N.E.H. Program Helps Teachers Pursue Their Dreams

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Ramona Kerby knew what she would like to accomplish during her sabbatical from J.B. Little Elementary School this school year.

A teaching librarian at the Arlington, Tex., school, she frequently had witnessed the awe with which the children--especially the boys--beheld the Alamo.

"At least in Texas, for little boys, the Alamo is a powerful symbol,'' Kerby says. "Those little kids come back [from visits to the site], and they're enthralled with the heroes and their battle to the death.''

In trying to provide her students with more information about the Alamo, she discovered that all the books published up to 1992 about that pivotal event in Texas history were written by men--and none of them Texans to boot.

So during her sabbatical this year, Kerby set out to learn as much as she could about the shrine to Texan independence and the men--both Anglo and Mexican--who fought and died there. Her goal was to write a book as well as become a repository of knowledge for her students.

She visited the Alamo, talked to experts, culled through old newspaper files, and read such primary-source material as the diary of William Barret Travis, one of the fort's doomed defenders.

Among her many discoveries, she learned that some of the principal characters, those very men her young charges hold in such high esteem, were--to put it politely--scoundrels.

Now, as her sabbatical draws to a close, Kerby faces the problem of how to write a book that accurately reflects what she has learned without unduly destroying the children's beliefs.

Yet, it is a difficulty the veteran educator welcomes because of the opportunity she was given to arrive at this intellectual crossroads.

Kerby gained the liberty to study the Alamo for a year through the National Endowment for the Humanities' Teacher-Scholar Program, which enables full-time elementary and secondary teachers to take a year's sabbatical to study a topic in the humanities.

"This year was wonderful,'' Kerby says. "I've learned a lot about a particular moment in history, and maybe I have acquired a few more intellectual skills.''

The Brass Ring

Now in its fifth year, the Teacher-Scholar Program rewards teachers for their sustained fervor for learning and aims to broaden and deepen their intellectual understanding. The goal is to enable them to make an even greater impact on the classroom upon their return.

"Once teachers get intellectually engaged,'' observes Annette Palmer, the program's coordinator, "the students will get intellectually engaged.''

The federal agency selects teachers from both public and private schools who have written what are judged to be the best proposals on a humanities topic.

For the first few years, the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund helped underwrite the program, enabling the N.E.H. to provide grants to about 50 teachers. With the agency now relying on its own resources, the competition will stiffen beginning next fall, when the number of awards drops to 25 annually out of the 200 or so teachers who apply.

Those select few receive stipends of up to $30,000 apiece, depending on how much of their current salary their school districts will continue to pay.

Applications are due May 1 each year and must be content-based. Performance- and pedagogy-based projects are ineligible. Teachers chosen from this year's pool will begin their sabbaticals in September 1995.

Before teachers apply, however, they should consider that recipients average 20 years of service to the profession.

"The Teacher-Scholar Program is the culmination of a long period of intellectual activity,'' Palmer, a former teacher, says. "My boss likes to call it the brass ring.''

Many of the teacher-scholars have participated in other agency programs before they applied for the year of independent study.

Such programs include the summer institutes and seminars the N.E.H. offers, out of which educators might conceive or hone the idea that will result in a sabbatical project. At these sessions, held all across the country, teacher-scholars also have met experts who become the mentors that they are encouraged to have in order to be considered for the program.

For example, the three summer sessions that Sharon S. Hamilton, a drama and English teacher at the private Buckingham Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, Mass., attended helped crystallize her project on women characters in the works of Shakespeare.

Successful applicants are "people who have really planned,'' Palmer says. "Inexperienced people get disappointed when rejected.''

Persistence Pays Off

Rejection, though, is no reason to give up hope. On request, the N.E.H. will provide applicants with written constructive criticism by its proposal-review panels. Teachers can, and have, used the comments to revise and resubmit their proposals.

John Murphy, an English teacher at the Heman G. Stark Youth Training School in Chino, Calif., applied twice before he was chosen for his yearlong independent study of the African-American writers Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and August Wilson during the 1991-92 school year.

Murphy's project was turned down the first time, despite the fact that playwright Wilson himself had agreed to be his mentor.

Having completed his year's sabbatical, Murphy says his efforts have continued to reverberate in his daily work. He and his colleagues at the youth facility have designed and taken part in an N.E.H.-sponsored study program, called the Masterwork Study Grant, that brings faculty members together to study.

"I thought nothing would surpass the Teacher-Scholar Program,'' says Murphy, a 22-year veteran at the school. "But I don't think I have ever had more pleasure or learned more than with the collegial enterprise I have with this project.''

"This is one of the focuses of the N.E.H. program ... to build so-called intellectual communities in the schools,'' Murphy adds.

During her sabbatical, Hamilton became part of a study group that helped structure her time. "You are so used to being part of a big community and having all your time scheduled,'' she says, that "when you are suddenly given complete freedom, it's scary.''

Dennis W. Dummer's first proposal didn't make the cut either. The history teacher at Taft High School in Lincoln City, Ore., tried again and was selected as a teacher-scholar for the 1992-93 school year.

"I was pretty naÃive,'' Dummer says, remembering his expectations for his topic compared with what he actually learned about the relationship between medieval church councils and modern democratic government.

For example, Dummer learned that various forms of representative government did exist outside the churches. "That was a real breakthrough for me,'' he says.

He now takes that lesson into his classrooms. Another new element in his teaching is the interrelationship among German, Christian, and Roman laws and how modern law has evolved from them.

Dogs and Sausages

Affecting students, of course, is the program's ultimate goal. "We want to see some kind of impact in the classroom,'' the N.E.H.'s Palmer says.

Murphy, for one, has used his newfound knowledge to work toward integrating African-American literature into the training school's curriculum. As a white man, he says, he previously had a very superficial knowledge of the works of black writers.

"I could teach a variety of traditional American authors like Hemingway or Fitzgerald. I also teach Shakespeare,'' Murphy says. "But I also thought I should know something more in depth about the diversity of writers we have in America.''

Based on the varying interpretations of plays she saw and studied, Sharon Hamilton assigns her students to debate whether Katharina in Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew'' is a victim of or the equal of Petruchio.

Amanda LaFleur finds it difficult to isolate specific examples of how the program has changed her teaching.

A French teacher at Comeaux High School in Lafayette, La., LaFleur views the impact globally. "I know more, so I can give them more,'' says the teacher, who studied the figurative language of the Cajun dialect and can entertain her students with such colloquial expressions as "he doesn't tie his dog up with sausages,'' meaning "he's cheap.''

She believes that the greatest good she may have done for her students was to be a role model. "It's very good for them to see that learning doesn't stop and that it's fun to learn, that I would want to take a whole year off to learn new stuff.''

LaFleur also hopes that her project, which took her to 11 parishes in the Acadian Triangle to conduct interviews, may help alleviate the alienation of Cajuns from an educational system that tried to eradicate their language during the middle of this century.

Energy and Inspiration

Teacher-scholars say the program has benefited them outside the classroom, too.

The teachers are brought to Washington for workshops and to meet each other and share advice and experiences.

During Murphy's trip, he and his fellow scholars attended a function at the Vice President's home, where Marilyn Quayle greeted the group.

"We all felt kind of important for five minutes,'' Murphy says. "That is not unimportant, the way education is treated in this country.''

To Hamilton, the N.E.H. grant may have made the difference between teaching and not.

"People, especially at midcareer, don't have the energy and inspiration they had as young teachers,'' she says. "Just to have an organization tell you you're doing a terrific job and give you time off to rediscover yourself as an intellectual being is invaluable. Without the N.E.H. support, I don't know if I would still be in teaching. I do know I wouldn't have my old energy and enthusiasm back.''

Ramona Kerby's sabbatical has taught her lessons about herself as a teacher, writer, and person.

She has tried during her 20 years of teaching to provide children with a balanced view by offering a variety of books, to teach them they should not take the word of any book as absolute truth.

After this year's immersion into scholarship, Kerby recognizes for the first time that "I will be writing with that bias.''

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