One of our most important jobs as educators is to elevate our students’ voices. Our classrooms should be places were students feel that their voices will not only be heard, but that they will make a difference. I want them to consider their roles in their community and world. Right now, West Virginia is facing some extra-ordinary challenges: a struggling economy, a population decline, an opioid epidemic. Young people in West Virginia are discouraged. They constantly hear negative things about our state, and they ignore or don’t know is that West Virginia has a rich literary and art tradition. That our state exists because Mountaineers rejected slavery and valued freedom. Activists and artists are working tirelessly to create accurate reflections of the complexities and contradictions of our state and culture, and preserve our rich, history and traditions.
This year I decided to try something. I wanted find a way to not just engage my students in conversations about West Virginia and our struggles and successes, but I wanted them to be thinking about their place in West Virginia—how as young people they have a unique voice and perspective regarding how fix problems in our region. I believe that West Virginia’s path forward begins in our classrooms. (To read an Op-ed Karla Hilliard and I wrote about this, click HERE.)
This year, I taught my introduction to rhetoric to my Advanced Placement Class through the lens of Appalachian studies. You can see an overview of the unit HERE. The goals of the unit are (like West Virginia) diverse and multi-faceted. I wanted students to master the basics of rhetorical analysis, but also immerse themselves in the rhetoric surrounding our region.
The final culminating project in this unit was for the students to apply what they learned about crafting effective arguments, and create a proposal to present at the 40th Annual National Appalachian Studies Conference. We approached the task as an exercise in rhetoric. I asked the student to first choose something we studied in the unit that resonated with them. We covered a wide range of topics related to Appalachia: literature, poetry, environmental issues, the opioid epidemic, diversity, veterans, and stereotypes.
Then, students were split into teams had to write a proposal to present their chosen topic at the ASA conference. I asked the students to consider their unique voices. They are teenagers in Appalachia today, and they have a chance to share a concern or a topic with a conference of academics, writers, and activists. We read a few sample proposals and studied the conference website, program, and theme. I asked them to think about their proposals as persuasive essays and apply what they learned through our study of effective arguments.
The kids had a week to put together a “pitch” and write their proposals. They then presented their proposals to the whole class. I chose what I thought were the “top 10” pitches and gave them to a panel of teachers and administrators in my building to evaluate. They narrowed it down to four that they thought were the exemplars in terms of executing the task.
I put these four exemplars and my unit presentation together as a panel proposal for the conference, submitted it not really imagining that we would actually get accepted.
But then we did!
And not only did we get accepted, the conference committee emailed me to say how excited they were the students would be attending.
We were going to Blacksburg.
Below are three take-aways from taking 13 teenagers to present at the 40th Annual Appalachian Studies Conference at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA on March 9-12:
1. Kids rise to the occasion.
My students prepped and prepared like professionals. I required them to meet with me bi-weekly to show me the progress of their project, and then we had a “dress rehearsal” the week before. They worked so hard. They understood the gravity of the opportunity they were being given, and their presentations were thoughtful, smart, and executed with more grace and poise than many presentations I’ve had to sit though given by adults. They blew everybody away.
We were also asked to sit in on a round-table discussion on youth and activism through art, and the authenticity and honesty of my students brought me and the rest of the room to tears. They were rock stars.
2. There is a wealth of educator resources at this conference!
Not only did I learn about several new pieces of Appalachian literature (read about Robert Gipe’s novel, Trampoline HERE), but my students and I learned about several incredible programs, organizations, and educational groups who care deeply about and are working on many of the same things we were discussing in our own presentation. And the authors and artists! My students were in the same room as Silas House, Jason Howard, Roger May, and Nikki Giovanni.
Roger May is not only a gifted artist, but he is also the director at Appalachian South Folklife and the Looking at Appalachia project, and a generous and kind human. Here he is taking time out of the opening of his own gallery show to answer my students’ questions about his photography.
And here is the incomparable Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni was brilliant, funny, honest, and by far one of the highlights for my students.
3. Young people want their voices to be heard.
My students had the opportunity to participate in discussions about activism, art, and literature. And because having high school students actively participate in this conference is a bit of an anomaly, they were encouraged to speak up and share their perspectives and opinions. What I noticed was a maturity and a sense of importance settle over my students that I had not previously seen. They reveled in having adults who were not their teachers or parents, care about what they thought. I realized that giving them this opportunity to simply be heard was one of the most important and powerful components of this activity’s success.
For more reflections on this wonderful weekend, you can check out my Twitter feed @jessica_salfia, and look for the #ASA2017.
WVCTE is wondering...
How do you incorporate ways for your students to share their voices or impact their communities in your classroom?
By Toni Poling
I like routine, both in and out of the classroom. I believe that structure and routine provide stability and consistency for students. I believe that when students know exactly what is expected of them they are more likely to meet (or exceed) those expectations.
With that said, I also believe that making a change can have positive implications in the classroom! All of us can be lulled into a sense of complacency when we only do what we've always done. Typically, when teaching a novel, my students are given discussion questions to answer as they read and their responses are used to fuel our discussions in class. While I do feel that this is a very effective method of providing guidance for independent reading, students can sometimes become uninspired in their answering of these questions.
Over winter break, I began sketching out plans for the spring semester, I wanted to take a different approach to the novels we would be studying. A few years ago, our English PLC had completed a book study on Kelly Gallagher's Readicide. I got the book back out and read it over break. In his book, Gallagher discusses the "overteaching" that can occur that can sometimes kill a student's love of reading. Instead, he proposed a more focused approach, encouraging close reading and focused study of the work's theme(s). I decided to adapt some of his methods to my AP Literature's study of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Upon returning from break, I distributed to my students a copy of "Good Readers and Good Writers" by Vladimir Nabokov. This is an essay with which my students have some familiarity given that we've read it at least two times before. In his essay, Nabokov expresses his thoughts on what makes a good reader and a good writer. Though my students have read the essay before, I felt it was important for us to be reminded of the purpose of this course and the objectives we are all setting out to accomplish. After closely reading the essay, my students worked in collaborative groups to create a list of characteristics shared by good readers. Below is a sampling of what they came up with:
Every group listed re-reading as a characteristic of a good reader, yet when asked if they re-read almost every student responded in the negative!
The next day, armed with some notes on the social, historical, and biographical context for the novella, we started The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As it has been one of my goals this year to read aloud to my students, I began my introduction by reading the first chapter aloud, modeling for my students how I decode vocabulary through context clues and how I make note of important details. I sent the students home that day with a copy of the text and a reading calendar, but with no study guide or discussion questions.
At the start of the next class period, I provided my students with their final essay question: Discuss Stevenson's use of duality in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and apply this idea of duality to an aspect of the modern world. Students copied down the question in their notebooks. I explained that our discussion of the text would center primarily around this idea of duality. In the spirit of Gallagher's Readicide, I structured our first close reading exercise just as he had laid out in his book. I provided my students a copy of the first paragraph of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They were instructed to work in cooperative groups to identify, through close reading, at least nine instances of opposites in the first paragraph.
After doing so, I asked the groups to answer the following questions: (1) What is duality? and (2) What is the duality of man?
After finishing the task, we reviewed the nine instances of opposites in the first chapter and discussed student responses to the questions. At first, this was challenging for students. They were struggling with working only with one small passage of the text instead of the entire chapter, but they were amazed at how much they could find in only one paragraph.
The following day I again provided students with passages for close reading and focus questions. The previous day, the students defined the term duality and the began a simplistic discussion of the duality of man; now the focus is on "good" and "evil" and Stevenson's portrayal of that duality.
In an AP course, I'm used to having sophisticated discussions with my students, but the discussion that stemmed from this close reading passage and the focus questions was, beyond a doubt, the best discussion we've had all year! My students were raising questions and making salient points that far exceeded my expectations. When I walked over to refocus one group having a side conversation, I found they were passionately discussing one of the focus questions. Students who aren't in my class stopped me in the hallway on their way to lunch to tell me their thoughts on duality and "good" and "evil" because they're friends with one of my students and had found the topic interesting. Isn't that a teacher's dream?
We are still working through this method to finish the novella (we should finish next week) and I can't wait to formally assess their learning; I'm anticipating some of the best essays I've read all year!
Though I can't say that I would use this method for every novel I teach, there is a lot to be said for the students' enthusiasm and the depth and quality of the discussions taking place. I think some of my students will likely pinpoint this novella as their favorite text thus far, but in all honesty that's not the purpose. My purpose has been to get them reading and thinking; so far, so good.
WVCTE is wondering...
How do you foster a love of reading with your students while maintaining the integrity of the curriculum?
Toni M. Poling is a National Board Certified Teacher at Fairmont Senior High School in Marion County where she teaches AP English Language and AP English Literature to juniors and seniors. Toni is currently serving as the 2017 WV Teacher of the Year.
Gallagher, Kelly, and Richard L. Allington. "Remember the Value Found in Second-Draft (and Third-Draft) Reading." Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2009. N. pag. Print.