New Haven

Teaching for the teachers

Yale faculty and New Haven teachers collaborate.

Tony Fiorini

Tony Fiorini

Yale art historian Timothy Barringer discusses works in the Center for British Art with a group of teachers from public schools all over the country. The visit to the center was part of the Barringer's seminar Understanding History and Society through Visual Art, 1776 to 1914. View full image

The Art of Biography. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Consumer Culture. Renewable Energy. Advanced seminars for Yale students? Not at all. These were Yale seminars taught by Yale professors, but requested by and delivered to New Haven public school teachers.

In 1970, a group of history teachers in New Haven asked Yale for help in learning about subjects they hadn’t studied but needed to teach. From that start grew the Yale–New Haven Teachers Institute—a partnership that runs seminars, four or five every year, on subjects chosen by teachers and taught by Yale professors. The teachers then craft curriculum units for their students, using what they’ve learned. “The professors and the teachers are co-professionals” in the YNHTI, says director James Vivian ’68, ’75MPhil. “Each group’s expertise is indispensable.”

The YNHTI, today a permanently endowed unit of Yale, has become a national model for such collaboration. In 2004, the Yale National Initiative to Strengthen Teaching in Public Schools was launched, specifically to help build similar partnerships. Today, there are Yale-inspired teachers institutes in Philadelphia; New Castle County, Delaware; and Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as nearing readiness in Richmond, Virginia.

“It’s never been more timely than it is at the present,” says Vivian, noting that President Barack Obama recently put out a call for colleges and universities to be more accessible to students from low-income families. “Our work is precisely that: helping high-need students.” Every spring and summer, the National Initiative brings teams of teachers from around the country to the Yale campus for intensive seminars—both to experience YNHTI-style seminars and to explore how to establish a teachers institute in their own area. This year, 61 teachers from 17 school districts in 9 states took part.

Sydney Coffin, an English teacher at Edison/Fareira High School in Philadelphia, writes in an e-mail that he’ll never forget the way Joseph Roach, the Sterling Professor of Theater and English, taught the history of theater, stage, and drama: “He took me to so many levels of thought. I wasn’t just moved, I was moved several times.” Valerie Schwarz, a fourth-grade teacher at Mary Munford Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia, says that before she attended her first National Initiative seminar, she had had little interaction with other teachers. “Now I am working with other teachers and school administrators throughout my school district to establish a local teachers institute.” 

Yale benefits as well. “The institute breaks down any misconceived idea of Yale as an ivory tower or elite institution with no concern for the world beyond its walls,” says art history professor Timothy Barringer. “It is an enormously valuable unit within the university.”

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