Office Hours with Madonna Riesenmy
Less is more.
This philosophy can apply to something as simple as a Charmin Ultra toilet paper ad and the accessories you add to an outfit, or it can dictate how you structure your lifestyle. This is also the philosophy of Washington University’s own Madonna Riesenmy, a senior lecturer in the Department of Education.
Riesenmy grew up in the St. Louis area and attended the University of Missouri at Columbia. While studying at the University of Missouri, Riesenmy decided her junior year to switch from a major in journalism to one in education.
“I followed that little voice in my head,” Riesenmy said. “I knew very early on that I wanted to be a teacher.”
She went on to receive a master’s from Maryville University and a Ph.D. in education from Wash. U., where she was offered a job in 1991. She accepted the teaching position and has not looked back since.
“When making my decision, I was told, ‘You will not have students like you have at Wash. U.’ And I thought, ‘That’s true, isn’t it?’ That has everything to do with quality of life,” Riesenmy said. “The students at this university are beautiful, wonderful to work with, extremely smart, but also very thoughtful. They really think about things.”
Riesenmy’s feelings of admiration are equally returned from her students. Junior Lauren Chapman said she loves that Riesenmy practices what she teaches. “All of the methods she talks about she uses in her classes,” Chapman said.
Junior Alice Fogler is currently taking her third class with Riesenmy. Fogler said that she was inspired by Riesenmy to pursue her own future in teaching.
“She is the perfect combination of laid-back and interesting,” Fogler said. “She doesn’t just talk at you. I want to be the teacher that kids love and seek out taking classes with. That’s the mark of a good teacher, that people want to have you.”
Not only does Riesenmy prefer her students call her by her first name, Madonna, but she also encourages students to contact her outside of class.
“I always want to be approachable to my students,” Riesenmy said. “I want to be available. This day and age with smart phones, anyone can text me. For instructors, it’s so much easier for students to keep in touch with you.”
Described as a hands-on teacher, Riesenmy stressed the importance of a dynamic classroom environment and regularly assigns group projects and fosters class discussions. Riesenmy said she prides herself on her ability to “put people in situations where I’m pretty sure they are going to learn something.”
Riesenmy hopes that her students will leave her class with an understanding of the social issues that surround successful education programs.
“It’s about poverty. We can change the schools all we want, but until we recognize that the communities in which these schools are imbedded need to be changed, we are not going to get very far,” Riesenmy explained. “In the neighborhoods where schools are failing people, other social institutions are failing them as well.”
Riesenmy applies the concept of “less is more” to both the classroom environment as well as other aspects of her life.
“My job is to distill what is really important to know and ask my students to learn those things,” Riesenmy said. “Things aren’t equally important. Americans seem to be in a big hurry. Everything is happening so fast. If everything you do all day is of equal importance, then nothing you did was important.”
Of course, with a name like Madonna, there had to be a story.
“Supposedly my mother swore I was going to be a boy and I was going to be called Marc Anthony,” Riesenmy said. “When I was born a girl, [my mom] told my sister she could name the baby, and she came up with Madonna. It was a big name to carry around.”
An avid rock climber, cyclist and golfer, Riesenmy believes in embracing an active and adventurous lifestyle. Her attitude towards life is consistent with her passion for travel, whether internationally or throughout the United States.
“Direct experience is the best way to learn anything,” Riesenmy said. “This is the key to my philosophy.”
Upon reflection on her time at Wash. U., Riesenmy emphasized, “I love this place. Sometimes I walk around going ‘I can’t believe I work here.’ I love what I do, and I’m really blessed for that. Not everybody gets that opportunity and I do, so I’m going to take advantage of that.”