If you’re unfamiliar with the poetry of our extraordinarily talented West Virginia Poet Laureate, you need to add his work to your summer reading list this year. Marc Harshman is a West Virginia state treasure. An accomplished children’s book author, Harshman has also published two collections of poetry, Green-Silver and Silent and Believe What You Can. His work spans a wide range of complexities, and can be used in any ELA classroom at any level. I have had the pleasure of hosting him in my classroom several times, and I have used his poetry in my Advanced Placement Language and Composition course and in my English 11 class.
Here he is with my students below:
Harshman’s poetry sounds and feels as if Robert Frost and Walt Whitman took a hike together through the Appalachians. His poetry often explores our spiritual connection to the natural world, is rife with Appalachian themes, and filled with images of place, plants, animals, and people, his love of West Virginia evident in every turn of phrase. Often, his poems read like small celebrations of nature and beauty, highlighting the best of our people, our state, and our culture.
Take this one for example:
THERE WILL BE DANCING
A fiddle tune bearing, rough-shod,
the memory of the village:
sunlight on stucco,
leaf-plastered paths in autumn,
in moonlight and bracken,
the lilt of the market tongue,
ancient beyond telling.
A fiddle tune bearing, sweet as fruit,
a memory of timelessness:
candles on narrow sills
marching each night through Advent,
a bowl of rose petals, peach
and orange and crimson,
garlic and lamb simmering
in a black pan,
kisses long enough for tasting.
All have returned, just here.
Listen. They come round again.
There will be dancing, too.
When I started working on this blog post, I was originally going to share a lesson I have used quite successfully that pairs Harshman’s A Song for West Virginia with Whitman’s Song of Myself. A Song for West Virginia was commissioned by the Wheeling National Heritage Area to celebrate the state's sesquicentennial.
See Harshman perform the poem below:
The poem provides a brilliant "highlight-reel" version of West Virginia history—perfect for an ELA or Social Studies class, and could be used in both middle and high school grade classrooms. My lesson explores how poetry can be used to celebrate identity and individuality.
**If you’d still like some details on that lesson, shoot me an email, and I’ll send them over.
(Also, here is a copy of some guided reading questions I came up with for A Song for West Virginia)
But I’m not going to focus this post on that lesson. Instead, I came up with something brand new. As I was re-reading Harshman’s collection, Green-Silver and Silent in preparation for this blog post, I was struck with inspiration. And like we all sometimes do in our classrooms, I switched gears.
You see, because my favorite Harshman poems are his prose style poems. They're these wonderfully intense shorts, that read like flash-fiction.
Take SAVED for example:
At Bible camp, climbing a steep bank, a boy, adventurous and confident, cries out to see a hornet’s nest and so draws them to him. White butterflies linger in the field, haphazard and intentional all at once and unmindful of the thick heat. The mud is cool down by the river where friends cake handfuls of it over the fiery welts that burn across his face, down his neck and snake along his spine. It was a wet spring and the river had cut a new path, deeper. It’s hard to believe anyone was every baptized here, but buried perhaps, yes. The boy’s whimpers die away as he crosses the soybean field on the shortcut back to camp where his counselor will joke that he looks like a mud pie. A green heron stays frozen at its work in the backwash below pale willows. They would have swung on grape vines near here, great living ropes that would have soared twenty feet out over the sluggish, seductive, waters of the stream. All in all a lucky day.
It was when I re-read SAVED that this post went off the rails. I re-read it a few times, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how this piece would be excellent as a model in a mentor text activity. We have talked about using mentor texts a few times on this blog, and for more information about using mentor texts, click HERE.
Harshman gets quite a bit done in just a few lines—lines loaded with imagery and symbolism. He tells us a whole story, but still leaves us with questions, wondering.
These nine sentences manage to do all the things we want our students to do in really great writing.
Take a look at another example from Green-Silver and Silent:
IN TIME FOR SUPPER
He flinches at the sight of his mother’s bra and panties strung along the still clothesline. No wind to enliven this afternoon. A truck is grinding its’ gears up inside the green shade of the mountain. Where the lawn meets the road the grass is brown with dust. A small garden snake slithers out onto the hot asphalt. His mother sleeps in front of the TV where John Wayne charges downhill, bugles blaring, sabers slicing the heavy air into thin wafers of breeze. Ahead, white flags surrender both pride and virtue. A change in the weather? The truck will reach Cumberland in time for supper. As he digs a grave for the snake, the boy will wonder again what it takes to become a man.
Again, nine sentences that tell an incredible story. Dripping with imagery and symbolism, I clearly saw a new lesson here for my students.
I wanted to craft a mentor task activity.
So--the new plan:
I can’t wait to try this in my own classroom, but since it’s the last week of school it may have to wait until August. If you try this lesson, tweet us, Facebook us, or Email us and let us know how it goes! And share great examples of student work!
In the meantime, grab copies of Green-Silver and Silent and Believe What You Can and read some more incredible work by our very talented Poet Laureate. You can also find Harshman and many other West Virginia writers in the brand new anthology, Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods.
Happy reading, happy teaching, and happy (almost) Summer!
*All poems excerpted from Green, Silver, and Silent (2012) with the gracious permission of Marc Harshman, West Virginia Poet Laureate.
On Saturday, May 6, 2017 I had the honor of delivering the keynote address at the Shepherd University Teacher Pinning Ceremony. Below is a transcript of that speech.
Good morning, and first let me say Congratulations! Years of hard work and study come to fruition today. This is an incredible and momentous event, and you should be very proud of this accomplishment. Let’s give our graduates another round of applause.
Now, let me say thank you.
Because you have chosen to enter the most rewarding and challenging profession in our country today at a time when teacher shortages are at an all-time high. Teaching is an incredible act of service. And when you enter into the service of others, you have chosen a job that ultimately is about the greater good. By becoming an educator you have decided that you want to dedicate your life to literally making the world a better place. And that is not hyperbole. Your actions and words every day will have the ability to affect the leaders of tomorrow. This responsibility is awe-inspiring. And at times a bit daunting. I have tried to articulate the enormity of this many times, but Uncle Ben said it best when he looked at a young Peter Parker in Marvel’s Spiderman and said, “Son, with great power comes great responsibility.”
Because there is no service without some sacrifice.
Being a teacher can at times be extremely polarizing. Some of your days will be very hard and very thankless. And any teacher who says, “oh yeah, this job is a breeze” isn’t doing it right or has a magic key I have not yet discovered. And unfortunately, no matter what Hollywood movies tell us, this job will not be all standing on desks and yelling “O Captain, My Captain” or wearing cool leather jackets and jeans to school while Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise plays in the background.
No- sometimes this job will get the best of you. Sometimes you will pour your heart and soul into a lesson, and no one will get it. Sometimes you will be kind to a student who no matter what you do will not like you. Sometimes you will so overwhelmed by the difficulty of this job that you spend your lunch or planning period hiding somewhere to have a good cry.
But you know what makes it worth it?
Because sometimes you will pour your heart and soul into a lesson, and fireworks will go off in every set of eyes sitting in front of you. Sometimes you will be kind to a student, who will tell you later that that kindness changed his or her life. Sometimes you will be so overwhelmed by the magic of this job that you will spend your lunch or planning period wiping away tears of joy.
Teaching is miraculous. And maddening. It is hopeful. And heart-wrenching. It will make you laugh. And it will make you cry. And there is no shame in that. I teach the novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie and in the book Junior’s basketball coach says to him. “If you love something enough, it’s going to make you cry.”
And no one goes into teaching unless you have love for something. Whether it’s math, or science, or music, or reading and writing, or working with young people, or coaching, we become teachers because something in our hearts drives us to the profession. We all know that it certainly is not the lucrative salary or low-stress work environment, but joy and love and service that brings us to education.
Today, I’d like to give you three pieces of advice. These are three things that have helped me say focused on that joy and love and service. Things that are integral to finding success in your classroom, and to staying in the profession longer than just a few years.
My first piece of advice is to always choose love.
You see because without love, this job is too hard. Without love, it does ask too much of us. And whether you realize it or not, when you chose to major in education, to become a teacher, you have already chosen love.
Now, I know some of you are mentally eye-rolling. I teach teenagers and can always sense a good mental eye-roll. And I get it. I admit, “choose love” sounds a bit hippy-dippy.
And no, I’m not saying you have love every minute of your job and all your students. That’s impossible. And truthfully, some of parts of this job and some students will be downright unlovable. Though it does make teaching them, infinitely easier if you do at least try to like them.
What I am saying is that you do always have to try love what you’re doing--what you’re teaching. And this is an active choice you can make. You’re the teacher. You’re in charge of your room and your lesson. The minute you stop loving what you’re teaching or how you’re teaching it, both your students’ lives and your life will become joyless.
So choose love.
Because by choosing love you are choosing to be the kind of teacher both the lovable and the unlovable kid would like to have in class. When you choose love you automatically start finding ways to make your students like or love what you’re teaching, and as one of my personal teacher heroes, Rita Pierson, put it, “Kids can’t learn from someone they don’t like.” And if you haven’t seen Pierson's Ted Talk called “Every Child Needs a Champion” I would recommend watching it immediately.
And while you don’t have to love the people your students may be, you do have to love them as learners. And seeing them learn will remind you why you chose this job, why you chose love and service from the start. It’s not uncommon for my husband to find me at our kitchen table, furiously re-writing a lesson, snarling at my family through gritted teeth, “everybody give me a few minutes, I’m trying to figure out how to love _______(fill in the blank with any student's name here).” Because no matter how unlovable they may be, when I see them learning, engaging in class and with literature and writing, in that instant, I love them.
So always try to choose love.
My second piece of advice is to remember that your students are human. And humans are emotional and unpredictable. And sometimes we need to respond to our students as one human to another—not as teacher to student. You must always expect the unexpected. You will encounter countless situations and experiences in this job that no teacher training class could prepare you for. For example, in my fifteen years as a high school English educator I have also functioned as an event planner, a counselor, a secretary, a clergyman, a parent, a club advisor, a social director, a nurse, a lunch lady, and an athletic coach.
I have ignored and been ignored.
I have celebrated and been celebrated
And I have loved and been loved.
All of this and still you have teach them your curriculum. You still have to think about standards and grades and achievement. You still have to do the job.
This job will demand a lot from you, sometimes more than you think you have to give. But that is what makes it incredible— the service and the sacrifice. The giving of yourself to the greater good. The choosing of love.
I would like to close with my last piece of advice: talk to your students. Ask them what they think. They want to be listened to. They want to be a part of the learning experience. And they are smart. They will make you a better person and a better teacher.
This past week, I followed my own advice; I asked my students for help. I said to each of my classes, “hey guys--I have to give a speech on Saturday to bright, shiny, new first year teachers. If you could give them advice for their career from a high school student, what would say?”
So now from the mouths of babes is some sage advice from a few of my 11th grade English students and some graduating seniors:
Dominique: “Don’t be too controlling of the students. Give them responsibilities according their age.”
Marie: “Don’t tell bad jokes and then laugh at your bad joke.”
Corbin: “If you teach until you’re over 50, please don’t nag us about how miserable and tired you are. I don’t care if you’ve taught for 30 years. If you hate kids get out now.”
Maddy: “Don’t teach us a new thing every day. Sometimes you have to let things sink in for a day or two.”
Zachary: "Some of us have many hard classes. We don't just have one hard class. Remember that your class isn’t the only one I have all day."
Chloe: “Don’t be stressed. Have fun at your job.”
Grace: “Don’t grade papers on the weekends. It will make you stressed and mean. Give yourself some non-teacher time.”
(Apparently, my students are very concerned about teacher stress levels.)
Trinity: “Don’t expect to be respected without giving respect first. Also- school isn’t our life. We have lives outside your room. Be aware of that.”
Hannah: "If you print worksheets off the Internet, make sure they are not out of date, and that they are correct. Also- we know how to Google.”
Thabiso: "We can smell your fear."
Berenice: “Always wear matching socks.”
Dayquan: “Kids are going to be annoying. Prepare for the worst. Be happy when it’s the best.”
Jake: “You know nothing Jon Snow.”
Hayley: “Whatever you do, don’t dance at prom.”
Liam: "Try not to take anything personally. Speak softly and carry a big stick. Also, snacks are always ok.”
Kaitlyn: "Be a person and make connections. Also, if you don't know an answer, admit it."
Lee: "Have a structured class. And act like you want to be there. If you want to be there, then we will want to be there. "
Eric: "If students know you put work into a lesson, then we will put work into doing it."
Kat: "Be a mentor."
Mark: "Smile. And have patience."
Autumn: "Incorporate parts of yourself into your teaching style."
Ally: "Just do your best."
Ben: “Take it easy. Try to love your job.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Congratulations graduating Educators of the Class of 2017. Thank you having me today, and for choosing this amazing life. Best of luck.
Jessica Salfia is a proud Shepherd University Alumni, the President of the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English, a high school English teacher, and a writer. She lives and works in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.
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...
An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves. ~Bill Vaughan (1915–1977), in The Kansas City Star
If you’ve been anywhere near social media, then you know the vast majority of the world was ready for 2016 to come to an end. And I’ll admit, part of me was right there with them. This year saw the horrific violence of Syria, we lost Leonard Cohen, Prince, David Bowie and Princess Leia, and let’s not even talk about the chaotic, weird, divisive United States election.
Yeah, 2016 was a doosey. For a hilarious recap, check out this parody of a man who slept through 2016.
Like most folks, when New Year’s Eve approached this week, my knee-jerk reaction was “good riddance 2016.” But then, I sat down to draft this blog post and realized that for all the awful things that happened in the past year, there was also an extraordinary amount of awesome, specifically for our WVCTE community.
For starters, WVCTE received its official NCTE affiliate status, our membership has grown, we’ve connected educators across the state, and we’ve begun planning our first state-wide conference for March 2018. Our little organization hosted its first professional development session in September with the authors of Writing with Mentors, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, and it was attended by over 40 teachers from West Virginia and Maryland. Our Best Practices blog has been reaching teachers all over the state, country, and world, and we’ve given West Virginia ELA teachers a platform to share their stories, success, and strategies. (And we designed these really great t-shirts...)
So no, I can’t say the 2016 was a bad year. In fact it was an incredible year, and 2017 has some pretty big shoes to fill. I look forward to the next year with hope and optimism.
And like most hopeful, optimistic people I have made qutie a few New Year Resolutions. Most of them are pretty standard proclamations like "get fit," "get more sleep," and "drink more water," but I've also made a few Teacher resolutions, and I would like to share two of them here:
Teacher Resolution Number 1
And even though I can certainly appreciate a “fertile turtle,” I have found a way to teach vocabulary and teach it well by getting students to come to vocabulary words on their own terms. By creating opportunities for students to talk about words, their meanings, their uses, and how diction impacts the meaning of a work, student truly begin to own words and not just remember them.
From my very own “bag of teacher tricks”...
(insert Mission Impossible soundtrack here)
I use a version of this activity at least once or twice each nine weeks with various texts. HERE is a sample handout I used this year with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.
Here's how it works:
After reading the short story, essay, excerpt, poem, or article you are studying, have students identify five words in the piece they did not know before. These can be words they have seen before, but are unsure of their meaning, but preferably they need to pick out words they have never encountered before. Have students copy these down onto a handout or on a sheet of notebook paper.
Divide students into groups of 3 or 4. Each student will be assigned a role (with a catchy name, of course)-
- Group leader/El Capitan/The Boss/Madame President--This person is the task manager. He or she keeps everyone organized and in check. The leader is responsible for making sure all tasks are completed.
- Time Keeper/Father Time/Time Management Guru- This student watches the clock and the tasks completed to be sure everything is getting done when it should. Teacher will set achievement goals based on class period length, and time keeper needs to monitor work and clock to ensure goals are met.
- Secretary/Scribe/15th Century Franciscan Monk- This person writes stuff down. Pretty simple.
- Vocab Secret Agent- The Coolest Job. This is the only group member who can get up and move freely around the room. This student may go out into the world (the classroom) and undercover the words the group cannot define on their own. He or she must be smart, sly, quick, and not afraid to roll up to another group or even (*gasp*) a dictionary, and look for the meaning of the word.
After students are grouped and roles are assigned, students will share their vocab lists with each other. If anyone in the group can define a word for another member of the group, he or she should do so now. This is a 5-10 minute block of time in which the goal is simply to have conversations within the group about the words they didn’t know. Some sample questions for them to use in this discussion are-
- What other words does it look like?
- How is it used in the sentence?
- What part of speech is it?
- What do we think it means? Why do we think this?
- If we had to guess the definition based on context, what would it be?
Back To School
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Movement In The Classroom
Music In The Classroom
Speaking & Listening
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Teresa Shockey Campbell
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