Walking through Melville's Diverse World

Article excerpt

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. …