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Up close and personal: Teachers become students in the Emily Dickinson archives

  • Cassandra Wilfert, a seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher at Academy of Notre Dame in Tyngsboro, inspects a basket belonging to Emily Dickinson’s family somewhere between the 1870s to 1880s during the “Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place” workshop for schoolteachers at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Maeve Hitzenbuhler, ESL director for Westborough Public Schools, left, and Rachel Fentin, a fourth-grade teacher based in Detroit, Mich., inspect a blue-china serving bowl once owned by Emily Dickinson’s family during the “Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place” workshop for schoolteachers at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Recreated fascicles feature scans of Emily Dickinson's work hand-sewn together July 25, 2017 at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Alison Aune, art-education professor at University of Minnesota Duluth, left, and Lindsey Horowitz, seventh-grade English Language Arts teacher at Wright Academy in Chelsea, inspect a toleware box bearing the names of Emily Dickinson and her sister Lavinia. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Maeve Hitzenbuhler, ESL director for Westborough Public Schools, left, and Rachel Fentin, a fourth-grade teacher at University of Prep Academy Mark Murray in Detroit, Mich., inspect a blue China plate and serving bowl once owned by Emily Dickinson's family July 25, 2017 during the Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place workshop for schoolteachers at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Close-up of blue-china serving bowl once owned by Emily Dickinson’s family. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Steve Glazer, a seventh and eighth grade English teacher at Crossroads Academy in Lyme, N.H., left, and Cassandra Wilfert, a seventh and eighth grade English teacher at Academy of Notre Dame in Tyngsboro, inspect a basket belonging to Emily Dickinson's family somewhere between the 1870s to 1880s July 25, 2017 during the Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place workshop for schoolteachers at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Recreated fascicles feature scans of Emily Dickinson's work hand-sewn together at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst.



Staff Writer
Thursday, August 03, 2017

It might be the ultimate classroom for teachers who want to make Emily Dickinson part of their classrooms.

From a look at the Amherst poet’s original letters and manuscripts to a visit to the room where she composed much of her verse to talks with Dickinson experts, teachers who came to Amherst last week received some valuable insights into how to make the celebrated writer’s work a bigger part of their own lessons.

“Emily Dickinson: Person, Place, and Poetry” is a week-long program the Emily Dickinson Museum started in 2007 to bring teachers (primarily K-12) to Amherst to immerse them in all things about the poet. Funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the program, as Dickinson Museum Director Jane Wald sees it, provides a great opportunity “to encounter [Dickinson’s] poetry in the place it was written.”

“I think immersing yourself in that environment helps illuminate her poetry in a unique way, both personally and professionally,” said Wald.

And, she added, being able to share that information with teachers, and then have them “take that back to a new audience, is something we feel is one of the important services we can offer as a museum.”

This is the fifth summer the Dickinson Museum has hosted the program (they don’t do it every year), and two separate week-long sessions brought 72 teachers, from around 35 states, to Amherst in July. The teachers were selected from over 200 applicants, noted Wald, who says a personal statement from applicants on what Dickinson’s poetry means to them, along with ideas of how they might want to use her writing in their lessons, is the most important consideration for acceptance into the program.

Nancy Mades-Bryd, who teaches eighth-grade English in Salem, said she had been teaching the poet’s work for 15 years, but reading it for 40. As she looked at some of Dickinson’s original drafts of poems, housed in Amherst College’s Frost Library, Mades-Bryd said it was a thrill for her to get “up close and personal” with one of her favorite writers.

“I guess half of me is here as a teacher, and half as a serious fangirl,” she said with a laugh.

‘Manuscripts as maps’

Marta Werner, a professor of English at D’Youville University in New York, was one of the Dickinson scholars in Amherst last week to talk to teachers about her work. Her pitch? Take a look at Dickinson’s first drafts to get a fuller understanding of the poet.

Werner, with poet and visual artist Jan Bervin, has published two books — “The Gorgeous Nothings” and “Envelope Poems” — showcasing original manuscripts of Dickinson’s work, many scrawled on whatever paper the poet had handy, such as the reverse side of old letters and, yes, envelopes. (She even wrote on chocolate wrappers.)

In a talk she gave to teachers at the Frost Library, Werner said looking at those manuscripts and early drafts of poems — part of the college’s Emily Dickinson Collection, many are available online — provides insight into Dickinson’s creative process and her emotional state.

“I think of these manuscripts as maps,” Werner said. “In a lot of ways, I prefer manuscripts that are not final copies. They’re more informative — a kind of poem in the making.”

Much can be gleaned even just from looking at how Dickinson’s handwriting changed over the years, Werner noted. A friend of the poet from her school days once described the young Dickinson’s writing as beautiful and eloquent, she said, while her later publisher, Thomas Higginson, compared her hand to “fossil bird-tracks.”

Using a screen to project enlargements of some of Dickinson’s manuscripts, Werner displayed the first draft of “As Summer into Autumn slips,” a poem Dickinson began in 1874, around the time her father, Edward, suddenly died.

The final stanza had a handful of crossed-out words and the addition of the word “shaft” — written three times on the paper, as if for added emphasis — which the poet substituted for “thought” in the poem’s next-to-last line.

Werner’s take? Dickinson was rocked by the sudden loss of her father — “This early draft shows she was in a state of crisis,” she said — and turned the poem from an observation of the change of seasons into more of a meditation on loss.

“In the end, this is really quite an extreme poem,” she said. “It says a lot about why a draft is important.”

In the classroom

Debra Rabiner, who teaches middle school English in Long Beach, N.Y., said Werner’s presentation, and the other workshops she was attending during her week in Amherst, have prompted her interest in introducing Dickinson to her next group of students.

“I’ve been reading her since I was eight, but I haven’t taught her before,” Rabiner noted. “I think it’s time.”

Her colleague, social studies teacher Robert Gallopini, who co-teaches a combined American studies class with Rabiner, said he’d never led a lesson on Dickinson, either. But he was struck by how much of her poetry was rooted in her experience growing up and living in Amherst.

“That’s what I’d like to introduce to my students, the idea of how who you are is shaped by where you come from,” Gallopini said.

Alison Aune, who teaches art education at the University of Minnesota Duluth, figured she could incorporate Dickinson into her work — which includes museum-based teacher training — by developing art projects for younger children involving original materials and constructions, such as collages, just as the poet wrote her lines on used scraps of paper.

For Aune, getting a firsthand look at the Dickinson archives was a real eye-opener, especially since she grew up in Amherst, graduating from Amherst Regional High School in 1979.

“I played in her house when I was a kid,” she said (the Dickinson Museum served as faculty housing for Amherst College for several decades in the latter 20th century, when Aune’s father, Bruce, taught philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst).

But as she examined some of Dickinson’s letters and manuscripts, Aune said she felt she was seeing a side of the poet — and their mutual hometown — that she’d never known about: “It’s a whole new level of detail and richness.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.