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Learning “the Wabash Way”

Steve Charles—Just got back from a talk about last year’s summer study in Ecuador program—12 students and four faculty members who spent two weeks teaching English as a second language to high schoolers in a rough part of Quito and in the Amazon Rainforest.

You’ll get the stories about the tough work the students completed (and a pretty cool photo of Victor Nava ’10 surrounded by his Ecuadorian students) in the upcoming issue of Wabash Magazine. From what I heard interviewing students and faculty, this “teaching module” may have been the most effective and meaningful iteration of the program thus far. Both for learning a second language, and for learning how to live wisely and humanely in a difficult world.

Today Ryan Bowerman ’11 said, “I learned more Spanish in the classroom teaching English [to Spanish speakers] than I did in the Spanish classroom.” Program Co-Director Jane Hardy believes this service component forces our students to speak the language they’re trying to learn at a much deeper level. She now recommends service work or an internship that gets students working alongside native speakers for those serious about learning a second language.

But what stays with me from the colloquium I just attended was something I couldn’t see in the one-on-one interviews of students and professors I conducted for the magazine story. This noontime presentation was the first time I had seen them all together—these students and faculty who comprised a mobile learning laboratory in Ecuador last summer. (See photos from the session here.) Professor of Spanish and the Program Director Dan Rogers noticed it before I did, of course, and he put it best:

“The subtext here is the learning that happens for both students and faculty when they study abroad together,” Dan said after the question and answer session, during which students and their professors shared some of the funnier and less publicized moments from the trip. They were laughing together, the way fellow travelers do when they’ve been on a journey of many unexpected, sometimes difficult, sometimes wonder-causing twists and turns. The way you laugh when the journey has changed you in good and fundamental ways, sometimes in ways only your fellow travelers understand.

Of course, they told stories on each other, on themselves. I’ll post a couple of photos here that begin to capture the fun of that.

But the good humor was an indicator of something deeper.

“It’s wonderful to watch the way you are all interacting here,” Dan told the group “It’s interesting the ways this shared experience between faculty and students creates this community that persists way beyond the experience itself. It’s cool to see that community reunited here today.”

One of the Powerpoint slides’ for the presentation read “Learning Through Play, the Wabash Way.” The reference was to the two afternoons Wabash students played soccer with the Ecuadorians (they were going to play basketball, but the Ecuadorian students took one look at the tall Americans and said, “Futbol.”)

But this "Wabash Way of Learning" Dan described is something I’ve seen in the laboratory here, as when Professor of Chemistry Scott Feller says, "The best part of the undergraduate experience is when students realize I don’t know the answer to the problem they’re working on."

I just saw it a month ago in Colloquium, as Professor of Psychology Preston Bost and Dan spent an hour and a half “exploring” Augustine’s Confessions one late weekday night alongside 16 seniors.

I read about it on the Wabash Web site last summer, when Professor of Political Science David Hadley and Professor of Biology joined their freshmen in a plunge from a bridge into the Yellowstone River to celebrate a week spent together learning side-by-side.

In the upcoming issue of Wabash Magazine, President Pat White describes a Wabash faculty “willing to stick their hands in the lives of these young men up to their elbows.” That “close engagement” his Strategic Plan proclaims rewards the professor just as it enriches the student. Students become teachers, professors become students, all fellow learners on a formative journey.

This does happen in the Wabash classroom, to be sure. But in these mobile learning communities moving through a world where the environment is so often out of your control, you’re more likely to encounter that leveling, role-reversal,  or co-learning that teaches students they’re not only responsible for their own education, but may be responsible for others, too.

Pat Garrett ’12 described his experience teaching in Ecuador (the first time he’d ever taught) this way: “To me it was an example of what it means to be a Wabash man. Until now, I couldn’t quite grasp the College’s mission statement. But now I get it. It’s something that has to be lived and experienced, and that is what I am doing!”

That’s learning, the Wabash way.

In photos: Ryan Bowerman ’11 enjoys Professor Pittard’s story; Assistant Professor of Teacher Education Michele Pittard; Bowerman tells a story of his own; Josh Johnson ’11