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...
By Dr. Louise McDonald
I teach middle school, and like all of us, confront classrooms with students who read (per the STAR test) as well as college students, and others that test at the third grade level. Circumventing the issue of test validity, many of us who teach at this level find that reading is a barrier to the types of lessons on literary analysis and source citation that the curriculum requires.
When I started teaching middle school, I came from twenty years of teaching at the university level. I was surprised to hear students tell me that they had learned to read in third grade, didn’t need to do it now, and to stop treating them like babies. I was surprised when they insisted that they had read a passage, but couldn’t tell me what had happened. Were they not paying attention? Couldn’t they read at all? Were they uncooperative? Did they not understand the vocabulary?
My internal conversation, I soon found, echoed a conversation that university professors of freshman students have every year. “The papers from 101 are abysmal!” they say to each other “What are they teaching in high school? How come they can’t [fill in the blank]?” Do students really become less prepared every year? Or look younger?
Recent research has found that as we get farther away from learning those skills ourselves (dare I say, older?), we forget our own ignorance—we even forget how much last year’s class had to learn before they got as smart as they were when we released them at the end of the year.
I don’t remember learning to read at all—certainly not the early levels. Reading was a joy and passion before I knew it. How can I understand what my struggling students feel?
Let me explain. Did you take high school Spanish? Try reading this Noble Prize-winning poem by Pablo Neruda. Really read it. Don’t just look at it and stop when you find it is in Spanish and you “don’t read” Spanish:
Un perfume como una ácida espada
de ciruelas en un camino,
los besos del azúcar en los dientes,
las gotas vitales resbalando en los dedos,
la dulce pulpa erótica,
las eras, los pajares, los incitantes
sitios secretos de las casas anchas,
los colchones dormidos en el pasado, el agrio valle verde
mirado desde arriba, desde el vidrio escondido:
toda la adolescencia mojándose y ardiendo
como una lámpara derribada en la lluvia.
"Juventud" from Canto General, 1950
Published in Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda
Edited and translated by Ben Belitt
Copyright © Fundación Pablo Neruda, 2009
If, like me, you are not fluent in Spanish, you can make out some of the nouns. Certainly there are cognates and words that we have picked up in English, so “camino” and “perfume” and “erotica” stand out. “Juventude” looks a bit like “juvenile.” You can identify the sequence of clauses. But would you be able to “analyze”? When you read the above carefully, how does it make you feel? Powerful and confident? Like I am silly for asking something like this? Are you ready to go on to the next blog post because this one isn’t any fun?
Try the translation:
Acid and sword blade: the fragrance
of plum in the pathways:
tooth's sweetmeat of kisses,
power and spilth on the fingers,
the yielding erotic of pulps,
hayricks and threshing floors, clandestine
recesses that tempt through the vastness of houses;
bolsters asleep in the past, the bitter green valley,
seen from above, from the glasses' concealment;
and drenching and flaring by turns, adolescence
like a lamp overturned in the rain.
"Youth" from General Song, 1950
Published in Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda
Edited and translated by Ben Belitt
Copyright © Fundación Pablo Neruda, 2009
The literary analysis writer in me gets pretty charged about this poem—wow! Doesn’t it speak to the universal experience of middle school? Look at the great images and the repetition of ideas of discovery and secrecy!
OK, so maybe the example is extreme. I don’t read Spanish easily, and Neruda is not “easy” Spanish. But my point is that reading when you do not understand is not fun and the temptation to quit is undeniable.
What about English? What about this first paragraph of Hamilton’s Federalist Papers:
The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton and John Jay and James Madison
Posting Date: December 12, 2011 [EBook #18] Release Date: August, 1991 Last Updated: July 10, 2004
Not fair! you say. This is a blog post to be read on a summer’s afternoon, not a puzzle to be untangled under a fluorescent glare in class. Reading slowly and carefully, paraphrasing in your head as the sentences get longer and longer and the clauses mount – the inward toss of the head as to the futility of soldiering on… this is what some of our students feel when you give them Rick Riordan or J.K. Rowling. It feels like work; like digging a ditch when the blisters start popping.
So how to reach them, when they say they “don’t read” and everything you do suggests this to be true?
Yeah, that’s the trick. Here are some thoughts:
1. Give them sounds rather than text.
OK, you say, but idle hands make mischief. I have lots of luck asking them to illustrate a scene from a book as it is read—either by them or by me—or by Jim Dale. Even if they just “doodle” their concentration improves.
2. Give them choices.
Have students read one of, say, four books that are available. Have the students schedule their group’s reading over a certain number of weeks. I find students are less anxious when the bulk of graded work is independent, but make the groups responsible for some kind of responses/presentations together. Reading with friends and not just assigned groups has some difficulties for the teacher, but friendship compensates for the work and gives them something to discuss.
3. Read together.
Make time for independent silent reading. And then talk about what you are each reading. Model it by reading a great YA book yourself. I like making a big circle and talking about books and characters periodically. Get excited!
4. Write stories.
Yes, I know, standards in the eighth grade do not include writing stories, but students are so out of touch with the creative process that digging into a character they have invented themselves can really inspire them. If you hit a wall with this, sometimes writing fan fiction is a good way to differentiate. It is a great way to teach elements of narrative and work on transitions and sequencing.
What makes you want to read a passage like the one from the Federalist Papers above? Well, being interested in history is a help, but if you aren’t? Make a game. For example, have three students paraphrase a difficult passage with “two truths and a lie.” Then have the students individually or in groups choose which one is the lie.
The possibilities are endless and teachers do them all the time. Sometimes they “take,” and sometimes not. Often, we are swimming upstream in a torrent of negative internal discourse.
I think the “take home” here is that reading can be difficult and therefore vaguely distasteful—sometimes not so “vaguely.” One of the most important gifts we can give our reluctant readers is the experience and then the memory of finding something joyful in reading.
WVCTE is wondering...How do you engage reluctant readers? What texts and strategies are reliably effective? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Sources Kelly Gallagher and Cris Tovani.
Louise received a BA in political Science and International Relation from Carleton College and her PhD in Enlish/Composition, Rhetoric and Literacy. She taught at various universities until 2009, when she started teaching ELA at a middle school in Jefferson County. She finds middle school to be the perfect laboratory for learning about literacy and teaches some stuff there too!
Louise serves as Secretary and as a member of the Executive Committee of WVCTE.