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NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes
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by Steve Gardiner
March 21, 2015
Every summer, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) provides fellowships for school teachers to attend programs taught by experts in the field and held in interesting and significant locations around the nation and world.
The seminars are designed to have a group of 16 teachers from across the country meet with a professor who leads discussions and guides independent study projects on a topic in the humanities. As the NEH explains, “The principal goals are to engage teachers in the humanities; deepen their understanding through reading, discussion, reflection, and writing; and sustain their intellectual commitment to teaching.” Seminars are often held in locations that support the study of the topic, though they may be held at any location which gives participants resources to pursue their studies.
The institutes have a different format. They are designed for 25-30 teachers to meet with a panel of experts on the topic. This gives the teachers a chance to “compare and synthesize the various perspectives offered by the faculty and make connections between the institute content and classroom teaching,” according to the NEH.
Every spring, the NEH publishes a list of the available seminar and institute topics and locations and interested teachers can apply. Further information about these programs, the topics, and the application process can be found at http://www.neh.gov/grants/guidelines/seminars.html.
As an example, I attended a summer seminar studying Charles Darwin's “On the Origin of Species” at Harvard University in Boston. Most of the teachers involved were science teachers, so as an English teacher, I felt out of place at the beginning. The independent study nature of the seminars quickly made that irrelevant, because most of the science teachers chose to look at issues in Darwin's work related to science and I chose to look at his work as literature by examining how his ideas developed through his journals with my final project on Darwin's influence on 19th Century British authors. Though the final presentations by the teachers in the seminar were very different, they all added to the broad perspective we gained about Darwin's work and the impact it had on many subject areas.
In the seminar format, we met daily for five weeks to hold classroom discussions of the chapters of the text. These meetings were for two or three hours, then we left to resume our independent study. As NEH fellows, we were treated as visiting faculty by Harvard and given study carrels in the Widener Library and full access to all university library system.
In contrast, I also attended a summer institute to study Shakespeare at Columbia University in New York City. The institute format had 30 teachers with 15 from the New York City area and 15 others from locations across the nation. We met six hours each day with lectures from a panel of three professors, two from Columbia and one from Dartmouth. We studied eight plays by Shakespeare, two per week during the four-week institute. Topics of the lectures included both the meaning of the plays as well as methods for teaching them. We had several guest speakers who helped us with ideas about teaching Shakespeare, including visitors from the Folger Shakespeare Institute in Washington, DC. We attended performances of plays, both on Broadway and at the Shakespeare Festival in Central Park.
These two examples are but a small sampling of what is available every summer for school teachers. With the help of the stipend that comes with the fellowship (which varies in amount based on the length of the seminar or institute), housing and transportation can often be covered. For the Boston seminar, the stipend allowed me to take my wife and children with me, but for the New York institute, our housing was in a university dorm, so I went alone and had my wife come visit for a week while I was there. Each seminar or institute is slightly different in what is available for housing, activities outside the classroom, academic resources, and travel options, but with the number of seminars and institutes available every summer, most teachers will be able to find one that meets their interests in terms of subject, location, and personal needs. NEH summer seminars and institutes should be a goal for every teacher.
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