Celebrating 25 Years With the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute

In 2014, the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute takes a moment to look back on 25 years of preparing teachers to bring the thrill of America’s revolutionary era back into the classroom.


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Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. If you’re familiar with Colonial Williamsburg, then you know that our mission is “That the future may learn from the past.” That’s a mission that the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute takes very literally, as they put teaching tools in the hands of teachers. This year they celebrate 25 years of supporting educators. Joining us now are Cynthia Burns and Diane Claypool, some of the individuals involved in the very earliest days of the Teacher Institute. Cynthia, Diane, thank you for being here today.

Cynthia Burns: Thank you.

Diane Claypool: Happy to be here.

Harmony: Well Cynthia, let’s introduce you first and talk about your role with the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute. What has your part been in the inception and following years?

Cynthia: Twenty-five years ago, actually let’s go thirty-five years ago, I came to Colonial Williamsburg as an interpreter straight out of the middle school classroom. I was so impressed with the training that we received. My next question was, “Tell me about your teacher program, tell me about your teacher program.” And my director said, “Ah, we don’t have one.”

And I said, “But you’ve got to have a teacher program.”

And she said, “Well, why don’t you do that?”

And so, slogging along over 10 years getting people’s ears, and more importantly getting those folks who were willing to support financially that kind of an effort. In 1990 we had the first Teacher Institute.

Harmony: And that’s where Diane comes in. You were one of the first teachers who brought some of these educator tools into the classroom. Talk to us about your early experience with the teacher institute.

Diane: I was. I wasn’t part of the very first group. I was part of the second group in 1991. I remember hearing about applying for this and thinking, “Oh, that just sounds fabulous, I could use that so much in my classroom.” And when I found out I was accepted, I was just thrilled. As a teacher you seldom have an opportunity like this: that it was a week and it was all paid for. That never happens to teachers, just never. And we were treated so well. We got to go, like, backstage to see all of the things that made Colonial Williamsburg happen. And I learned so much, met so many fabulous people. I can truthfully say it changed my life.

Harmony: So when we talk about the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute, one of the things that we’re talking about is what you’ve just described -- this on-site component that’s probably the landmark, really the pillar of the Institute, is that teachers come out here to Williamsburg, to Colonial Williamsburg and spend a week with us here doing some intensive training. Talk to us about that experience, what the components were, and what that did for your teaching once you went back to the classroom.

Diane: Well it was just wonderful. Not only did we go into the various shops and see how things worked, but we got to go, like I said before, sort of backstage, and find out how they did that. And they gave us so many good ideas for ways that we could translate this into our classrooms.

So I went back to my classroom, took all this information which was just so interesting to me. My school’s name is Landels School or was, I’m retired now, but my school was Landels. So we built what we called “Landelsburg” instead of Williamsburg; Landelsburg. We had a big multipurpose room. We made different interiors of the buildings out of refrigerator boxes, which we opened up and painted. Every one of the students took on a persona and they had to write a report about their person.

We taught them how to speak colonial English. We taught them the dances. We taught the militia how to drill. What else? Oh, the costumes, yes. We figured out the costumes for everybody and gave them opportunities. I bought the Colonial Williamsburg boy’s hats and we had the mothers make mobcaps and we just did it all.

And then for one day, we all lived in Landelsburg. All the rest of the students from the school through to see us, and they either got to see the dancing or the militia drill. We built a cannon and all the other 5th grades from the school district had a little field trip over and they got to see it. It was spectacular. It really was.

Harmony: That’s delightful to hear about it as an adult. I can only imagine the impression this must have made on the children.

Diane: You know, you’re so right. I see kids now that were in my class, and they don’t remember that they had to memorize their times tables, they don’t remember the science; they remember Landelsburg.

Harmony: That’s delightful. Cynthia?

Cynthia: And what Diane has, this is all true but there was an additional component to this. Some of us from back here were invited out to see the students. So we went and we also invited the donor sponsors. They were there all day that day and I think that, more than anything else, helped this idea of donor support spread out and grow. It was truly wonderful. They were so impressed at what the students had accomplished, what Diane had accomplished in the classroom.

One of the early statements in our first kind of like, “Throw it out there and see what happens,” was to have teachers experience early American history where it actually occurred. So these fifth grade teachers who perhaps don’t get that background in college had the opportunity to be here on site for seven days. We started at Jamestown. We ended at Yorktown. We were in Williamsburg for just about five days of really in-depth immersion in early American history.

We were so fortunate because throughout the Historic Area, you know, we had tradesmen speak to us, we had folks from Research speak to us. It was just over the top in quality and so, so great for the teachers. To see them just go, “Wow, that’s not what my history book says.” “Oooohhh, I’m going to do that differently.”

Harmony: Cynthia, the onsite program is only one component of the resources that Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute provides. What are some of the other tools that you’re trying to get into the hands of educators to help let this history echo out?

Cynthia: With the arrival of digital media in the classroom, every teacher who participates in the Teacher Institute gets an Electronic Field Trip subscription. That’s one thing right there. While they are on site we enroll them and literally physically go with them if there’s some issues getting connected. We enroll them in our teacher community, and that’s an on-going resource for teachers. They can access media, they can access primary documents, they can access prints. And that goes on and on as long as they wish or choose to access it.

Harmony: And these are lesson plans that are coordinated with state standards as well. Is that right?

Cynthia: Absolutely.

Harmony: That’s tremendous to think that a teacher in any state can pick these up and use them in the classroom.

Cynthia: And all of our participating teachers are enrolled in the Teacher Gazette throughout the school year. Once a month, they get a Teacher Gazette that features a primary source of the month. There’s a lesson there. There’s new historic research. Just new information that they have access to no matter how long ago they came to Teacher Institute.

Cynthia: We put an obligation on these teachers: “When you go back, spread the word, present to your school, present to your district.”

Harmony: So it’s wonderful to think that the teachers are bringing the message to students, but they’re also helping teach other teachers and help the history reach even farther than it otherwise might have.

Diane: In addition to all of the changes it made for the students it changed me. I became the social studies expert for my district. I was the person that you went to for any grade level. I ended up after retiring I wrote curriculum for the county, social studies curriculum for all grade levels for the county and none of that would have happened had it not been for my Teacher Institute.

Cynthia: What we saw happen to teachers on-site, they learned that history could be real and immediate, that it could be hands-on and they could do those things in the classroom.

Harmony: You know, I was going to ask you thinking back over 25 years to think about how the Teacher Institute has changed. B2ut it occurs to me as we’re speaking that maybe the core things are the ones that haven’t changed and are the ones that remain the most powerful; what you talked about, about hands on, immediate history, that real immersion and the talking to experts here. Would you say that’s true?

Diane: That is still true. The program has changed. We have seen standards change. We have seen national history standards come forward and now we are connecting and plugging into the common core objectives and getting teachers to help us address that.

So yes, we change, but bottom line is, you’re here. And we do what we can do best here.

Harmony: Well, every teacher listening is going to be dying to know where they can find out more. What’s the website?

Cynthia: www.history.org. Look to the little thing on the left that says teacher resources and even if you have not been here for Teacher Institute there are teacher resources there for you.

Harmony: I believe you can find those quickly at history.org/teach as well.

Cynthia: Sounds good.

Harmony: So thank you so much for being with us today. It’s been a delight talking to you both.

Cynthia/Diane: Thank you.


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