Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Mentor At-Risk Students in Art

Leaders of an innovative arts program share the secrets of success.

January 28, 2009

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Passing Empowerment Down Through the Arts."

Bill Strickland, founder of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, would like nothing more than to see young people taking part in arts programs in every struggling community. After more than 40 years of working with at-risk kids, he knows that arts plus mentoring is a combination that can transform lives. He estimates that 90 percent of the teens who come to the MCG for after-school enrichment programs graduate from high school, and more than 80 percent go on to college.

Strickland, with support from the Skoll Foundation, is busy spreading this model for social change to other U.S. cities. Nearly 1,000 visitors a year tour the state-of-the-art facilities in Pittsburgh's Manchester neighborhood, looking for ideas to invigorate their own struggling communities. Strickland encourages teachers not to wait to start creating powerful learning opportunities for their students. In his no-nonsense style, he offers five practical pointers for bringing the essence of the MCG into the classroom:

Create Excitement

"The environment in your classroom is something you can control. As a teacher, you have to create excitement. But you can't create it if you don't feel it. Remind yourself why you got into teaching in the first place, and then radiate those values every day."

Be a Mentor

"If mentoring sounds complicated, then don't call it mentoring. Call it having a positive relationship with a student. Which kid needs a mentor? Take your pick. They all need attention, care, and celebration."

Make Learning Real

“No matter what you're teaching, you have to make learning come alive. You want to teach geometry? Get some lumber and build a pyramid. Biology? Create a garden. Encourage innovation, not rote learning."

Use Every Resource

"You can do creative and innovative things with limited resources. You don't need a task force or a study group to provide flowers for your kids. In my first art center, we made potter's wheels out of manhole covers -- worked fine."

Don't Give Up

"Don't give up on the poor kids. You never know what's going to happen. I got into the University of Pittsburgh on academic probation [reflecting what he admits were less-than-stellar high school grades]. Now, I'm a trustee there."

"The basic vision here is pretty simple," adds Josh Green, vice president of operations for MCG Youth and Arts and a 20-year veteran of the teaching staff. "Find charismatic artists who care about kids. Put them together in a good studio with good materials. And great things will happen."

More About Mentoring

Beyond that, Green says, the MCG approach emphasizes thoughtful ways teachers can interact with their students. He offers more advice here:

  • Allow room to grow: "Kids have a chance when they come here to reinvent themselves or become connected to a different peer group. They are able to step out of whatever reputation or clique they have at school."
  • Mix ability groups: After-school classes, he says, allow for "more mixing of ages, grade levels, races, and ethnicities than most kids find in their schools."
  • Build relationships: A nonnegotiable part of the program is the focus on relationships. For example, faculty and students share the same lounge, where conversations unfold naturally. Expectations from teaching artists are high, but so is the consistent message that kids are capable, trustworthy, and worth investing in. "It's a very personal approach here," Green emphasizes. "We make that overt."
  • Pass leadership down: Green credits the MCG's founder with creating the culture of high expectations, trust, and strong relationships. "At this point, Bill is not running the day-to-day programs," Green says. "He has faith in those of us who work here to do the right thing, and to do it well. He recognizes our potential as creative people."

Over the years, Strickland has also polished the art of storytelling. In words and photographs, accompanied by jazz legend Herbie Hancock, he describes the history of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in this video from the TED conference.

Suzie Boss, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon, is coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She also blogs for

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