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The Pushkin Summer Institute (PSI) at UW-Madison is an innovative pre-college program that serves rising juniors and seniors with at least one year of Russian instruction from secondary schools with majority Latino and/or African-American populations. 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 language gains and a high student-satisfaction rate, which has led to significant interest in expanding the program.
Rigorous academic program
Our unique, five-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.
All language courses in the Pushkin Summer Institute are taught by experienced instructors 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. Throughout the program, conversation in the classroom and beyond takes place as much as possible in Russian. Through these conversations, 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.
Our program accommodates 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.
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 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.
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 weekly meet one-on-one with the students in 30-minute tutorials to review and discuss their essays and suggest areas for improvement.
The PSI program also 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 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.
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 and 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 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.
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. PSI program participants come from Pritzker College Prep and Noble Street College Prep (Chicago, IL), Anchorage West High School in Anchorage, Alaska and Friends School in Baltimore, MD . Working in close collaboration with the schools’ 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.