In the summer of 2022, I took part in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar in Boston. The seminar was called friendship and identity and addiction literature and adolescence. And I’m not exaggerating when I say it changed the course of my teaching career period.
The NEH seminars are an opportunity for teachers to gather around a particular subject area. Applications usually open in early January and are due at the beginning of March. The application process is free. As Karen, the director of my institute shared, there were numerous applicants, for each position. It’s a really good deal. Instead of paying to go to professional development, they pay you now the pay essentially covers your room and board while you’re there and traveled to and from the institute. They also provide all of the text needed. You’re responsible for doing the reading before you get there.
The days are intense. You are working from morning until late afternoon, with some evening commitments to get work done on your final project for optional movies and other excursions. That being said, it was an exceptional opportunity.Read more: NEH Summer Institute: Friendship and Identity in Literature, Film, and Adolescence (Summer 2021)
The course I took was called “Friendship and Identity in Literature, Film, and Adolescence.” The core texts we explored included, Sula by Toni Morrison, Deep Human Connection by Stephen Cope, Art by Yasmina Reza, Passing by Nella Larsen, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Perhaps it was because I was in a course on friendship, but the relationships were really at the center of the NEH. On the first day, Karen how to share poems about friendship. We also had to do some reflecting beforehand about particular types of friends inspired by the book. Being vulnerable so early on was difficult, but it meant that we were speaking on another level very very quickly. Something about focusing so deeply on friendship meant that I examined my own relationships more closely. I found myself writing little notes to my friends reflecting on the reasons why we are able to build relationships, reflecting on the things that I love so much about what they do, and hearing others in the institute’s mirror backs and things that they do with their students.
But it wasn’t all about personal growth. Obviously, we were there to think about the ways in which the study of friendship functions in our classrooms. It it’s easy to say that in a “post advent-of-the-internet society”, kids aren’t making connections. But what’s interesting is they’re making connections in new ways. Particularly post-pandemic, students are building more and more relationships online, but that’s changed the tenor of the way that they interact with one another.
This NEH seminar led us to think deeply about why we build relationships, how we build relationships. We talked about social penetration theory and Aristotle’s three types of friendship. We talked about the ways in which you can repair relationships, what friendship disruptions look like, as Karen taught us to call them.
And all of this led me to think about ways to present this to my students. So in the winter of 2020 to 2023, I taught Othello through the lens of friendship (check back for that post laster this week).
The date to apply for an NEH Institute has passed for this year, but I highly encourage everyone to look into it for next year. I think Friendship and Identity and Fiction, Literature and Adolescence is running in summer 2024.
Almost everyone at my institute had participated in another institute previously and said they were incredible!
I think the opportunity to learn alongside other educators, to think about the ways in which the things that we are learning map onto our classrooms, to hear what works in different areas of the country in different types of schools is so beneficial for how we show up in the classroom for our kids. Because students aren’t a monolith. What works in Kansas in a title nine school is maybe not what works in a boarding school in Pennsylvania. But especially in my school, we pull kids from everywhere. It’s important that I’m hearing how teachers are showing up for kids in other areas, what is connecting with kids and other areas, and figuring out ways to bring that into my own teaching.
Learn more about NEH seminars.
Read the Boston University article about NEH Friendship and more here.
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