Exploring Art and Culture in the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

Paper given by Jules D. Prown
Conference on Teacher Programs in Art Museums
Session on Consortiums and Collaborations
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
October 22-23, 1992

The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute was established in 1978 as a joint program of Yale University and the New Haven Public Schools, funded with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other sources.

The Institute has a small staff housed at Yale. Each year School Representatives in New Haven's high, middle, elementary and special schools canvass other teachers for ideas about the kinds of seminars they would find useful. A fundamental principle of the Institute is that the curriculum is generated by the school teachers. James Vivian, Director of the Institute since its inception, talks with Yale faculty about offering seminars in the areas of teacher interest. Then the School Representatives select the seminars in which there is strongest interest. Teachers apply for admission, proposing topics to be developed in the seminar as curriculum units to which they will teach the following year, and which are published and made available to other interested teachers in the school system. The seminar leader reviews the applications, and fine tunes the planned reading and discussions to fit the interests of the accepted participants. In the end, up to eighty school teachers are accepted as Fellows enrolled in one of the six or seven seminars in the five month program. Fellows are full members of the Yale community, with library, parking, gym, and other regular privileges. During the seminar, the leader works with one teacher in the course designated as the Institute Coordinator, who helps with curricular and operational matters. Upon successful completion of their units, teachers receive an honorarium, continuing education units toward their periodic recertification as professional educators in Connecticut, and possible course credit at an institution where they may be working toward a degree.

The seminars meet once in March and once in April, when both the schools and the university are in session, for purposes of orientation, bibliography, and firm definition of unit topics. Individual conferences are held during this period. Seminars then meet weekly from mid-May to mid July, and the final units are submitted in early August.

I have offered three seminars in the Institute, all of which had a similar theoretical underpinning. The theory, in brief, derives from the idea that all artifacts that is, all human-made objects, including works of art are fragments of history that embody the beliefs of the culture that produced them. They are historical events things that happened in the past but, unlike other historical events, continue to exist in the present. They can therefore be reexperienced, affording a special mode of non-verbal, affective access to other cultures. Pedagogically, this provides an opportunity for making other times and other places, other ways of life and thought, more comprehensible to students who have difficulty absorbing verbal information, or who are immediately dismissive of cultures different from their own. It also enables young people who lack verbal or mathematical skills to extract information from things, whether about their own family, their own community, or their own social, religious or ethnic heritage. Four out of five school children in New Haven are from minority groups, and units on African, Hispanic, preColumbian and Native American cultures are particularly popular.

In my seminars, we use close analysis of objects as a means of understanding culture. It involves application of a simple methodology that I described in an article entitled "Mind in Matter: an Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method," published in the Winterthur Portfolio in 1982 [Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring]. I will discuss the methodology more fully in a minute.

The seminar I gave last year on "The Family in Art and Material Culture" was structured around the analysis of images of the family and, to a lesser extent, objects of everyday life. Emphasis was placed on key stages of family life birth, childhood, marriage, parenthood, aging and death. As in all of the seminars, we used close analysis of objects not only to absorb factual historical evidence but to dig beneath the surface to find unconscious expressions of cultural belief. Each class meeting focused on the analysis of a single object. Let me summarize rapidly the procedure as applied to one object to convey a sense of what we did in class.

[Analysis of William Dobson, The Streatfeild Family?, Yale Center for British Art five minutes]

The class contained equal representation of elementary, middle and high schools, and there was no correlation between the level of teaching and the quality of work done in the seminar. Four participants taught Social Studies or History, four were art teachers, and two were French teachers with a cultural/historical leaning in selecting materials for language instruction. With the emphasis on methodology, my seminars seem to have been particularly useful to the teachers in developing practical aspects of their teaching lesson plans. In seminar meetings we analyze museum objects, but in preparing their units the teachers are encouraged to subject everyday materials to the same kind of close analysis. Their students in turn can study pictures in magazines, family snapshots, or other items of everyday life around them. The museum is used not as a treasure house that contains sanctioned objects of beauty and value, but as a training ground for learning to extract understanding from things. This affective way of learning works for non literate as well as literate students, and offers opportunities for students who may seem backward to excel through visual acuity, or creativity in executing projects in the curriculum unit.

One pervasive aspect of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute is collegiality. The seminar leaders from the Yale faculty bring greater subject matter knowledge and expertise to bear; the school teachers bring much greater practical classroom knowledge. The seminars are collegian undertakings conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In working in a collegian way with school teachers, we Yale professors seventy-four of whom have been involved with the Institute in its fifteen years of existence we Yale professors learn much about the craft we profess, about what it means to be a teacher. It is easy to teach Yale students give them the right materials and ask the right questions and they teach themselves. In the Institute we become aware of the extraordinary accomplishments of dedicated New Haven school teachers who work in environments that are not conducive to learning, and we learn from their sensitivity and responsiveness to the needs of individual students. Like all teachers, we learn through teaching.