Eric Shed, PhD’13, had taught history for several years in the New York City public schools, and had earned a master’s degree in education so he could help to prepare new teachers for the profession. While widely recognized as a stellar teacher, he remained frustrated by a particular challenge: “How do you reach struggling students for whom history doesn’t come alive through text?” he asked.
A friend recommended a book — Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts by Stanford professor of education Sam Wineburg — and the rest is history, or rather the advanced study of how to teach it. Shed left New York for Stanford, had Wineburg as his advisor, and wrote his dissertation on new ways that film and other forms of media can be used to enhance learning, particularly in poor-performing students who find textbooks alienating.
Now Shed is putting his teaching expertise to work as director of an innovative teacher education program for Harvard undergraduates, which welcomed its first 20 students in January. Its objective is to train them to teach in struggling urban secondary schools.
Wineburg, Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford, applauded Harvard’s decision to hire Shed to lead the new Harvard Teaching Fellows (HTF) program. “Simply put, he is the finest teacher I have ever watched during my 23 years in the professorate,” Wineburg said.
In addition to Shed, another Stanford alum, Stephen Mahoney, who received a master’s in education from the GSE in 1994, is serving as HTF’s associate director. “Eric and Steve will make an outstanding leadership team,” said James Ryan, dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education, in announcing their hiring last year.
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Shed, 39, is the youngest of four children of a father who was a psychologist and mother who worked in human resources. He grew up in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1970s and ‘80s, and graduated from Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s nine academically selective high schools.
He went on to Wesleyan University to study history. He said it was during his undergraduate years that he performed hip hop and other types of spoken word in New York City and Middletown, Ct.
That was also when he first dipped into teaching by tutoring high school students as part of a “commitment to give back to my community.”
“I always liked ideas and intellectual work and engaging people in different ways with different ideas, but it was during my time tutoring at the middle- and high-school level that I began to think about teaching as a profession,” Shed said.
His first job out of college was as a history and humanities teacher in New York City. “I had no real experience,” he said. “I had never been challenged in this way before.”
“Teaching itself is hard, but I was also teaching in the South Bronx, where the kids were sweethearts but also tough, with tough issues,” he added.
He enrolled at New York University and earned a master’s degree in education from NYU in 2003 so that he could teach teaching. Still, he wanted to learn more, especially about making history more accessible to students who could not relate to it. After reading Wineburg’s book, he was particularly struck by the Stanford education professor’s ideas about cultural curriculum and the role of media such as movies.
Shed said that he was fortunate not only to study under Wineburg at Stanford but also to work with him teaching masters’ students in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP).
For his first two years in STEP, Shed ran a class under Wineburg’s direction, and then the next two years they co-taught a course for future history teachers. “Sam is ridiculously smart and a great communicator,” Shed said. “He had years of annotated lesson plans that he referred to, and in his debriefs after every class he was able to give constructive feedback.
Wineburg encouraged Shed to experiment and fine-tune new strategies for teaching the subject.
In an email, Wineburg recently recalled Shed’s lesson about the Massachusetts 54th, a Black regiment in the Civil War which was the subject of the film Glory! Shed started the class by distributing a series of primary sources, including a letter to President Abraham Lincoln by a veteran of the 54th who protested the lower pay received by Blacks. Shed let the students struggle with the letter’s antiquated vocabulary (e.g., “Let the rich mold around Wagner’s parapets be upturned”). He then screened a clip from Glory! Afterward students returned to the documents ready to engage with them on a deeper level. Now they could made sense of the letter.
“Eric demonstrated how the strategic use of film can open up vistas of empathy with the past that are difficult to achieve using written texts alone,” Wineburg said.
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Shed is now guiding the inaugural HTF’s cohort through the program’s first class — Introduction to Teaching and Learning in Schools — and the students will do intensive education field work over the summer. By next September, the students will be placed in traditional public secondary schools and charter schools in select cities across the nation. They will be teaching a half-day (two to three classes), and in the rest of the day, they will receive guidance and coaching from mentors at their schools, as well as from Shed and other HTF faculty.
“New teachers have very little time to process, and it is very hard not to drown in work,” said Shed, explaining the importance of giving teaching candidates space to learn. “The half-time off also allows room to get to know schools and students in authentic ways.”
The program is free, plus a stipend, for the Harvard seniors who are selected, and in total, it provides 20 months of training — a mix of instruction in pedagogy and mentored classroom practice in urban secondary schools.
“We believe that thoughtfully blending the academic with in-field work is essential,” Shed said.
As Shed leads the program, he continues to draw upon his experiences at Stanford. “Sam was a great advisor,” Shed said. “He made classes safe places for all students, regardless of gender, politics or anything.” He said that he thinks about these and other lessons as he directs the new fellowship. He added, “We are fashioning a wonderful program here, thinking really smartly about diversity in recruiting and retention and trying to create a new model for what teacher education can be.”
Shed describes the program as pioneering and groundbreaking. Certainly one of the things that sets the fellowship apart is having Shed at the helm.
“Harvard couldn’t do better for a director than Eric,” said Wineburg.
Joyce Gemperlein, a freelance writer in the Bay Area and a former Knight Fellow at Stanford, is a contributor to the Educator, the online newsletter of Stanford Graduate School of Education. Please read our previous issues and subscribe.