Seminars Offer Intellectual Development for Teachers

Published July 26, 2013

For nearly 50 years the National Endowment for the Humanities has offered school teachers free seminars across the country and internationally that differ from the typical “professional development” light on brain food.

NEH ‘teacher training’ began soon after 1965 when Congress sent the agency money to support and educate in the arts and humanities.

“The agency wanted to provide opportunities for school teachers to develop their knowledge and thinking through intensive study of important humanities subjects and texts,” said Judy Havemann, an NEH spokeswoman. “NEH believed and believes that more knowledgeable teachers are better teachers…so that American education will be better, deeper, and more valuable to a democratic society.”

Unlike many of the classes teachers must take in college or to earn required continuing education credits, the seminars require readings of primary documents and interaction with academic scholars who lead their fields.

From Italy to Iowa
This summer NEH offers K-12 teachers more than 50 seminars from one to five weeks long. Topics and location for each vary widely, from a seminar in New York called “Abolition and the Underground” to another in Siena, Italy, on Dante’s “Divine Comedy” to another in Iowa on Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School.

NEH provides grants to seminar organizers and teachers a stipend to cover travel.

Seminar offerings and location depend in part on proposals NEH receives. The U.S.S. Constitution Museum Boston is offering the workshop, “The U.S.S. Constitution and the War of 1812.”

“Last fall, every site that is delivering one of these workshops across the country came for a planning meeting in DC at the National Endowment for the Humanities,” said Rebecca Crawford, manager of academic and family programs for the museum. “We have been planning in Boston ever since.”

Intellectual Passion
The training connects professors and experts passionate about their fields with K-12 teachers who will pass that knowledge on to young children. For Stephen Rice and Meredith Davis, professors of American studies and art history, respectively, at Ramapo College in New Jersey, the NEH seminars allowed them to fuse their expertise. This summer they will teach a  seminar called “The Hudson River in the 19th Century and the Modernization of America” for the second time.

“[Davis and I] got to talking about trying to do something for teachers that focused on the region,” Rice said. “[Davis] knew a lot about the Hudson River School of painters and I’m interested in industrialization and transportation revolution, and those intersect beautifully with the Hudson River. We got in touch with the NEH program officer and developed the proposal.”

NEH uses historical sites as resources for seminars. Crawford said she incorporates a variety of different sites around Boston and also a collection of different readings and lecturers to give a fuller sense of the War of 1812.

“To be able to see a variety of different historical institutions – all of which interpret a slightly different part of the story – is really an important thing for [teachers] to be able to see,” Crawford said. “They are also able to hear from different lecturers who are brought to the workshop from across the country.”

Rice said historical sites bring a depth to the readings that the participating teachers could not experience otherwise, which they can take back into the classroom and share with students. Rice and Davis take the teachers to the Hudson harbor on the first day and up the Hudson River on the last day.

“When we get on the boat and travel through the highlands and look at the very mountain peaks that we’ve been seeing in paintings or reading about in poems, it just brings it alive into something the teachers can bring back to the classroom and really describe vividly, and answer questions that the students may have, questions that they can answer because they were here,” he said.

Teacher Cross-Pollination
The seminars offer a unique opportunity for teachers to learn from each other, Rice said.

“They’re learning about the issues being faced in other parts of the country and other kinds of strategies that people are using in the classroom,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing and a rare opportunity for teachers from Kansas, and Washington, and Louisiana, and Massachusetts to sit together and talk about the work they do.”

Part of the workshop involves teachers preparing lesson plans from what they have learned during the week. This year, Rice invited participants from their 2011 workshop back to talk about the lessons and how they have modified them.

“We really want them to be thinking in specific ways about how the sites we are visiting, or the lectures they are hearing, or the readings, or the discussions they are having with other participants are leading to something very tangible that they will take back to the classroom,” Rice said.

Crawford also said the seminars revitalize teachers’ enthusiasm for the subjects they teach.

“When somebody is able to see and appreciate a historic site they are much more excited about that and that enthusiasm and excitement translates in the classroom to students,” she said.

Image by the U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv.