by Nandita Batheja
Ten days over ten months. Fifteen children. Nine adults.
One school. 78% living below the poverty line. 44% special needs. 11% passing math and 13% passing literacy rates.
These were the numbers I read when I first sat down to design art & eden’s student mentoring program at the Camden Street School. Oof. Having come from a background in urban education, I felt a familiar dark anxiety return; I began worrying about data and scores, measurable improvements in math and literacy. How was I going to create a mentoring curriculum that truly made a difference to our children with just one full school day each month? At art & eden, we recognize our power and potential to really make a change; we take our social impact seriously and work hard to create programs that actually serve the communities we work with, instead of placing a pretty band-aid over very real needs.
But before I fell completely into the Statistics Vortex (from which it can be a challenging return), I stopped myself. I remembered the gift of not being the classroom teacher, of being able to tap into a social, emotional, artistic, activist and—as I call it: a Ms. Frizzle learning space. We might not improve the kids’ vocabulary tenfold, but we could take them on a magic school bus and connect them to ways of learning, experiencing, connecting and asking questions that—hopefully—opened doors to their already vibrant intelligence and curiosity.
When I first met our lead classroom teacher, artist Ms. Hughes, I knew we were in the right place. Ms. Hughes manages to create that space for her students and meet the superhuman demands of working in an underfunded public school. I call her an angel because I actually think she is one. Or Wonderwoman. Or Wonderwoman if she was an angel and also an art teacher to hundreds of children.
When I asked Ms. Hughes what the kids needed most, how we could best serve them, she sighed and with a compassionate smile, the first thing she said was: “Love. They need love.”
Ah! Don’t we all?
She went on to talk about other more tangible needs. Learning the languages of the 21st century: coding, entrepreneurship, design. Practice developing trust in relationships (again, don’t we all . . .). And, finally, having opportunities to integrate what they learn in school with the outside world. To even just experience New York City and the endless possibilities that await them in this universe.
Which meant we at art & eden had to do our part to really earn the kids’ trust. To show them we would not leave, would not forget about them, would not close off or interrupt them or “teach” when they shared their stories or ideas. It meant inviting them, over and over again, to be themselves, ask questions, learn beyond the confines of the statistics society projects onto them. It also meant we had to be vulnerable with ourselves, to trust them with our stories, our ideas and questions. This is what mutual learning and leadership look like.
So, putting love first, I began to build a curriculum that bridged who we are as a company – learners, questioners, activists, nurturers, designers, creators – with the resources gaps of the school. We weave in personal reflection and interpersonal skills through content focused on the environment, social justice, entrepreneurship, history and the arts. In the same way we encourage one another to be leaders of our own departments and learning at art & eden, our curriculum is student-led; we want to encourage each child to be the pioneer of their own experience. The program is responsive to each session. Each time I learn more about what the kids are passionate and curious about. Then I go home and revise our next session or plan new field trips that build upon what we discovered together. Learning in real-time, learning as co-created between student and educator. Because the truth is that we learn as much (if not more) from the students. We are equally mentored by them; their questions, their challenges, their fears and their love.
It’s a funny thing to call this our ‘give-back’ program, because I’m not sure who is giving what back. Perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a give-forward program. We give forward what we have, and they give forward what they have, and we both grow larger, more full of experience, which we can continue to share, to give forward into the world.
For a taste of our day, here are highlights from our first visit this year. May it be cause for inspiration and forward-giving!
educator, editor & manager of caring,
Story sharing in small groups, starting to build the blocks of connection
It was an amazing day. We left humbled, energized and totally in love with each student (as we always do). Thank you for supporting art & eden, and in turn allowing us to support the Camden Street School. We are all grateful!