James M. Loy, Miami University's College of Education, Health, and Society
It is one of the most prestigious honors Miami University has to offer, and it’s among the largest undergraduate awards in the nation. The Goldman Memorial Prize is that rare intersection of independence and opportunity, and for two straight years it has been given to College of Education, Health and Society (EHS) students, both of whom hope to make substantial contributions to the way we teach and learn, discover knowledge and explore meaning.
This year’s winner, Quentin Russell, a recent English language arts education major, will enrich local high schools with an after school poetry program. Through an original curriculum of his own design, one that will map to individual student interests as the program progresses, his goal is to nurture a deeper appreciation and understanding of language and wordplay.
And just as Russell’s journey is about to being, last year’s winner, Abby Lyons, now an EHS transformative education graduate student, is on the final stretch of her own.
Her goal is to increase the impact and relevance of study abroad experiences, especially for college students who, like herself, hope to build a greater understanding of diversity, inclusion, and global awareness both in schools and across communities.
“Our perspectives on education are pretty similar,” Lyons says. “We have come to them through different ways, but I think both of us recognize the importance of doing student-centric learning, and we also want to improve what we see in place. For him, he saw a gap in poetry education in language arts for high schoolers. For me, I saw a gap from my own experiences in study abroad education. Both of us are working to fill those gaps from our own experiences.”
The Goldman Prize offers $30,000 in funding to support a year-long independent project. Every year, a host of undergraduate contenders endure an exhaustive application process. And only those deemed by an Honors Program Advisory Committee to have “exceptional promise” are given the chance to align their personal and professional goals with an original passion project.
Previous winners have used the prize to pursue sustainable energy use, explore accounts of the Egyptian Revolution, study empathy and prosociality in marmoset monkeys, and much more.
Now Lyons and Russell will bring their progressive educational perspectives to the prize’s 23-year legacy of community of scholarship and creative achievement.
For Russell, as student of curriculum studies and language, it’s an endeavor that will highlight poetry, which he actually first came to through an unexpected avenue -- one that almost went undiscovered after a typical high school course left him woefully disinterested in the whole subject.
“We walked into school one day and the teacher smacked down these 20 page packets and said, ‘Today we are studying T.S. Elliot,’” Russell says. “It was all background information on The Wasteland, and we had to read each line and get up in front of everyone and explain what each section meant, which is one way to kill poetry in anybody. People will not like poetry if you smack them over the head with The Wasteland like that.”
But even in spite of this bland and dense approach that is still often awkwardly wielded by the traditional school system, Russell would eventually cultivate a love of poetry on his own. And as an education major, he began to develop a plan to explore poetry in a way that could be more relevant to students.
“I wanted to create curriculum that was student-centric,” says Russell. “Whereas with linear curriculum (or curriculum-centric), there will be one specific line and [the teacher] will say ‘this’ is the specific path we want to go through. But we know after all these studies that engagement directly impacts how well a student learns. So teachers do all these gymnastics and backflips to try to make linear curriculum ‘fun’ for the student. Rather than starting with the student, and then asking what does the student want to do?”
Russell’s approach, therefore, will be more organic. And the first phase of his Goldman project will be spent developing a curriculum map, or web, that interconnects many different poems and poets and genres through a multitude of thematic access points.
“So at any given moment during my lessons,” he explains, “I will be able to say, ‘Ah ha, you really like Langston Hughes so you are on this part of the map.’ And maybe Harryette Mullen, a contemporary blues writer, is right next to him. Then I will try to bridge them over, and show them this other area of the map.”
The goal is to allow students to learn about poetry on their own terms, to cultivate a passion for language and wordplay, and to help them develop creative and subjective ways of thinking, which, in a contemporary educational climate increasingly hyper-focused on standardizations and systematic testing, is something many schools continue to devalue.
“A lot of teaching is iatrogenic in the same way that we will use medicine to fix somebody and then cause other problems, side effects, that we weren’t aware of by mixing multiple types of medicine,” says Russell. “I think in teaching we do that a lot of times by having this end goal of trying to ‘fix’ the student.”
Rarely is the world so binary and simplistic as to assume that there will always be a “right” or a “wrong” answer, and this is a large part of what Russell hopes to teach by emphasizing learning as discovery. And just as he prepares to travel across four local Ohio high schools this fall to do so, Abby Lyons is finalizing another curriculum, to enrich the experiences of Miami students who will be travelling and studying much further away.
Like many college students, Lyons spent a portion of her undergraduate career studying abroad. But after returning from Belize during her sophomore year, she recognized an opportunity to increase the scope and impact of similar experiences for other students -- both before they leave and after they return.
By immersing students in a variety of different environments, study abroad programs can expand cultural perspectives, as well as build an affinity for inclusion, a better understanding of diversity, and the key social skills needed to thrive in an increasingly interconnected global society.
However, through her study abroad-related research as an undergraduate, Lyons discovered that, for many students, the transformative nature of this type of learning is often confined to the trip itself.
“What I found was that transformation pretty much halted after the experience, because it was too short of a time and there wasn’t enough depth of reflection afterwards,” she says. “That led me to propose the development of a year-long study abroad curriculum. I know how important study abroad is to Miami. But I also recognized that we send a lot of people abroad, and we don’t do a lot on the frontend and the backend to support them.”
Lyons admits that there are a few pre-trip seminars that currently do provide a base-level of understanding for those about to embark. Typically, these courses explain how to get a visa, what clothes to bring, some introductory cultural information, and so on. But Lyons sees value in taking this approach to an entirely new level.
For the past year, she has been developing a curriculum designed specifically to provide a richer, more meaningful study abroad experience. Her course consists of four pre-trip and four post-trip modules, which combine to help students critically question their impact on the global community and how a study abroad program fits into their lives at home.
“This really digs deep into individual perspectives,” Lyons explains. “As a study abroad participant, how will my lens influence the way that I experience the study abroad trip? And then the post-trip modules really hit on, now that I have studied abroad, how can I use this in my personal and professional trajectories, and what decisions can I make to do something positive about what I have learned?”
Lyons has already piloted the post-trip modules and she is in the process of testing the pre-trip section now. All the readings and rubrics, and assessments, discussions, and assignments have been assembled. And soon the entire curriculum will be available online for implementation by any faculty, for any study abroad context. Later this fall, Lyons also hopes to make the course accessible to Miami students for college credit.
Though her project has been in no way less rewarding for the effort, Lyon’s says it has been much more work than she originally anticipated, which, for Quinten Russell, many just provide some valuable context and insight as he begins to layout a Goldman plan of his own.
“I thought it would be a much straighter path,” Lyons reflects.” I thought that I would talk to some people, develop the curriculum, and then say, ‘Here it is. Take it and use it.’ But every time I think I am about done, there are more things to do. Things that I need to change or rework or consider.”
So there have been setbacks and unforeseen problems to overcome. And, at times, even her core educational philosophies have been tested and challenged. But through it all, both professionally and personally, the project has helped her grow at every turn.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to present myself in a way that is professional, but also in a way that is very receptive to constructive feedback,” she says. “Because I don’t know how this will end up and I don’t know how it will turn out. But I am learning as I go.”