Preserving History and Tradition
Hundreds of Milwaukee-area children have sat at Reggie Finlayson's feet over the years, watching the proud and enthusiastic man in the beautiful flowing robes use words, gestures, facial expressions and African musical instruments to convey African history. Finlayson is a modern-day "griot" – a practitioner of an oral storytelling tradition dating back to 13th-century West Africa.
Along with performing for school groups and day care centers, he occasionally uses griot storytelling to teach English and communications skills to his MATC students. "For instance, I might use storytelling and bring shekeres into a class that's assigned to learn to write descriptions," he says. "It's something totally foreign to the students, so they have no preconceived notions." Shekeres are instruments made from large gourds with netting and beads around them to make sounds similar to rattles.
"I enjoy teaching, and think of my performing as teaching. I link stories and words and try to make learning entertaining," Finlayson says. "I love interacting with students. It gives me an opportunity to constantly learn, myself. When you teach, you have to 'get inside' students' heads."
"I enjoy teaching, and think of my performing as teaching.
I link stories and words and try to make learning entertaining,"
Students and graduates testify that his method works. Romero Ference, who took Finlayson's English 201 class, says, "He takes things that can be sterile and bland and makes them interesting and interactive. He pretty much has a story for everything. He throws out a ton of examples. It's informative and interesting, even if it is an 8 a.m. class, and people are still sleepy." Which is never true of Finlayson, by the way. "He's fully energized every morning," Ference says.
Finlayson has taught at MATC since 1990 and became a full-time faculty member in the mid-'90s. He is based at the West Allis Campus, but occasionally teaches at the Downtown Milwaukee and Oak Creek campuses. He holds a bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College and a master's degree from Marquette University.
A former member of the Ko-Thi dance company in Milwaukee, Finlayson has dedicated himself to preserving African-American history. He studies music and collects stories, sheet music and other artificats from African-American spirituals, folks songs, Afro-beat and Afro-Latin pieces. He has published several books for middle-school children, including biographies of Colin Powell and Nelson Mandela. His most recent children's book, We Shall Overcome, focuses on the songs and speeches of the civil rights movement, with particular attention to women and children involved in the movement – oftentimes lesser-known heroes, as he puts it.
He also writes plays, some of which have been performed in Milwaukee. His play Joshua Glover: a Man Bound for Freedom is about a runaway slave who was incarcerated in Milwaukee and freed by thousands of Wisconsin citizens who stormed the jail. Wisconsin later became the only state to declare unconstitutional the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which was used to jail Glover. Finlayson currently is writing a play about Milwaukee history. He writes poems and is considering publishing a collection of his poetry. In the future, he'd like also like to write a novel about western Wisconsin.
Finlayson teaches general education (liberal arts) classes, and says most of his students plan to go on to four-year colleges. They complete the first part of their degree at MATC and transfer their credits to other colleges and universities, most often entering those schools as juniors.
Playing 'College Coach'
"I get to affect students at a formative stage," Finlayson says. "When my students go to Marquette University or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I like to think they are armed to the teeth. I feel like a 'college coach.' I want my students to be as prepared or more prepared for classes than the students who have been in four-year schools all along."
Finlayson believes that taking the first two years of college classes at MATC gives students a head start for a number of reasons. "First, the classes are smaller. Students get more personalized attention than those sitting in a lecture hall that holds hundreds." He also points out that MATC classes are taught by experienced instructors rather than teaching assistants. In addition, "You get good academics for less money, and you can stretch your educational dollars."
Finlayson enjoys sharing his knowledge at MATC. "The students want to learn. Teaching here is an uplifting experience," he says.
For more information on MATC's Liberal Arts & Sciences offerings, see: