The Souls of Students

Writing in The New York Times today, Vicki Madden, who works for the New York City Department of Education as an instructional coach, asks,

How can we help our students prepare for the tug of war in their souls?

She is addressing those who work with students from the lower side of the economic divide as they try to prepare for college, but her question applies to college teachers and staff, too.

When I returned to teaching in 2001, I was shocked by the assumptions on an entrance exam evaluating students’ ability to write. It asked students “to write a letter,” often to a dean, a provost, a president, or a board of trustees. Not only had my students (they were the ones who had failed the exam and who were forced into “remedial” classes) no knowledge of college and its hierarchies but their entire concept of “dean” (for example) was tied up with their high-school experiences, where a dean was the arbiter of student behavior–the person who could kick you out of school. What went on in college was beyond their ken. After all, few people they knew had ever graduated from college and their parents, generally, had not attended at all.

Madden writes of her own experience:

I remember struggling with references to things I’d never heard of, from Homer to the Social Register. I couldn’t read The New York Times — not because the words were too hard, but because I didn’t have enough knowledge of the world to follow the articles. Hardest was the awareness that my own experiences were not only undervalued but often mocked, used to indicate when someone was stupid or low-class: No one at Barnard ate Velveeta or had ever butchered a deer.

The details may be different, but my urban students face the same transition, and too few of us who teach or work in colleges recognize (or remember) just how difficult it can be. Unfortunately, courses for entering students that attempt to acclimate them to college are generally not acceptable as credit-bearing by accrediting agencies and, therefore, by financial aid offices. So, even if offered, they are rarely taken. Students are left to make the transition on their own–and many find, for whatever reasons, that they cannot. Some of our best and brightest end up leaving us–not because they can’t do the work but because they feel perpetually outside of the mainstream of even our urban campus where most of the students do, indeed, come from backgrounds similar to their own.

Unlike Madden’s Barnard, we don’t have a central cadre of well-prepared students who can, at least, provide examples and goals (sometimes not in good ways, admittedly) for the incoming outsider. We on the faculty cannot assume any knowledge on the part of our students aside from rudimentary and (supposedly) quantifiable Math and English skills. If I talk of Homer, I have to stop and take the time to not only explain who he might have been but to provide context. It is quite easy to forget to do this, to assume sets of knowledge that do not exist. Most of us on the faculty sometimes leave our students flailing through no fault, really, of our own–or theirs. After all, most of us come from backgrounds where a high level of education and extensive exposure to Western “culture” is taken for granted. It is difficult to constantly examine our every statement for assumptions about student knowledge without falling into the trap of believing those students to be completely ignorant–which they are not. They are simply, as Madden implies, differently knowledgeable–and it takes a great deal of work to comprehend (and speak to) that difference.

If we are ever to take economic and class differences into effective consideration as aspects of student learning, we faculty and administrators are going to have to do quite a bit more learning ourselves, learning about the lives of those students who come from backgrounds divergent from our own. Ultimately, the only way we can help students prepare for Madden’s ‘tug of war in their souls’ is to be continually striving to learn about those souls and about the backgrounds that nurtured them.

2 thoughts on “The Souls of Students

  1. Hello,

    I am a recently retired teacher. A few years before I left I felt reckless enough to try to address the annual loss to my high school students of between 800,000 and a million dollars per year in merit scholarships to fine art and commercial art schools. Like Vicki’s former students mine were mostly from lower middle class families, and even less privileged (about half were on a subsidized lunch program. The ethnic makeup was about evenly distributed amongst Caucasian, Hispanic and African-American).

    In crafting a proposal to change the present teaching in order to empower my students to compete with those who “expected to succeed” I looked at what would be required to equip a student to qualify for a full scholarship to places like Pratt, Cooper Union, SVA and the RISD. And then, I reverse-engineered a learning schedule would result in the desired outcome.

    Concurrently, I looked at at what would constitute a solid education for the general student, those not aspiring to an art school or art-related career. I found that the generalist and the art student needed the very same kinds of high school experiences, from elementary school through the 9th grade. This is an important point – the program serves both groups equally well. This is not an “elitist” program.

    For those desirous of art school scholarships, elementary school – that is where the learning needed to begin. Not only for the dexterity and skills of analysis and selection, the grounding in history and aesthetics that aspiring artists need but also, to provide support to students and families, and to make clear that art is a worthy aspiration and, that a student could earn a living in over 100 related art occupations. In other words, supports would be needed to motivate and support art school aspirants and their families.

    The middle school and high school years would seem to be the obvious target for assistance and yes, they are. However…

    Follow-through during the undergraduate art school/college and graduate levels would be needed, to ensure that students persevered and were prepared to launch art careers. (It is worth noting that art school graduates properly prepared start by earning about 60,000 dollars annually.)

    In other words, I crafted a proposal that would address Vicki’s concerns, from childhood to young adulthood. This program I could set up, launch and administrate in an interested school district. The results would be made available to school districts nationwide.

    Let me point out what this “concept” is not. It is not a prescription, a canned curriculum prepared by yet another “expert”, namely, me. It would be a curriculum created by art teachers in a district who would be working with empirical data and, with support from professionals within various fields. Yes, I do know what rational adults would conclude once they have gathered the pertinent information.

    It is germane that I mention that I am the only person in the country who earned a MFA from the NY Academy of Art and, am a National Board Certified Teacher, in Adolescent and Young Adult Art. I have a variety of professional credits, including being a trained Facilitator for teachers attempting the national certification, a trained coach for teacher peer review, a writer of curriculum on various levels and the Chair of my own high school’s School Improvement Team. I also have BS and MS degrees in Art Education, and teaching experience from elementary through post graduate levels.

    I can also offer that when I administered a 9th grade art exam to an under graduate class of art teacher hopefuls, 78% of those college juniors failed the test. The results of the same exam given to a graduate class of art education students (all of whom were then employed as public school art teachers) resulted in a fail rate of 83%. The same exam set before a group of three art teachers, all with degrees in art education, working collaboratively resulted in a team score of 53%.

    Therefore, the program had to address serious shortcomings in teacher prep, before any hope of assisting students could occur. Articles in the NY Times and Washington Post have spoken to these problems in the art education field.

    Fortunately, several individuals offered to assist the effort. The result was a three year developmental and implementation program.

    What would be needed is a school district whose superintendent would accept the assistance. here are some of the highlights:

    – A high visibility benefactor offered to cover travel, food and lodging for several successful academically trained, representational artists to visit, one at a time, once per month, for a full day six months per year for three years, to train the teachers in the rudiments of art training and art making.

    – A major supplier of art materials to schools offered 5,000 dollars in equipment and supplies to equip a classroom where the art teachers could receive the training from the benefactor-sponsored artists.

    – The creator of the most successful after school art school prep program offered his services at the rate of 50 dollars per hour, to meet for two full days per year, for three years to help align State standards with art and general students needs to create a sequential program.

    – The most successful trainer of National Board Certified Teachers offered to come out of retirement, at half of her usual rate, to help the district art teachers craft an appropriate curriculum, for two full days per year, for three years, and to refine teacher training, accountability and support systems.

    The requirement for this generosity would be an agreement whereby the resulting curriculum would be made available by the benefactor ad art supply company free of charge to any school district in the nation.

    Additionally, the scholarship prep expert (20 million dollars won by his students over just 12 years) and the professional, benefactor-sponsored artist instructors would help to craft and after school and summer programs to support aspiring student artists. Some of these programs would be hosted at the cooperating schools, while others would be off site, the space provided by concerned community members.

    Finally, intern and counseling support programs would assist college aged art students who benefitted from the school-based instruction. The intern arrangement would also provide opportunities for older students to mentor younger students.

    So, there you have it. I have a program and the cooperation lined up to assist and support under privileged youth. What is needed? A school system with the vision to host such a project, and a few community members to support it.


  2. The artists who offered their time to train the art teachers offered their services at no charge to the district nor to the art teachers. They believed in the concept and offered their time without conditions or fees.

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