In his seventh year at Slippery Rock University, Dr. Timothy Oldakowski returned to twelfth grade, not for the second time, but for a third. This time, Dr. Oldakowski will be teaching “The Art of the Story” with his student mentor, Abbi Smithmyer, a senior History major, to twenty-five students in two different classes at Aliquippa High School through the Humanities Ladder program, sponsored by the Center for Public Humanities. His second time returning to high school was two years prior in 2015 when Dr. Oldakowski was co-teaching with Dr. Jason Hilton on “the text.” Their 10 week course was the pilot course for the Humanities Ladder Program.
The Humanities Ladder is an adaptation of the famous Clemente Course for adults, which started more than twenty years ago with university professors teaching an intensive humanities curriculum to adult learners in New York City. The goal of the Humanities Ladder is to empower students in underserved communities, increase their critical thinking skills, and show them a window into what collegiate learning might look like.
The program has expanded to a second high school since Dr. Oldakowski and Dr. Hilton first started at Aliquippa. Now, Union Area HS outside New Castle has SRU professors and student mentors bringing the Humanities Ladder to that school, as well. SRU professors from the English, Art, Philosophy, History, Interdisciplinary Studies, Secondary Ed. Social Studies and Modern Languages and Cultures Departments have all participated.
This semester, Dr. Oldakowski and Smithmyer will be looking to inspire the students to realize that their story isn’t solely about being eighteen or going to Aliquippa High School — their story is so much more than that! Dr. Oldakowski believes that “everyone has a story…no matter the length. It could be a biography or it could be in regards to an event that happened when they were 15.” He added that “we want to prepare students for college and one of the things that we think will help is introducing them to the personal essay that most students write during their freshman writing course.”
Through reviewing literature like Shakespeare’s sonnet, process drama, multi-modal works, Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” and the biographies of famous individuals, the pair will work with students each week to write their own story, which they will present to the class at the end of the program. Students in the class love that the Humanities Ladder program is “really interactive and hands on,” as well as “very interesting!” Smithmeyer has really enjoyed “seeing all the students learn and change, from the first day I have been there until now. It has been so exciting to see how this experience has changed their outlook.”