We See What We Look For: Looking At Appalachia

By Karla Hilliard

My former principal was famous for his colloquialisms and aphorisms. So much so that part of his retirement celebration was dedicated to them. Like, “Don’t jump on your buddy’s back and pull him down in the mud.” And “Every choice has a consequence either good or bad.” Choices and consequences the students would murmur under their breaths, sometimes poking fun, but always, no matter how much they tried to deny it, acknowledging a truth.

But my favorite Principal Arvon-ism was something that really did change my teaching life and how I choose to see every student. “We see what we look for.” These words aren’t new, but they are no doubt true.

And while my English 11 Honors students and I have been immersed in Unit 1 studies, I realize, even more, how true this is.

This semester we’ve tackled the question: What does it mean to be Appalachian? For my Eastern Panhandle students, many of whom have only just moved to the area or were born and raised in western Maryland and strongly identify with Old Bay and Baltimore, this question is both difficult, frustrating, and compelling.

Because as well all know, we find what we look for in a place and a people.

I knew I wanted my students to adjust their lens of how they see and what they find in Appalachia. Roger May’s Looking At Appalachia, a crowd sourced photography project “meant to establish a visual counterpoint” to the famous front porch photographs of the Lyndon Johnson War on Poverty era, was a perfect way in. As May explains it, these photos, “whether intentional or not beame a visual definition of Appalachia.” Looking At Appalachia “serve[s] as a reference that is defined by its people as opposed to political legislation.

So, I asked my students to look at Appalachia and capture an image that subverts or challenges the Appalachian single story of the shoeless, toothless hillbilly.

They, of course, blew me away.


Here’s how I set up the lesson:

1- We spent two days looking at Looking At Appalachia as an exercise in analysis. After plenty of modeling and whole class analysis, I asked students to set up a 3 column chart where they recorded the following about the photographs they studied independently: the subject of the photo; their noticings — what was important or noteworthy; and how the photo subverted or challenged Appalachia’s single story.

2- For notebook time the following day, I asked students: What makes a great Instagram photo? (Side note: this is so fun and interesting in a “ohhhh that’s how teenagers think” vein.) After some think time, students shared out on the board and created a list of photo criteria including: great lighting, thoughtful captioning, interesting scenery that avoids cliche, and candid unposed shots.

3- I pitched the project. I asked students to extend and enrich their understanding of the Looking At Appalachia project by “making a picture” themselves. (Roger May graciously spoke at #WVELA18 last year and I was charmed by his accounts of “making pictures,” and as my kids and I discussed — making is different from taking.)


Here is some of the wonderful work students made…


Gloria thoughtfully shares, “With the pools of water surrounded by leaves and mud, it shows the bare beauty of nature. I believe that no other place has nature as breathtaking as the Appalachian region, so it’s disappointing that people tend to look at it in a negative light that casts shadows on it. The river adds to it, but it’s something most people would think of as an attractive part of Appalachia compared to the mud of before. The words underneath the interstate oppose the belief that Appalachia is a bunch of farmland with hillbilly inhabitants. People don’t know the full story, so they are quick to judge. However, the desperation for conserving our farms is evident in the photograph.”


Ruth says of her beautiful photo, “In this picture you see two little kids playing outside, holding toys, and having fun. This is what Appalachia means to me; to be outside in the nature and doing what you love or what’s in your heart. In this photo you don’t see hillbillies or hunters like the world portrays the Appalachian people to be only just that. These two little kids are just having fun in their surroundings and enjoying playing with each other. They aren’t dirty or wearing unfitting clothes, they are normal like any other kid. That’s a story that people, who don’t know Appalachia, should see. Appalachian people just live their lives the way they want to and are proud of it and so, I hope that this picture shows a brother and a sister being proud of where they are and just going with the flow of the world.”


I love so much what David offers in his response. He says, You leave your family, the parents that could always make you laugh and love you more than life itself, that one friend that always cared for you, that crack in the concrete that has a quarter stuck in their since 2010, the road you always walk down on the way home past the creepy house, that hole that your friend stepped in submerging his entire leg in the ground, and that hole in the wall from that one kid who was rude and tried to fight you. I did a lot of growing in Martinsburg and I don’t think I would ever want to forget how I grew up and learned what I did. I would sacrifice a little freedom to keep these memories nearby. Home is one of the most amazing feelings in life. To feel like you are where you belong with who you belong with creates a sense of stability and comfort. The memories I have here have shaped me into the person that I am today and I want to remain here and hopefully raise my children in the place I have come to love as well.”


And I also really love how Natalie shifts the narrative in saying, Downtown Martinsburg is rich of Appalachian history, it’s also full of beautiful architecture. Many people do not think that Appalachia can consist of “city-like features.” This picture shows another aspect of how Appalachia can be diverse in landscapes. Appalachian culture can be considered to some as a simple and easy lifestyle. Landscape in Appalachia can sometimes be stereotyped as “farmland.” We learn that Appalachia is much more than meets the eye.”


Maddie says this of her backyard, The ground and grass that my camera focused on is where my childhood playset was. It was a nice setup left behind by the previous house owners. It had two swings, monkey bars, and a slide that my mother would never let me go down because it was so dirty from the dust and dirt blow up onto it throughout the years.

All my life I’ve known nothing but this home, this neighbor, these chickens, and this rough patch of ground. My memories are built and surrounded here in the mountains of Appalachia.”


shared with permission from parents

And finally this photo of Leane’s beautiful niece and her heartening response, This is my niece, her name in Luna. She’s the first born Appalachian in our family. Both of her parents are Puerto Rican but she was born here in West Virginia. She just turned 1 month and a half and has already so much personality.

She’s the future of West Virginia. She’s going to break all the stereotypes of diversity in  Appalachia. She will eat pepperoni rolls while listening to “salsa” or “merengue”. She will have a Puerto Rican accent and use West Virginia slang. She will love football like her fellow West Virginians and baseball, the pride and joy of Puerto Rico.

Appalachia is known for being “white”. But when I moved here I was surprised by the loud obvious Puerto Rican and Dominican spanish ringing through the halls. I was scared of how I would be received here but all I got was open arms and nice people. Single stories are so dangerous, they made me fear a state that in reality just doesn’t get enough credit.”


How might you ask students to look at Appalachia or your region? How can adjusting our lens to our place and its people help students uncover something they didn’t already know? 

Leave us a comment, connect with us on Facebook, Tweet us @WVCTE!

I’d love to hear from you! – Karla


Want more lessons on teaching Appalachia? Check out Appalachian Studies resources for ELA Classrooms and submit YOUR lesson by emailing us at wvcte15@gmail.com! 

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