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‘Forever Wild’ Program Builds Community, Prestige

‘Forever Wild’ Program Builds Community, Prestige


U.S. history teacher Sandy Morse believes there’s a summer workshop tucked away in the Adirondack wilderness that should be high on every educator’s bucket list, regardless of his or her main content discipline. It’s a transformative weeklong getaway created by two SUNY Cortland history professors, one that continues to earn recognition from the U.S. government’s premier agency for programs in the humanities.

“Forever Wild: The Adirondacks in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era” again has earned grant funding totaling $180,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to bring two groups of highly qualified teachers to the College’s facility at Raquette Lake this summer.

The unique Landmark NEH program, which will take place for the third time in 2016, uses SUNY Cortland’s outdoor campus in the Adirondack Mountains as the backdrop to give working teachers a fresh look at a historical period that’s often taught from an urban perspective.

“It’s so much more than going to a conference and listening to different lectures about the same topic,” said Morse, who teaches Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It’s about being immersed in this amazing outdoor experience.”

Teachers like Morse who are accepted to the program receive a $1,200 stipend to defray costs associated with participation, such as travel and books. They are part of an engaged group that welcomes educators from across the country. Past participants have come from Alaska, Florida, Wyoming and several other states. They represent all grade levels from elementary to high school as well as various disciplines within the humanities, including history, English and art. Librarians also have attended the workshop.

The common bond that unifies them is a desire to use the concept of “place” as a historical lens. In the case of “Forever Wild,” the Adirondacks demonstrate how the wilderness shaped American history from the 1870s to the early 1920s. Camp Huntington at the College’s William H. Parks Family Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education hosts the attendees. It remains the only national historic landmark in the State University of New York system.

“Most of the focus when you read about this time period in textbooks is on the city,” said Professor Randi Storch, the chair of SUNY Cortland’s History Department who built the program with Associate Professor Kevin Sheets. “But what we try to emphasize is that all of our ideas are formed because the urban lives in relationship with the wild …

“You’ve got to understand what’s happening in the Adirondacks and the places like it across the country to understand the values and the culture of the time period.”

The Gilded Age sometimes can come off as a caricature of itself, she said. To understand the popular industrial titans of the time period, it’s worthwhile to tour their Great Camps — or luxurious wilderness retreats — as “Forever Wild” participants do. Teachers also pay a visit to the renowned Adirondack Museum and take in a majestic seaplane ride, among countless other activities.

Offerings within the NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture: Workshops for School Teachers Education Program provide rich historical content, but few can match the power of place found in SUNY Cortland’s Parks Family Outdoor Center at Raquette Lake. “Forever Wild” finds its unique strength in the outdoor experience that creates a community feel among participants, Storch said. 

Teachers not only learn from authoritative scholars and visit important national historic sites, but they live the wilderness lifestyle for a week — sleeping in cabins, enjoying family-style meals and discussing assigned readings around campfires.

“We’re creating this professional community, and that’s the best part,” Storch said. “You have these teachers who are so smart, creative and fun … and they’re taking the ideas that you’ve thought so much about and running with them in ways you didn’t necessarily anticipate.

“Listening to them talk to one another and seeing the networks they create is by far the most rewarding part.”

The NEH took notice of the “Forever Wild” program’s success after its first two runs and asked its co-founders to present at a national directors meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this year — holding up the pair’s work as a model. Morse and other past participants credit everything from the week’s punctual planning to the relevance of big-picture ideas they can take back to the classroom.

“My students in Arizona, many of them have never seen trees like that,” said Morse, noting that the workshop undoubtedly will improve the way she teaches history as it relates to the environment. “To be able to capture video on an iPad (during the seaplane ride) and then bring it back to my students was pretty cool.”

Teachers again will learn from visiting scholars Rebecca Edwards, a history professor from Vassar College; Philip Terrie, professor emeritus at Bowling Green University; and Scott Moranda, a SUNY Cortland associate professor of history who will discuss the international dimension of the Gilded Age story.

The week also will continue to include a technological component, with participants using iPads to create basic documentaries on their studies. Throughout the week, they will collect photos and videos then use iMovie to pull all of their theme-based work together. Morse said she grew more comfortable with technology during the workshop, which was another unexpected perk she brought back to the classroom.

A major goal remains building an even more diverse group of teachers — both geographically and ethnically. Up to 36 people will be accepted in each of the two cohorts. All of them will receive the $1,200 stipend at the end of the week’s program, less $355 for the week’s all-inclusive room and board at Camp Huntington.

Yet far more valuable than the financial award is the experience that the “Forever Wild” program affords.

“This is all about learning what it means to be inquiry- and place-based,” Storch said. “It’s something we try to do as a History Department with our own students: come to an understanding based on dialogue and readings and questioning and conversations.

“The passion that comes with it reminds you why you’re in this field in the first place. To be surrounded by that energy for two weeks in the Adirondacks is just awesome.”

Interested participants can learn more about “Forever Wild,” including the application process and full itinerary, on the program’s web page or through its social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter.