Christensen and Roberts (back row, center), along with English Department colleague Ian MacInnes (front row, left), took part last October in a larger, student-led discussion about similarities and differences stemming from the 2017 Albion Big Read book, True Grit by Charles Portis.
of Environmental Studies; and Redneck Environmentalism. Now at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Dussel employs on a daily basis some of Christensen’s methods and mannerisms.
Building Foundations and Structures
front of the room, commanding your attention, and I think Jess and Nels, like we’re laying on the floor with them; we’re reading with them.”
In the fall of 2014, Maddie Drury, ’15, enrolled in an English course called Practical Persuasion. It was taught by Roberts. The class of four (three students and Jess) designed the Big Read for Albion and submitted a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as additional proposals for local funding. Along the way, the class would attend area meetings to provide information about the program and see what nearby organizations could offer in return.
Albion’s fourth Big Read Youth Leadership Program will begin later this summer (this year’s book is the 2015 X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon). Yet, while working with Roberts, Drury has learned that they won’t necessarily create a “perfect Big Read where we will regurgitate that same program again and again.”
“At the very beginning it was hard work— going from meeting to meeting, giving the same pitch over and over again,” Drury recalls. “But I think that laid a foundation. Without going there and showing our faces and shaking people’s hands, I don’t think the Big Read would be what it is right now had we not done that hard work up front.” Similarly, laying the foundation is the first thing Roberts and Christensen do in class. They start with an idea, and from that idea comes a world of new possibilities and perspectives. Inside that structure, beautiful things can happen, and it’s not just the students doing the work. Notes Drury, assistant director of Albion’s Big Read: “Jess and Nels and I, whatever we’re asking those kids to do, we’re truly alongside them. I think a lot of times, people imagine teachers being the person in charge, standing in
18 | Albion College Io Triumphe!
The same goes for the courses Roberts and Christensen teach. Classes may have the same name, but they will never be identical. There will be different texts, different materials, and different students in the class. It creates new challenges for everyone, but that’s all a part of doing the work to create a special learning experience. “There’s no set way to do it, which is why good teaching is all about imagination and creativity to get something done,” says Christensen. “If I had the same structure every time, it doesn’t work because the students are a different shape. You’ve got to change the structure because of the students, because of the way I’m feeling, because of what we’re reading, all that stuff.” Mike Dussel, ’17, learned about Nels’ changing structures quickly. Of his four classes with Christensen, three were in his first semester. After English 100, the others focused on environmentalism: Orcs, Elves, and the Environment; Fundamentals
“Given Nels and his reputation for being unorthodox, looking back, I did not see it as a challenge. It was an exciting way of breaking down problems and attacking them from all the angles,” Dussel says. “Nels is able to get students who have a certain weakness and turn that weakness into their strength.” Each course each year may be different, but Christensen does bring a certain mantra into his classroom: “Be uncomfortable, press the boundaries, and know the rules of the game so you can break them,” as Dussel describes it. While bringing together rednecks and environmentalism sounds nearly impossible, Nels does just that. In the process he speaks to larger problems in today’s society, by deconstructing a concept “into its essential parts so he can get you to better understand what he is trying to teach you,” Dussel says.
Big Read, Bigger Picture Nancy Peters-Lewis, ’96, met Roberts through Albion Public Schools parent-teacher organizations and a program called Destination Imagination. While on sabbatical, Roberts was doing research, but she also “spent every Thursday baking muffins and preparing to go and work with seven fourth graders in an attempt to create vehicles that would be propelled by different energy sources, and to write a play that they would all perform about vehicles.” For Peters-Lewis, a leader for an area nonprofit organization, the passion Roberts showed then was only a preview of what was to come.
Io Triumphe! The magazine for alumni, parents, and friends of Albion College