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
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-
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
"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
"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. …