Summer Institute for K-12 Teachers Puts Jefferson Under the Microscope

UVA professor Lisa Reilly created a two-week institute for the nation’s school teachers, an in-depth look into the complexities of Thomas Jefferson’s life at UVA and Monticello.
September 29, 2017

In the summer of 2016, dozens of school teachers from around the country came to Charlottesville for a series of workshops to learn new ways to teach about one of America’s most cherished – and controversial – founding fathers.

Led by Lisa Reilly, an associate professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia, the workshops delved into the contradictions and complexities of Thomas Jefferson and the ways that teachers can bring those topics into the classroom.

It was such a success that in August, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Reilly a $157,956 grant to create a two-week teachers’ institute using the same model.

“Thomas Jefferson: The Public and Private Worlds of Monticello and the University of Virginia,” will bring teachers from across the United States to Charlottesville to learn more about the Thomas Jefferson’s multi-faceted life, both at Monticello and the University. It will offer access to the extensive records Jefferson kept throughout his life, including working records of Monticello and UVA’s founding, as well as his architectural designs. Next year’s program will take place from July 8 to 20.

The institute, offered by UVA’s Center for Liberal Arts, offers educators a hands-on approach to history and an in-depth perspective they can take back to their schools. UVA Today recently caught up with Reilly to find out more about this unique opportunity and how it will help bring primary historical sources to classrooms across America.

Q.  What is the purpose behind your new project, “The Public and Private Worlds of Monticello and the University of Virginia?” 

A. The project seeks to bring K-12 school teachers together with some of the foremost scholars on Thomas Jefferson in a two-week institute during the summer of 2018. This institute will provide teachers with an on-site introduction to Thomas Jefferson’s writings, architecture, and other evidence of material culture, with the goal of establishing a full and complex narrative of the life of not only Jefferson, but those who inhabited the Monticello and University communities.

By reading for themselves the evidence that can inform our understanding of Jefferson and his private and public realms, participants will be better equipped to teach the process of reading and understanding both textual and material primary sources, and to evaluate them within a larger historical context. It will also introduce the teachers to digital tools they can use in their classrooms so their students can work with primary sources. 

Q. What are some of the unique learning experiences that teachers will have through the institute?

A. Throughout the institute, teachers will get to collect data from Jefferson’s primary sources as they relate to one of five central themes: women, enslaved people, education, landscape and architecture.

So when looking at Jefferson’s Farm Book, for example, some teachers might analyze its contents in terms of what it meant for women, while others might look at the book’s implications for enslaved people. At the end of the program, they will create a digital project based on their respective themes, which they can later access and share with students in their classrooms.

They will also spend some time with the archeological team, visiting excavations, analyzing sources such as Jefferson’s papers, and visiting UVA’s Special Collections library to research how students, families and enslaved people lived during Jefferson’s time. So we want to give teachers a better picture of the larger community and not just Jefferson himself. 

Q. In what ways will next year’s program format differ from last year’s?

A. In the summer of 2016, we did two one-week summer workshops that were similar to this. However, the NEH is not offering that format for the summer of 2018, but encouraged us to apply for a summer institute.

In a summer institute, 25 K-12 teachers from across the United States come together for two weeks to explore a topic in depth. Part of the feedback we received from the highly successful 2016 workshops was that participants wished that the workshops were longer, offering them the opportunity to go more in-depth and to meet with some of the speakers more than once, as well to visit Poplar Forest. We have also included some new speakers such as Niya Bates, a double-’Hoo who now works at Monticello as the public historian of slavery and African-American life; we will also have Elgin Cleckley, a new faculty member at the School of Architecture who is developing an exhibition about African-American history at the University.

Q. What inspired you to create this program?

A. I have done several programs for teachers over the years, including a previous NEH workshop through the Center for the Liberal Arts at the University which I have found very rewarding.  Teachers make great students; they are very engaged and passionate about learning.

So when Professor Bonnie Hagerman, then working as associate director for the Center for the Liberal Arts, contacted me about doing another NEH program, I jumped at the opportunity. The NEH workshop series emphasized learning on site about American history, so Monticello and the University seemed like natural venues for such a program.

Q. What do you think teachers will take away from the upcoming institute?

A. I think the teachers will come away with a richer, more nuanced and more complex understanding of both Jefferson and life on a 19th-century Virginia plantation, as well as slavery.

I have received many emails from past participants telling me how participation in the workshops of 2016 transformed their teaching and allowed their students to engage more directly with the material.

Q. In what ways has the NEH grant made a difference in your program?

A. The NEH grant is what makes the program possible – it is an NEH program, and we could not do it without their funding and support. For a relatively small financial outlay, we reach both the participants in the program and then all of their colleagues and students at their home institutions. It has quite ripple effect. 

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Katie McNally

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