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From Dante to Delhi: BFS Teachers’ Summer Learning Excursions

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It’s not unusual for BFS faculty to take advantage of summer seminars offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and other organizations, then return in September to regale the faculty and enhance their curricula with all they have seen and learned. This year saw some particularly colorful and profound experiences unfold.

Upper School Spanish teacher Vanessa Ehler (pictured at left, far right) received an NEH grant to learn in Mexico this summer.  “I spent four weeks studying the many indigenous cultures thriving today in one of Mexico’s most vibrant states, Oaxaca,” she said. “Oaxaca is one of the most colorful, artful and vibrant places I have ever visited and its history is alive in the streets today…It’s near sensory overload but somehow alluring.”

Each week’s course content was built around a central cultural or historical topic related to the Oaxacan region.  The program was led by Prof. Stephanie Woo, an expert in the fields of ethno history and Latin American history, along with other  visiting scholars. “With a particular focus on the ‘ethno’ part of ethno history,” explained Vanessa, “we observed and interacted with the many cultures of Oaxaca and were able to learn from their points of view, a perspective important to someone who cares about social justice and human rights.”

The course is designed especially for teachers, and the intent is for them to bring what they’ve learned back to their schools to enhance their curricula.  Vanessa was effusive about her experiences and her plans for her BFS Spanish courses.  “I’ve brought back years worth of memories, notes and materials to share with my students and colleagues including photographs of pre-Colombian codices to modern day street art, un-fired pottery made in traditional fashion by women from San Marcos Tlapazola, examples of modern day uses of the cochineal and many, many questions about colonization, autonomy, cultural preservation, cultural identity, societal roles and expectations.”

img_3167[1]Meanwhile Director of Service Learning & Civic Engagement Natania Kremer (pictured at right) jetted all the way to India to attend the Teaching for Peace program, a graduate course taught by the International School for Jain Studies. Held in the cities of Delhi, Jaipur, Jalgaon, and Pune, the immersion experience focused on the concept of “ahimsa,” meaning nonviolence in India’s classical Sanskrit language. The program is inspired by Gandhi’s philosophy for approaching social change, and included lectures, visits to schools and historic sites, experiencing the cuisine and meeting with scholars and concerned citizens.

Natania summed up her experiences best in a personal thank you to the program’s organizers:  “I will carry with me a deeper understanding of Gandhi’s legacy…I aspire to cultivate ahimsa in my heart, my mind, and my actions as was modeled by the saints and monks we had the fortune to meet. Teaching for Peace was a profound opportunity to learn, reflect, and grow.”

Like Vanessa, Upper School History teacher Vlad Malukoff  (pictured below) received an NEH grant to become one of only 16 teachers from across the US to study Dante in Siena for six weeks. “It’s the one city in Italy that maintains its Medieval character more than any other, even though Dante was from Florence,” he explained.  “Besides, Florence is inundated with students and tourists, and,” he quipped, “Dante was expelled from Florence anyway. You get a better sense of Dante’s time from Siena which is an hour southwest of Florence.”

Many moons ago, Vlad lived in Rome for three years while he was a graduate student.  “I read The Divine Comedy entirely.  I was struck by how profound he was on life and human weakness. While many may appreciate Dante Alighieri’s 14th century masterwork for its poetry or powerful religious imagery, history teacher Vlad appreciates it in his own way.  “Dante was an artist and political leader with probably a huge ego, yet he was able to write this masterpiece.  Being banished caused him to reevaluate his life and the way he had lived, and to write a critique of it…He had this obsession with a young woman named Beatrice who died when he was a teenager. In The Divine Comedy she winds up being his guide in the afterlife.  Of course,” he pointed out on the subject of human weakness, “you never hear about his wife.”

vlad portraitFor the record, Dante’s literarily neglected wife was named Gemma. Indeed Dante never wrote about his better half despite the fact that they had three children, but then again Dante was always one to buck tradition.  “He was deeply critical of the Church,” said Vlad.  “In the book, two of the popes are in Hell with their heads in molten lead coffins with their feet sticking out.  Yet the book isn’t condemned by the Church at all, except that it was written in the vernacular instead of Latin.”

Coincidentally, BFS History Department Chair Ed Herzman’s father Ron, an English professor at SUNY Geneseo, was one of Vlad’s professors during the Dante course. “We also got tailored tours of sites pertaining to Dante or his era in Rome, Ravenna, Orvieto, and Florence twice.”  Vlad will incorporate much of his experiences and newfound knowledge into his ninth grade Western Civilization class.  He also plans to present a summary of his trip to the BFS faculty later this year and discuss Dante’s relevance to modern life.  “It’s the best self-help book out there,” he insists.  “His discussion of Purgatory, what you need to do to improve your life, and the importance of collective responsibility, are all in there.”