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Cullman Center Institute for Teachers Past Programs


The Cullman Center Institute for Teachers offers two distinct programs for professional development that give teachers an opportunity to enrich their understanding of history and literature and to learn about doing research in one of the world's great libraries. The Institute is located in The New York Public Library's landmark building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. Listed below are some of our past seminars.

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Carlos Dada

Writing about Victims: A Journalism Workshop with Carlos Dada

Monday, July 27, 2015, 9 a.m.
Reporting on victims is a fraught and troubling process. To what extent does “serving the public interest” justify examining people’s pain and writing about their lives? How does the journalist come to terms with work that, at every step in the process, may have consequences for the subject -- and for the journalist? And what about the perpetrators of abuse and atrocities? Do they deserve the microphone the journalist offers them? We will examine these delicate issues through articles, books, and documentaries about victims in different parts of the world, including El Salvador, Rwanda, Read More ›
Peter Holquist

Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Its Historical Context with Peter Holquist

Monday, July 20, 2015, 9 a.m.
War and Peace is widely considered one of the greatest achievements in world literature, although Tolstoy himself insisted it was not a novel. Part family romance, part historical epic, part polemic on the nature of history, its sprawling narrative takes place during the events of the French Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815.) This seminar will consider the book’s historical context as well as its literary qualities. How does the novel help us to understand this momentous era? How does history help us to understand this great novel? Participants will be asked to read and make Read More ›
Ayana Mathis

Deconstructing Voice: A Creative Writing Workshop with Ayana Mathis

Monday, July 13, 2015, 9 a.m.
New writers are urged (relentlessly) to "find their voices"-- a frustrating bit of advice if ever there was one. Voice is among the most elusive of terms. What is it, exactly? Of what does it consist? How does one go about developing it? Certainly voice includes style, but that is so unique and organic to each writer that it only further confuses the issue. In this workshop we will dismantle voice into practical elements: narration (point of view), character development, dialogue, and finally, the sentence. To aid in this dismantling, we will examine writing by Julio Cortázar, Edward P. Read More ›

Finding a Voice: A Creative Writing Workshop with Jordi Puntí

Tuesday, April 28, 2015, 9 a.m.
The German comedian Karl Valentin famously remarked, “Everything has already been said, but not yet by everyone.” New writers too often imitate or over-reach, as they search for a balance between tradition and a way of writing that is fresh and personal. Finding a “voice,” a distinctive means of expression, is a major achievement, but with each new project, the search begins again. In this workshop, we will consider “voice” in a number of writers – George Saunders, Junot Diaz, Alice Munro, Alberto Bolaño – and explore techniques to help participants find their own.Read More ›

Time Travel: Writing Memory and the Past with Ayana Mathis

Friday, April 24, 2015, 9 a.m.
Backstory has become a dirty word in fiction workshops. At best it's something to be gotten out of the way quickly; at worst it's considered a serious drag on the prose. But this workshop explores backstory as a rich and essential tool. We will examine short fiction by Mavis Gallant, James Salter, and others to see how these writers successfully use memory and the past. Participants will be given brief writing exercises.Read More ›

Gang Warfare in Central America with Carlos Dada

Friday, April 10, 2015, 9 a.m.
El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world. This seminar will explore connections among the following events: El Salvador’s civil war between 1980 and 1992; the wartime exodus of families to California; young boys joining gangs in Los Angeles; U.S. deportation of gang members back to El Salvador; the beginning of violent gang warfare in El Salvador. The seminar will examine photographs, videos, and reportage to explore the causes of this violence and its tragic consequences, particularly for children who fled their native countries last summer seeking haven in the Read More ›

King Lear: Catastrophe as a Metaphor with Gerard Passannante

Monday, April 6, 2015, 9 a.m.
In the opening scene of King Lear, Lear asks his youngest daughter what she would add to her sisters’ professions of love for him. Cordelia responds, “Nothing.” What follows from this seemingly innocent statement is a shocking display of cruelty. Lear’s “dragon,” as he calls it, is unleashed, and Cordelia is banished. Why was Lear so upset? William Hazlitt compared Lear’s state of mind to a “solid promontory pushed from its basis by the force of an earthquake.” This seminar considers the role of natural catastrophe in framing questions about human agency and knowledge. We Read More ›

Using Art to Study History: Medieval Europe with Sara Lipton

Friday, March 27, 2015, 9 a.m.
History is typically studied through texts, yet for much of human history the majority of people could not read or write. Recognizing this effective illiteracy, and spurred by the “image explosion” brought on by technological change in the 20th-21st centuries, historians have begun to turn to visual images and material objects to learn about the past. In this seminar we will explore one of the most image-oriented of all historical periods – medieval Europe – through the lens of its artworks. We’ll look at a range of medieval images and objects, and will discuss how to extract Read More ›

Drop Dead: The Fiscal Crisis of 1975 and the Transformation of New York City with Kim Phillips-Fein

Friday, March 13, 2015, 9 a.m.
In 1975, the largest city in the United States nearly declared bankruptcy. The financial collapse of New York—the home of Wall Street—raised large political questions. Could its economic problems be fixed? Were its generous public services possible in a recession? Was its postwar liberalism tenable? The fiscal crisis led to budget cuts that affected most of the city’s public institutions and set off a wave of protests. Although protesters sometimes successfully shaped how the cuts happened, they couldn’t resist larger changes as the city became increasingly oriented toward private Read More ›

A New Perspective on the Declaration of Independence with Steven Pincus

Tuesday, March 3, 2015, 9 a.m.
Why was it that the outbreak of the American Revolution and the creation of British India were simultaneous events involving many of the same people? What happens if we think about American independence not as the pivotal moment in American history but as part of a global imperial struggle involving not just the British Empire but the Spanish and French Empires as well? This seminar considers the Declaration of Independence and other key historical documents from this imperial perspective. Read More ›

Two Ways of Looking at Elizabeth Bishop with Megan Marshall and Kenneth Gross

Thursday, February 26, 2015, 9 a.m.
Elizabeth Bishop was a great poet of memory. She mined her childhood experience in prose, wrote poems from a child’s perspective, and, in retrospective narrative verse, established herself as the Wordsworth of her age. In this seminar, the biographer Megan Marshall and the literary critic Kenneth Gross will combine biographical explication and close reading of texts to explore Bishop’s youth—a period of radical dislocation and loss as well as of self-discovery—and the ways in which Bishop transformed her life into poetry. Read More ›

The First Person: A Creative Writing Workshop with Justin Torres

Friday, February 20, 2015, 9 a.m.
In this workshop, we will examine voice and structure in first-person narratives by Donald Barthelme, Stuart Dybek, Carolyn Ferrell, Janet Frame, Amy Hempel, and Grace Paley. We will consider the difference between the often nostalgic and sometimes unreliable “I” voice that narrates events, and the active, embodied “I” who is a character in the story itself. We'll also see how associative thinking and structural fragmentation affect our understanding of voice and character. Participants will then attempt to write their own nostalgic, fragmented, wild first person narratives.Read More ›

Made in America: Viewing our Built Environments as Primary Documents with Elizabeth Blackmar

Monday, July 28, 2014, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
The homes and buildings in which we live and work, the parks and places in which we shop and play, and all the roads and byways in between, tell the story of our past. In this seminar we will treat America’s built environments as primary documents that reveal our social history from the 19th century to the present. Among the questions to be considered: How did the 19th century factory influence the design of contemporary kitchens? What does Central Park tell us about America’s evolving notion of “play?” How is the A train connected to segregation? We will read essays by the great Read More ›

Making the Supernatural Real: A Creative Writing Workshop in Fiction with Téa Obreht

Monday, July 21, 2014, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
In this workshop, we will examine some basic techniques of storytelling. Using a wide range of texts, from folktales to Flannery O’Connor, Poe to Kelly Link, Gabriel García Márquez to Karen Russell, we will explore how the bizarre, the mythical, and the supernatural work in a fictional narrative. Daily writing exercises will help each participant compose a short piece of fiction, which will be discussed at the end of the week in a marathon workshop.Read More ›

Slow Looking: A Nonfiction Writing Workshop with Graciela Mochkofsky

Monday, July 14, 2014, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
In this workshop, participants will exercise their observational skills in order to write descriptive nonfiction. To sharpen our senses, we will study examples of great descriptive writing from authors such as Ryszard Kapuściński, John McPhee, Janet Malcolm, Emmanuel Carrère, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Joseph Mitchell, Gitta Sereny, and Elif Batuman. Participants will go out into New York to do their own observing and recording, and then write descriptions of increasing complexity, starting with a single object, moving on to a person, a situation, and finally a scene with multiple Read More ›

Inventing Your Voice: A Creative Writing Workshop

Monday, July 29, 2013, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.


JOHN WRAY, Instructor

'Finding your voice' is one of the most daunting challenges confronting any aspiring writer, largely because 'voice' is not so much found as invented. A distinctive, articulate, seductive voice is essential to fiction and non-fiction alike, but each novel or short story or essay has a specific voice—or group of voices—that suit and serve it best. Over the course of our week, we'll dip into the works of some of the great virtuosi of voice, such as Virginia Read More ›

Political Cinema and the “Other”

Monday, July 22, 2013, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.


SHIMON DOTAN, Instructor

Representations of the “other” are central to identity. In times of political conflict, our constructs of the “other” become rallying cries. This seminar is designed for teachers interested in contemporary politics, history, filmmaking, and film criticism. We will ask: How do filmmakers fight against or reinforce prevailing representations of an enemy? We will also investigate how the “other” is Read More ›

Drawing 101

Monday, July 15, 2013, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.


GARY PANTER, Instructor

This class is designed for beginners, but artists at any skill level are welcome to apply. Our primary focus will be on learning how to draw in a sketchbook. Through simple exercises, we will break down the barrier separating non-drawers from drawers. Each day's draughting will be supplemented with lectures on a variety of topics, such as the history of comics and drawing; 

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Memoir: Turning Your Life into a Story

Friday, March 29, 2013, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.

This seminar is during spring break


How exactly do you take those raw, unwieldy—often embarrassing—personal experiences (also known as your life) and fashion a compelling narrative? By studying the various strategies that established writers such as Tobias Wolff and A. M. Homes have employed in writing memoir, we will explore the genre in relation to traditional storytelling—character, plot, arc, and resolution. And we’ll ask the essential question: does 

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Drawing for Beginners

Monday, March 25, 2013, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.

This seminar is during spring break

GARY PANTER, Instructor

Starting a sketchbook can seem intimidating. This workshop will address the activity of regularly drawing in a sketchbook. People at any skill level will benefit from this workshop, but it is aimed at those who don’t draw but would like to. Participants will do easy, satisfying exercises designed for the beginner. Bring in a favorite poem or two — at the end of the workshop you’ll draw illustrations for the poems.

Gary Panter is a painter, 

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Anatomy of a Film: The Battle of Algiers

Thursday, March 7, 2013, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.

 SHIMON DOTAN, Instructor

This seminar, helpful for global history teachers as well as any teacher who uses film in the classroom, looks closely at one of the most influential political films in history. The Battle of Algiers (1966), by Gillo Pontecorvo, recreates the Algerian struggle for independence from the French in the 1950s. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range, women plant bombs in cafés, and French soldiers resort to torture to break the will of the insurgents. The film is a case study in 

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Camels, Rhinos, and Armadillos: Picturing the World in the Age of Discoveries

Wednesday, February 27, 2013, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.


How did Europeans make sense of the expanding globe in the Age of Discoveries? This seminar explores the impact of the printing revolution on Europeans’ perceptions of America, Africa, and Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We will examine how, in the absence of first-hand evidence, Europeans attempted to make sense of the contradictory accounts of travelers. And we will look at early maps, broadsheets, paintings, and printed texts to see how a highly stereotypical 

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The Writer and the Editor

Monday, February 11, 2013, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.


This seminar, of interest to economics, social studies, and English teachers, presents a case study of the editing of a feature article in The New York Times Magazine. Before the seminar, participants will read both the first draft and the final version of the article, a profile by Stephen Mihm about the economist, Nouriel Roubini. During the morning seminar, the group will discuss why the piece was assigned, what the reporting challenges were, and how the writer and editor worked 

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Liberating Constraints: A Creative Writing Workshop Image Liberating Constraints: A Creative Writing Workshop

Liberating Constraints: A Creative Writing Workshop

Monday, July 30, 2012, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.



Shakespeare wrote soliloquies in iambic pentameter; Freud composed some of the 20th century’s best writing in the form of medical case histories; Elvis turned gospel into rock ’n roll; and Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham on a bet that he could write a book using just fifty different words. A narrow passage allows the wind to whistle-- at least sometimes! We’ll read texts by Kobo Abe, Roberto Bolaño, Anthony Burgess, and others, 

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Writing Food: A Writing Workshop in Creative Non-Fiction Image Writing Food: A Writing Workshop in Creative Non-Fiction

Writing Food: A Writing Workshop in Creative Non-Fiction

Monday, July 23, 2012, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.



A wide range of literary genres is open to writers who are deeply curious about food and who find it a peerless– in fact, irresistible – window onto history, experience, and character. This seminar will be held in conjunction with “Lunch Hour: NYC,” a major exhibition of food-related items from the Library’s collections, and will examine the work of such influential culinary storytellers as MFK Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, and Laurie 

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