Every year, approximately 2,500 teachers spend several weeks of their summers becoming better teachers. They don’t do it by studying pedagogy or advanced lesson plans, or even by practicing new technology to use in the classroom. They do it by being students again.
NEH summer seminars and institutes are one of the rare professional development opportunities for teachers to delve into humanities subjects for the single purpose of learning. Teachers (K–12 and college) study topics such as “America’s Reconstruction,” “The Spanish Influenza of 1918,” “Istanbul between East and West: Crossroads to History,” “Buddhist Asia: Traditions, Transmissions, and Transformations,” or “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller” with the foremost scholars in these fields. Teachers conduct their own research and learn from their peers as well. Through Landmarks workshops, schoolteachers travel to the places where history was made, such as the Mississippi Delta to study the music and culture of the blues or to Chicago to understand the history of American skyscrapers and city planning. NEH now awards approximately $190,000 to fund a summer institute or seminar, and it includes housing and travel allowance for the participating teachers.
Since 1967, 84,223 teachers have attended NEH summer seminars and institutes and brought their excitement and knowledge back to over 11 million of their own students. “I return to my classroom truly rejuvenated, in a way that I cannot ever remember feeling,” writes Judy Sisson, who took part in a summer seminar for schoolteachers titled “Authority, Democracy and the Citizenship of Women: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Wollstonecraft.” “My vision is more intense. This is the best thing that could ever happen to a teacher.” A college teacher who attended a 2003 institute declares, “The value of these experiences is incalculable for improving the depth of knowledge, the quality of teaching, and the rigor of research. The NEH has been my intellectual life blood for a long time.”
The impact of a summer teacher program can be unexpected. Take the experience of René Villicana, who attended a 2007 seminar for schoolteachers on Dante. Villicana didn’t teach subjects that could incorporate the works of Dante in his classroom, so he started a Dante Club at the high school, which held a Dante “read-a-thon” in 2010 to raise money for Haitian earthquake victims. One day, from 7:45 a.m. until 3 p.m., club members continually read cantos from the Inferno and Purgatorio, with no more than 30 seconds between readers. A surprise reading in Italian came from an enthusiastic foreign language teacher, and the group raised $300 for the relief fund.
Directing a summer program has its own rewards—in following the careers of participants (a good many go on to further degrees), helping facilitate an ongoing intellectual community after the program, and seeing the joy of scholarship in a community where others share the same excitement. Peter D. Hershock of the East-West Center in Hawaii has directed 9 separate NEH summer institutes on Asian culture. He notes that “NEH institutes and seminars create spaces in which the process of learning-about new things is fundamentally wedded to learning-from and learning-with others.”
Image Credit: Photo by Douglas Arnold