A Message From WVCTE Leadership about the Appalachian Syllabus for ELA Classrooms…
Born and raised in West Virginia, we have each been proud West Virginia public educators for over 15 years. Teaching English can be one of the most difficult disciplines because so much depends on finding ways to spark creativity and helping our students to connect with literature. Finding works that resonate with and connect to our Appalachian students is one of our most important and often most difficult jobs. Every English educator knows that important and powerful connections are made when students see themselves reflected in the literature they are assigned. But for our students, seeing themselves accurately reflected in literature and pop culture is a problem. Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie articulates why in her TED Talk The Danger of Single Story. This TED Talk emerged several years ago as a powerful message that resonated with both us and with our students in a number of ways, but mostly because like many folks from this region, we understood the frustration of being reduced to a single story. Appalachians and especially West Virginians have spent a fair amount of time gritting our teeth and rolling our eyes at the stereotypes associated with being from this region. We have politely (and not-so-politely) fielded questions like, “You’re from West Virginia? But you’re so well-spoken!” or “You’re from West Virginia? But you have all your teeth!” or “You’re from West Virginia? Do you wear shoes?” or a personal favorite “You’re from West Virginia? Do you have indoor plumbing?”
And those are the kinder ones.
These questions are disheartening examples of classicism, but for most people from our region, a common encounter, and a damaging one. These views and these questions whether serious or in jest have left a lasting impression on our young people. The world long ago decided on a single story of Appalachia—one that portrays us as poor, uneducated, and in most ways lesser. This single story is dangerous because it is incomplete and incorrect, but sadly most often the story our students hear from pop culture, media, and literature.
For years Appalachian activists, writers, and artists have worked tell the true and complete story of Appalachia. The Affrilachian poets have elevated and highlighted voices of color in our region, emphasizing the rich diversity of the region. West Virginia Public Broadcasting has launched Inside Appalachia, a podcast that tells the stories of our people, highlighting our strength, resilience, diversity, and beauty. Roger May’s Looking at Appalachia project visually tells the story of an Appalachia that is multifaceted and breath-taking. Last year WVU Press published Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods, an anthology featuring contemporary fiction and poetry from West Virginia. In the last several years, Appalachians have been witnessing a cultural renaissance, an explosion of literature and art that reflects not the stereotypes made familiar by Hee-Haw and WGN’s The Outsiders, but stories that reveal the magnificent quilt of diversity spread across our mountains.
And yet, as artists, writers, and activists work to undo the stereotypes of the single story, new work emerges reinforcing the same tired stereotypes. Work like J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which while a passionately told memoir, continues to erode our culture and teach our young people that there’s only one way of being a successful Appalachian—by leaving. Vance’s book as a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story is a powerful one, and we have had seen some of our own students connect with its brutal honesty. We do not think Vance set out to write the Rosetta stone of Appalachia, but for the media and for educators outside the region that is what his book has become. Teachers across the country are adding Vance’s memoir to their reading lists and developing lessons that incorporate his book into their curriculum to provide students with what one teacher told us was “the perspective of the students living in Appalachia.”
Here’s the problem with that.
Appalachia and its people are so much more than the narrative being peddled by pop culture. Vance’s book is yet another example that tells our students and the world that there is a only single story of this region. And as Adichie says in her TED Talk, stereotypes are dangerous “because they are incomplete.” Right now, our young people and the world have an incomplete narrative, and this has led to a disheartening trend over the last 20 years. It’s true that in many parts of Appalachia industry has declined, economies have collapsed, and our young people see limited opportunity. Couple that with the stereotypes our young people are force fed over and over: that they are one thing, that there are no opportunities, no culture, no place for young people to succeed. This then becomes their truth because no one has shown them another one. Changing the narrative in Appalachia and showing our young people a more complete story should become the responsibility of every teacher in Appalachia.
As public educators in West Virginia who spend 180 days and countless hours after school with West Virginia’s young people, we are constantly searching for engaging and relevant texts that deepen students’ perspectives, broaden their worldview, but also help them find themselves in literature. Here in West Virginia we are faced with curriculums and reading lists that depict not only the incomplete picture of Appalachia, but a fragmented image our own students have of themselves.
When we began talking about how to really change the way our students feel about themselves and their home we knew we needed to change the narrative about Appalachia. The best way to make a difference in our home state of West Virginia is to begin in our classrooms. By choosing contemporary Appalachian literature, stories, and media we hope our students come to value their voices and experiences through the exploration of the works we’ve chosen for our classroom study, and are also moved to action. The Charleston Gazette-Mail published an article by Stephen Smith and Mason Ballard entitled, “WV is the best place for millennials who want to change the world.” West Virginia is ready for a revolution, and that revolution needs to be led by our young people.
This site was born of a desire to give our students a chance to grapple with and come to truly understand the power of place and to eliminate the single story they have of their home and themselves. We hope teachers not only in West Virginia, but all over the world will use these lessons in their own classrooms and urge their students to consider who determines their narrative. We hope you use the resources provided to address standards and diversify curriculum, but more importantly use these lessons to help students tell the complete and honest story of Appalachia.
– Jessica Salfia, President WVCTE
– Karla Hilliard, Executive Vice President WVCTE