Ana Helvia Quintero, Humanist of the Year del 2008

I thank the Endowment for this honor, Fernando Agrait for his words, and all of you for being here tonight. As Fernando said, my main dedication has been aimed at education. As I have worked in various educational projects, I have discovered alternative ways to improve teaching, as well as obstacles that must be overcome so that everyone can have a quality education.

For example, one out of five students who begins high school does not finish his fourth year. This percentage increases to one of two low-income students, or in other words, half of this sector of society does not finish high school. They are part of the labor force classified as useless. They are out of school and out of the labor market. Further, the majority of youths in penal institutions, in custody and in treatment for drug addiction dropped out of school without finishing high school. In effect, the majority of the youths in our prisons are school dropouts, students for whom school did not open possibilities.

Currently, this situation is justified by characterizing these youths as problematic people. Speaking with dropouts in the prisons, through the Confined University Students Program directed by Father Fernando Picó, and with dropouts outside of prison in the Our School program directed by Justo Méndez Aramburu, I have seen the other side of these youths. Ingenious young people who want to get ahead, seeking a better future that society many times denies them. We should ask ourselves how to develop alternatives that enable this ingenuity, intelligence and energy to overcome the many problems that the majority of these youths have and thus let them dedicate themselves to tasks that enrich our society instead of damaging it.

In the search for alternatives, it is important to consider the position of Ferrés in his book Educating in an Entertainment Culture (2000) “…perhaps the failure of the schools is due to the inability of the school to build bridges with the culture and with the interests and abilities of the new generations” (pp. 37-38). My experience working in various projects in the schools, as well as the Our School Program for dropouts, has led me to conclude, in agreement with Ferrés, that the main educational challenge we have has nothing to do with the centralization of the Department of Education, but with the lack of relevance of school for the students, for those who live in poor urban areas. This was told to historian and educator Fernando Picó as explained in his book Living in Caimito in statements such as the following: “These teachers, what they want to do is give orders… I don’t like it… they bore me to death;” “School today doesn’t teach anything;” “The best school in the world is the street.”

Speaking with a teacher at a high school in a San Juan public housing project about the reality of her students’ lives, she commented, “It is another world!” How to develop an effective school to serve and understand this “other world” is one of the greatest challenges we have as a nation.

We are not starting from zero in building it. Experiences in schools and projects that successfully work with students from poor urban areas, both in Puerto Rico and abroad, point out elements that must be taken into consideration. To begin, it is necessary to recognize the enormous need for support in relation to the emotional development of many of these students. In fact, working with dropout students at Our School, we have found youths who have been emotionally damaged in their lives, which leads them to an antagonistic behavior toward school culture. From their childhood, most of these students have lived in an environment of violence in the family circle; physical and psychological violence between their parents and toward them; the violence of society and through marginalization, inequality, rejection of the other and the lack of opportunities. This leads to the classroom dissolving into emotional violence that angers the teacher, who in turn responds in an aggressive and hostile way toward the youth. The rejection and stigmatization by the teacher of the student for his failure creates an internal emotional response that leads the youth to reject the teacher and school in general, which creates a vicious cycle of stigmatization and rejection by the teacher and hostility and violence by the student. Here is how dropouts described it in a study done jointly by Rafael Irizarry and Zinia Pérez:

“The teachers are boring. There are four favorites in the classroom and the rest are forgotten… and set aside. And I was the best looking guy in the classroom and they talked bad about me so the teacher didn’t want to pay attention to me and I left.” “When I came in, they (the teachers) said why am I going to teach this failure, and so I lit a blunt and kept on smoking.” “The teachers are useless and make it complicated.” To teachers, they are “Not worth anything. They say, why am I going to explain to this guy who is going to fail?” (Irizarry, Quintero y Pérez, 2006).

To break this vicious cycle, it is essential to develop welcoming environments for the students that encourage their social and emotional development. It has been found that welcoming environments, in addition to supporting emotional development, improve academic achievement (Catalano, Haggerty, Oesterle, Fleming and Hawkins, 2004; Klem and Connell, 2004). Creating welcoming environments requires educational settings that promote their self-esteem, committed personnel with the sensitivity to work with these youths and educational experiences that let students identify their talents, which also lets them find a place in society. Successful projects start with the idea that all students have different abilities and that if they are cultivated in an environment of support and stimulation, they will flower. Additionally, it starts with the supposition that all students have the right to receive an education that recognizes their talents and provides the conditions for the full development.

In fact, in the Our School Project, we have observed that once the student recognizes his talents, his self-esteem improves and he works and puts effort into developing those talents. It is therefore necessary to create the conditions to achieve that. This effort is not limited to dropouts, but should be done for all students, to reduce dropouts.

How can the educational experience help the student create a vision of the world in which he can find a place for himself? What role do the humanities play in this process?

The humanities, especially the arts (architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater), are a resource, not only for a full civic life, but also for self-understanding, the development of the internal life, the development of spirituality, the pleasure of admiring beauty, insightfully discovering the meanings and the power of expression. Therefore, the humanities are fundamental for supporting the student’s emotional development. In turn, they support the development of the ability to innovate that is one of the key human competencies for economies and therefore for effective integration into the job market (Edelstein, 2010).

Now, to achieve these objectives requires that the teaching of the humanities be redesigned so that they make sense to the student. In fact, Harvard Professor Helen Vendler (2010) suggests that the teaching of liberal arts should not be centered on history and philosophy texts and on epistemological questions, but rather on the results of aesthetic work. She argues that the advantage of focusing the teaching on the products of aesthetic work is that the arts address the person as a whole; his emotions, his individuality, along with the collective reality. They also present historical and philosophical topics for study and discussion.

I saw an example of the unifying and motivating role of the arts several years ago in a project in which actor and university professor José Felix Gómez developed a theater workshop for students that created a work they would later present. The themes that arose reflected their lives and concerns. They thus worked on their socio-emotional development. José Felix got the students to see the need to learn about the history and sociology of Puerto Rico to better understand the issues that they themselves had chosen. He also made them see the need to express themselves correctly and the value of reading to expand their themes and understanding of them. The workshop not only had nearly perfect attendance, but also, by recognizing the importance of other assignments, led to improved attendance in other classes by this group, which had a high rate of absenteeism. So centering the curriculum on the arts can have positive effects both on creating orderly and welcoming environments for the students and improving their academic efforts.

Another example of the power of art is presented by Professor María Torres Guzmán, of Teachers College, in her book, Freedom at Work. Through quantitative research, María presented on the improvement process of PS 165 on the Upper West Side of New York City. The principal of the school, Ruth Swinney, explains the important role the arts play in enriching both the students and the teachers. In the case of the students, the principal explains that through art, students find a way to express themselves and discover their own beauty. This supports their self-esteem and encourages their educational improvement.

The arts provide a resource for supporting the socio-emotional development of the student, while serving as an anchor for making sense of school materials. Now, it is also important that we analyze the content we include in school materials to ensure that it makes sense to students. It is important to do a deep and sincere analysis to identify the content that is truly necessary and evaluate the way and time to teach it. In this analysis, it is important to keep in mind that students achieve high levels of thought not only with the classics. For example, Johnson (2005) asserts that pop culture also requires complex thought and analysis. An excellent example of curricular development starting with the students’ lives is seen in a Spanish module that was prepared by Dr. Melanie Pérez Ortiz for Our School. In it, the lyrics of popular songs were used, such as, for example, El cantante by Rubén Blades, sung by Héctor Lavoe; El malo, el bueno y el feo by Vico C, Edde Dee and Tego Calderón, to introduce the analysis of poetry. Starting with this analysis of the lyrics of pop culture songs, they move on, for example, to poems by Julia de Burgos and Jorge Luis Borges. Now in choosing the themes, the teacher has to investigate topics that truly interest the students. It has happened that we have developed materials thinking that they will interest the students, but in talking with the students we see their interest lies elsewhere.

We are not talking about replacing reflection, effort and analysis with emotion, pleasure and interests, but rather, motivated by the expectation of pleasure and interest, take on the effort, reflection and analysis with the emotions they bring. It inspires hope to see youths who have abandoned school but who, through programs that start with these principles, graduate from high school, enroll in post-secondary institutions, and open possibilities for their futures.

References

Catalano, R.F., Haggerty, K.P, Oesterle, S., Fleming, C.B. y Hawkins, J.D. 2004. “The Importance of Bonding to School for Healthy Development: Findings from the Social Development Research Group” Journal of School Health, 74 (7) 252-261.

Commission on Maine’s Common Core of Learning. 1990. Maine’s Common Core of Learning.

Edelstein, D.2010. How Is Innovation Taught?: On the Humanities and the Knowledge Economy. Liberal Education Winter, pp.14-19.

Ferrés, J. 2000. Educar en una cultura del espectáculo. Barcelona: Paidós.

Irizarry, R., Quintero, A. H. y Pérez, Z. 2006. “El joven desertor y la necesidad de un modelo educativo alternativo para su desarrollo integral: la experiencia de Nuestra Escuela” en Revista Pedagogía, Vol 39, Núm. 1, pp. 125-149.

Johnson, S. 2005. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. Riverhead Books.

Pérez, M. 2005. Manual de Ejercicios, Nuestra Escuela (mimeo)

Picó, F. 1989.Vivir en Caimito. Río Piedras: Ediciones Huracán.

Torres-Guzmán, M. (2010).Freedom at Work. Boulder y London: Paradigm Publishers.

Vendler, H. 2010. Centering Humanistic Study on the Arts. Liberal Education Winter, pp. 6-13.

Author: Dra. Ana Helvia Quintero
Published: May 08, 2015.

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