Breaking bread with Emily Dickinson and students: U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona tours Dickinson Museum

  • U.S. Secretary of Miguel Cardona, middle, at the Emily Dickinson Museum with, from left, Catherine Epstein, Amherst College provost and dean of the faculty; Jane Wald, executive director of the museum; Biddy Martin, Amherst College president; and William Gorth, chair of the museum’s board of governors. IMAGE COURTESY OF U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

  • U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona chats with museum guide Melissa Cybulski in the Evergreens library at the Emily Dickinson Museum. IMAGE COURTESY OF U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

  • Amherst College students Gabby Avena, left, and Fiona Anstey chat with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom last Friday. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

  • U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona talks with Amherst College students about their studies of Emily Dickinson’s work in the poet’s own house. IMAGE COURTESY OF U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

  • U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona chats Friday with Amherst College student Kei Lim. PHOTO BY JOSHUA HOOVER/U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2022

AMHERST — Friday, March 4, was a busy day for Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education, beginning with an early-morning visit to the Rafael Hernández K-8 Elementary School in Boston, the oldest dual-language community school in the city, where he spoke with students, teachers, parents and others about multilingual learning.

Then it was on to the MIT Sloan School of Management for a conference on the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that greatly expanded the possibilities for girls to play school sports.

Cardona, a Connecticut native who a year ago became the nation’s 12th secretary of education, then traveled to Amherst for a taste of local literary history: He took a tour of the Emily Dickinson Museum, then chatted with Amherst College students studying Dickinson about what it was like to examine the famous poet’s work at such close range.

“The depth of knowledge I have of Dickinson is because of the last few hours,” he said outside the museum following his visit. “I learned a lot today, especially about the value of being able to read and work with primary sources. I had one of the students read one of (Dickinson’s) poems in her bedroom. That felt really special.”

In fact, a key part of Cardona’s interest in visiting the site was to talk with students about their experience in using the Dickinson Homestead for their studies. He said he’s interested in examining the role that nontraditional learning environments can play in expanding educational opportunities for students.

“When we think about re-imagining education, it’s really important that we consider experiential education and how we can connect with museums and other primary sources of information,” he said. “Let’s look at how (primary sources) can be brought into schools and how schools can go there.

“We’ve learned during the pandemic that you don’t have to be in a traditional schoolhouse,” Cardona said. “We need to embrace that as we think about giving our students better opportunities to learn.”

Cardona said he was also intrigued by the connections within the Five College system, as well as the close relationship between Amherst College and the museum, which is owned by the school but operates independently.

After his tour — his first visit to the property — Cardona and students from a Dickinson seminar taught by Karen Sánchez-Eppler, an Amherst professor of American Studies and English, squeezed into a chilly room in the Dickinson home to discuss some of these issues. (The museum has been closed to the public the last few years due to the pandemic and major restoration work.)

“What does it mean to learn in this kind of environment?” asked Cardona. “You’re inside a place (of primary documents). How does that influence your learning when you’re able literally to read a poem in (Dickinson’s) bedroom?”

The students touched on a number of things — for instance, how the intimacy of reading one of Dickinson’s handwritten manuscripts in her own home can give them a kind of emotional grasp of a poem or letter that can’t necessarily be gained by reading that poetry in, say, a library carrel.

“It’s special to see and get a feel for the place where she wrote,” said Fiona Anstey, a sophomore who grew up in Japan. “You can look out the windows and see something of what she saw.”

“It makes you feel really connected to her and her writing,” added Christian Pattavina, also a second-year student.

Cardona also quizzed the students about their experience with the Five College system; students replied that there were extensive resources available in the system, from books to a range of classes they could attend on different local campuses, that enriched their education and gave them a sense of directing their own work.

Cardona, a native of Meriden, Connecticut, whose first language is Spanish, began his career in education as an elementary school teacher and later became a principal when he was just 27, overseeing a school where bilingual education was a key component. His doctoral work examined the gaps between English-language learners and their classmates. He later served as a school superintendent and education professor in Connecticut.

At the Dickinson home, he told students he appreciated their feedback. “My goal is to listen to you and take what you’ve said back to D.C. and see how we can find ways to bring this kind of learning model to other places.”

Before leaving, he added that visiting the Dickinson Museum was “a great way of kicking off Women’s History Month and acknowledging the contributions … of Emily Dickinson, and how her poetry was continued and preserved by the women who shared it (with the world). She transformed the genre — what a powerful testament.”