The Big Idea, part 2

I hope to be comatose after I eat dinner, so here is an early report on Day 3 of the Wisconsin Idea Bus Tour.

We started with an incredibly inspiring talk by a Menominee woman who teaches on the reservation (or maybe just nearby, I can’t remember). Her job was something like cultural advisor, so rather than having her own class, she would work with other teachers to try to make their classes work for their Menominee students. It turns out that there are major cultural difference between white American culture (or WAC, for lack of a better term) and Menominee. I am going to reproduce a handout we were given contrasting some basic Menominee values with WAC values. Menominee values are listed on the left, and WAC on the right. Yes, I know that this is a generalization, but I think it has a lot of truth:

Group emphasis                        Individual Emphasis

Present orientation                  Future orientation

Time always with us                 Use every minute

Age                                               Youth

Cooperation                               Competition

Harmony with nature              Conquest over nature

Patience                                      Aggression

Listening skills                           Verbal skills

This is only part of the list, but it shows why a classroom which operates according to WAC values can be a mystery to a Menominee 5th grader. Our lecturer, in addition to helping the teachers she was working with understand Menominee mindsets, mapped out a “cultural calendar.” September, for instance, is the month for harvesting wild rice. So the curriculum grew out of that event. There were lessons about agriculture and harvest, lessons about weighing and measuring, lessons about diet and nutrition, and so on. Every month had a theme that this particular population of kids could relate to, with learning growing organically out of the theme. It made me think of how chaotic the classroom curricula were when I was in school. We would study the Hopi Indians, but not for any stated reason. We would memorize “katchina dolls” and then, on the test, when presented with the fill-in-the-blank “…………. dolls” we would write “katchina” and get an A. This is how I got into Yale. I became a superior barfer of information. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good barfer, but sometimes one wishes for a little more from life.

Following was an absolutely inspirational performance of traditional Menominee drumming and singing. The guy in charge has a group of 5 boys and 3 girls that he teaches and plays with. There is one deerskin drum on its side that is beaten simultaneously by all 6 males. They sing, too, as do the girls. I made videos of all 3 songs they did, which I will try to post somewhere. I would describe the singing as “keening” – it is high pitched and emotional. There is some call and response, and lots of unison, with a small amount of harmony. The drummers hit a steady beat (though one song about the heart had the slightest hint of swing to the beat), usually in unison (and the kids had fantastic rhythm), with the occasional soloist beating the hell out of the drum. You could feel the drum; a deaf person would have gotten great enjoyment out of the concert.

Then off to the College of the Menominee Nation, which is an accredited institution that accepts all comers. A psychology professor and vice president (this is one person) spoke to us for about an hour in a kind of rambling discourse about the joys and difficulties of taking Menominie students through college courses. I think the key issue, looking at the chart above, is the Menominie orientation to the present rather than the future. It strikes me that the entire proposition of college requires a future orientation: this is a long haul with uncertainty at the other end. I think most children in our culture live very much in the present as well: I want to be a doctor, but I’d much rather play video games than study for my bio test. Interesting how looking at a different culture can shed some light on your own.

After lunch, we visited the Marinette Marine Corporation. This is a shipbuilding operation on Lake Michigan. Wisconsin has a left thumb that sticks into the lake. Between the thumb and the rest of the hand lies Green Bay (the bay), with Green Bay (the city) down by the webbing at the south end. Marinette is up at the top of Green Bay (the bay). The MMC has a contract to build a bunch of Navy ships, one of which is almost ready to launch. They had a research ship (an ice breaker!) under construction, and people were using the word “awesome” in its proper sense. Walking under the bow of a huge ship three-quarters constructed and suspended over your head does, in fact, inspire awe. We were taken through the various buildings in which various phases of construction occur. What is interesting is that this company is hiring like mad, and they are even hiring new high school graduates, training them, and paying them a decent wage. It is a classic case of stimulus, where the navy’s order of new ships is putting people to work.

I’ll get back to you in a day or two for the shocking conclusion of the Wisconsin Idea Bus Tour…

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