Most teenagers would have a hard time pronouncing Antonin Dvorak's name, but the composer may be their key to a better understanding of America.
Twenty-five teachers from around the country are gathered in Pittsburgh this month for "Dvorak in America," a program that uses his story and music to teach 20th-century American history. The program, which began Monday and ends July 30, is a teacher-training institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and hosted by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the University of Pittsburgh. The participants -- third- through 12th-grade educators whose subject areas include music, social studies, literature, curriculum development and school libraries -- will be guided through the program by its creator, musical consultant and renowned author Joseph Horowitz. He worries that classical music is no longer a fixture in American life.
"I think we're in an emergency movement," Mr. Horowitz said. "If we don't expose young people to the arts in school, they're likely to remain unexposed."
His program teaches the story of Dvorak, a Czech composer who spent three years in America creating his seminal Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," as a way to inspire Americans to create a musical style of their own. Dvorak's symphony presents Native American, European and African-American sounds in an American style, which teachers can use to help students examine those cultures in the context of the turn of the 20th century.
"Culture helps us understand ourselves either individually or nationally," Mr. Horowitz said. "The story of Dvorak in America is a case study in the uses of culture."
In the 1990s, when he was running the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Dvorak's symphony was turning a century old, Mr. Horowitz wanted to find a novel way to present the piece.
"Dvorak supplies a vertical slice of history so you can look at the late 19th century and pay attention to things other than who was president or how the economy was," he said. "This is crucial."
In 2003, he published "Dvorak in America: In Search of the New World," an illustrated book for middle- and high-school readers that tells Dvorak's story through historical fiction. The book, along with an interactive DVD created by University of California, Los Angeles, music professor Robert Winter, was implemented at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J.
Jay Gavitt, then the school's social studies chair, had worked with Mr. Horowitz in the past and saw "Dvorak in America" as a way to explore Native American, African-American and European culture with his school's students.
"It ties the three groups together," Mr. Gavitt said. "That's something we're constantly trying to do in American history today."
Mr. Gavitt said his students raved about the program, during which they heard from guest speakers and researched individual projects. He called it a "marvelous" entry into the 20th century. He became principal of Shepard High School in Morristown, N.J., about seven years ago, and he said the program is now thriving there.
At this month's teacher-training institute, educators will spend the first two weeks learning about the material through guest speakers and performers and historical tours. Pianist Steven Mayer will play a free public concert, "The Black Virtuoso Tradition," on Friday at 8 p.m. in the Bellefield Hall Auditorium, 315 S. Bellefield Ave., Oakland.
During the third week, participants will present curricula based on what they learned during the institute. The course plans will be posted online for others to see and implement in classrooms around the country.
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra president and CEO Lawrence Tamburri said "Dvorak in America" is part of a bigger picture -- restoring creativity in a time when arts education takes a back seat to standardized test preparation.
"We need to find every way possible to be involved in the education of children," Mr. Tamburri said. "Once people get involved, they get deeper and deeper into it. It's only going to help."
An overview of the institute is available at the symphony website, www.pittsburghsymphony.org, where the curriculum projects will also be posted.
Emily Fuggetta: email@example.com or 412-263-4903.