When students take their summer break, teachers often use that time to take classes. KERA’s Jerome Weeks is a member of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. He visited its summer academy for school teachers and filed this report.
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[ambient sound of people talking and eating, clanking of silverware and dishes]
In a handsome, old house — one of the oldest still standing in the Uptown area — some 60 people are eating lunch and talking about The Iliad and the many other books they’ve read. They’re in a three-week-long, intense immersion in classic literature – from Homer to Herman Melville. All day they attend panel discussions and lectures, they watch film adaptations and write in their journals. One mark of the program’s success: Several North Texas schools, public and private, require some of their teachers to take the program.
Kendall Hill teaches 9th grade English at Rockwall-Heath High School.
Hill: “To be honest, this is probably not something I would have went to on my own. But wow, I’m reading and it’s like I’m reading in a whole new light.”
The summer program was developed by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. The Dallas Institute was founded in 1980 after a dispute with the University of Dallas led six former faculty members to create a kind of mini-academy or think tank. Ever since, the Dallas Institute has tried to bridge the ivory tower and the urban center. One original emphasis was Jungian psychology (until the late psychologist James Hillman left town). There’s also been the philosophy of city planning and civic leadership: The institute helped create Pioneer Plaza in downtown Dallas, for example, and former Dallas Institute director Gail Thomas now heads up the Trinity Trust, which has pushed the redevelopment of the Trinity River.
And then there’s teacher education.
The Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers was created in 1983 by Louise Cowan, a Dallas Institute founder. It was her response to A Nation at Risk, the influential report by the Reagan administration that found serious fault with American education. Claudia Allums is the current director of the Institute.
Allums: “The rest of the country really went wild into building systems and standards, virtually forgetting about the teacher. And Louise Cowan decided that the thing that needed to be done is to help teachers to be better.”
Her plan for high-school English teachers was an old-fashioned one, a return to the Western classics. But the classics chosen include modern novels and Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
Allums: “Whatever was a classic was because of the quality and what they do to cultivate your imagination but also because they had been the foundation of Western civilization, because Western civilization wasn’t just an evil villain in the world.”
Within a few years, demand for Cowan’s Summer Institute was great enough that a program for high school principals was begun. And then one for superintendents. And the institute isn’t attracting just English instructors. Catherine Pate teaches at Woodrow Wilson High School. She finds this intense study of poems and novels relevant to the geography and social studies classes she teaches.
Pate: “My two classes are one of the few opportunities that kids have to look outside themselves. And it helps to tap into something that’s grander about the human experience. You have to have a certain imagination to be able to go there.”
Beyond the intellectual content the Summer Institute offers, it’s known for motivating school teachers. It’s a return to first principles, to what originally inspired them about teaching. Director Allums speaks about this with the faith of a convert. She attended the Summer Institute herself in 1989.
Allums (left): “No one listens to teachers much. And I’ve become more and more convinced that if people listened to teachers and to what feeds them, revives them, stirs them, calls them to their work, this program would be duplicated around the country.”
Catherine Pate of Woodrow Wilson sees the Summer Institute as a lifeline – partly because of the confrontational politics that have held sway in American education, but also because of the administrative upheavals that have rocked the Dallas school district in recent years.
Pate: “It can be toxic, especially now. But I think this gives me sort of a torch to follow. I know that sounds kind of cheesy but – it definitely does.”