Longfellow in the Classroom
There are good discussions that suddenly turn into great ones occasions that affirm one's belief that Maine has some of the best public school teachers in the nation.
One such occasion took place in July, during the second summer institute of the Council's wide-ranging Longfellow project at Bowdoin College. The assignment was to trace the reappearance of Hebrew religious motifs the Exodus, the Promised Land, the errand into the wilderness, and the like throughout American history and literature. The text for the day was John Winthrop's 1630 lay sermon aboard the Arbella in Massachusetts Bay and its now famous line that "we shall be a city upon a hill."
What did this have to do with Longfellow, "the good gray poet," the man hiding behind the beard in those fading engravings that used to hang on every schoolroom wall?
Quite a lot for the teachers taking part in Longfellow and the Forging of American Identity. This is an effort, thanks to a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, to bring Longfellow's life and work back into the classroom. We are not only examining in close detail the career of someone who was once the world's best known poet (and who remains the most famous person, in terms of international name recognition, to have come out of Maine). We are trying to place Longfellow in the context of his times and trace his role alongside Winthrop, Webster, Stowe, Emerson, Hawthorne in using New England's history to define the nation's story.
It's not just talk. As of October 23, anyone online can visit the introductory segment of our Longfellow in the Classroom website, a module of the Maine Memory Network.
Each of the 25 teachers has prepared an entry. Some are pedagogical, drawing on the teachers' own experience in using Longfellow in grades 3 through 12. Some deal with specific poems. Some provide useful background, ranging from a virtual tour of the poet's Portland to an explanation of the role of the blacksmith in American culture.
Maine teachers, in other words, are doing their part in the current Longfellow revival - not as observers, but as innovative scholar-educators who are a model for the profession.
Charles Calhoun is a staff member of the Maine Humanities Council. He has helped organize content-rich professional development programs for Maine teachers since 1993. He is also the author of A Small College in Maine: Two Hundred Years of Bowdoin and Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life.