Teachers get chance to learn more about Lincoln

Pete Sherman

Roughly 50 American history teachers from around the country are converging on Springfield for an intense crash-course on Abraham Lincoln.

Two competitive weeklong fellowships, underwritten by Horace Mann Educators Corp., are offered each year, one in June and one this week that runs through Saturday. Elementary and high school teachers sit in on lectures by Lincoln experts, take tours led by curators, archaeologists and historians and work together to develop lessons plans for their classrooms.

“This is a fantastic program,” said Brian Rainville, a high school teacher from rural Vermont and a member of the June cohort. “We could not do this on our own and have this level of access, with tours led by curators and museum directors. You don’t get that off the street.”

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library hosts the annual program and tries to select at least one teacher from every state.

Such summer history fellowships are routinely offered to teachers. For some, the Springfield program is one of a few such trips they’ll make this summer. June’s Illinois fellowship winner, Flanagan High School teacher Beverly Hart, spent part of last summer studying at Oxford University.

For such teachers, the challenge is finding workshops with enough depth and professional camaraderie to make the time worthwhile.

“I do this kind of stuff all the time,” said Robert May, a high school history teacher from Flint, Mich. “I’m used to being pampered. There also are (seminars) when I’ll say, ‘Been there, done that.’ But when I came here, there’s a level of excellence I see happening.”

May was among 27 teachers from 24 states who attended the first week, June 23-27. During one session that week — on Lincoln, slavery and race — May sat with Rainville. The two discussed how they researched Lincoln before coming to Springfield. They got in touch with each other, too, before arriving.

“These are diehards,” Rainville said of the teachers in the room. “These are advanced learners.”

“These workshops push our status up,” May said. “When you stand in front of your students, they know I know what I’m talking about. These kinds of experiences lend us credibility.”

Both Rainville and May said they rely on their own research and knowledge to teach history. Textbooks are secondary resources, if used at all, they said.

“First-hand knowledge is irreplaceable,” Rainville said.

At the presidential library, fellowship teachers in June analyzed primary sources, including photographs, slave auction receipts and Lincoln’s own letters. Rainville saw a daguerreotype of a young Lincoln he had never seen before. The photograph is often noted for revealing Lincoln’s muscular hands.

“When I go back to my kids and show them this daguerreotype of Lincoln with these huge hands, they’re immediately going to identify with him,” Rainville said of his students, many of whom live on farms.

The teachers also practiced academic exercises, separating into different viewpoints to argue a subject. 

During the slavery workshop, it was obvious some teachers came prepared. An informal discussion about Lincoln’s evolving views of race led to a debate about the differences in the slave cultures of Illinois, South Carolina and Maryland and the inconvenient fact that blacks also owned slaves in some states.

Introducing the session, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum education director Erin Bishop asked the teachers whether race and slavery are too often compartmentalized in the typical curriculum.

“Do we relegate the topic to one unit, to one month out of the year?” Bishop asked.

“The textbooks do,” answered Genein Jefferson, a teacher from Canoga Park, Calif.

Pete Sherman can be reached at (217) 788-1539 or

On the Web: To learn more about the Lincoln Presidential Library-Horace Mann fellowship program, visit