As a high school ELA teacher, finding the right books for my students is not only an essential part of effective instruction, but it’s critical in building good classroom culture and growing good people. I want to make sure that my classroom library and my syllabus reflect the rich diversity of my classroom population. But as a West Virginia educator, sometimes this is hard. In the last few years there has been an explosion of YA lit that features a myriad of diverse characters, races, and voices. But there seems to be a void in YA literature when it comes reflecting the unique stories of the young people of Appalachia. This past year’s NCTE Convention was themed around advocacy, and the opening panel featured several YA authors who write books that primarily feature protagonists from marginalized groups. The panel was incredible and moved me to tears, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but think, “Where is the representation for our young people in Appalachia? There is a whole group of young people who feel marginalized and who are not represented on this stage.”
More recently I attended and presented at the 40th annual Appalachian Studies Conference in Blacksburg, Va with a 13 of my Advanced Placement Language and Composition students. You can read about the incredible panel presentation we put together on this blog next week.
Before our presentation, my students and I were invited to participate in a round table discussion about youth and activism in Appalachia alongside award winning author, Robert Gipe. It was here that I was first introduced to his incredible book, Trampoline.
Trampoline is the story of 15 year old Dawn, who becomes immersed in her grandmother’s controversial fight against mountain top removal in their east Kentucky community. During our round table presentation together, the more Robert talked about Trampoline, the more I began to realize that this just may be the type of book many of our young people in Appalachia are looking for. I left the session, went straight to the convention hall and bought a copy of Trampoline. I spend the following Tuesday happily snowed in curled around this gritty, beautiful, heart-wrenching book.
As a teaching resource, Trampoline is rich with material. An illustrated novel, Gipe uses his stark black and white illustrations to provide us with further insight into the protagonist in much the same way Sherman Alexie uses Junior’s cartoons in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
The similarities don’t end there. Just as Junior is forced to leave his reservation to save himself and becomes viewed as a “traitor” by most of his tribe, Dawn’s stance on mountain top removal makes her pariah to many in her mountain community.
However, Gipe’s prose sets him apart from Alexie in that Dawn’s voice is as mature, as rich, as powerful, and as resonate as the mountains themselves. And while Alexie’s book is clearly written for a young adult audience, I wouldn’t necessarily classify Trampoline as YA lit.
Trampoline is 312 pages long, a bit long for a middle school or freshman audience, and contains adult language and content. It would probably be best received in upper level high school classrooms, and/or perhaps excerpted for lower grades.
But Dawn’s story itself is one that will resonate with audiences of all ages for many reasons. Her coming of age struggle in the book is a universal one, but what makes this book important is that her story is a uniquely Appalachian one. She's a character who many of our students in central and southern West Virginia will immediately recognize as themselves. She wants to escape and at the same time she doesn’t. She knows why we need coal, but she also knows what it’s doing to her world.
One of my favorite excerpts in the book is in reference to these contradictions she faces. Dawn says:
“Those coal miners who had been so good to me, who had loved me through my tree-hugging ways, needed the mountains and the woods more than any of us. They loved it here, and they had to tear it up to stay. The full hard hardness of their lot came down on me that winter night, and I knew maybe not them but other coal-mining people would be mad at me, would hate me, but after that night, I never was mad at them, not the ones who lived here with me, not the ones taking their sorrow and joy from what was left of these trees, these rocks, these rustling waters” (226).
She loves the mountains and the people in them, but they seem to be trying to destroy her. She knows the coal miners in her community love the mountains, but they are tearing it apart. Just like West Virginia and Appalachia, Dawn and her community are full of paradoxes.
Her story is gripping, heart-breaking, and raw, and Gipe’s prose and illustrations show us this story though a powerful young voice—a character unafraid to be different, to be brave, to be strong. So often in Appalachia our young people hear a single story about who they are. Dawn rejects this. Much like the mountain landscape around her, she is powerful, wild, and authentic.
I will be adding this book to my AP English 11 Summer Reading assignment this year, and I recommend every teacher in West Virginia who is struggling to find a book that your students see themselves in, check out Trampoline.
If you’re interested in using Trampoline in your classroom, you can read the first Three Acts online in the literary and art journal, Still: the Journal. Click HERE to go straight there.
And if you had been thinking that maybe it seemed like the mountains were empty of stories for and about our young people…
well, I’ll let Dawn take this one...
To celebrate this year's Black History Month, Berkeley County Schools students read and studied One Book, Kwame Alexander's The Crossover. If you don't already know Kwame Alexander or his work, you should definitely check him out. WVCTE had a chance to meet Kwame and hear him speak on NCTE '16 in Atlanta. He is an incredibly inspiring and engaging speaker, writer, and fellow human.
The Crossover is a YA novel written in verse that follows the story of a young basketball superstar named Josh, dubbed Filthy McNasty, his twin brother Jordan, their retired professional ball player dad, and their PhD vice-principal mother. Like its writer, The Crossover is inspiring and engaging, breaking stereotypes and raising important questions about family, loyalty, relationships, adolescence, and the biases we bring to our reading experiences.
To top off our Black History Month studies and celebrate our One Book, a few of us decided there was no better way to wrap up good reading than with good conversation. Because many of us are active Twitter users and consider our connections on Twitter to be meaningful PLCs, we decided to extend that opportunity to students here in Berkeley County.
The lovely Jeni Gearhart, WVCTE Executive Committee member, proposed the plan, and after a few emails, a few graphics, and a little bit of hype, the first ever Berkeley County One Book Twitter chat was born.
We decided to host a "slow chat" and release questions each hour beginning at 7:45. We asked students to ponder the writer's craft and the big ideas in the text, which made for a rich discussion.
Below are a few teacher reflections and highlights of that chat.
First of all, I am now a certified Kwame Alexander fangirl. My students had a great time writing imitation poetry, and Kwame even retweeted some of our work. Much as I loved this book, I think the best part of this learning experience was the collaborative nature of it. Being able to have conversations with other teachers and other students about the text made it more significant than just a normal, isolated learning experience. My students enjoyed the #crosschat Twitter chat because it made the conversation more authentic. The reading experience became real, rather than just another assignment. I can't wait to participate in something similar again, and I've been already mulling around new ideas of how to make this happen again!
#CrossChat was no doubt a great day of learning. All six of my classes, from AP Literature to on-grade English 10 shared in a fun and thoughtful conversation with fellow Berkeley County students.
Here's my two cents on Twitter in the classroom: It works. Twitter provides engaging and relevant content. And when harnessed to elevate learning, it's undeniably effective. As a teacher, I've made some of my most meaningful professional connections on Twitter -- I've been endlessly inspired by colleagues from across the country, I've been forced to reflect and reassess my practice, and I've shamelessly celebrated my students and their incredible work. I believe students may find Twitter an exciting forum for learning as well.
And that's exactly what happened in #CrossChat. My students were eager to hear the thoughts of other students outside our class, to see how they agreed or disagreed, and to learn how others considered the text. Students were surprised by the novelty of using social media in class, but they were more surprised by the quality of conversation. Many were eager to share, and many more were eager to "listen."
And those are skills that never go out of style -- to share thoughts, feelings, and ideas, and to learn to listen to others.
I first read The Crossover last year, after seeing student after student devour it during independent read time. The few times I went to our school library to check it out, it was never there. I saw the way both readers and “not-yet-readers” connected to it, and finally bought a copy. I read it, laying in a swing under a summer sky, and I can remember that spell settling down on me. You know the one. When a book stretches outside the boundaries of its cover, and wraps itself around you in a net of words and magic. When I finished the last page, I snapped the book shut and hugged it close to my chest, and let hot tears spill down my face. I knew that this was a book that every kid should have an opportunity to read and love.
I then, of course started tweeting at students who I knew should read the book.
@TDoutrive (now a senior) did read The Crossover and loved it, by the way.
#CrossChat was an incredible way to give every student a chance to share their voices and engage with the book and their peers outside the classroom walls. The slow chat format allowed students time to get comfortable with Twitter chatting before engaging in rapid fire conversation. The best part of the #CrossChat was seeing students who are normally “quiet” in discussion go all in on Twitter. The semi-anonymity of Twitter was freeing for many of my students, and I saw kids sharing poems, ideas, and artwork during our discussion of Alexander’s work who usually remain quiet and withdrawn. The novelty of chatting about a common text with other student from within our county was also a high point. To see so many other young people across our county uniting around a novel, and not just any novel, but a novel written in poetry, was exhilarating. And Kwame, because he’s awesome, chimed in more than once, liking our students’ posts, and retweeting great student comments. This is an activity that was enormously successful, but I think it was successful because we picked the right text. The tool (Twitter) gave our students the outlet to talk about great art, and that is ultimately the goal of every classroom discussion.
WVCTE is wondering...
What do you think of using Twitter in the classroom? Would you be interested in having your classes participate in a chat? (We're up for planning!)
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Check out #CrossChat after the jump!
By Rachelle Green
For the month of February, I like to celebrate Black History Month. My English classes are full of presentations about African-American writers. With my creative writing class, I wanted to do something different. As the month approached, I thought about various activities I could do with the students. One day, the song “Blood on the Leaves” by Kanye West kept playing in my head. Kanye West included snippets of the song “Strange Fruit” in the song. As the day progressed, I could not get those snippets of the song out of my head. So, I went to Google. I looked up the lyrics to “Strange Fruit.” I was so moved by the words; at that moment, I knew that I had to do something with them. I then went to YouTube and listened to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone sing the song. Nina Simone sang it with so much passion. I knew then that I had to come up with an activity that utilized the words in poetry form, but also in song.
The next day, I found a site, History is a Weapon, that put the lyrics into poetic form. I then went to YouTube again and found a video of Nina Simone singing “Strange Fruit” but also explaining her thoughts and feelings about the lyrics. After watching the video, I considered the video to be very “raw,” due to the images of people hanging from the tree. But, I knew that images were important to the message, and I had to show it. The following day, I presented the activity to my creative writing students.
Before I jumped into the activity, I did warn students that this activity is 100% raw- REAL. I began with one of the students reading the poem aloud to the class. We then went on to analyze it and explain how the lines and phrases contribute to the overall meaning of the poem. I again warned the students that we were going to listen/watch a YouTube video that was 100% raw- REAL. I told them that it does show bodies hanging from a tree. I gave all students an out -- or an opportunity to look away or put their heads down and just listen.
After a listening/watching, we had a brief discussion about the video. I expected a moment of silence afterwards (which happened). It’s a deep topic to explore. I then gave the task after our class discussion.
I had students create a 3 stanza poem that highlights the struggles that Blacks face or faced in this country. They used the poem that we read as a mentor text. Because this is such powerful and moving activity, if they did not follow exactly how the poem was written, I was fine with that. Let me tell you, the students came up with some great pieces of writing. They talked about various topics ranging from slavery to Trayvon Martin to “White Privilege.” So much can come out of this single activity.
With all activities, there is always room for improvement. Some questions I've reflected on:
1) Could this activity work in a regular English class?
2) Does this activity only fit in the month of February?
3) Could this activity create the same results if I took out the video?
4) What ways can this activity improve?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Rachelle Green is an English teacher at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, WV. She currently teaches tenth grade English and Creative Writing. She is in her second year of teaching, she says she still has much to learn. :-)
Rachelle is a member of WVCTE and hopes to hear back from YOU!