new classes this week. We are planning course work and writing syllabi. We are meeting new students and giving directions around our always-under-construction campus. It some ways it is chaos, but it’s also fun to anticipate and to plan.

The spring semester sneaks up on me. Summer sort of inevitably winds down and I can feel school coming on, but the winter break is always fast and I forget to look up and see the first day approaching. I’ve written about loving the start of the term, about the strange combination of anxiety and excitement that accompanies the start of every semester. This week has brought all of those same crazy feelings, but the winter start is different: quieter and yet still abrupt.

I think the school start was made harder by the inside part of work. I skied a lot last week. Nearly every day. I looped around a mountain golf course with my dog and my mother several mornings in a row and I even played hooky with Cody one afternoon. I love Nordic skiing for lots of reasons, but I mostly chase that effortless glide. I’m not a practiced skier; I’m sure my technique is horrific and it’s rare that I complete an outing without a fall, but I love that feeling of sliding across the frozen ground. The sound of snow under skis is squeaky and rhythmic when accompanied by hard pole plants. When the snow is good – cold and fresh – it’s easy to disappear into the hard work and sunshine under the Bighorns. A good glide looks like grace even on a klutz like me.blacktooth

Coming inside maybe the hardest part of starting the winter term (fall too, now that I think about it), but it strikes me that I’m chasing the same feeling as I plan my classes. I love the optimism of planning a new semester. All of my ideas seem brilliant and shiny (like new snow). I plan for lively discussions about art and literature and change. It all looks so smooth – challenging, but rewarding and certain (on paper). Preparing for the semester is the glide – the easy, optimistic part of the year.

So we’ve all got our heads down while we plot and scheme. We are walking in to our new classes full of optimism and fire. I’ve got it all figured out – at least for now. However, I do know the uphill climb is out there waiting for me.

~ Sarah

What Works




We are currently bombarded by information about our educational system, whether it’s the need for early childhood education or the appalling completion rates at our community colleges. Everyone from education experts to politicians weighs in on what the solutions might be. Community colleges place a great deal of emphasis on “assessment,” which means measuring how our students are doing. Too often the tools we use for assessment are blunt instruments that do not really look at the important skills and knowledge that our students are gaining or not gaining.

I recently learned about a program started in 1986 by Dr. Rae Fleming Dinneen called Climb Wyoming. Dr. Dinneen developed this program to provide job training for single mothers in Wyoming to help them move out of poverty and into jobs and careers that will allow these women to support their families. The success rate of this program in almost 40 years is remarkable. Ninety-five percent of the women who participate graduate from the 12 week program and remain in their new jobs or in better jobs two years beyond graduation. The women in this program become welders, CNA’s, office managers, warehouse technicians and long distance truck drivers.

What Climb Wyoming has done is taken what we know works in education and applied it. Climb Wyoming does not need “assessments” to tell if what they are doing is working. They see it every day as these young mothers gain job skills, gain relationship skills, gain money skills and gain parenting skills.

What Climb Wyoming does besides pairing women with jobs and job training programs is to facilitate close connections between the women who enroll. Each group that enters together develops a community that supports its members as they meet every week. No participant feels like she is alone, something most of these women felt deeply when they were unemployed or marginally employed. Beyond the immediate connection within each group, Climb Wyoming graduates stay in touch with each other so that those bonds that develop during the training period remain. Climb Wyoming’s staff plays the parts of counselor, cheerleader, older sister, helping each woman over the rough spots, placing each woman in a job training program that will suit her. The staff also teaches resume writing, office etiquette, and gives parenting advice, sometimes something as simple as helping a young mother see that it is important to read aloud to her children.

Research supports all of this work. We know that students learn better if they are in a small, congenial group. They learn better if they have specific goals. They learn better if they have close relationships with their teachers (or in this case the Climb Wyoming leaders). We know students learn better when they can see the result of their learning. We do not need artificial assessments to understand these things.

I suggest that educators look to programs like Climb Wyoming for the answers to some of our educational problems. We need to move to smaller classes that meet more frequently so that students develop relationships with each other. We need to have instructors who are available for students not just for their academic work but for conversations about their students’ lives, about the barriers that might be in the way of a student’s achievement. We need to keep in touch with our students after they have finished our courses, checking in to remind students that people continue to care about them.

In the end, education is about relationships as much as it is about subject matter. Students learn if they care about each other, if their instructor cares about them and if, together they care about the material.

Climb Wyoming takes education’s best practices and puts them to work. I encourage everyone to look at this remarkable program. www.climbwyoming.org.