Traveling the World with Podcasts: From Dollywood to Ghana to Selma and Beyond


Are you fresh out of ideas about what to teach next to your virtual students? Are you struggling to find engaging content that is free, easily accessible, understandable to students, and in the public domain? Tired of dredging your brain and the internet for content every week to teach?

Never fear, the blog post on podcasts as literature is here!

If you have yet to dive into the wonderful world of podcasts, now is a great time to start. For those who don’t know, podcasts are recorded audio segments, usually focused on particular topics or themes. It is a great way to share interviews, stories, and information in a format that is easily accessible and free for listeners.

I personally have become a podcast junkie over the last few years. So, in September when my school told me that I had to teach English all year to a group of all virtual students, but that the county was not going to pay for access to online versions of novel sets for classes, so we had to basically rebuild our curriculum ourselves with no resources and no guidance, so, have fun and go figure it out real fast, I panicked for a bit. Then, I started thinking about literature from an access perspective—what had the power to convey what is essential about great stories but in a platform that allowed free access for anyone? One of the venues I came up with was that of the almighty podcast.

Usually, I do a unit on social justice literature with my students, and this year before I realized that we had to teach English all year basically without books, I had been planning on steering my students towards non-fiction social justice books. When I started thinking about this content from the perspective of podcasts, I realized that many of the same overall goals I had envisioned accomplishing through a non-fiction social justice literature unit could also be accomplished through a social justice podcast as literature unit.

And because we as teachers in West Virginia and all across the world are #allinthistogether, I am going to share all of my resources with you so that you can use this podcast unit with your classes in any way, shape, form, or fashion (to borrow a Jim Justice-ism) that fits the needs of your students. This is a super adaptable unit, and you could totally use it as is, or you could substitute the podcasts I chose for other podcasts but keep the structure—whatever suits your style and students.


I chose to structure this unit like a literature circle unit in that I gave students a choice of several podcasts and let them rank them in order of preference according to which ones they would be interested in listening to (I used a Google form for this), and then I put them in groups based upon their feedback.

The reason why I chose to give students choice in which podcast to listen to is because a) choice is great and improves student engagement, and b) because some of these podcasts are about touchy (albeit, important!) subjects, and I wanted students to be able to self-select a podcast that fit their emotional and psychological needs the best.

If you are choosing podcasts for options to give your students, I would center them around a theme. This helps because all of the questions you ask them weekly about the podcast can be the same questions across podcasts, and some of the ancillary assignments that you give during the unit can work no matter which podcast students are listening to. Also, you know that students are accomplishing similar goals although they are listening to different content.

Here are the podcasts, along with general descriptions, that I gave as options for my students, all of which are either centered around or end up getting to social justice issues.

Podcast Option 1: Dolly Parton’s America

The Dolly Parton’s America podcast is about, well, the one and only Dolly Parton. The podcast starts out with a few episodes about Dolly’s growing up years and her rise to fame, but as the podcast goes on, it discusses Dolly’s perspective on female empowerment, political division, confederate emblems, and the many-faceted feelings about life in Appalachia, to name a few. Some episodes I felt were a bit racy for 14-year-olds, so I tried to choose ones that I felt were reasonably within the realm of school appropriateness.

Podcast Option 2: White Lies

White Lies

White Lies is about the murder of Reverend James Reeb in Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. His murderers were acquitted, and the collaborators of the podcast were pretty sure that one of his murderers was never caught. For fans of true crime podcasts, students can hear this mystery unfold through evidence and lots of interviews.

Podcast Option 3: This American Life

This American Life is a classic podcast with hundreds of episodes on intriguing topics. However, I chose to focus on issues of race, housing discrimination, and education in the podcasts I selected for this project. Students were introduced to the concept of redlining and how it impacts the quality of education which students receive, which in turn impacts the trajectory of their lives.

Podcast Option 4: The New Activist

The New Activist is a podcast hosted by the faith-based organization IJM (International Justice Mission). IJM is an organization which fights against human trafficking through both legal processes and rescues. The portion of the podcast which students listened to was about a girl who goes by Esther (not her real name for safety reasons) who was formerly enslaved in the dangerous job of fishing on Lake Volta in Ghana. IJM discovered and rescued Esther along with many other children.

Podcast Option 5: Displaced

The podcast Displaced is hosted by the IRC (International Rescue Committee) which is an organization that promotes the welfare of refugees and displaced people. Displaced interviews people who work to helped displaced people around the globe about their perspective on the best ways to help people displaced by conflict as well as how to de-escalate that conflict before people are displaced. The episodes I chose focus largely on how displacement affects children, their education, their development, and their future.

Below is a link to the fillable Word document that I gave to students to help them choose a podcast. It has links to short previews for each podcast in addition to the description so that the students could hear a bit of the podcast before choosing one.


I chose to have students listen to podcasts weekly and discuss with each other on the online platform FlipGrid. FlipGrid allows students to make videos and respond to each other’s videos in video form all on a secure platform. Because they are making videos back and forth to each other, they are essentially engaging in a slow discussion. Below is a screenshot of what the Week 3 Topic and directions looked like for my Dolly Parton’s America Podcast FlipGrid.

The document below gives an outline of which podcast episode(s) I assigned per podcast per week and also the questions I had students answer on their FlipGrid discussion videos and response videos each week. This was a document used for my planning purposes, and I DID NOT share this directly with students.


I made a go-to document which I shared with the class containing all info that they needed each week of their podcast unit. It had the FlipGrid code for each podcast, the names of the students in each group, the episode(s) which they were assigned that week along with links to those episode(s), and all due dates clearly listed for the week.

I removed my join codes and the names of my students and included that document here. This was the document that I DID share with students and is designed for their use. The only podcast not listed on here is the Displaced podcast because not enough of my students signed up for that as their first choice, so I ended up not doing that one. If you use this document, you will want to change the dates and some instructions, but it may be helpful to use this structure and the links in the document.


Of course, the best part of teaching is watching students grow and learn and discover. A unit like this does take a bit of work to set up on the front end, but throughout the unit, you get to watch your students connect with life-changing stories that will stick with them for years to come and will challenge their perspectives.

It may even inspire them to become the change that they want to see in the world, which is always a goal of mine as a teacher.

Liz Jorgensen (formerly Keiper) is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJorgenTeach.

WVCTE is wondering…

  1. What are other venues for engaging, accessible content that you have used in the virtual education world this school year?
  2. What are some other podcasts which could work well with a unit like this?

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

Videos for Change


“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

― Nelson Mandela ―

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

― Martin Luther King Jr. ―

Mandela and King are two of my heroes. They were intelligent, organized, insightful, articulate and most importantly, would stop at nothing to achieve justice. As English teachers, we are blessed with being paid to help our students achieve these traits as well so that they can in turn go out and change the world.

And I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic or cliche sense—there are students in our classrooms who, because of a topic that we read or talked about or because of the speaking or writing skills that we taught them or because of a new perspective that we instilled in them through discussion, will in some capacity work to fight against that injustice for others.

It is vitally important for the next generation of compassionate justice advocates that we expose students to both what is deeply amiss in the world and also examples of those who are doing something about it.

The videos below are a start down that path. They all show a person or organization that has recognized a problem around them and has creatively worked to solve root causes of that problem. They are inspiring examples of people who were not ok with the status quo, thought long and hard about what would actually help solve the problem, and then made their big plans into actions. If you can get through all of these videos of transformational change without tearing up or wanting to quit your day job to go work for them, you are a more stoic person than I. Check out these videos, and afterwards, I’ll share how I use them and also other ideas of how you could use them.


Veronica Scott has a heart for the homeless. She created a prototype of a coat that could be turned into a sleeping bag and started giving them to people who were without homes. That is, until she realized that what many of these people ultimately wanted was a job and a fresh start. She began hiring homeless women to produce these coats, which has helped these women pay for housing because of the source of steady income. Coats? Easy to create. Opportunities for jobs? Harder because that requires trust, mentoring, and long-term investment in the messy lives of people. But both are necessary.


It takes money to make money. Kiva gives microloans to people in developing nations who have the drive but not the resources to start a small business. This enables investors to contribute to the efforts of a would-be small business owner on the other side of the world, effectively enabling the philanthropically-minded with a way to build into systemic change and economic development in a community. Even a small loan can go a long way, so you don’t need to be a Kardashian to get involved.

hair stylists

So, why hair dressers? One of the root causes of the often prolonged and unknown quality of domestic violence is because abuse victims feel pressure to keep their abuse quiet. Hair dressers work up close to their clients and can often spot well hidden head and neck trauma or scars. Also, they often develop friendships with their clients and can be a safe haven for someone who doesn’t know whom to trust.


For certain segments of society, obtaining a job is a near-impossible endeavor. For no one is that more true than the formerly incarcerated or those convicted of a felony. However, if we believe in forgiveness and giving people second chances, it’s pretty cruel to release them from prison and then prevent them from obtaining the very thing necessary to life on the outside: a job. Greyston Bakery has an open hiring policy, so to get hired, a prospective employee puts their name on the list, and Greyston Bakery hires people in order of the list, no questions asked. There are opportunities for anyone who shows aptitude to work their way up into a manger position, as does the employee featured in this video.

Heifer Top Image

I am a long-time fan of the Heifer Project. Heifer raises money to donate farm animals and crop seedlings to distressed farmers in developing nations. They train recipients about how to care for the animals and crops. These gifts can produce both food and revenue for the recipient’s family, and the family is encouraged to share offspring of their animal with other local families and to train them as well. As Alton Brown says in the video, “It is a gift that grows and may be the best, hardest working gift you will ever give. And that, my friends, is the recipe for lasting change.” Indeed. Also, Heifer allows you to give gifts in a person’s name, so maybe instead of getting your mother-in-law another knick-knack for Christmas that will sit on her mantle until she donates it to Goodwill, buy a goat or a flock of geese or a colony of bees for a family in her name. Less clutter for her to deal with, more good for you to accomplish.

malala fund

My particularly education-averse students are always surprised by this video because they cannot fathom children wanting to go to school even if they are not forced to do so by adults, truancy officer, or courts. It is fun to watch their incredulity as they see passionate and articulate girls talk about their deep desire for education and how they are prevented from achieving just that because of where they were born, the society they live in, or their economic status. Malala understands that oppression of women begins with preventing education because lack of education leads to lack of opportunity, and she is out to break that cycle by funding schools for girls who would not otherwise be able to be educated.


Ok, so these organizations are awesome. But how do I use these in the classroom to inspire my students to create lasting change in their world?

Great question, reader. Below are some ideas.

1. Conduct a Research Project

Mattie project

I use these videos as an anticipatory lesson for my research unit. I have students watch these videos in stations around the room and answer these three questions about each video:

  1. What is the problem that this organization is trying to solve?
  2. What is one of the root causes of this problem?
  3. How does this organization work to combat one of the causes of this problem?

Here is the document for that activity: World Changers Intro Stations notes sheet

Then, the next day, I explain that we are going to be conducting research about problems, the roots of those problems, and workable solutions to the problem. Below is a snapshot of my project. Feel free to message me on Twitter (@LizJorgenTeach) if you want more research and details on this unit because I have all the things that I would be more than happy to send to you if you would like to do this project or adapt it.

Project Snapshot:

  1. Choose a problem that exists in your community, the nation, or the world which interests you.
  2. Research causes and solutions for your chosen problem.
  3. Write a research paper arguing causes of the problem (why the problem is a problem) and a solution (how the problem may be combatted). Points = 200
  4. Write a proposal of something that YOU could do to motivate Spring Mills High School students to take action against this problem. Points = 50

*These proposals will be read by a committee of teachers and staff, and one will be chosen to be actually implemented at SMHS.

2. Write an Editorial


*Insert Shameless Plug here for Journalistic Writing and Publication*

I feel that it is my duty as your friendly neighborhood journalism teacher to remind you of the power of authentic audiences in writing. And also, most school newspaper teachers (and local newspapers as well!) LOVE collaborating with other teachers to publish student work! How about having your students write editorials outlining a problem and creative solutions to that problem? Below, I have a document that I have made to introduce my newspaper students to editorial/op-ed writing. This protocol could be easily adapted for a project like this. Also, here is a link to my school’s online newspaper editorial column to give you some examples of student-written editorials.

Writing Editorials 2019-2020

3. Use as a Spring-board for Non-Fiction Literature Circles

literature circles

There are so many amazing non-fiction titles that have been published on problem-solution and social change topics in the last few years. Why not apply for a grant to get a handful of copies of each and have your students read them together in groups? Here are just a few personal favorites:

Disclaimer: The above books vary in length, difficulty, and graphic nature. Use discretion when deciding whether they are academically and developmentally appropriate for your group of students.


I could wax eloquently on the academic benefits of social change and service learning projects, but I think that I will leave you with a quote from Malala which not only applies to the girls in parts of the world which restrict education for women but also applies to our students as well:

“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

That one teacher could be you. Let’s go change the world.


Liz Jorgensen (formerly Keiper) is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJorgenTeach.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • What are other ways that you include social activism and change into your curriculum?
  • What service learning projects have you implemented with your students?

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

The Human Development Index: Analyzing Economic Data in English Class


The American Dream.

It’s one of those slippery concepts that is hard to define or pin down. We have a sense of what it is, but helping 14-year-olds to a nuanced understanding of the term can be difficult because often people mean many different concepts when they use that phrase. Some mean either being able to achieve high levels of wealth, or just being able to escape poverty and achieve financial stability. Others mean having their rights and freedoms secured. Those coming to this country from war-torn nations view the “land of opportunity” in a different light than most of us—we take for granted that we don’t generally have to worry about armed bands of militias breaking down our front door and taking whatever they want from us at gunpoint.

All of these complicated viewpoints form facets of this concept that is The American Dream… the idea that in America, one can become who they want to be through hard work and perseverance. This concept is important in the book Of Mice and Men that I teach with my ninth grade English students, but truly it is an important concept in any book that deals with poverty, injustice, or economics.

When students come into my class, they usually fall into one of two fairly rigid platforms regarding America; they either view America as infallible and think that patriotism entails unwavering and wholesale support of everything about this nation, or they have a markedly negative view of America and think that we can never do anything right as a country. Part of my goal through this unit is to help students come to a more nuanced understanding of America—that citizens here do indeed have many more rights and freedoms than other places around the world and that we do aspire to justly secure these rights and freedoms for all people in our country, but also that we are far from perfectly achieving that goal and that there is much work to be done to improve our country. I want them to duly feel thankful for what we have in this nation but also not view as patriotic sacrilege critiquing aspects of American society that need to be changed.

Social Mobility Video Analysis

Social Mobility

This year, I decided to focus on the phrase “Social Mobility” in order to explain what it means to achieve the American Dream. I found three helpful videos relating to the phrase “Social Mobility”:

  • Social Mobility: Crash Course Sociology #26—This is a helpful overview of social mobility and some data showing how this plays out in society. As per most Crash Course videos, the speaker talks REALLY fast, so tell your students to buckle their seatbelts! And that it’s ok for them not to retain every single word that the speaker says as long as they understand the bigger picture that she’s painting.
  • Is America Dreaming?: Understanding Social Mobility—This is a video produced by the Brookings Institute, a think-tank based in Washington D.C. The speaker uses Legos to visually portray the data that he cites to back up his points about social mobility in America.
  • Current Trends in Social Mobility: Raj Chetty—Produced by the Stanford Economics department, in this video, the speaker uses a heat map of the United States to show how social mobility differs depending on the region of the country in which a person grows up, and he draws some overarching conclusions about what communities in the U.S. with high social mobility are doing right to help people achieve the American Dream.

I had my students watch the above videos in succession and write down three facts that they learned from each of them. Then, I had them answer the following analysis questions in groups:

  1. Based on information in the videos, explain what “social mobility” is in your own words.
  2. What were similar pieces of information or themes that you heard repeated in multiple videos?
  3. Based on the videos, what are some things about American society that seem to be going well? In other words, how is America improving or helping some people achieve the American Dream? Give specific evidence from the videos to support your point.
  4. Based on the videos, what are some things about American society that seem to be going poorly? In other words, how does America need to get better at helping some people achieve the American Dream? Give specific evidence from the videos to support your point.

We then used these questions to springboard discussion about the real possibility of achieving the American Dream for various demographics of society. Here is a copy of the document I used for that: Social Mobility Videos Analysis

Human Development Index Analysis


After exposing my students to some disheartening inequality in our country, I also wanted them to see our nation from a more international perspective because that plays a big role in defining the American Dream as well.

To achieve that goal, I had my students analyze data from the Human Development Index (HDI). The very newest data from the year 2017 was just released about a week ago, which was before I designed the project, so I used last year’s processed data from 2016: hdr_2016_statistical_annex

The HDI is a massive amount of data from every country in the world that is collected and compiled by the UN. Using data on everything from education to inequality to medical access to the justice system, the Human Development Index lists countries from what they term “Most Developed” to “Least Developed.” They also provide a plethora of tables to show the individual pieces of data used to determine this classification.

The U.S. is currently at #10, tied with Canada, on the 2016 version of the HDI. In the grand scheme of things, this is pretty high, but there are ten other countries that considered “more developed” than the U.S., so there is also room for improvement. Here is a helpful video that explains the HDI and how to use it to analyze countries’ development.

For this activity, I first had students work in groups and gave each group five countries to examine: the U.S., a country higher than the U.S. on the HDI which was ranked “Very High,” a country ranked “High,” a country ranked “Medium,” and a country ranked “Low.” For each of these countries (other than the U.S.), the groups had to answer these questions to familiarize them a bit with the countries that they were studying:

  1. Describe where this country is located.
  2. What is the national language of this country?
  3. What sort of government/leadership does this country have?
  4. What is the capitol of this country?
  5. Do a Google image search for the capitol. Describe what the capitol of this country looks like.

Then, I gave them a chart of specific data to find on these countries using the HDI. My document for this activity is linked here. Human Development Index analysis

After finding data on each of their assigned countries, each student answered these analysis questions synthesizing their findings from the data:

  1. Which piece(s) of data surprised you the most, and why? Explain.
  2. Give some examples of measures in which the United States seemed to rank better than another country. Provide specific data to back up your answers.
  3. Give some examples of measures in which the United States seemed to rank worse than another country. Provide specific data to back up your answers.
  4. Name at least three specific criteria that you think would most affect a country’s development efforts. In other words, name three categories that would most hold a country back if they were not doing well in those categories. Explain why you think that those categories are so important to a country’s wellbeing.
  5. Name at least three ways that the United States seems to be helping people achieve the American Dream based on the data. Provide specific data to back up your answers, and explain your choices.
  6. Name at least three areas in which the United States needs to improve in order to better help people achieve the American Dream based on the data. Provide specific data to back up your answers, and explain your choices.

As with the video analysis, this activity also sparked great discussion from my students. For example, as they were locating data on their assigned countries, they were surprised to find that among the citizens in many countries labeled as “Medium” or “Low,” there was high justification of wife beating, and sometimes the percentages of this justification was higher for women than for men. “Ms. Keiper,” they asked, “why would WOMEN ever justify WIFE BEATING??” We were able to have some great conversations about societal pressure in shaping people’s opinions and ethics.

On the flip side, they were also surprised to find that the incarceration rate in the U.S. was exponentially higher than any other country above it on the HDI, and that the “confidence in the judicial system” for the U.S. was incredibly low—even lower than many countries listed as “Medium” or “Low” on the HDI. While there is little justification of wife beating in the U.S. and we have many more doctors per 1,000 people than many lesser developed nations do, we are not perfect by any means.


Allowing students to build their own knowledge to come to an understanding of complex themes is essential to their deep understanding of them. After engaging in these data-driven analyses of American society, my students have been much more prepared this year to discuss what Steinbeck is trying to convey about both the beauty and tragedy of American opportunity in Of Mice and Men.

Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • How do you teach about poverty and social mobility in relation to novels in your classroom?
  • What other books besides Of Mice and Men would connect well with this type of analysis?

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

Teaching Slavery Narratives: From Frederick Douglass to Lola Pulido

By Jeni Gearhart

“Enslavement is a process, not an identity”

—Vann Newkirk II, Atlantic Staff Writer

How do we teach about the tragedy of American slavery in the English classroom? Furthermore, how do we teach about it in a way that impacts our students to make a change?

Much of my 1st semester curriculum deals with race and inequality. In 10th grade, I teach To Kill a Mockingbird and The House on Mango Street. In AP Language, I teach March, Persepolis, and The Narrative of the Life of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In these units—and in all of my teaching—my goal is to move beyond the single stories of victims and violators. My goal is to help my students overcome dehumanizing rhetoric and ingrained stereotypes to find the human story.

This past semester, I reworked my entire unit on The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I have taught this book for the past four years, and I was never quite satisfied with my students’ reactions. They were upset by the story, by the grotesque and moving descriptions of treatment of slaves—but their learning stayed within the context of history. I would hear comments like, “How could people act that way?” “That wouldn’t happen today,” “I’m so glad slavery doesn’t exist anymore,” or “Racism now is nothing like this.” I wanted the text to change my students, but for most of them, it didn’t.

Until this year.

This year, I focused on the long-lasting impact of slavery on our society and how it falls into a larger narrative of dehumanizing those who are different—of dehumanizing others for the benefit of power and economic gain.

I started my unit with Alex Tizon’s Atlantic story, “My Family’s Slave.”  If you have not yet read this article, read it right now. Tizon was a Philipino American journalist who realized as an adult that his live-in nanny, Lola, was actually unpaid, and essentially owned by his family. She was his family’s slave for 56 years. Let me remind you that this real story takes place in America in the 90s.

Most of my students were shocked when they read this story. They couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen in the modern world. Some had heard of human trafficking, and some were aware of slavery in other countries, but none of my students expected to hear of such a “normal” American family owning another human.

We followed up this article with a discussion on the meaning of enslavement, and how even Tizon’s story did not adequately humanize Lola. We read follow up pieces from the Atlantic such as “The Enslaved Woman They Called Lola.” We continued to ask: whose story is being told, and who is doing the telling?

Next, in what I think was the most impactful part of my unit, my students worked through modern slavery stations.

Station 1: Your Slavery Footprint An online quiz that asks you to identify the kinds of products you buy, food you eat, your income, the type of home you live in, and other questions. The data is used to calculate how many slaves “work for you” based on your lifestyle habits. The organization is supported by the U.S. Department of State. This was one of the most impactful parts of my entire unit.

Station 2: Crash Course on Globalization A short crash course video discussing how globalization and industrialization worldwide both helps and hurts human rights issues, such as modern slavery.

Station 3: Lisa Kristine’s Photos of Modern Slavery Kristine photographs slaves and underpaid workers around the world to raise awareness off this human rights issue.

After completing the stations, my students wrote a reflection on the following

  • What have you learned about slavery or dehumanization in the last week?
  • What has most surprised you, upset you, or made you think?
  • What commonalities do we see between slavery of the 18th and 19th century and today? How does dehumanization affect this? What is our responsibility?


This activity moved my students to consider how their choices have an impact on others. By seeing photos of modern slaves, they could put a face on an idea. By reading Lola’s story, it hit home that slavery and its impact did not end in the 1800s.

When we read Frederick Douglass this year, my students connected to Lola. When we read March or discussed this excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates Between The World and Me, they started to get that dehumanization has a profound and lasting impact.

Among many other profound pieces of insight from Coates’ text, was this quote:

Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

We can’t teach about slavery in a way that isolates it from its impact. We need to see the human in the story. My students have started to have conversations about people, not just about ideas. As teachers, we need to help facilitate these conversations with our students.

The slave is human. The prisoner is human. The immigrant is human. When we recognize this, change is made. We are starting to see the beauty of humanity in all people—I hope.



WVCTE is wondering, how do you approach issues of racism or dehumanization in your classroom? What do you think is the role of the teacher in this issue? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Jeni Gearhart teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all six years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. She a not a hipster, but adamantly proclaims that she liked coloring books before they were cool. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.

Faces of America: Combatting Prejudice and Stereotypes in the English Classroom

May 2, 1963 Children’s March-American Civil Right’s Movement.


America has been a messy place of late.

I was thinking that earlier today as I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw folks on both sides arguing over Charlottesville, the NFL, DACA, and a host of other recent issues.

Regardless of your political affiliation, following the news can make you question what you believe it means to be “proud to be an American”.

I was lucky to have some life-changing adventures this summer that made me both proud and critical of my American heritage. I visited the Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta, Ellis Island in New York City, and the Smithsonian Museum of African American Culture and History in Washington DC. Inspired by these visits, I dove into Civil Rights memoirs this summer including Coretta Scott King’s memoir, My Life, My Love, My Legacy, and John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s March.

As teachers, how do we create a classroom that is inclusive of the many stories of America? How do we teach pride in our country as well as healthy introspection of American errors?

In my classroom, it starts with the faces in front of me.

This realization inspired one of my favorite lessons this year: Faces of America. I used this two-day activity to start my unit on House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros in my 10th grade class and to introduce my Rhetoric of Revolution unit in AP Language. Much of this was done in collaboration with my teacher buddy, Sarah Ferry (@MrsFerryHHS). She found half of the awesome pictures you’ll see later.

I started this activity with a quickwrite and discussion of the following questions:

  • What does America mean to you? What words come to mind when you think about America?
  • How has your experience (your heritage, race, gender) influenced what you think about America?

This, on its own, was a great discussion. Of course, typical answers of “freedom”, “liberty”, “justice” were common. But, I also had students include words such as “greed”, “complicated”, and “injustice”. Already, a great start to a very heavy and complex discussion.

Next, we watched the music video for Miracles (Something Special) by Coldplay and Big Sean.

All. The. Feels.

For the remainder of the period, my students silently participated in a Gallery Walk. Around the room were faces of America: Immigrants seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, American Muslims waving the American Flag, Native Americans, African American children participating in the Civil Rights Movement. Some images were hopeful, some were sad. All were America. Students took notes on the images and considered the question, “What is America?” After their walk, they wrote a reflection. You can access the powerpoint here for all of the images.


On day 2, we compared Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again” to Switchfoot’s “Looking for America.”

Visions of America Langston Hughes and Switchfoot

In regards to Langston Hughes’ poem, many of my students assumed it was written recently because of its critical message. That should probably tell us something about America in 2017, but I digress.

In the end, this activity is not anything fancy, but it set a great tone for our discussions this year. It allowed us to see both the beauty and the pain surrounding the name “American.” It allowed us to be proud and critical, which will be immensely helpful as we work through such complicated texts as To Kill a Mockingbird.

I’ll end with one of my favorite lines from Langston Hughes

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.


Through our classrooms, let’s make America a land where every man is free.