The Pushkin Summer Institute (PSI) at UW-Madison is an innovative pre-college program that serves high-school students from under-represented (low-income/minority) communities. Through the intensive study of Russian language, culture, and civilization, the PSI aims to improve students’ Russian language abilities and cultural competence; stimulate their interest in Russian studies; build lifelong critical thinking, reading, and writing skills; and prepare students for the demands of college life. Launched in 2012, the PSI’s initial year resulted in significant gains and a high student-satisfaction rate – a short video with testimonials from 2012 PSI students and staff is available here – which has led to significant interest in expanding the program in 2013 and beyond.
Central to the PSI is its partnership with secondary schools. The PSI’s target audience is Hispanic/Latino and African-American rising juniors and seniors who are currently studying Russian language and culture in secondary schools with majority-minority student populations. In 2012 all program participants came from Pritzker College Prep (Chicago, IL). Working in close collaboration with the Pritzker faculty and administration, the PSI developed a long-term plan that allowed the students to receive high-school credit for participation in our program and set in motion a transformation in course offerings at the school. The success of our pilot year led to wider interest and to date, we have worked with students from Pritzker College Prep and Noble Street College Prep in Chicago and Anchorage West High School in Anchorage, Alaska.
Our unique, six-week academic program blends the study of language, literature, and culture to encourage further study of Russian (or other civilizations) at the college level while also improving reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. The central narrative of the PSI academic program is the compelling life story of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia’s national poet and most iconic cultural figure, who was of distinct African heritage on his mother’s side. Pushkin’s African heritage was instrumental in his sense of identity and in crucial aspects of his life and works. We use Pushkin’s life story, extraordinary ancestry, and profound ability to turn adversity into creative genius and a legacy that has touched millions to inspire young people who may have their own challenging circumstances to overcome. To our knowledge, the example of Pushkin has never been applied in this way to an integrated interdisciplinary curriculum. As reflected in their evaluations and video testimonials, students have responded enthusiastically to the model of Pushkin’s biography and creative works.
PSI Program Director David Bethea, Vilas Research Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at UW-Madison and a recognized Pushkin expert, holds weekly lecture-discussions in English; students read and discuss a selection of Pushkin’s texts and also work to improve their writing skills through weekly essays (in English) and mentoring sessions. During the week, participants take Russian language classes for four hours a day, with additional modules on Russian phonetics, culture, and customs; students are also expected to attend daily study hall sessions and speak Russian with their resident counselors at group meals and events. In addition to the Russian cultural component, the extracurricular activities of the PSI introduce students to the larger UW-Madison and Madison community; we attend joint activities with other UW-Madison precollege programs, tour Madison-area sites and events, and hold workshops on topics such as applying to college, seeking out student groups, and adjusting to life in a college dormitory. Many of our students are first-generation college students, and the academic and social program of the PSI endeavors to orient students to life on a major university campus with the longer-term goal of helping them make a successful transition from high-school to college and providing them with a strong foundation for their college career.
The PSI program provides academically-rigorous interdisciplinary instruction and a variety of co-curricular activities in order to sharpen critical-thinking skills and develop proficiency in Russian language while broadening knowledge of Russian culture. Students consistently improve both in their Russian language skills (improving one sublevel and often more on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines for speaking Russian) and in their English-language writing skills as a result of participating in PSI. Administrators from partner schools report that students who attended PSI routinely show improvement in their class rankings and gains on their ACT reading scores. Future planning includes building a network of PSI alumni who can act as mentors during the academic year for (partner school-affiliated) UW-Madison freshmen in order to strengthen student retention and on-time graduation rates.
Program Methods (Academic Program and Assessment)
All language courses in the Pushkin Summer Institute are taught by experienced and dynamic graduate teaching assistants, many of whom are native speakers of Russian; the students are also supervised and tutored outside of class by resident counselors selected from current UW-Madison Russian majors and participants in the Russian Flagship program. Our curricular design is firmly grounded in the ACTFL U.S. Standards for Foreign Language Learning. The institute addresses all five goal areas of the Standards: it focuses on proficiency development through language use in all three modes of communication; on products, practices, and their underlying perspectives, in part through examination of Pushkin’s life and works; on connections with Russian history and literature; on understanding and appreciating worldviews accessible only through knowledge of Russian; on meaningful comparisons of students’ home language(s) and cultures with Russian language and culture; and on promoting Russian language and literature for lifelong learning and engagement with communities of Russian-speakers in the US and abroad. Throughout the program, conversation in the classroom and beyond takes place as much as possible in Russian. Students develop the linguistic skills to discuss topics related to their daily life and present information on themselves and their interests. Led by instructors or guest faculty, the cultural modules on a variety of topics – such as superstitions, art, religion, and folk music – encourage comparisons and cross-cultural dialogue between the Russian subject matter and students’ own Hispanic/Latino or African-American heritage. Through these discussions, students gain unique perspectives on Russian history, politics, culture, and everyday practices. Once PSI alumni enter college, it is anticipated that they will place into a higher level of Russian in their freshmen year and will be stronger candidates for programs like the Language Flagship at UW-Madison.
The literature seminar, led by David Bethea, meets twice a week and is conducted in English; students read texts for active discussion and also write—and revise—essays on those texts. This component of the curriculum considers the life and works of Pushkin, in particular his distinct African heritage and how this molded the poet’s identity. Through their readings, writing, and discussion, students discover what made Pushkin such a creative figure, resilient in personal crisis – and often failure – and how in forging his own character Pushkin made a special contribution to how the Russian people view themselves. Students examine the life-work nexus (powerful in Pushkin’s case) and learn how details in the writer’s imaginative texts “tell stories” about what was happening in his own life. Bethea and other staff members meet one-on-one with the students in 30-minute tutorials to review and discuss their essays and suggest areas for improvement. In addition the PSI offers a variety of writing workshops, both to reinforce essay-writing skills and to discuss writing for college applications. These include presentations from undergraduate admissions and financial aid offices, workshops on preparing for a major in college, securing internships and academically-related positions as an undergraduate, life as a first-generation college student, and other hands-on seminars. The PSI works with the existing infrastructure of support programs at UW-Madison, from the Writing Center to the Center for Educational Opportunity and the Multicultural Student Center, to make sure that students are aware of support systems for their transition into college and their further success on campus.
The residential aspect of the Pushkin Summer Institute is a key component in the PSI program. Participants live in a campus residence hall under the guidance of our resident counselors. The counselors reinforce the work students do in class through nightly tutorial sessions, essay brainstorming sessions, and general mentoring. Our counselors also act as a resource to help the participants adjust to the demands of independent college life. Social functions related to Russian culture and other recreational activities occur in the evenings and on weekends as part of the students’ program. In addition, the PSI collaborates with other UW-Madison pre-college programs, such as the Summer Science Institute and Engineering Summer Program, both to maximize resources and to allow the students to build new relationships. The PSI uses all three components of its program – language courses, literature lectures, and residential life – to provide students an integrated pre-college experience.
Assessment of student progress takes a variety of forms. Students take entrance and exit Russian-language proficiency tests to assess language gains made during the program; we also conduct pre- and post-program interviews with students to gauge their experience and well-being. Classroom assessment consists of tests, presentations, and projects completed in Russian in the language courses, while the literature courses use weekly essays and individual consultations to determine growth in reading and writing skills. The partnership with secondary schools also provides some access to student testing completed pre- or post-program at the home institution.
Our assessment programs vary to accommodate students of different learning styles, and we come to every aspect of instruction, including assessment, with a heightened awareness of students’ diversity. Based on our findings from pre-program surveys, assessments, and follow-ups with participating institutions, we are able to adapt classroom and co-curricular activities to help students work to their strengths, focus on areas that need greater attention, and gain the confidence and skills to become life-long learners and leaders.