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?
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...