The Epic Nevertheless, Starring You

Teaching in a pandemic: It’s not pretty, but it’s pretty epic. Reframe the school year and fight. Be the hero of your own epic, nevertheless.

by Adrin Fisher

Epics are my thing lately. Maybe it’s because I picked up a beautiful new paperback of The Odyssey translated by Fagles. Maybe it’s because my family has been loving Disney’s show The Mandalorian, the one with “Baby Yoda.” Maybe it’s because in many unexpected ways, fiction has become fact in 2020.

Epics are long, narrative poems that tell the story of a courageous, larger-than-life hero. The action takes us on a journey, the villains often have supernatural power, and the hero triumphs (mostly). There’s also a lot of talking involved.

My teacher-friends and I have talked and talked. Since the beginning of the pandemic, our emotions have been like cheap plastic kites jerked about in gale-force winds: disbelief, anger, sadness, cautious optimism, fear, exhaustion, hope, grief. Lots of us have settled somewhere in the area of resignation, our little kite selves bent and busted, but still fluttering. We’re not thinking of ourselves as particularly heroic.

In some ways, to a person born and bred in Appalachia, this feeling of resignation is home. When I introduce Beowulf to my seniors, I talk about the Anglo-Saxon worldview. Fatalism, I say. This conglomeration of conquering tribes believed that Fate ruled all. This, I say, is familiar. You know this. You’ve heard people say, “It is what it is.” You know the phrase, “What will be will be.”

Then we go to the epic. We hear Beowulf himself say, “Fate will unwind as it must,” and we remember the Fates fighting over their eyeball in that old Disney movie, Hercules. We remember reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. This we know.

We could talk about why fatalism is a cornerstone of the Appalachian ethos. We could point to it as a reason why education is not of primary value in many of our families. We could think about the vices our students start experiencing in middle school—the drinking, the vaping, the smoking. We could think about generational poverty and cycles of abuse and drugs and promiscuity and injustice and broken promises. We could mention it all. We could rake ourselves over the coals.

But we don’t. Others do that for us.

Instead, we talk about Abraham Lincoln, a fatalist through and through. We talk about underdogs. We talk about justice and paybacks. We talk about the strength it takes to live under the weight of fate.

We ask, why should we bother?

We ask, what drove Beowulf? That one’s easy: he wanted to be remembered for his actions. Beowulf voyaged across the sea. He fought a demon, weaponless. He swam to the bottom of a bottomless hot spring and killed a Water-Witch. He trekked to the mountains and slew a dragon.

We talk about strength, courage, generosity, right motives. We talk about resilience. Hope.

We, teacher-friend, are teaching through a pandemic. We are making history. It’s not pretty, but nevertheless, it’s pretty epic.

We’re navigating a patchwork of rules and regulations with unclear requirements and expectations about devices, broadband, virtual meetings, and student involvement. We’re choosing the essential. We’re protecting our people. We’re extinguishing fires. We’re dismembering demons and slaying dragons every day.

So, today, I’m asking you to fan that little flame of fatalism that may yet burn in your Appalachian heart-of-hearts. Use it as a reminder of your own strength, teacher-friend. Let’s accept the hand that’s been dealt. But let’s reframe our journey.

Let’s fight.

We’re not just fighting for ourselves. We’re fighting for our communities, our students—whether they know it or not—and we’re fighting for their futures. We’re fighting for our profession, our families, our colleagues, our work-life balance, and our sanity. We here in Appalachia have been fighting for a long, long time.

We have all lost in the past nine months, to be sure, but we are not losing. And neither are the kids. There will be pieces to pick up. There will be wounds that need healed. There will be grace given.

But—as we’ve learned from epics—heroes are never perfect, but they are always moving.  

You are the epic hero in your own story. Courage, dear heart.

Poem Credit: “Ulysses”

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you courage. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She teaches College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12 at Fairmont Senior High School. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Resource Alert: Moundsville, a documentary

By Jessica Salfia

Well, it’s day 9,789,573 of distance learning, distance teaching, and (if you are a parent), helping your own children navigate their distance learning assignments.

During these last 5 weeks when I’m not teaching or communicating with students, I have been trying to find constructive ways to occupy my brain to distract from the constant worry, anxiety, and fear that most of us are experiencing. I have been gardening like a mad woman, baking all the things, and lately, I have made a foray into edible flower recipes.

I also have been doing a little writing and watching a lot of TV (I am finding my brain too distracted for reading at the moment)—catching up on all the shows and documentaries I don’t usually have time for during the traditional school year.

There is one documentary I recently revisited that you should put on your “to watch list” in the next few weeks.

Question: What does an Adena burial mound from 200 B.C, Lady Gaga, Charles Manson, the United Steelworkers, our state Poet Laureate and the Fostoria glass company have in common?

Moundsville, West Virginia.

Screen Shot 2020-04-23 at 10.14.05 AM
from Moundsville 

And you will discover the threads that connect these things and people by visiting the Moundsville website and watching John Miller and Dave Bernabo’s documentary, Moundsville, airing May 25th on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Moundsville is the story of an Appalachian town told through the voices of its people—a refreshing change from the extraction narratives that delivered us Hillbilly Elegy and this recent, awful essay about a woman escaping New York with her puppy to “somewhere in Appalachia.”

No, Moundsville is not outside looking in. It’s story blossoms out of the mound it is named for, and its residents are the ones who tell that story starting from the days the earliest settlers discovered the towering mound while hunting through the rise and fall of coal and industry to the arrival of WalMart.

Screen Shot 2020-04-23 at 10.12.27 AM
from Moundsville 

The documentary also focuses on the issue that so many Appalachian towns are faced with: the struggle to stay. The young residents of Moundsville talk about digging in or leaving for other opportunities.

Screen Shot 2020-04-23 at 10.12.41 AM
from Moundsville 

My favorite part of this documentary is that the narrative is controlled completely by the town’s residents. They get to the tell the story of their place and share their pride, their sadness, their fears. And through this format, Moundsville manages to reckon with deeper truths about the American economy and America’s future.

Screen Shot 2020-04-23 at 10.12.11 AM
W.Va. State Poet Laureate, Marc Harshman in Moundsville

One of the featured Moundsville residents is W.Va. state poet laureate, Marc Harshman. I am a huge fan of Marc’s and have written about his poetry for this blog before. You can read that post here. Marc has been writing about Moundsville for many years, and one of my all time favorite Harshman poems is this one, a poem I read many years ago long before it was featured on the Moundsville website:

Screen Shot 2020-04-23 at 10.25.50 AM

You can find the text of this poem on the Moundsville website along with many other resources that could be used in ELA, Science, and Social Studies classrooms.

The Moundsville website is a treasure trove of resources that can be paired with the documentary, or used independently. John Miller, one of the documentary’s creators, runs a blog on the website that continues to share stories, interviews, and updates from the people of Moundsville. I dove into the blog a few days ago and found myself engrossed immediately in both the wide variety of stories, but also how the blog captured the same element I loved about the documentary: focus on the people and their stories through their gaze, not an outsider’s.

I recently communicated with Mr. Miller, who made it clear he would be happy to help teachers find ways to use this documentary or its accompanying resources in their classrooms. You reach out to John through his website here. This documentary and its resources would be an excellent addition to any West Virginia History or Appalachian studies curriculum, but also, this doc would be a great study on perspective and narrative in an ELA course–focusing on what story gets told and how you tell it when you let the people of a place tell their own story.

You can watch Moundsville for free on May 25, 2020 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting, it’s free online for residents of Marshall County, and available for everyone else to rent for $3.99. (You can purchase from vimeo as well for class use.)

WVCTE is wondering…

What did you think of Moundsville? Let us know when you watch this documentary and how you see it being used in a classroom!

Art as Argument

By Jessica Salfia

Understanding visual rhetoric is not just an important part of most AP Language and Composition curriculums, but it is an essential skill our students need as members of society. We are bombarded with images—images intended to persuade and influence us. Our students must be able to identify the arguments and claims in both text and images.

I have been crafting visual analysis lessons and units in my classroom for several years, and I have written about the importance of cultivating visual analysis skills for the WVCTE blog before. You can read that post here.

These lessons have taken the shape of a unit in my AP Lang class called “the Argument for Art” that culminates in trip to the National Gallery of Art and a research analysis essay modeled after the essay “The Capricious Camera” by Laila Ayad. Recently, several teachers have reached out asking about some of these activities, so for today’s post, here is an overview of this unit:

Introduction: Appalachian Studies Unit

My students are introduced to images as argument early in the year in our Appalachian Studies unit. Besides numerous written texts, we study several visual texts that complicate and disrupt the single story of Appalachia. We discuss how the Looking at Appalachia project complicates and disrupt the single story of our region. This project was in reaction to the “war on poverty” photos that have become representative of our region.  Karla Hilliard has written about how she uses Looking at Appalachia in her classroom for the WVCTE blog, and you can read that post here.  We analyze how the photography of Builder Levy complicates the idea that the West Virginia coal fields were populated by a white, homogenous workforce, and we study the Appalshop documentary, Sludge, as a visual essay. We then read the illustrated novel, Trampoline, by Robert Gipe and discuss the way Gipe uses his text and his illustrations to create a complete idea or argument.

After this unit, students are primed for Art as Argument.

Day 1-4 Edward Hopper and Joyce Carol Oates

We begin with a painting by Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942.


Students spend a day analyzing and discussing the painting, and then read the poem Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, 1942 by Joyce Carol Oates. We talk about if we think Oates’ analysis is accurate, and we discuss what visual elements led her to those conclusions. Then, students choose another painting by Hopper, and write a poem using Oates’ poem as a mentor text. This specific lesson is detailed in this blog post with handouts included.

Days 5-8 The Capricious Camera

Next, we read, analyze, and annotate the essay, “The Capricious Camera” by Laila Ayad. In this essay, Ayad analyzes  a black and white photo from World War II captioned, “Mounted Nazi Troops on the Lookout for Likely Polish Children.” See the photo below:

capricious camera

Ayad’s essay is an excellent model for visual analysis, but also for how to use research and source material to support your claims. I start with asking my students “What do you notice about the author’s interpretation of the photo? And what do you notice about how research impacted the analysis?” After discussing in small Socratic groups and as a whole class, I tell the class that this essay will serve as their mentor text for their own analysis of an artwork.

(This essay can be found in the ninth edition of the Bedford Reader, but can be a bit tough to locate online. Here is a PDF copy: capricious_camera_essay copy)

Days 9-13: Bansky Does New York

Next, we look at how art of all kinds, not just photography can function rhetorically by watching and discussing the documentary, Bansky Does New York. This documentary focuses on a 31 day self-proclaimed residency and pop-up project that occurred in and around New York City in October of 2013.

Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 1.26.59 PM

From the description:

On October 1, 2013, the elusive British street artist known as Banksy launched a self-proclaimed month-long residency in New York City, posting one unique exhibit a day in an unannounced location, sparking a 31-day scavenger hunt both online and on the streets for Banksy’s work.

Capturing this month of madness, Banksy Does New York incorporates user-generated content, from YouTube videos to Instagram photos, from New Yorkers and Banksy hunters alike, whose responses became part of the work itself, for an exhilarating, detailed account of the uproar created by the mysterious artist.

With installations spanning all five boroughs of New York City, and including a mix of stencil graffiti, sculpture, video and performance art, Banksy touched on such wide-ranging subjects as fast-food wages, animal cruelty in the meat industry, civilian casualties in Iraq and the hypocrisy of the modern art world. Daily News reporter Beth Stebner, who covered Banksy’s residency, was struck by the wide array of people drawn to his work, noting, “You had art students, you had plumbers, you had gallery owners. It just brought New Yorkers out.”

The film is wonderful because of all the art analysis, but also because the focus is how Bansky’s work is functioning rhetorically. In the final moments of the documentary, Banksy’s voice over can be heard saying, “The artist asserts…” We try to hone in on the rhetorical elements of Bansky’s project and what he was arguing with the project.

Day 14: National Gallery of Art

The students are ready now to pick out a piece of art to analyze. I give them this handout which details due dates and expectations for the final paper of this unit:

Art Analysis Paper Task Sheet

I live in a place where we can take a 2hr train ride to D.C. and visit the National Gallery of Art, but this part of the project could easily be done at a local small scale museum or gallery, or even online with a webquest or a digital museum tour.

However, one of the most special days of the year with my students is when we get out of the classroom, and set off to explore the museum together. It’s a great community building and bonding experience, and one of the most memorable parts of the course.

Their goal(s) of the day is to pick a piece of art they see functioning as an argument, but also to have a lot of fun. (And I may have given them the challenge of “find a piece of art that looks like you”. Here are some hilarious kids from this year’s trip.)

Days 15-21 (or longer): The Paper

The final product of this unit is a research essay in which the student analyzes the piece of art they have selected on our trip. Again, The Capricious Camera is their mentor text for this assignment. We take this paper through the whole writing process. The final product is a 4-6 page research essay, and I also use this assignment as an opportunity to shore up my students knowledge of MLA formatting, in-text citations, and embedding figures into a paper.


This unit produces some of the most thoughtful analysis and conversations about rhetoric and language of the year, and definitely produces some of the best student writing I get to score. For most students, this paper is always one they select as one of their best pieces of writing and this unit as one of their favorite assignments when we do end of course evaluations.

Do you use art and visual rhetorical in your classroom? Share with us how!

WVCTE is wondering….

How do you incorporate visual analysis into your ELA curriculum? How does art play a role in how you teach English? Message us and let us know, or share with us on Facebook or Twitter!

The Work and Wonder of Crystal Wilkinson

By Jessica Salfia

This summer and fall my 11th grade Advanced Placement: Language and Composition students read Water Street by Crystal Wilkinson. An anthology of short stories about the residents of a mostly black community in Kentucky, the characters of Water Street weave and wend in and out of each other’s lives, revealing the oft unseen layers of a community and the deep wells of emotional depth that exist within us all.

While reading Water Street myselfI was reminded of something I heard YA author Jason Reynolds say years ago in a talk at an NCTE convention.  He was asked why his books only featured black characters, and he responded that “sometimes black folks just need to be able to be, and people need to see that.” Water Street is a beautiful example of characters who are allowed to “just be.” It is an exploration of the way daily life is and can be extraordinary, painful, beautiful, and hard.

It’s also a story that doesn’t often get told about our region—the story of Black Appalachians.

Just today, I did a google search for “people of Appalachia,” and this is what I found:


What do you notice?

You probably noted the black and white photos of mostly white, poor, women and children. Captions that read “mountain people.” People sitting outside on porches.

If you asked an outsider to describe this region you probably would hear things like “white” “hillbilly” or “inbred.” (For a point of reference do a google search of comedian Whitney Cummings comments on her West Virginia heritage on a recent episode of the Late, Late Show with James Corden.  But be prepared to be enraged.)

This single story of Appalachia is one that authors, artists, activists, and educators have been working to dispel for decades. For writers of color, the single story of this places erases the existence and experiences of thousands of folks from this region.

Listen to Kentucky poet and founder of the Affrilachian Poets explain how this single story affected his own identity:

Each year I introduce my Advanced Placement Language and Composition Students to the rhetorical concepts by disrupting single stories and stereotypes of Appalachia and West Virginia.  We discuss context and the rhetorical situation of being a young person from such a complex and complicated place by reading works about our region by both writers within and writers from outside the region.  We talk about whose stories are told and whose are not.

Wilkinson’s work and her experiences disrupt and complicate dangerous single stories of Appalachia. She elevates voices that are often overlooked or dismissed, and is an important part of understanding our regional identity.

Listen to her talk about being Black in Appalachia on WV Public here:

And while her work illustrates the unique stories and experiences of Black Appalachians, the themes and plots are universal. Water Street is rich with characters whose experiences are familiar, yet wholly and uniquely their own.

Spring Mills High School 11th grader, Nina Saluja said of Water Street:

“Crystal Wilkinson’s Water Street felt real to me. The interwoven lives of the residents reminded me our own town but looking from the outside you could see why we live in harmony—people of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, and levels of morals depending on each other for support despite their divisions. It was a really beautiful concept.”


My students read and socratically discussed Water Street before visiting with Wilkinson at Martinsburg High School where she talked about her work, Appalachia, and identity, and answered students’ questions about writing and the single story of our region.



Wilkinson was this year’s Shepherd University Appalachian Heritage Writer, and she participated in a week’s worth of activities in our area, the student visit being just one of them. You can find teaching resources for Crystal’s work and learn more about this program at Shepherd University here.

Spring Mills High 11th grader, Sapphire Zittle said after the visit:

“Wilkinson is such a beautiful writer. Her book [Water Street] left me wanting more. She displayed the feelings of each character, and it helped explain that those that live in Appalachia feel the same and act the same as everyone else. Rather than what outsiders assume us to be.”


Spring Mills High 11th grader, Andrew Schwier agreed, citing universality as one reason he loved Water Street. He said,

“Water Street was a very insightful book that reinforced the idea that though we may have different situations and cultures, we are all human and go through the same things.”


So as you expand your Appalachian catalogue, be sure to add Wilkinson’s work to your classroom library shelves and continue disrupting your notion of what it means to be Appalachian for your students and yourselves.

According to Spring Mills High 11th grader, Kaitlyn Shank:

This was probably one of the best books I’ve read in an English class. I loved the book.”




Wilkinson’s work created wonder for my students and also expanded for them the notion of who can be from and of a place.

You can learn more about Wilkinson’s work here. And if you planning to attend #NCTE19, join Karla Hilliard and I in conversation with Crystal Wilkinson, Wiley Cash, Natalie Sypolt, and Robert Gipe as we explore the depths of Appalachian literature.


WVCTE is wondering…have you read Crystal Wilkinson’s work? Will you use it in your classroom? Let us know if you have a great lesson or activity featuring this writer!

Contemporary Appalachian Literature: Collections & Anthologies for Your Classrooms and Curriculums

By Jessica Salfia

With the new school year in full swing, I’ve seen teachers all over Facebook and Twitter sharing donors choose projects and Amazon Wish Lists filled with books for their classroom libraries and curriculums. As you continue buy books to diversify your classroom libraries, think about the ways Appalachia is represented in your classroom. How are you disrupting single stories of this region?

The WVCTE blogging team has written before about the ways we have worked to teach our students and our colleagues about the importance and power of place.  You can search the “Appalachian Studies” category to read some of these blogs or check out the Appalachian syllabus tab on this website.  There are so many novels by regional writers that we love: Southernmost by Silas House, Trampoline and Weedeater by Robert Gipe, A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash, Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake to name a few.

But oftentimes the pace of the school year does not allow time to teach an entire text, so it’s important to also know where to find quality short fiction, essays, and poetry by Appalachia’s finest.

This year the Shepherd University Appalachian Heritage Writer in Residence is Crystal Wilkinson, and my students read her book Water Street this summer as part of their introduction to Appalachian studies.

According to the Kentucky University Press website:

“The residents of Water Street are hardworking, God-fearing people who live in a seemingly safe and insulated neighborhood within a small Kentucky town: “Water Street is a place where mothers can turn their backs to flip a pancake or cornmeal hoecake on the stove and know our children are safe.” But all is not as it seems as the secret lives of neighbors and friends are revealed in interconnected tales of love, loss, truth, and tragedy.

In this critically acclaimed short story collection, Crystal Wilkinson peels back the intricate layers that form the fabric of this community and its inhabitants—revealing emotionally raw, multifaceted tales of race, class, gender, mental illness, and interpersonal relationships. The thirteen succinct stories offer fragmented glimpses of an overarching narrative that emerges, lyrical and fierce. Featuring a new foreword and a new afterword which illuminate Wilkinson’s artistic achievement, this captivating work is poised to delight a new generation of readers.”

When I was building lessons for my students around Wilkinson’s text, I started thinking about how important collections of short fiction and anthologies are to ELA curriculums. We don’t just need contemporary and diverse novels in our curriculums, but we also need contemporary and diverse poetry, short stories, and essays. (shout out #TeachLivingPoets)

So without further ado, below are four collections of Appalachian prose and poetry that I think belong in every secondary classroom library.

(And the only reason that Wilkinson isn’t on my list below is because my students will get to meet her in a few weeks, and I’ve got a whole blog post planned that is reserved exclusively for her genius. Stay tuned.)

Collections & Anthologies for Your Classrooms and Curriculums

  1. The Sound of Holding Your Breath by Natalie Sypolt


A native West Virginian, Natalie Sypolt’s debut book is a collection of powerful short stories set in contemporary Appalachia that feature characters pushed to their breaking points.  You’ll recognize many people in Sypolt’s stories: the boy next door, the girl next door, the preacher’s son, the waitress at your local diner, the overworked teacher, the vet struggling with PTSD, the vet’s wife struggling to understand and help her husband.  But while perhaps recognizable, Sypolt’s characters are anything but ordinary.

From the WVU Press website:

“…tragedy and violence challenge these unassuming lives: A teenage boy is drawn to his sister’s husband, an EMT searching the lake for a body. A brother, a family, and a community fail to confront the implications of a missing girl. A pregnant widow spends Thanksgiving with her deceased husband’s family. Siblings grapple with the death of their sister-in-law at the hands of their brother. And in the title story, the shame of rape ruptures more than a decade later.”

Many of Sypolt’s stories are a perfect fit for secondary ELA classrooms. In my classroom, I have crafted creative writing lessons around “Diving,” “Ghosts,” “Lettuce,” and “Stalking the White Deer.” Whether for a lesson or classroom library, add this book to your “to read” pile soon!

  1. Shall We Gather at the River, edited by David Joy and Eric Rickstad


There is more one essay in this collection that left me with tears in my eyes and my heart overflowing. Full disclosure: I love fishing. But whether you are a fisherman or not, these essays will move you and your students. And while the stories in this collection are about fishing, they are also the ways we connect to nature, each other, and ourselves. There are essays that will make you laugh and essays that will make you cry. And if you have any reluctant readers who are also sportsman, I can guarantee there is an essay in here for them.  Featuring Appalachian writers—Ron Rash and Silas House to name a few—throughout the collection and writers from around the country, this anthology was one of my favorite reads of the summer.

  1. Appalachian Reckoning, edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll

app reckoning

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been one of the most controversial and contentious books written about our region in decades. Since its publication in 2016, writers, activists, and teachers from the region have been refuting and rejecting Vance’s inaccurate portrayal of Appalachia. In this collection from WVU Press, writers from across Appalachia respond to the single story that, thanks to Vance’s novel, was once again thrust to forefront. Featuring prose, poetry, and photography from a wide-range of diverse authors, this book is a treasure trove of classroom resources.  If you are looking to disrupt the single story of Appalachia for yourself or your students, get this collection in your classroom.

  1. LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia,edited by Jeff Mann and Julia Watts


Once you put down Appalachian Reckoning, pick up this and continue disrupting your single story of Appalachia with this anthology, also from WVU Press. I just finished this beautiful collection of poetry and prose last week and have added it to my classroom library.

From the WVU Press website:

“This collection, the first of its kind, gathers original and previously published fiction and poetry from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer authors from Appalachia. Like much Appalachian literature, these works are pervaded with an attachment to family and the mountain landscape, yet balancing queer and Appalachian identities is an undertaking fraught with conflict. This collection confronts the problematic and complex intersections of place, family, sexuality, gender, and religion with which LGBTQ Appalachians often grapple.

With works by established writers such as Dorothy Allison, Silas House, Ann Pancake, Fenton Johnson, and Nickole Brown and emerging writers such as Savannah Sipple, Rahul Mehta, Mesha Maren, and Jonathan Corcoran, this collection celebrates a literary canon made up of writers who give voice to what it means to be Appalachian and LGBTQ.”

Happy reading!

WVCTE wants to know…

if and when YOU include any of these works into your curriculums or classroom libraries! Shout us out on Facebook, Twitter, or via email with a picture and tell us how it goes! We want to hear from you.