This July seventy-two teachers from across the country will spend their summer break in a classroom six-million acres wide thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
“Forever Wild,” a week-long immersive experience for K-12 educators, reveals the historical importance of the Adirondack wilderness during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, including how Americans from bustling cities made use of the natural landscape during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The program, one of NEH’s Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshops, relies on SUNY Cortland’s William H. Parks Family Center for Environmental and Outdoor Education in Raquette Lake, as a central teaching tool.
“This is a great honor for the College,” Professor Randi Storch said in a statement to the press. Storch is a project director along with Professor Kevin Sheets. “We’ve noticed that these programs have grown a lot more competitive for funding, so this just shows that our institution is out there doing interesting work, connecting to teachers and our larger community,” Storch said.
The project extends the relationship between SUNY Cortland’s History Department and the NEH. Since 2012, variations of the “Forever Wild” program have earned more than $900,000 from five NEH grants. An award of $165,198 will fund two weeks of the program in summer 2019.
Full- and part-time teachers in the humanities, as well as librarians, are encouraged to apply for the program, which takes place from mid- to late-July. Two groups of 36 teachers will be selected, and each will spend a day in Cortland before traveling to the Adirondacks for a week-long stay. Participants receive a $1,200 stipend to help pay for their travel to Cortland and modest lodging expenses during the week. More information on the program can be found online.
According to the program’s directors, the goal is to introduce teachers to the relationship between the urban and wilderness environments during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, periods that cover the 1870s to the early 1920s. In many social studies classrooms, lessons on those years mostly concern the rise of the industrial city. But the importance of the wilderness, especially the Adirondacks, to business, cultural expression and leisure should not be overlooked, they say.
“You need the wilderness to have the idea of the urban, and you need the urban to have the idea of the wilderness, especially when we’re talking about cultural constructs,” Storch said. “The two are very much interconnected and codependent.”
The “Forever Wild” experience was transformative in several ways according to Caitlin Goodwin, a middle-school social studies teacher in the McGraw (N.Y.) Central School District. She joined the inaugural cohort of teachers in 2013, early in her teaching career.
Prior to the trip, classroom discussions about the Adirondack wilderness were limited to former President Theodore Roosevelt and his preservation efforts. But after “Forever Wild,” Goodwin said she reworked her narrative, teaching students the city and wilderness were part of the same Gilded Age and Progressive Era story.
The “Forever Wild” program’s first day takes place in Cortland so that participants can set the scene from a local urban perspective. Then, the group travels three hours north and stays at SUNY Cortland’s Camp Huntington, which was built by William West Durant as Camp Pine Knot — considered the first Great Camp of the Adirondacks — and later sold to railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington.
During their retreat, participants examine primary source documents at the Adirondack Experience on Blue Mountain Lake. Educators also learn from guest lecturers, including Philip Terrie, author of the recently published Seeing the Forest: Reviews, Musings, and Opinions from an Adirondack Historian, Rebecca Edwards (Vassar College), and Scott Manning Stevens (Syracuse University) who are expected to explain the Native American experience during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Teachers also spend a day exploring neighboring camps Sagamore and Uncas, owned by the Vanderbilts and the Morgans, respectively. Participants also take a seaplane ride to help visualize the vast extent of the Adirondacks.
The program directors say the “Forever Wild” program represents a larger effort across SUNY Cortland’s History Department to convey the historical importance of the College’s outdoor education facilities to students, alumni and the public at large. History majors, for instance, can take a one-credit experiential learning course that involves a weekend retreat to the Adirondacks, where they learn about the importance of Camp Huntington, historical thinking skills and elements of place-based learning.
“We use Raquette Lake as a place where our students can think about public history as a potential career path,” Storch said. “All of it is very much connected to the work we do with ‘Forever Wild’ and the NEH.”
Photo: Kristen Holmes, an eighth grade social studies teacher from Prairie Village, Kansas celebrates after having taken a sea plane ride over Raquette Lake (provided).