Education – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Thu, 27 Jun 2019 17:02:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Hope Builder Wed, 27 May 2015 12:00:34 +0000 Roberto Rivera ’04 starts many of his speeches with the story of a boy named Carlos.

On this day, a group of Wisconsin educators who run after-school programs listen, transfixed, as Rivera describes how Carlos struggled through childhood. He was labeled as learning disabled in school and was illiterate until the age of ten. At the dawn of his teen years, when his “misdirected entrepreneurial skills” got him kicked out of middle school, Carlos ran away from home and got arrested for selling drugs. At age fourteen, he tried to take his own life. Rivera pauses and asks his audience, “Anyone know a Carlos? A young person struggling to find hope and meaning in their lives?” Heads nod around the room.

Rivera is here because in this age of standardized testing and laser-like focus on core academics, there is little room during the regular school day for teaching young people how to build their social and emotional competency or, as Rivera puts it, how to “turn their pain into propane.” And, he argues, when Carlos learned those skills, he used his pain to find a purpose.

“This is not just the story of any Carlos. See, this is the story of Roberto Carlos Rivera. This is my story,” Rivera reveals. “I went from being a dope dealer to being a hope dealer.” Remarkably, Rivera eventually landed on campus, and, as a UW student, he formed the idea that hip-hop music and culture — things that were already part of kids’ lives — could be vehicles not only for self-expression, but also for academic achievement. In 2008, he founded The Good Life, a Chicago-based organization that has trained more than one thousand teachers on how to use tools relevant to young people to spark their interests and engagement, both in the classroom and in their futures. He estimates that more than twenty thousand youth have participated in the program.

Madison Roots

Rivera was born in Madison and spent part of his childhood in the city’s Bayview neighborhood before moving to Galveston, Texas, with his Wisconsin-born mother and his father, who is from Nicaragua. In his late teens, he returned to live with his grandfather and learned that many of the kids he had grown up with in Bayview were trapped in addiction, in jail, or dead.

His grandfather, Floyd Brynelson ’37, LLB’40, a first-generation American who grew up on a farm in Iron Mountain, Michigan, encouraged Rivera to return to school. Brynelson had wanted to attend college when no one else in his hometown was doing so. Years later, Rivera read his grandfather’s old diaries, where he wrote about his dreams for the future. “He couldn’t share [his dreams] with anybody because he felt like the dreams were being attacked,” Rivera says. That same year, Rivera enrolled at Madison Area Technical College, where he took remedial courses to catch up. During that time, he volunteered at a downtown Madison teen center and worked his way up to program director. While attending a professional-development training session, he met Craig Werner, a UW professor of Afro-American studies who teaches courses on literature, music, and cultural history. The two clicked over a shared interest in African-American music, including hip-hop.

Rivera transferred to the UW in 2002 and enrolled in Werner’s integrated writing course, Critical Thinking and Expression.

“He was hungry to connect his real-world experience with the classroom,” Werner recalls, and the UW gave him time and space to think, and provided distance from more difficult times in Galveston. “He also just needed the complexity of thought.”

One of the course units focused on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A major theme of the play is struggle, Werner says, including that of Caliban coming to terms with learning the language of his master, Prospero. Rivera responded to the play’s themes and grasped the complexity of Shakespeare’s language while connecting it to hip-hop culture. “He said that Shakespeare had ‘flow,’ ” Werner recalls. “He just was brilliant in everything, and he brought both the intensity of his lived experience and a profound thirst for knowledge.”

Rivera took more courses with Werner, including a multicultural literature class, covering works by writers from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, which fueled a desire to devise his own major: social change, youth culture, and arts.

“I think it gave me a greater awareness of my own authorship of my life’s story in a new way,” Rivera says. “I create my destiny. I’m not following anybody’s script, you know?”

Werner guided him through the process of formulating his major, which combined Rivera’s interests in education, teaching methods, and community activism and involvement. The process was not easy, says Werner, who had created his own major as an undergraduate at Colorado College. “They want to fit you into the system, and Roberto doesn’t fit into a system,” he says. “The whole point is changing the system.”

Bridging the Gap

When Rivera talks about hip-hop, he knows audiences and educators are skeptical. Here’s why: if you’re most familiar with the industry of hip-hop, which took off in 1991, you think of it as something used to sell everything from energy drinks to food to cologne. It’s a culture that teaches people to build themselves up at the expense of their communities. But prior to that time, starting in 1971, hip-hop was a vehicle for self-expression and activism, rather than commerce. “Teenagers in the South Bronx realized that they had inherited the legacy of liberation from civil rights,” Rivera explains. “Building up themselves and their communities was their ethic.”

Rivera tackled that divide in his senior thesis at the UW, which he produced as a documentary film, Bridge da Gap. The title referred to the achievement gap in schools and the disproportionate percentage of people of color in U.S. prisons. He interviewed more than three dozen people, including hip-hop pioneers Chuck D, from the group Public Enemy, and Talib Kweli, from the group Black Star, about how hip-hop music and culture can positively or negatively influence young people. “It gave me so much insight to what the problem was and what the potential solutions could be,” he says.

As part of his thesis, Rivera developed an after-school program, recruiting artists in the Madison area to mentor and support young people in learning hip-hop elements such as dance, visual art, poetry, and rap. “We went from doing workshops to doing concerts to doing bona fide, full-on, hip-hop theatrical productions. We got invited to perform at the Kennedy Center,” Rivera says. “But yet, we were amazed and perplexed that students were telling us that they felt like complete failures at school.”

After graduating from the UW, Rivera remained driven by the challenge of creating and cultivating hope among youth. In 2005, his organization, then called Elements of Change, launched a pilot program in a Madison middle school known for fights, gang activity, and drug use to embed the work they were doing after school into the school day.

“Crisis was the precursor for opportunity,” he says.

The program focused on the youth considered the most at risk. But instead of labeling them that way, Rivera told the kids they were being selected for an elite leadership program and gave them this charge: “You all have sparks and things that you’re passionate about — things that you’re good at that have been overlooked. We’re going to take the next ten weeks and help you to find these sparks and fan them into a flame.”

Rivera worked with students in the classroom once a week and met with teachers on other days. He encouraged students to write poems and share what he calls their “blues stories.” Some had parents who were incarcerated and siblings who had been shot. This work stemmed directly from the UW, where Rivera learned from Werner about how hip-hop traces its roots back to blues, gospel, and jazz, which are not the commercial aspects of the music, but its underlying impulses. “What blues allow you to do is affirm your existence. To say that, ‘I matter. I am somebody,’ ” Werner says.

The students took over and emceed the school’s dwindling talent show, performing skits, poetry, and rap songs — and amazing their teachers.

“They wanted to be heard,” Rivera says. And when the program concluded, attendance, behavior, and grades improved among the kids in the four selected classes.

Rivera and some of the students also met with school administrators. One teen said his brother already belonged to a gang, but he was going to take a different path: “Now I realize I have a dream, and I can see how school connects to me wanting to fulfill that dream.”

Another student’s story stopped the room.

“I used to smoke weed every single day after school,” he said, pausing for what Rivera recalls felt like an eternity. “But I don’t do that anymore.”

“What’s different? What do you have now that you didn’t have before?” an administrator asked.

“I have hope,” the student responded.

“What kind of hope do you have?” she asked.

His answer: “This is a hope I’m going to have for the rest of my life.”

Back to School

There is more work to do. While the nation’s high-school graduation rate has reached record highs of 80 percent, the number hovers closer to 50 percent in some of the country’s largest cities. Take a look at our wider world, and it’s hard not to be hopeful about the next generation having empathy and problem-solving in its toolbox alongside math, reading, and critical thinking. By tapping into their emotions, kids connect with their passions and sustain interest in learning, community involvement, and achieving their goals. It turns risky behavior into taking positive risks.

Rivera is now a husband, a father, and, once again, a student. He completed his master’s degree in 2010 at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he is now enrolled in a PhD program in educational psychology. His focus is social-emotional learning, which teaches kids how to recognize and manage their emotions, handle challenging situations, resolve conflicts, and establish positive relationships.

Rivera’s goal is to demonstrate best practices for teaching these skills, and so he’s digging into research to provide the evidence for the effectiveness of these programs to keep them funded. “I’ve seen so many programs come and go, and so many great things not sustained, so I realize that the research is really a critical element in sustaining good work,” he says. “There are tons of folks doing this hip-hop youth development that are on a shoestring budget. … To have evidence that supports that work is so needed.”

Part of Rivera’s program asks students to take stock of their own strengths, a process that still moves him to tears after witnessing it over the years.

“They stand up, and everyone in class says, ‘My name is X and I am smart at … ,’ and they list one or two things,” he says. “This is probably the first time in their life they’ve ever said their name and that they’re smart at anything, and it’s just so powerful. … The question isn’t what’s wrong with you, the question is what is right with you?”

Rivera calls Werner, his grandfather, and others who have made a difference in his life Michelangelos. The nickname stems from a quote attributed to the famous Italian artist: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

It’s a message Rivera often imparts during his talks to teachers, encouraging them to see the beauty and brilliance in our youth, and helping them to see it in themselves.

“We are all works of art,” he says. “Sometimes the process of getting below the surface is tougher.”

Jenny Price ’96 is senior writer for On Wisconsin.

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Kindness in the Classroom Tue, 26 May 2015 17:39:10 +0000 A study finds that early mindfulness training leads to improved academics.


Students increased both compassion and attention with help from UW researchers, who taught them breathing exercises with “belly buddy” stones resting on their stomachs. Photo: John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal.

What if teaching young children compassion and kindness made them better students as well as better people?

Researchers with the UW’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center recently tested that hypothesis with preschool students in the Madison Metropolitan School District, after years of work developing a curriculum designed to help children develop both kindness and self-regulation skills.

The team designed short lessons to bring attention to the present moment, such as breathing practice and movement exercises, and to focus on compassion and gratitude. Teachers reported that one of the kids’ favorite activities was a practice called “Belly Buddies,” in which they listened to music while lying on their backs, with a small stone resting on their stomachs. They were asked to notice the sensation of the stone, and to feel it rising and falling as they breathed in and out.

“It’s something that’s so simple, and it allows them to experience internal quietness and a sense of calm,” says Lisa Flook, a scientist with the center and the study’s lead author.

Mindfulness-based approaches for children have become popular in recent years, but few are backed by rigorous scientific evidence. The twelve-week UW study found that kids who participated in the kindness curriculum earned higher marks in academic performance measures and showed greater improvements in areas that predict future success than kids who had not.

The findings reinforce the idea that social, emotional, and cognitive functioning are intermingled, and kids can struggle to do well in school when emotional challenges arise, Flook says. Ultimately, the researchers would like to see mindfulness-based practices integrated into the school day and have them become a foundation for how teachers teach and how students approach learning.

Early childhood is an ideal time to equip children with these skills, since their brains are rapidly developing, Flook says. “Knowing how critical these skills are at an early age,” she adds, “if there are ways to promote them, it could help set kids on a more positive life trajectory.”

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Malala’s Story Wed, 05 Nov 2014 15:41:29 +0000 GoBigRead_distribution14_1798

Photo: Bryce Richter

This year’s book program says go read — and then go do.

Malala Yousafzai became a household name for defying the Taliban and campaigning for girls in Pakistan to have the right to an education. Now readers across the campus and beyond are discovering the inspiration behind her mission and the rich and complicated history of her home country.

Her book, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, is this year’s pick for Go Big Read, the university’s common-reading program.

“Malala’s story is about the value of doing something — anything, even when it’s scary and even when you’re not sure it’s the exact right solution — rather than sitting around feeling hopeless,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank told the more than five thousand students who attended convocation at the start of fall semester. “And it’s about the power each one of us holds to make good things happen for ourselves and for those around us.”

The seventeen-year-old Pakistani activist won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize and was recently named by TIME as one of the one hundred most influential people in the world. She and her family now live in England, where she continues to go to school.

In October, Shiza Shahid, the CEO and co-founder of the Malala Fund, spoke on campus and met with groups of students. She grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan, three hours from the Swat Valley where Yousafzai lived. At age eighteen, Shahid left Pakistan to attend Stanford University on a scholarship, but she continued to follow developments in her home country, especially the issues facing its girls and women. In 2009, she organized a summer camp in Islamabad for Yousafzai and about two dozen other girls with the goal of helping them advocate for their right to attend school.

The two were reunited three years later after Yousafzai was shot and transported to Great Britain for treatment. Since then, Shahid and Yousafzai have teamed up to help the more than sixty million adolescent girls worldwide who are denied a formal education because of social, economic, legal, and political factors.

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Teaching Controversy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 16:36:33 +0000 How can we prepare our kids to participate in the highly polarized world of politics?


States require, on average, three credits of high school social studies for graduation. Credit requirements range from zero in Colorado to five in Idaho, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civics Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Courtesy of Circle, Tufts University.

civ·ics \si-viks\ : the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works

It’s a tough time for civics in America.

Resources are scarce. Schools focus their efforts on math and reading to prepare kids for high-stakes tests. And intense political polarization has made it riskier than ever for teachers to wade into controversy.

In the volatile months leading up to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker winning a recall election in June 2012, principals in some schools in the state told teachers that they couldn’t discuss the historic event in their classrooms. At the same time, kids reported that their parents were getting into arguments at the grocery store and refusing to talk to family members due to disagreements about Walker’s decision to curb the power of state-employee labor unions.

Less than one-fourth of adults in the United States have political conversations with people they don’t agree with.

Source: Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion

What was happening outside the classroom was exactly why teachers should have been permitted to talk about the issues and competing views in school, says Diana Hess, a professor of curriculum and instruction in the UW’s School of Education. Hess, a former high school teacher, has done long-term research in three states, including Wisconsin, on how middle school and high school teachers engage students in lively and respectful discussions about tough issues.

Civic education without controversial issues is “like a symphony without sound,” Hess wrote in her 2009 book, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion, which cemented her reputation as a national expert on the subject. Hess says the key argument for civic education is patriotic: the role of schools has long been to prepare people to participate in democracy (see Jefferson’s letter to Madison, quoted below).

“The challenge is that we need to prepare kids to participate in a highly partisan, polarized world, and yet, we need to do it in a nonpartisan way,” she says. “I call this the paradox of political education. And it’s really challenging.”

What do teachers need to make it work? Hess’s research shows that the answers are support from administrators and a high-quality curriculum, along with plenty of preparation time to guide students and make sure classroom discussions don’t degenerate into what we typically see on cable news programs.

“Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”

Thomas Jefferson, in a 1787 letter to James Madison

At the UW, teaching controversy is a core component of teacher education. Shawn Healy ’97 used the techniques he learned in Hess’s methods class to get his students thinking and talking about important issues during his six years teaching social studies at high schools in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and West Chicago, Illinois. Healy recognized that without any real meat for students to sink their teeth into, the subject would be stale.

“The extent to which we teach civics in this country — it tends to be pretty traditional. So there’s still a lot of lecture, a lot of textbook reading,” Healy says. “Believe it or not, there’s still even a lot of worksheet completion, and kids don’t like that. They don’t respond well to it.”

For the last nine years, Healy has been the civic learning and engagement scholar at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation in Chicago, where he leads the Democracy Schools initiative. Healy also advocates at the state and national levels for civic education that is student-centered, buoyed by his own experiences in the classroom and research by academics such as Hess.

In 2012, 68 percent of twelfth-graders reported studying politics, voting, or elections in school.

Source: U.S. Department of Education survey

“We’re all participants in our civic life of our country — this isn’t something you have to wait to do,” Healy says. “As a young person, there are plenty of opportunities even before you’re eligible to vote.”

A telling example comes from Adlai E. Stevenson High School, north of Chicago, one of twenty-two schools in Illinois that the McCormick Foundation has recognized as Democracy Schools for their commitment to civic learning. Students there got together to advocate for “Suffrage at 17,” state legislation that would allow seventeen-year-olds to register and vote in primary elections.

McCormick’s other Democracy Schools got involved, submitting electronic witness statements and testimony from around the state, and Stevenson students went to the state capitol in Springfield to lobby their legislators in person. The bill was passed into law and took effect at the beginning of this year. Students in Democracy Schools spearheaded a massive voter-registration drive, with more than nine thousand students in the Chicago area alone registering to vote in the spring primary election.

“To me, that’s a huge success story, and it’s what good civics looks like,” Healy says. “They’ll be lifelong participants in this process.”

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Gender Divide Thu, 05 Jun 2014 13:25:51 +0000 Image: Istock.

Image: iStock.

Does separating boys and girls boost achievement? Not so fast.

Thousands of American schools have opted to separate boys and girls, hoping to improve achievement and avoid the perceived social pitfalls of having them in the same classroom.

But does it make a difference?

Janet Hyde, a UW psychology professor, tackled that question in the largest and most thorough effort to examine the issue to date. Analyzing 184 studies from 21 countries — representing the testing of 1.6 million students — she found scant evidence that single-sex classrooms offer educational or social benefits.

“The claim that boys do better verbally in single-sex schooling, because they get squelched in a coed setting, did not hold up. And the claim has been made that girls will develop a better self-concept, but again, there is no evidence for that,” Hyde says.

Many existing studies used unreliable methods, she says. Families choosing single-sex classrooms tend to have more money and education, traits that are typically associated with better school performance, yet studies that show better student performance fail to account for those advantages. Hyde found that the best studies debunked claims for single-sex education: math and science performance did not improve among girls who were not integrated with boys, and, similarly, boys did not do better on verbal measures in single-sex classes.

Data were too scarce to draw conclusions in one disputed area: possible benefits for minority boys. “We urgently need high-quality study of these programs that make careful comparisons with coed schooling, comparing students with equal resources, to see if the single-sex configuration really makes a difference,” Hyde says.

Even if the benefits of single-sex schooling are uncertain, Hyde says the hazards are real. “There is a mountain of research in social psychology showing that segregation by race or gender feeds stereotypes,” she says. “The adult world is an integrated world, in the workplace and in the family, and the best thing we can do is provide that environment for children in school.”

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Game On Wed, 30 May 2012 16:03:04 +0000 Knight_200

Constance Steinkuehler was told studying how people learn by playing online multiplayer games, such as Lineage, would end her career. © 2012 NC Interactive, Inc. All rights reserved.

Research on the educational power of video games takes a professor to the White House.

It began with power pellets, gobbling ghosts, and Ms. Pac Man.

As a kid growing up in the 1980s, Constance Steinkuehler MS’00, PhD’05 spent plenty of time in the arcade. And she was pretty good.

Her days of playing games are far from over, although since mid-September, the UW assistant professor of education has been at the White House, serving as a senior policy analyst in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. It’s her job to help craft policies that can support the development of games for educational or training purposes and to encourage positive behavorial changes such as healthful eating and exercise.

“Games have evolved into a pretty serious medium,” Steinkuehler says.

Her eighteen-month term has her juggling life in Washington, D.C., with life in Madison, where her husband, Kurt Squire, an associate professor of education, and their two small children live.

“I couldn’t turn down this opportunity,” says Steinkuehler, who in addition to her UW degrees, in 1993 earned three bachelor degrees (math, English, and religious studies) simultaneously at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

While many games are played merely for fun, Steinkuehler and her team are looking at how the federal government can mobilize the private sector and philanthropic organizations into developing more games for education, civic improvement, and health — games for good, as she likes to call them.

Steinkuehler’s interest didn’t really start with games themselves. Rather, she was fascinated by how they helped people learn. For five years, she studied human interaction online, and researched and developed online environments designed specifically for learning. Study participants were given activities to do and were either paid for their time or given extra credit.

“I got really tired of feeling like I was studying people in spaces who were being cajoled or bribed into being there,” Steinkuehler says.

But in 2001, she entered the medieval world of castle sieges by downloading Lineage, an online game that requires people to pay to participate.

“After that, I changed everything I was doing and have studied games ever since,” she says.

Her 2005 dissertation in the literacy studies program focused on the people playing Lineage and how they learned.

“They were doing activities far more difficult than we would’ve asked them to,” Steinkuehler says. To this day, her alter ego for Lineage is Princess Adelaide, a moniker taken from her grandmother’s middle name. Although she no longer has time to play the game, she keeps the princess “alive” by paying a monthly fee.

Her unconventional field of study did have some colleagues wondering if it was wise to pursue.

“People said my career was over,” she says. But the concerns were unfounded, and today she’s part of a cutting-edge field that is getting academic attention — and games are being developed that didn’t seem possible in the era of Ms. Pac Man.

Foldit is one such revolutionary game. Developed at the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science, it challenges players to learn about the shapes of proteins, and then compete online to fold them into the most efficient shapes. Ultimately, it could help to diagnose disease and develop cures.


“Games can help solve problems,” says Steinkuehler, who works in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Photo: Bryce Richter


Last year, President Barack Obama told students at the TechBoston Academy that he would like to see educational software that’s every bit as compelling as the best video game.

“I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up,” Obama said. While video games are often criticized as being violent, Steinkuehler notes that such games are only a small fraction of the market. She sees enormous potential in taking a medium that kids already enjoy and finding ways to benefit their lives.

Just as games have changed, so have the players, who no longer fit the stereotype of teenage boys.

The Entertainment Software Association, a game-industry trade group, recently found that the typical gamer is thirty-seven years old and that 42 percent of players are women. Two-thirds of households play video games.

While many people wouldn’t call themselves gamers, they happily pass time playing Angry Birds or other game apps on smartphones.

“The term gamer is really antiquated,” Steinkuehler says.

Games are here to stay — and here to help. “We need to show people that Foldit isn’t a one-off — that games can help solve problems,” she says.

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