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. 






Let’s Talk About the Elementary Canon

470320D8-85C7-489E-AC10-EEAD2E480290.jpegWhat can I say about WVELA ’19 that hasn’t already been said by so many? Jessica’s recap covered so much of a weekend that was transformative and inspiring, and I’ve never left a conference with my well (and my heart) so filled. At the final plenary session of the conference, poet and author of The Crossover Kwame Alexander shared his then yet to be released treasure of a book, The Undefeated. He began his keynote by sharing a sentiment that I truly believe echoed in the hearts of every educator there: “I believe in the power of words to transform lives.” Kwame moved us, challenged us, inspired us. Then we all left, returning to what he referred to as our “sacred” work.

Isn’t that work why we’re all really educators? Isn’t it why you’re reading this post right now? You believe in the power of words to transform lives, and you believe that the work you do in transforming these lives is vital, honorable, and never finished.

One of the ways in which we transform the lives we have the privilege of impacting is through the way in which we choose, read, and teach texts. This is one of the most powerful takeaways from WVELA ’19 that I’ve kept tucked inside my heart and mind. As Kwame’s words reverberate through them also, I feel a mounting sense of conviction to share what I’ve learned about the ways in which we can teach by valuing, celebrating, and honoring our students. Ways that let them know they are seen and known.

I previously shared my own journey and growth in the ways that I promote diversity and inclusivity in classrooms through a blog post about the “shock of recognition” and why our students desperately deserve it. In this post, I touched on the ways in which I’ve strived to honor my students’ diverse experiences, identities, and perspectives and the many ways in which I have – with the best of intentions – failed. As I learn, I do better. I strive to be better.

So much of my ongoing growth is due to the amazing teacher leaders and educators at WVELA  ’19 and the work of those like Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who they have pointed me to. It is her research and work that has given us insight into how books are “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” and the transformative power that they offer readers – ourselves and our students. If we understand these possibilities and how our students both need and deserve them, where do we go from here?

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” – Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop (1990)

So much of the work and learning we do as teachers forces us to rely on one another. Ours is a passion and career where we find renewed strength when we join together. The more connected we become, the stronger we become… and the more we grow. As I attended sessions at WVELA ’19, met and chatted with educators, and cried through powerful keynotes, I become more aware and certain of these truths.

This is why it made sense that, naturally, my heart leapt out of my chest as I listened to Tricia Ebarvia share the work she and her team are doing through restorative practice as they #DisruptTexts in a typically Western, white and male canon. Further still, I felt myself want to shout out loud in unison with the Hallelujah chorus that was rising within this same heart as I was encouraged to #TeachLivingPoets and widen my reading and teaching lenses through #THEBOOKCHAT.

I looked around the rooms I was in thinking, Wow. These are my people.

Only, sometimes it can be slightly polarizing to feel like one of the few elementary teachers you know who are dedicated to and currently engaging in this work. I know there are others out there, and thanks to my WVELA experiences I’m more inspired than ever to seek them out and connect. It’s time for me to step out from the background and join in the conversation. And so, I find myself looking for ways to join in the conversation and encourage others to do the same.

This is a conversation that is threaded throughout hashtags and Twitter handles of the secondary ELA cybersphere. The discussion is impassioned and honest, with souls bared. They challenge, encourage, and learn from one other. There’s a sense of collective purpose and common good – tied together by the same belief in the power of words at the heart of their sacred work.

But equity, inclusivity, and diversity are not grade specific.

We need to bare our souls as well.

So, let’s talk about the elementary canon.

So often, the read alouds and mentor texts that are used are those that have always been used, and not often questioned. And they are usually limiting – exclusive narratives from the same perspectives, cultures, and identities that keep our students from experiencing books as mirrors, windows, or sliding glass doors.

This is why I continue to be so thankful for organizations and movements like We Need Diverse Books, Teaching for Justice, Rethinking Schools, and 1,000 Black Girl Books. There are a plethora of resources for elementary and middle school teachers who want to take part in the conversation and take steps toward growing as teachers through engaging in restorative practice.

So, in the spirit of National Poetry Month and in an effort to #buildmystack as I continue to honor inclusivity and diversity through the texts I choose, I wanted to share a few of the poets I’ve been celebrating and teaching recently. Poetry is by far my favorite thing to teach. Over the years, I’ve created units for teaching elementary students that have consisted of poetry from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost. All amazing poets, and all no longer with us. While I enjoy reading living poets, I hadn’t previously considered the lack of exposure my students had to them or how limiting my selection was.

This year, I’ve been committed to introducing students to living poets, with particular emphasis on poets from various cultures, races, identities, and groups. The accessibility of poetry makes it the perfect genre for introducing some of the heavier topics and social issues that elementary students are sometimes shielded from. Also a beneficial means of tackling interpretive work, determining themes, and analyzing authors’ choice and craft, it allows for reading through a critical, analytical lens.


Some of our absolute favorites in fourth and fifth grade this year have been Naomi Shihab Nye, Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, and Clint Smith. All of these poets’ work are great access points to introducing students to social issues. They are also a great starting place for disrupting the elementary canon. Most recently, I have witnessed “the right way to speak” from Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and “Commercial Break” from Locomotion challenge, move, and inspire students, much like the words of Kwame Alexander in that auditorium full of teachers.

While I acknowledge that I’m still moving through my journey as a teacher who values social justice, restorative practice, and equity, I strive for my practices to match my philosophies. As I reflect on how far I’ve come with some satisfaction, I look with anticipation to the teacher I will become. More than this, I look forward to meeting and learning from those who will make me better.


WVCTE is wondering… How do you disrupt the elementary canon? What diverse books, authors, and poets do you recommend? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!


Jessica Michael Bowman is a literacy coach for Berkeley County Schools, unabashed bibliophile, and advocate of lifelong literacy. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from literacy, her other loves of life are traveling with her family and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.


Join us in March for #WVELA19!

By Jessica Salfia

We are gearing up for WVELA19 and we couldn’t be more excited!

Let’s be honest, the last few months—heck, the last few years–as a West Virginia teacher have been trying. We’ve listened to our elected officials falsely claim our schools are failing. We’ve spent the last few years advocating and fighting for our profession. We’ve walked in, walked out, lobbied our lawmakers, rallied together, and fought to make public education in West Virginia stronger.

Our work at WVCTE and the creation of this conference is part of that fight.

WVCTE and NWP@WVU know that empowering teachers, providing opportunities for collaboration, and working together to make our classrooms and teaching stronger than ever is one of the powerful weapons we have. This March our second annual WVELA Conference is focusing on creating more diverse and inclusive classrooms.  We hope you will join us for this incredible weekend of learning, collaboration, and empowering conversation.

In addition to the over 50 concurrent presentations from super star teachers from all over the country, you won’t want to miss these featured keynote sessions!

  1. Award Winning YA Author, Kwame Alexander


Kwame Alexander is a poet, educator, and the New York Times Bestselling author of 28 books, including SWING, SOLO, and REBOUND, the follow-up to his, NEWBERY medal-winning middle grade novel, THE CROSSOVER. Some of his other works include BOOKED, a NATIONAL BOOK AWARD Nominee, THE PLAYBOOK: 52 RULES TO HELP YOU AIM, SHOOT, AND SCORE IN THIS GAME OF LIFE, and the picture books, OUT OF WONDER, SURF’S UP, and THE UNDEFEATED.

A regular contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition, Kwame is the recipient of numerous awards, including The Coretta Scott King Author Honor, The Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Prize, Three NAACP Image Award Nominations, and the 2017 Inaugural Pat Conroy Legacy Award. He believes that poetry can change the world, and he uses it to inspire and empower young people around the world through THE WRITE THING, his K-12 Writing Workshop. The 2018 NEA Read Across America Ambassador, Kwame is the founder of VERSIFY, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and the host and producer of the literary variety/talk show, Bookish, which airs on Facebook Watch. He’s led cultural exchange delegations to Brazil, Italy, Singapore, and Ghana, where he built the Barbara E. Alexander Memorial Library and Health Clinic, as a part of LEAP for Ghana, an international literacy program he co-founded.

  1. Educator, Author, and Past President of NCTE, Jocelyn Chadwick

Joceyln Chadwick

Jocelyn A. Chadwick has been an English teacher for over thirty years—beginning at Irving High School in Texas and later moving on to the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she was a professor for nine years and still guest lectures. Dr. Chadwick also serves as a consultant for school districts around the country and assists English departments with curricula to reflect diversity and cross-curricular content. For the past two years, she has served as a consultant for NBC News Education’s Common Core Project for Parents, ParentToolkit. In June 2015, Chadwick was elected Vice President for the National Council of Teachers of English.

Throughout her career, she has published articles in leading academic journals, presented papers at scholarly conferences, and conducted teacher workshops around the country and abroad. Her many publications include The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Making Characters Come Alive! Using Characters for Identification and Engagement,” “Assessment: Our (Re) Inventing the Future of English,” and her April 2015 book, Common Core: Paradigmatic Shift. Summing up her career, Dr. Chadwick says she was born to be an English teacher and will always be one.

  1. Educator and #DisruptTexts co-founder, Tricia Ebarvia

selfie after school

In addition to teaching, Tricia is the co-Director for the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP), a site of the National Writing Project (NWP). A blogger and regular contributor to the “From the Classroom” column on the PAWLP website and monthly to writing has also been published in English Journal, Literacy Today, and Education Week. In May 2016, she was named to the second cohort of Heinemann Fellows, an action-research “think tank” of teachers led by Ellin Keene. In 2018, she co-founded the anti-bias, anti-racist pedagogy effort #DisruptTexts with the goal of advocating for more inclusive and equitable curricula and pedagogies. Currently, she also provides professional development to teachers and school districts in her role as a literacy consultant and teaching fellow with The Educator Collaborative.

  1. The Folger Shakespeare Library and Dr. Peggy O’Brien

Join Shakespeare scholar, educator SUPERSTAR, and Dr. Peggy O’Brien for a deep dive into the language of The Bard. Dr. O’Brien was named the Folger’s director of education in May 2013. A former Folger educator, she established the Library’s education philosophy and the bulk of its programs in the 1980s and led the department until 1994, when she left to become director of education programs for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Most recently, she was the chief of family and public engagement for D.C. public schools and a member of the Chancellor’s leadership team. Dr. O’Brien earned an A.B. from Trinity College, an M.A. from Catholic University of America, and a Ph.D. from The American University. She serves on a variety of boards and advisory committees and is frequently called upon to delivery keynote addresses and papers. Among her publications are the Shakespeare Set Free series published by Simon and Schuster. Her long and distinguished career has brought her numerous awards and honors, including Doctor of Laws honoris causa from Trinity University, Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa from Georgetown University, the Public Humanities Award from the D.C. Community Humanities Council, and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 2008 Shakespeare Steward Award. Prior to her first appointment at the Folger, she spent a number of years teaching high school English in the DC Public Schools, and since then has taught undergraduate courses at Georgetown University.

  1. Award Winning Appalachian Author, Ann Pancake

ann pancake.jpg

Ann Pancake grew up in Romney and Summersville, West Virginia. Her second short story collection, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, was published by Counterpoint Press in February 2015.

Her first novel, Strange As This Weather Has Been (Counterpoint 2007), features a southern West Virginia family devastated by mountaintop removal mining. Based on interviews and real events, the novel was one of Kirkus Review’s Top Ten Fiction Books of 2007, won the 2007 Weatherford Award, and was a finalist for the 2008 Orion Book Award.

Pancake’s first collection of short stories, Given Ground, won the 2000 Bakeless award, and she has also received a Whiting Award, an NEA Grant, a Pushcart Prize, and creative writing fellowships from the states of Washington, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Her fiction and essays have appeared in journals and anthologies like The Georgia ReviewPoets and WritersNarrative, and New Stories from the South. She earned her BA in English at West Virginia University and a PhD. in English Literature from the University of Washington.

  1. Affrilachian Poet and Speaker, Crystal Good


Crystal Good is a writer poet. Quantum Christian. Tunk player. Libra charmer. Underdog cheerleader.As a member of the Affrilachian (African-American- Appalachian) Poets, she is a featured poet/speaker at universities and colleges. “Valley Girl” is her first book of poetry. The poems explore themes in quantum physics, Appalachian culture, gender equality, and mountaintop removal. Crystal has been published in: Pluck! The Journal for Affrilachian Culture, Appalachian Heritage, The Book of Now Poetry for the Rising Tide, Black Bone, Eyes Glowing At The Edge Of The Woods, Appalachian Rekoning and Global Mountain Regions. Her work is the subject of print and online interviews and articles and she was a speaker at the 2013 TEDx conference in Lewisburg, WV.

Don’t miss this incredible opportunity!

We hope you will join us for this incredible conference, but more importantly, we hope you will join us to add your voice to the conversation about the success in our schools and how we can make West Virginia schools stronger than ever.



WVCTE Excellence in Teaching Award


On Rebeholding the Canon and Reading-In

If my children believe they can disrupt the canon of their favorite pastime, how much more should teachers, as the adults in the room, grant ourselves permission to fill in the spaces with texts that challenge our students?

By Adrin Fisher

My two middle-school aged sons love videogames—but they don’t get to play as often as they’d prefer (which would be every single day).  To fill time between videogame sessions, they talk about videogames, read handbooks and record books and novels about videogames, and invent their own storylines for videogames.  One word they’ve adopted in the past year is “canon.” It’s not uncommon to hear them argue about whether this or that place is “canon” to The Legend of Zelda or if it is outside the “official timeline.”  As I type, in fact, they’re in a heated debate over the canonical placement of Netflix’s The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants vis-à-vis the Captain Underpants novels.  Somehow, the placement within “canon” is up for debate—at least in the minds of my creative children.

It occurs to me, then, that the notion of canon is in the eye of the beholder. 

It’s a list—but not one that we live and die by. 

It’s full of white, male writers—but with imagination and creativity we can expand. 

It’s come to be seen as prescriptive—but it’s ripe for discussion and challenge. 

If my children believe they can disrupt the canon of their favorite pastime, how much more should teachers, as the adults in the room, grant ourselves permission to fill in the spaces with texts that challenge our students? That reflect the modern world our students live in? That demonstrate diversity in terms of race, class, gender, and orientation?

On a gloomy day last February, I was lying on the couch scrolling through social media.  I caught a notice about a project sponsored by the Black Caucus of National Conference of Teachers of English called the African-American Read-In.  It is a simple proposition:  gather people to read out loud from the works of African-American writers.  The Read-Ins often occur in February to coincide with Black History Month.  I immediately decided to make this happen this at my school. 

I called a colleague in my department and a well-loved retired history teacher.  Coordinating with our administration, we decided to do the Read-In during the AA time built in to our Wednesday schedule.  We had students sign up to attend.

It was clear to me that the best way to run this Read-In would be to have students doing the reading—after all, they listen to teachers most of their day—so I sought out student readers.  I explained that all they had to do was read something.  Once.  No questions, no analysis, no discussion.  I encouraged my kids to choose poems.  Some had a favorite African-American writer.  For others, I printed out options.  I prepared a handout listing student readers and the pieces they had chosen.

On February 21, 2018, the readers sat on the edge of the stage. The house lights were dim and the spectators sat in the center section. 

It was breathtaking.

Fairmont Senior High’s 2018 African-American Read-In

High school students sat in awed silence as their peers read words from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Emi Mahmoud, Lucille Clifton, and many others.  One student in particular—Haikeem—started off shaky, unsure.  But by the end of “Still I Rise,” his voice rang out, filling the auditorium.  His classmates whooped. 

Many of the readers were African-Americans students, but not all.  Many of the spectators were African-American students, but not all.

This event was the first African-American Read-In in the history of Fairmont Senior—one of only two events in the entire state of West Virginia last year as listed with NCTE.   

Afterward, I opened my door for my 3rd period English 12 class.  Two students in that class had read.  Two students who had struggled through high school had volunteered to read out loud to seventy of their peers.  Two students—or, rather, many students—found power and belonging in reading out loud.  And their comment for me?

“Mrs. Fisher, when can we do it again?”

So, this year’s event is scheduled for February 27, 2019—and we’re looking to build on the success of last year to bring more students into this expansion of the canon.  Now, is one event enough?  Of course not. 

But it’s the notion of change, the idea that teachers have the freedom to expand the texts we highlight. 

We do it through intentional celebrations of diversity. 

We do it through silent reading time. 

We do it through our big, dog-eared, thrift-store-found classroom libraries.

We do it through the studied choice of mentor texts, hooking Paul Lawrence Dunbar to Shakespeare.

We challenge the canon while teaching the required texts—
and we rebehold (and recreate) the canon as we go.

You can read about the FSHS 2018 Read-In at

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. Interested in hosting a Read-In?  See how you can rebehold the canon by checking out NCTE’s toolkit page.   How do you bring diverse voices into the classroom?  Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not explaining the red #EndItMovement X on her hand, helping students appreciate Banquo’s advice to Macbeth, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her chatting with her boys, tree bathing, or pounding through a good novel. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Finding All Students in Text

Walter Dean Myers, author of MonsterFallen Angle, and Scorpion, among others young adult novels,    was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Books transmit values.  They explore our common humanity.  What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”  As a self-professed ‘book nerd’ I found my friends in the literature I read.  Books took me on adventures to near and far away lands.  I discussed my literature friends with classmates and as I got older, in book clubs.  Our discussion focused on how characters and people shared similar struggles, adventures, epiphanies and life lessons.  I learned about characters’ lives  in books including those who lived in other parts of the world.   Because I was widely read, the friends I met between the pages came in all shapes and sizes and experienced different ways of life.    We had many similarities and differences, those book friends and I, that helped me grow as a person.

Novelist Chimamanda Adichie raises the same issue in her TedTalk entitled the “Danger of a Single Story”.  Adichie introduces the audience to her Nigerian upbringing reading mostly American and British books.  The characters she created as a young author had blue eyes, pony tails, and drank ginger beer.  They represented nothing of her Nigerian friends or life.  She stressed the importance of including culturally relevant texts with young readers and writers and that when we don’t, we “risk a critical understanding” about one another.

The Danger of a Single Story


In my own classroom, where racial and religious diversity are virtually non-existent, I attempt to introduce my students to a variety of characters, some of whom look like them while others do not.   I am not a traditional teach to the canon teacher but I do like to include a few of the classics such as “The Crucible”, To Kill a Mockingbird and the required dabble into a Shakespeare tragedy.  While these are all outstanding texts, what they lack is relevance to my students and their lives.  These “traditional texts” do not introduce students to a wide array of diverse characters.  The “different” characters included in these books are stock or stereotyped in many instances.

I’ve been building my array of literature to include The Pecan Man which has strong black and white female characters; and Everything I Never Told You and Samurai Garden which feature strong Asian characters.  I also teach The Other Wes Moore which explores the lives of two men, one white and  the other black, named Wes Moore and what happens to them in Baltimore.

book covers from Amazon

Each year I try to find more texts that represent an element of diversity that my students do not typically see.  Following different blogs, networking with teachers, joining specialty FaceBook groups have all been wonderful sources for identifying new literature to teach in class.   My hope is to have them begin to find new perspectives in the literature to stretch their thinking and understanding of others.

I want all students to find themselves somewhere in the literature that we read in class while also finding their friends.  I push them to see themselves as readers and writers with complex ideas and thoughts which I also want them to see reflected in the texts which we read.  Ezra Hyland says in best, “When you have children in school and the literature doesn’t look like them, it doesn’t sound like them, it does not deal with their issues, you’re pushing them out rather than inviting them in.”  I want to invite my students in to the conversation by helping them create connections to the texts.  With 50% of the population in the United States being non-white, we need to challenge ourselves to bring everyone into our classrooms through the literature we teach and read.

Cheryl Stahle is a contributing blogger for WVCTE.  She teaches at Parkersburg High School and is the Co-Director of the Central West Virginia Writing Project based out of Marshall University.  Cheryl is also the Vice President of the Marshall Literary Council.  She is a not so regular tweeter @msstahleclass.  Besides teaching American Literature, her other classroom goal is to teach 1970s classic rock to her students.

WVCTE is wondering how you use diverse literature in your classroom? 

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