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Summer programs offer great ideas for teachers: what are your plans for the summer? You may want to revise them after you read Mr. Pantin's description of NEH programs that many teachers regard as the high points of their careers. (If you decide to apply for one, you will also find information here about how and when to do so.).

ON THE last day of their intensive summer workshop, a small group of schoolteachers gathered for a final walk around George Washington's historic Virginia estate at Mt. Vernon. The teachers had spent the past five days in a workshop on "Shaping the Constitution: A View from Mt. Vernon, 1783-1789," where they worked with several noted historians and learned about important events surrounding the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. Now, during an extended break between lectures and discussions, they set out to bid President Washington a final goodbye.


On their way out of the air-conditioned conference center, nearly all of the teachers extracted cold water bottles from an ice bucket provided by the workshop staff in a well-meaning attempt to combat the 100[degrees] heat. Virginia's summer sun was pitiless, but as the group drew closer to George Washington's burial site, remarks like "It sure is hot out here!" gave way to wonder at the modesty and simplicity of the resting place the first President chose for himself.

"Look!" one of the teachers said. "These are the markings that Professor Leibeger told us about, carved by Civil War soldiers in the bricks around Washington's tomb." Another participant spotted the faintly discernible letters "J. L. Chamberlain." Visiting lecturer Stuart Leibeger had told the teachers to watch for that brick in particular, which probably bore the mark of Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, one of the great Civil War heroes and a major figure in the battle of Gettysburg.

Later, as the group walked along the gravel paths leading back to the conference center, one teacher said, "Interacting with such small details firsthand, like graffiti scribbled 150 years ago by the hand of a significant historical figure, brings this story to life in a way that textbooks never can." As they walked past Washington's elegantly simple home, she continued, "The knowledge I've gained here will certainly enhance my teaching, but I also hope to motivate some of my students to come here and experience it for themselves." Another teacher chimed in to number this workshop, her second, among "the best personal and academic experiences" of her life. The rest nodded in agreement. "It has breathed new energy into my desire to teach," she told them.

Every summer, with financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), more than 2,500 schoolteachers from across the U.S. participate in advanced study programs in the humanities that range from one to six weeks in length. Most of the programs are conducted at institutions of higher learning, both within the U.S. and abroad, and many are held near sites of particular relevance to the topic of study. All NEH summer programs are conducted by accomplished scholars with specialized knowledge of the program's focus. Moreover, each teacher selected to participate receives a stipend, which ranges from $500 to $4,200, corresponding to the length of the program. The Mt. Vernon workshop, which was organized by the Bill of Rights Institute in partnership with George Washington's Mt. Vernon Estate and Gardens, was just one of many "onsite" humanities-related workshops funded by the NEH.

Teachers who have participated in these programs repeatedly note the value of exploring history, literature, and culture where it was actually made. Participants from the workshop "Stony the Road We Trod: Using Alabama's Civil Rights Landmarks to Teach American History" reported having been moved by studying the civil rights struggle amid people and places that had figured directly in the historical narrative. One teacher wrote, "To see the Edmund Pettus Bridge and walk over it after watching the footage about Bloody Sunday, to [meet and] hear the stories of the [civil rights] foot soldiers--so moving!... My knowledge was so incomplete about this important piece of American history!" Another teacher reported that she has since used the photographs and stories she brought home from the trip to give her students "a more experiential idea of what the civil rights movement in Alabama and the U.S. entailed."

Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, agrees that there is particular virtue in studying history where history was made. "Amazing things happen when you bring teachers who love learning to historic places to work with some of the nation's finest scholars," Cole says. "History becomes much more than dates to memorize or pictures on a page; it takes on the sights, sounds, and images of what really happened."


The NEH also sponsors a number of summer humanities programs for schoolteachers that take place outside of the United States. These programs often examine topics in foreign literature, philosophy, history, or culture, all of which gain an extra dimension when they are studied in their places of origin.

"The tying of [W. B. Yeats'] work to the landscapes, both geographic and political, of which he wrote was an important aspect of the seminar," said William Ralston of Juneau, Alaska, who participated in an NEH summer program held in Ireland, titled "W. B. Yeats and the Two Irelands." "I will never forget 'The Tower,' having read it on the roof of Yeats' tower at Thoor Ballylee, or 'Under Ben Bulben,' for which I led the discussion at the site of Yeats' tombstone in Sligo." After the same Yeats program, David Berger of Land O'Lakes, Florida, said, "This experience was one of the most profound in my life. Not only did I learn more than I could ever hope about Yeats and his works, I also tapped into my own creativity and wrote poetry, something I haven't done in years."

Lyn Tillet, a school teacher from Arden, North Carolina, who participated in a similar program titled "Visions of the Dark Years: Legacies of World War II in France," described it as much better than any college course she had ever taken. "Study abroad (which [many of us] did in college) becomes cost-prohibitive ... on teachers' salaries, and yet it is one of the best ways I know to breathe life into our teaching and inspire us to continue as lifelong learners." The director of the NEH Division of Education Programs, Michael Poliakoff, describes this effect as one of the strongest points of the summer programs: "Teachers often begin teaching for love of a particular subject. We give them an opportunity to engage the subjects they love again."

A typical day at one of the NEH advanced summer study programs for schoolteachers begins around 9 a.m. and ends in the early evening. Days are filled with lectures, small-group discussions, and site visits. After the planned activities have concluded, the participants usually dine together and then retire to their lodgings (most often a hotel or college dormitory), where they might finish some of the assigned readings. Sometimes entire days are taken up with "field trips," making the daily schedule more varied. And the program organizers handle most of the logistics. "In my 22 years in the Army and five years of teaching, this was the most professionally run institute or workshop I have ever attended," said one participant from Riverview, Florida.

The NEH advanced summer study programs for schoolteachers fall into three categories. The "Landmarks of American History and Culture" workshops, which were initiated in 2002 as part of the NEH's "We the People" initiative, are the most recent addition to the summer offerings. Every Landmarks workshop lasts for one week, focuses on a particular topic of American history or culture, accepts between 40 and 50 participants, and is conducted by advanced scholars near U.S. sites that are relevant to the topics of the workshop. Past examples of Landmarks workshops include "Pearl Harbor: History, Memory, Memorial" (held in Honolulu); "Crafting Freedom: Thomas Day and Elizabeth Keckly, Black Artisans and Entrepreneurs in the Making of America" (held at a cluster of sites near Durham, North Carolina); and "Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of America" (held in Philadelphia). There are, on average, 20 different NEH Landmarks workshops offered every summer, with each workshop available in two or three separate sessions.

The NEH also sponsors a number of seminars and institutes for schoolteachers, which are longer than the Landmarks programs, lasting from two to six weeks. NEH summer seminars and institutes also cover a wider range of topics in the humanities, and many take place at international sites. For example, in the summer of 2006 the NEH sponsored seminars and institutes on Latin literature in Rome, Spanish painting and literature in Madrid, Mozart's music in Vienna, and South African political history at significant locations in South Africa. In the same summer the NEH also supported numerous seminars and institutes within the U.S., including programs on the abolitionist movement, held at the University of Pennsylvania; the political thought of Hannah Arendt, held in San Diego; and the works of William Shakespeare, held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

NEH seminars accept 15 teachers and tend to focus more on the intellectual enrichment of the participants that contributes to great teaching. Institutes, by contrast, accept 25 to 35 teachers and set aside a portion of their time for discussions and projects related directly to the school curriculum.

Teachers who wish to participate in the 2007 NEH summer program must apply by 1 March 2007 for seminars and institutes and by 15 March 2007 for Landmarks workshops. Teachers must submit their applications to the director of the program that interests them. Additional information, along with lists and descriptions of upcoming NEH summer programs, can be found on the NEH website ( Teachers wanting more information may also contact the NEH Division of Education Programs office by e-mail at or by telephone at 202/606-8463. Perhaps it could be the experience of your lifetime, too.

TRAVIS PANTIN is a student at the University of Chicago. He spent the summer of 2006 as an intern in the Office of Public Affairs, National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, D.C.
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Author:Pantin, Travis
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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