NEH Landmarks Workshop for School Teachers returns to EDM

The fossilized dinosaur footprints in Amherst College’s Beneski Museum of Natural History may seem to have little to do with Emily Dickinson’s poetry. But as museum educator Alfred Venne told the summer scholars spending a week in Amherst for "Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry and Place," an NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop for School Teachers offered by the Emily Dickinson Museum, those footprints were symbolic of the cultural environment that shaped Dickinson’s education and eventual literary output.

“Edward Hitchcock, the third president of Amherst College and a close friend of the Dickinson family, collected these dinosaur tracks,” said Venne, who unveiled the new website from the Pocumtuck Valley Historical Association making the history of those tracks – including ties to Dickinson’s poems – available as a digital resource they could use in their schools.

“I showed them what was being discovered, here in western Massachusetts, while Dickinson was possibly auditing Hitchcock’s classes.,” he added. “Two middle school teachers told me after the presentation that this sort of information would be a great resource, that it would make sense to the students they were working with.”

That, says Emily Dickinson Museum Executive Director Jane Wald, is the reason why the workshops for teachers are offered. This is the fourth time the Museum has presented the NEH-funded "Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry and Place.” When the summer scholars finish their week in Amherst, they return home with new knowledge about Emily Dickinson, her world, and the influential people and historical circumstances that profoundly affected her.

The Museum offered two NEH Landmarks sessions in 2017.  Examining Dickinson’s original manuscripts, discussing the challenges of editing her work, touring the Dickinson family homes, and learning about the impact of historic events such as the Civil War were among the topics shared by a group including internationally renowned scholars, Museum staffers, authors, librarians, and archivists. With each presentation, the NEH summer scholars left with the groundwork for new lesson plans that they would then be able to share with students both in traditional literature classes and beyond.

“I teach a course on the Civil War, and was one of the only history teachers in the group,” said Jim Hommes, who found a lesson on the war’s impact on Dickinson, with SUNY Buffalo Professor of English and Christanne Miller, eye opening. “In the historical context, you generally just go on to industrialization and the postwar South. But it’s often missing individuals like Dickinson. I’ll be trying to incorporate the war poetry with the photography of Matthew Brady, among other lessons.”

Miller, editor of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them, provided a reading list of poems by Dickinson and others concerning the war, however tangentially. The necessity of reading between the lines in a poem, she added, was one of the most important things about trying to connect Dickinson with the world around her.

“If you can make your students be in love with not having the answer, then they will love Emily Dickinson,” said Miller. “ And I think that the participants had a very positive response to the way I talked about editing her poems. One said that it helped him overcome his bitterness towards Dickinson’s first editors, Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and gave him a different kind of appreciation for what they did. It was a wonderful experience. I always get more interested in what I’m talking about when I’m talking with smart, interested people.”

The summer scholars themselves said one of the most important takeaways from the week was the strong bond they formed with other teachers.

“Learning about Emily Dickinson was just phenomenal,” says Alex Sundman, a high school teacher in Washington, D.C. “But the biggest takeaway was the absolute privilege to work with people who are just so passionate about the craft of teaching. With the foundation we learned we can overturn the myths of Emily Dickinson, and present students with a woman who was so progressive in her views, and ahead of her time in remarkable ways.”

Hilary Sophrin, a teacher in an all-girls Catholic school in Delaware, summed up the feelings of many as they headed back home on the last day of the program.

“I love summer,” she said, “but the best thing about this workshop is that it makes me want the school year to start right now.”


Photos by Lucy Abbott-Pawlishen/Susan Nicole Photography