North Hills teachers attend American history seminars
While most teachers use summer break to recharge and prepare for the new school year, Larry Dorenkamp and Joe Welch — eighth-grade history teachers at North Hills Middle School — used the time to immerse themselves in American history.
Dorenkamp, 44, of Ross, and Welch, 31, of Scott, each attended a weeklong seminar over the summer through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a New York City-based nonprofit organization started in 1994 that allows member schools to gain access to 60,000 primary source documents throughout history.
North Hills Middle School is the only middle school in Allegheny County to be an affiliate school of Gilder Lehrman.
Dorenkamp attended a program titled “Era of George Washington” and lived in Washington's Mt. Vernon estate in Virginia for one week.
During his stay at Mt. Vernon, Dorenkamp heard lectures by Gordon S. Wood, a professor of history emeritus from Brown University in Rhode Island and a 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner for his book “The Radicalism of the American Revolution.”
Each day, the teachers toured the grounds and regrouped at the end of the day to gain different perspectives on what they learned.
“When we would eat dinners or even in the evening, we would just talk about the things that we learned that day and how different people from different parts of the country can interpret what (Wood) was talking about,” Dorenkamp said.
Being able to gain different viewpoints while living at the historic site really helped the group of 20 teachers gain a better understanding of the first president, Dorenkamp said.
“It was a good give and take. We had a good sense of camaraderie that you establish with people,” he said. “It led itself to good dialogue each day.”
Dorenkamp previously had the opportunity to live in Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's estate in Charlottesville, Va., through The Barringer Research Fellowship for Teachers of American History.
He said he had such a positive experience, “I started going online looking for other things like it, and I came across Gilder Lehrman and then ... I was talking to Joe about it and started using it for resources and came across their summer seminars,' Dorenkamp said.
Gilder Lehrman paid for the seminars and $400 worth of travel expenses.
Welch took part in a program called “American Origins: 1492 to 1625,” at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“This really opened up my eyes in terms of looking at the Spanish influence in the real world, the Native American influence, what happened before the English settlers came here,” Welch said about the program he attended.
During the program, Welch visited Mission San Gabriel and The Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.
At the library, he had access to a 13th-century copy of the Magna Carta and even had an opportunity to hold James Madison's draft of the Constitution.
“It really fulfilled my need to learn about something new, something I was uncomfortable with,” Welch said.
Both teachers said they had great experiences at the seminars and plan to apply for next summer as soon as those are announced.
Dorenkamp and Welch each recalled strong instructors who led them to teaching and said they try to make an impact on students.
“I think more than anything, the key thing is passion. If they see that ‘Hey, this teacher cares about learning history; they're passionate about it,' they feed off that,” Welch said.
And, he added: “They see that you're interested in it, and they take a greater interest in it.”
Kyle Gorcey is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.