Walking through Melville's diverse world

A gaggle of tourists strings out along the cobblestone street, trying to keep up with the man in the safari hat. Carl Cruz is leading them through a famous 19th-century whaling town, but he's recounting its other history - as a hub for escaped slaves and abolitionists.

Instead of sticking snapshots into a dusty album when they go home, these visitors will take what they learn straight back to their classrooms. Blue embroidery on their tote bags spells out why the 25 teachers are spending a month in and around New Bedford, Mass: Melville and Multiculturalism. The residential institute, subtitled "Teaching and Learning about Literature amid Historic Sites," is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It's one of 30 such summer courses designed to give teachers a chance to connect with colleagues from around the country and add new experiences to their arsenal of classroom resources. "I have to have something new every year to inspire me.... And it's good for kids to know the teacher doesn't know it all," says Tanya VanHyfte, an English teacher from W. Lafayette, Ind.

The group represents just about every kind of school - urban and rural (and even an Alaskan correspondence school); private and public; racially homogenous and diverse. While most participants teach high school literature, a few focus on history or science, and one plans to present a "Moby Dick" picture book to her first-graders.

The teachers don't even have in common a devotion to Herman Melville. Sure, there are some who think everyone should read "Moby Dick" at least once a decade. But others confess they hated the whale epic in high school - or that they haven't read it until now. What they do share is an expectation that this whirlwind month of lectures, field trips, journal writing, and discussion will provide a blend of personal enrichment and practical plans for improving their classes.

"The 19th-century classics are incredibly difficult to teach, and I'm trying to get ideas and strategies," says William McCarthy, who has been teaching American literature for the past three years on the island of Martha's Vineyard, just a ferry ride away from New Bedford. "Many locals have family ties into the whaling industry," he says, so "Moby Dick" is "a terrific book for our community."

Just the opportunity to walk in the places so often described by Melville and his contemporaries attracted many of the teachers from other regions.

"Being in Massachusetts is amazing," says Amy Medlock, a native South Carolinian who teaches in Irmo, near the state capital. "What I teach the first half of the year is literature from Massachusetts. It blows my mind how rich in history this state is." Earlier in the week, she interviewed role-players at Plimoth Plantation and videotaped the exchanges for her students.

The institute covers everything from Melville's images of Polynesians and native Americans to demonstrations of sail-rigging and whaling songs. It is jointly hosted by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the University of Massachusetts in nearby Dartmouth, a concrete campus encircled by wide lawns, where the teachers make their temporary home.

"I think it's proven already by the amazing discussions the participants have had that the works really resonate," says Laurie Robertson-Lorant, a Melville biographer and director of the institute, which she proposed while on sabbatical from her teaching job at a private school in Massachusetts. "[His writings] foreground certain really topical issues, such as how we're going to live together in a multicultural society - something that teachers ... face every day."

As a graduate student in the 1970s, Ms. Robertson-Lorant disagreed with critics who depicted "Moby Dick" as an allegory in which whites represented good and blacks evil. The descriptions in Melville's works that sound racist to modern ears, she says, are typically a character's point of view, not the author's.

In fact, this first week of the course is devoted to "Benito Cereno," a short story about an American ship captain whose belief in African inferiority leaves him vulnerable to attack. Boarding a distressed Spanish ship, he is duped by the slaves on board, who are pretending to be docile servants but are actually holding the Spanish captain prisoner.

With the help of several professors, the teachers delve into the context of slave narratives, the revolt in Haiti at the beginning of the 19th century, and the slave uprising on the ship Amistad, the basis for the 1997 film. During a lesson-planning session, Robertson-Lorant has teachers act out key scenes to help them tune into the story's subtle clues.

To mark Independence Day, the teachers also discuss Frederick Douglass's poignant 1852 speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

That background makes Mr. Cruz's tour especially compelling. Gathering at a visitor center, teachers are transformed into students as they sprawl on the floor in front of Cruz. Using his walking stick to point out photos on an exhibit panel, he explains how the diverse population of transient seamen, Quakers, and free blacks made New Bedford an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Arriving in 1838, Douglass was one of many escaped slaves who made their transition to freedom in the city.

Cruz saves for last the house where Douglass first took refuge. The red paint is peeling, and around back, shingles are missing. The New Bedford Historical Society has its modest office upstairs, and a sign on the lawn shows the renovations Cruz and his colleagues will undertake if they can raise the money.

"To think that Frederick Douglass lived here.... I just feel humble," says Michael Wendt of Lake Oswego, Ore. He came because he's loved "Moby Dick" for decades, but says he is also impressed with the course's emphasis on multiculturalism.

That aspect satisfies Mekiva Skinner, too. A young teacher from Houston, she is the only African-American in the group. She would like to see more diversity, but says she's encouraged by the open-mindedness of her white colleagues. "They're willing to say there is definitely an aspect of history that's not being taught.... They're genuinely interested in learning about slavery and the history of Africans in America, and they're really going to use that."

Ms. Skinner has also brought an open mind - to an author that she's always thought of as just "a dead white guy" with nothing to offer her and her students, most of whom are Hispanic or African-American. She wondered why so many people love his works, and wanted to be able to teach them in a respectful way. "[Now] I would even do 'Benito Cereno' ... which I had never even been exposed to before," she says.

Other teachers are pondering similar possibilities, and some have persuaded their schools to add Melville to the curriculum.

Discussions at the institute often gravitate toward how to make Melville's works relevant to all students, not just to the advanced-placement kids.

Ms. Medlock has found that even high-schoolers who read at a fifth-grade level are willing to muddle through significant excerpts of "Moby Dick," once they are hooked on the story. To get her "tech prep" students to that point, she sometimes uses the film starring Gregory Peck.

Medlock's style might also help her relate to the teens she teaches: Wearing her hair short and spiky, and on this day sporting a T-shirt with playful Dr. Seuss characters, she says she would like to help her students make a movie of "Benito Cereno." She would coordinate with the social studies teacher, and for each decision, students would have to make persuasive arguments to her (the "producer").

Jeanne Foy, the Alaskan correspondence teacher, says she wants to use the same story to examine 19th-century racial issues.

Even after just a week together on campus, the teachers are starting to form mentoring relationships. And the seminar is prompting them to reflect on why they chose their profession.

"[Being here] renews my faith in teaching," Medlock says, "and helps me know I'm not alone."

E-mail teichers@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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