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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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!

There’s still time to submit! Present at WVELA20!

By Jessica Salfia

One of the things in my professional career that I’m most proud of is the work we’ve done to create WVELA. This conference is an opportunity for West Virginia’s ELA teachers to come together and share, collaborate, and grow. We all know that there is some truly extraordinary teaching happening across the mountain state. Let’s highlight it!

All West Virginia teachers:

This year’s theme is Voice, Identity, and Community: Responsive Teaching In and Out of Schools.


There are so many ways YOU could address this topic!

Got a story about how you’ve reached your students based on their needs? Come share it!

Want to talk about your work as a teacher organizer and activist? We’d love to hear from you even if you don’t teach in an ELA field!

Do you have a lesson or unit that asks students to consider their communities and their roles in it! Walk us through it!

Do you use your classroom as a vehicle for positive change in your school or community? Come tell us about it!


We hope you will join us in Morgantown this spring, and share your talents, your successes, your students’ successes with us!

To submit a proposal for WVELA 20, visit this link:

How Inquiry Led Me to a Vocab Strategy that Actually Works!

By Jessica Salfia

Vocabulary is one of those things that I’m always tinkering with, and I’ve tried it all: memorization, flashcards, quizlets, words of the day.

And despite a few successful strategies, vocabulary is always one of those things that feels like no matter what I do, it could be a hit or miss.

Sometimes kids learn the words and sometimes kids learn the word long enough to take a test or quiz and sometimes it feels like a waste of time.

With vocab lessons and activities, I sometimes feel a bit like I am shouting into a void, so I started asking myself what EXACTLY do I want my students to get out of vocabulary activities?

  1. I want students to acquire language. I want them to think about language and word choice in a purposeful way. I want them to “own” words.
  2. I don’t want students memorizing terms long enough to take a quiz. I want them acquiring tools that will help them as writers and readers.

And then I asked my students what they saw as problems with vocabulary assignments. Here are some of the things they told me:

Me: “Hey kids! Tell me what you think about vocabulary assignments. Do you like them? What works?”

  • “Mrs. Salfia, big lists are overwhelming! More than 10-20 words and I just figure, what’s the point?”
  • “If it’s a word I’ll never use, I don’t try as hard to remember it.”
  • “Vocab stresses me out because I know that the quiz or test is going to bring my grade down.”
  • “We all know that vocab is busy work so teachers can have a grade to put in.”
  • “I know we need it for like, the SAT and ACT, but it’s so boring!”
  • **kid made a vomit sound**
  • “Quizlet and Kahoot help, but writing definitions is a waste of time.” 
  • **someone just gestures “thumbs down” 
  • “Value depends on the class.”
  • “I see value in it, but it’s such a pain.” 

OK, ok…we get the point…

So I’ve identified what the kids don’t like about it, what I want them to get out of it, and I’ve identified some of the problems with vocabulary: big lists are too much, memorization works sometimes, most kids see it as a waste of time, but all of us recognize that there is some value in it.

Then, it hit me. What if instead of 10 or 15 or 20 words, a kid just had to learn one? And what if the emphasis was not on learning a whole list of words, but instead, what if I emphasized conversations about 1 word at a time and language and asked kids to share the word they learned with their friends?

Behold: the most effective vocab lesson I have ever taught was born.

Step 1:

Give students the whole list of words to look over. Here, expect some groans and eyerolls. I just did this with a list of 40 words for The Crucible with my English 11 students and a list of 21 rhetorical devices with my AP Language Students.  You should have seen my English 11 students when I handed them a list of 40 vocab terms. After the initial grunts and groans, tell them all they have to do is read over the list once or twice.

Step 2:

Ask them if they have any questions about any of the words.

Then, assign a single term or two to each student. Tell them at this point, they are only responsible for learning their word(s), but they have to OWN that word or words.

Give them 1-3 days to become an “expert” on that word or term. What does it mean? Where does it come from? How does a writer use it? How would you use it?  You can have them write out these things on a notecard or in their writer’s notebooks.

Step 3:

Start having vocabulary conversations. When your students are experts on “their word,” start class each day with 1-3 word conversations. My students were to meet with a different friend or a few friends each day, and teach each other their words.

My English 11 students then highlighted words on the list they had been taught as words they now “own.”

My AP Lang students are filling out a chart like this one:

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Step 4:

After a week or two of word conversations, your students should now “own” all the terms the class has been assigned. At that time you can assess in whatever way you are most comfortable.

My English 11 students had to use the words correctly in a sentence, and they only had to get 30 of the 40 words correct. Every additional word correct was extra credit.  They did better on these quizzes than on any other vocabulary assessment this year.

My AP students will have to identify the rhetorical devices in action once they have “owned” all the terms from their list. We are still working, but check out these lovely student samples below:


This has been by far the most effective and fun way I have every taught vocabulary. When the emphasis becomes conversation, sharing what you know with a friend, and learning from your peers, some of the vocab anxiety gets eliminated. It becomes less about grades and memorization and more about learning and language.

Let us know if try this in your classroom, or if you have an effective vocabulary strategy that works!

And don’t forget, if you’re interested in sharing knowledge and good conversation, #NCTE19 is this week! Be sure to come find us if you’re in Baltimore, or follow the #NCTE19 hashtag so you can share in all the incredible learning this weekend will bring!



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.