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Teacher Power
For 20 years, the Yale–New Haven Teachers Institute has helped local teachers develop and enrich their own curricula. Now, the Institute is helping to spark similar partnerships around the country.

In many ways, the gulf between the worlds of New Haven public school teachers and Yale professors could not be greater. Public school teachers must use meager resources to reach large numbers of students who might just as soon be elsewhere, while professors enjoy reasonable funding and support and greet students who have fought hard for a place in their classrooms. Throw in class, race, and educational differences, and the chances for a meeting of the minds look slimmer and slimmer.

But just such an alliance between Yale faculty and New Haven teachers, built on a common love of teaching and learning, has been thriving for the past 20 years. Every summer since 1978, the Yale–New Haven Teachers Institute has offered seminars led by Yale faculty to New Haven public school teachers, who go on to use what they have learned to plan lessons for their own students. This simple idea has proven so successful that the Institute recently received a grant to help it seed similar college-school partnerships in other cities across the country.


“The best thing you can give to anyone is what you do best.”

“I think it is one of the best things Yale can do for the city,” says Sabatino Sofia '63, '66PhD, a professor of astronomy and co-chair of the Institute’s University Advisory Council. “The best thing you can give to anyone is what you do best.”

The Teachers Institute has prospered, according to former University President Howard Lamar '51PhD, who has led two seminars, “because it is characterized by Yale faculty not telling anybody what to do.” The topics for the seminars, for example, are chosen largely by local teachers based on their needs and interests. And the Yale faculty are there not to tell teachers how to teach, but to impart their knowledge and insight on subject matter.

“The teachers have the expertise in the level they’re teaching,” says history professor Cynthia Russett '64PhD, who has led two Institute seminars. “We don’t. We can help them find out what’s new in the subject area, but they have the expertise in what their students can handle. They have to decide for themselves how to use the material.”

It was a group of teachers, in fact, who first approached the University about a venture that was a precursor of the Teachers Institute. In 1970, a group of history teachers at Richard C. Lee High School came to Yale’s history department with a proposal to create a series of summer seminars for teachers led by University faculty. The teachers, in turn, would develop short “mini-courses” for their students based on what they had studied in the seminars. Funded jointly by the New Haven public schools and Yale, the History Education Project (HEP) proved a great success, but not before Yale and the teachers had sized each other up warily.

“At first, the teachers were very suspicious,” recalls Lamar, who helped found HEP. “They thought 'Why are they so interested in us?' And on Yale’s part, there was great debate over such issues as whether the teachers should have library privileges. It began very slowly. But at a fairly early point, a sense of mutual purpose and understanding evolved.”

Out of that project grew the idea for a broader, more rigorous program that would encompass other areas of study. (First on the school system’s list was English, since administrators agreed that much improvement was needed in that area.) Jim Vivian '68, who had recently returned to Yale as a graduate student in history and had taken on responsibility for HEP, unwittingly embarked on a new career path when he prepared a grant application for what would become the Teacher’s Institute. “I originally had agreed only to write the proposal,” says Vivian, “but the National Endowment for the Humanities required us to list a project director, so I put my name down, with the understanding that it would be a short-term, part-time commitment.”

Twenty years later, Vivian still lists himself as director of the Institute, which is now a small but established part of the Yale landscape. With a full-time staff of just three people operating out of the basement of the Whitney Humanities Center, Vivian has effectively managed both the substance and the image of the Teachers Institute through conferences, publications, and special programs. His National Advisory Committee—which includes noted educational reformer Theodore R. Sizer '53 of Brown University and Smithsonian Institution secretary I. Michael Heyman ’56LLB, among others—is as effective in getting the word out about the Institute as it is in collecting input. And an occasional publication called On Common Ground, mailed to university and school officials across the country, reports on YNHTI’s activities and other school-university partnerships.

“Jim Vivian brings to the Institute an intense dedication and a clear picture of what the goal is to be,” says Lamar. “He also brings an infinite patience. There were years when the University wasn’t that interested in the Institute, but Jim has persisted.”

One of Vivian’s missions has been to put the Institute on firm financial footing. After receiving a pair of endowment challenge grants in 1990 ($2 million from the DeWitt Wallace–Reader’s Digest Fund and $750,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities), the Institute raised another $2 million for an endowment, making it the first permanent enterprise of its nature at any university in the nation.

The Institute’s operating method is now well-defined. Every year, teachers who work as liaisons with the Institute poll their colleagues in order to identify seminar topics that would be useful for them in their teaching; these range from astronomy to myths to American political thought. Often, topics are chosen to address specific cultural interests of New Haven students, including immigration, the blues, and Latin American literature. The Institute then approaches an appropriate professor, who further develops the seminar. To take a seminar, teachers submit an application that includes a description of the teaching unit they intend to devise. Vivian says that admission is intended to be inclusive (84 of about 100 applicants were accepted last year, the most the program could accommodate) and that the program hopes to “involve those with the least preparation in their field.” In that way, the Institute can help deal with the problem of frequent reassignments in city schools, which often force teachers to tackle subjects they didn’t study in college.

Once accepted, the teachers become Fellows of the Institute and receive Yale library privileges, e-mail accounts, and other benefits. The seminars meet twice during the spring semester, then weekly for 11 weeks beginning in May. In addition to the seminars, Fellows attend a series of talks by Yale faculty members on various subjects relating to Institute seminars in hope of stimulating discussion and interdisciplinary connections. Upon completing the seminars and their curriculum plans, Fellows receive a $1,000 honorarium and continuing education units.

The seminars are carefully constructed to create a collegial environment for professors to share with teachers their knowledge and insight and for teachers to share with each other their pedagogical techniques for conveying this material to students. In order that the professor not be seen as a schoolmaster, much of the administrative work is handled by a seminar coordinator, an Institute Fellow who is also enrolled in the seminar. The coordinators pay attention to attendance and participation and consult with Fellows on the progress of their work.

For the Fellows, the seminars have obvious benefits: the opportunity to sharpen their understanding of the content they are teaching and a focused way of creating a curriculum. But some of the benefits are more basic. “I got a sense [from leading seminars] that teachers have very little opportunity to talk among themselves,” says Cynthia Russett. “The idea that they could get together and share among themselves was important in itself.”


“You get to talk to people your own age.”

Pedro Mendia, a third-year Fellow who teaches second grade at the Clinton Avenue School, confirms this view. “The nice thing about the seminars is that you get to talk about these things with people your own age,” says Mendia.

Fellows also are exposed to resources that Yale faculty take for granted but that are often scarce in the schools, most notably the Internet. Russett tells of a Fellow in her seminar on women in American history and literature who found women’s diaries from the Civil War on the World Wide Web. “Now her students have the opportunity to look at these primary sources,” says Russett.

The experience of creating their own curricular material is also empowering for some teachers. “I feel much more confident now when I introduce my own material,” says Mendia.

For the school district, the Teachers Institute provides a way to create curricula to help meet specific district and state standards. The Institute is also a powerful incentive for many teachers to stay in the New Haven schools. (Teachers in suburban schools are not eligible for the Institute.) “I would think twice about leaving New Haven, as it would bother me not to have access to the Institute,” says Mendia. “And to have access to the libraries at Yale is a really remarkable thing.”

But what is in it for the faculty? They are compensated financially for their work, but Sabatino Sofia says his participation is in part a gesture of gratitude. “As a scientist, I’m well aware that most of our funding comes from the government,” says Sofia. “When I fly a [solar research] balloon at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, part of that money is coming from a kid flipping burgers at McDonald's. The least we can do is give back something.”

Howard Lamar points to another benefit for faculty members: They have to stretch their own knowledge in response to the needs and interests of the Fellows. Lamar tells of one seminar he led on the history of New Haven that was “a revelation” for him, and another on the regions of the United States. “A majority of the teachers were from the South, especially the Carolinas and Virginia,” recalls Lamar. “Hearing their views of the Northeast and their reminiscences of the South was fascinating. It was a piece of social history that hadn’t been recorded, and they turned out to be superb genealogists of their own history.”

Lamar also says that it is gratifying for faculty to see “that their area of interest, which they might consider very esoteric, could click if presented in a certain way” to students. “It gives the professors a sense of belonging and purpose,” he says.

While the Institute has clearly had a positive effect on the professors and fellows who have participated, Vivian and his staff are working to see that the benefits multiply throughout the New Haven schools and beyond. Some 40 percent of New Haven secondary school teachers have completed at least one seminar (the program was opened to teachers of lower grades more recently), but they and the other 60 percent stand to gain from the Institute’s initiative to put more than 1,100 curriculum units on the Internet (at www.yale.edu/ynhti), where they are accessible to any teachers who want to use them. The units have been available on paper for years, but the electronic format makes them searchable and easy to use, a boon for teachers in need of resources. “I regularly pull up lessons from other Fellows, if only for the bibliographies people have put together,” says Sequella Coleman, a Fellow who teaches sixth grade at Fair Haven Middle School. “I use them a lot more now that they’re online.”

But making curriculum units available is just the beginning. After many years of inquiries from other universities and school systems, the Institute is preparing to help nurture new school-university partnerships. Thanks to a new $2.5 million grant from the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, the Institute expects to award planning grants to five or six universities this year, which will lead to three demonstration projects over the following three years. Twenty-nine colleges and universities, representing 14 potential demonstration sites, have been invited to apply for the national program; representatives from these schools will visit Yale this summer for an intensive ten-day session to learn how the Institute works.

Vivian says the national program will help determine whether Yale’s success can be replicated under different conditions. “In the beginning Yale was viewed by outsiders as the kind of institution that was least likely to accomplish something like this,” he says. “Over time that view got turned on its head. Now it’s important to demonstrate that different kinds of institutions can do it, too.”

Nearly everyone agrees that an essential ingredient at any institution will be a strong leader. “Jim Vivian is so much of the Institute that the most difficult part to replicate is him,” says Sabatino Sofia.

But Jean Sutherland, a third grade teacher at Beecher School and ten-year Institute Fellow, says the most important piece of the Institute for anyone to copy is the collegial, mutually respectful relationship between faculty and fellows that the Teachers Institute has encouraged. “The key is really involving teachers in a cooperative manner. We have a role in all the decision-making processes, and that’s what makes it work.”

If the Teachers Institute can succeed in establishing sister institutions, it could become a powerful model as schools across the nation struggle to improve the standards of both the curriculum and the training of teachers. It could also be a step toward repairing a fundamental split in American education. “American higher education and public elementary and secondary education have pursued different courses and almost never intersect,” says Howard Lamar. “The Teachers Institute restores a rational continuity between the two.”  the end


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