Teachers Learn in the Summer:
with Poet Jill Mcdonough at NY Public Library
Education, as pointed out by Harvard Professor Howard Gardner, does not end with the attainment of a formal degree, but ideally is a lifelong process. Public and private high school teachers from New York recently illustrated this process by becoming students themselves, learning under the prestigious fellows of The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library (NYPL). The seminars do not generally lead to teaching credits; teachers are taking time out of their summers, a testament to the program’s excellence as well the students’ devotion to education.
Recently Education Update visited a session of the seminar: “The Sonnet: 500 Years in a Poem the Size of Your Hand,” taught by poet Jill McDonough, a Cullman Center Fellow (2005-06), widely published and a recipient of a 2005 PEN/New England Discover Award. McDonough indicated that the focus on sonnets stems from her work on her latest book, 50 sonnets covering executions in American history, and The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, which each student received prior to starting the seminar.
McDonough recognizes the sonnet as a “useful starting point for a million conversations about literature and art and reading and thought.” Her seminar offered a comprehensive exploration of the sonnet, from its early form *to modernization. Students get into, as McDonough describes, the “nitty-gritty” of the sonnet through hours of reading aloud to each other at the seminar from John Milton to Julia Alvarez to Robert Lowell. Students chose from sonnets that struck them with a personal connection, or a new insight into the idea of sonnet, and shared them with the group.
Class members additionally embarked on the journey of poet as they wrote their own sonnets, with guidance and critical examination from McDonough. A group task of writing one sonnet together was facilitated by the 14 students in the class coinciding with the 14 lines in a sonnet.
The rich resources available at the library were accessed by students through LION, a database of online literature and Granger’s Index of poetry.
A unique feature of the program is its inclusion of the teachers’ students into a full day of acitivties at the library. The high schoolers meet with an illustrious Cullman fellow and explore the wonders of the majestic library. “Students get to see the larger world that resonates alive with writers,” stated seminar participant Bill O’Brien, a teacher for 17 years at Fort Hamilton HS.
During past seminars, students of the high school teachers gained a newfound perception of a literature genre and the research process.
Jackie Brilliant, an English teacher at Notre Dame High School, participating in the Cullman seminars for the second year, described the visit to the library last year as “awe-inspiring for students” while the “fellow treated students with great respect.”
Participation in the seminar helped transform the process of research paper writing from a daunting task to one which they could master.
Sue Clinton from Passaic Valley Regional High School in Little Falls, NJ, highlighted the impact of participation in the seminar for her students. The Great Expectation’s story of working class Pip having to meet the class standards of the time in order to acquire the affection of the wealthy Estella was a theme not palatable to students until their immersion in the culture and history of the 19th century, an opportunity afforded through last year’s Cullman seminar.
Participation in these intellectually rich seminars involves a competitive process; to be considered teachers are required to write a 250 word essay. Preference is given to teachers from public schools, although teachers from private schools are accepted as well.#
For more information on the Cullman Center visit http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/scholars/index.html