New NEH Institute Helps Teachers Re-imagine “Monsters and Heroines”

New NEH Institute Helps Teachers Re-imagine “Monsters and Heroines”

This summer, thanks to a $173,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, two U of A faculty hosted a two-week institute focused on helping K-12 teachers teach their students about how literature is adapted over time.

The institute, titled “Remaking Monsters and Heroines: Adapting Classic Literature for Contemporary Audiences,” was developed and directed by Sean Connors, associate professor of English Education in the College of Education and Health Professions, and Lissette Szwydky-Davis, assistant professor of English in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. Erin Daugherty, a doctoral student in the English department, served as the Program Manager and Hung Pham, Director for the Center for Children & Youth in the College of Education and Health Professions, served as the Arts Integration Specialist.

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the institute focused on it and Cinderella, looking at adaptations of these stories in film, drama, young adult fiction, children’s picture books and graphic novels.

Thirty-six teachers (out of an applicant pool of over 100) were chosen to participate in the institute. Szwydky-Davis said they were chosen to represent a diverse range of regions and types of schools. The participants teach a variety of subjects, including art, foreign languages, music and history, as well as English and literature. “More than anything, we were looking for a commitment to student engagement,” she said.

Participants were given a wide range of opportunities to investigate both theoretical considerations of literary adaptation, as well as hands-on workshops on things like theatrical techniques, storyboarding and digital design. At the end of the institute, participants were required to make their own adaptations.

The end goal was to help participants create curricula that will guide their students in creating their own adaptations using blogs, videos, podcasts, performances, illustrations and graphic art. “The focus is on an integrative arts approach,” Szwydky-Davis said. “That’s the heart of the institute, that adaptation and literacy are keys to getting people engaged with literature.”

Connors explained that that was why he and Szwydky-Davis developed this program: “As people who teach literature, we are both aware of a binary that is often drawn between high and low art,” he said. “In educational settings, this sometimes translates into canonical literature being valued while texts associated with popular culture – for example, comic books, Young Adult literature and television shows – are dismissed as frivolous entertainment.” He said that they were motivated to examine this binary more closely with school teachers, and in doing so, to invite them to consider the role that popular culture has historically played in keeping the classics alive and relevant.

The two came together to develop the program through a shared commitment to collaboration and common research interests: “Both of our work focuses on the intersection of literature and popular culture, albeit in different ways,” Connors said, “and we were motivated to learn from each other in the process of working together on the NEH Summer Institute.”

By the end of the two weeks, the participants had a wide range of multi-media projects, including a puppet show, stop-motion animation and podcasts. Projects were displayed in Mullins Library after the institute closed.

The feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive. Chris Rust, a high-school choir director from Portland, Oregon, said the program was “amazing.” Christine Tigue, a media specialist at an elementary school in Atlanta, was similarly impressed that the program “touched on everyone’s fields and interests.” Peter Saunders, a high-school English teacher from Memphis, said this had been one of the best institutes he’s attended. “The training ideas with other teachers, thinking and talking about what we’re doing, getting us to work together” were invaluable, he said.

Both Szwydky-Davis and Connors said they are excited about the collaboration between Fulbright College and the College of Education and Health Professions, and that they hope that this NEH-funded institute will mark the beginning of additional interdisciplinary research and teaching opportunities.


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