One of our most important jobs as educators is to elevate our students’ voices. Our classrooms should be places were students feel that their voices will not only be heard, but that they will make a difference. I want them to consider their roles in their community and world. Right now, West Virginia is facing some extra-ordinary challenges: a struggling economy, a population decline, an opioid epidemic. Young people in West Virginia are discouraged. They constantly hear negative things about our state, and they ignore or don’t know is that West Virginia has a rich literary and art tradition. That our state exists because Mountaineers rejected slavery and valued freedom. Activists and artists are working tirelessly to create accurate reflections of the complexities and contradictions of our state and culture, and preserve our rich, history and traditions.
This year I decided to try something. I wanted find a way to not just engage my students in conversations about West Virginia and our struggles and successes, but I wanted them to be thinking about their place in West Virginia—how as young people they have a unique voice and perspective regarding how fix problems in our region. I believe that West Virginia’s path forward begins in our classrooms. (To read an Op-ed Karla Hilliard and I wrote about this, click HERE.)
This year, I taught my introduction to rhetoric to my Advanced Placement Class through the lens of Appalachian studies. You can see an overview of the unit HERE. The goals of the unit are (like West Virginia) diverse and multi-faceted. I wanted students to master the basics of rhetorical analysis, but also immerse themselves in the rhetoric surrounding our region.
The final culminating project in this unit was for the students to apply what they learned about crafting effective arguments, and create a proposal to present at the 40th Annual National Appalachian Studies Conference. We approached the task as an exercise in rhetoric. I asked the student to first choose something we studied in the unit that resonated with them. We covered a wide range of topics related to Appalachia: literature, poetry, environmental issues, the opioid epidemic, diversity, veterans, and stereotypes.
Then, students were split into teams had to write a proposal to present their chosen topic at the ASA conference. I asked the students to consider their unique voices. They are teenagers in Appalachia today, and they have a chance to share a concern or a topic with a conference of academics, writers, and activists. We read a few sample proposals and studied the conference website, program, and theme. I asked them to think about their proposals as persuasive essays and apply what they learned through our study of effective arguments.
The kids had a week to put together a “pitch” and write their proposals. They then presented their proposals to the whole class. I chose what I thought were the “top 10” pitches and gave them to a panel of teachers and administrators in my building to evaluate. They narrowed it down to four that they thought were the exemplars in terms of executing the task.
I put these four exemplars and my unit presentation together as a panel proposal for the conference, submitted it not really imagining that we would actually get accepted.
But then we did!
And not only did we get accepted, the conference committee emailed me to say how excited they were the students would be attending.
We were going to Blacksburg.