BY: LIZ KEIPER
Welcome back, all! I hope that you have been having a rejuvenating summer break. This summer, I had the privilege to spend two weeks in Asheville, NC through a program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Quick plug for NEH: They fund programs for teachers all over the country! If you are accepted, you are granted a stipend to pay for travel, books, lodging, food… It’s a good gig. Consider applying for one next summer!
The institute I participated in was called The Power of Place, and it focused on how the ecology of Appalachia has shaped the culture of Appalachia and how the culture has shaped the literature of Appalachia—in other words, an environmental history approach to studying the region. The institute therefore had a Science, Social Studies, and English cross-curricular focus (and there were some math teachers as well!). I learned more in those two weeks than I could process in a thousand blog posts, so I decided to start by sharing resources of many different types with you that I think you could use with your students. Some of our readings were academic-focused, so I’m not including them at this time. These are grab-and-go resources with some ideas on how to use them if you are interested in delving into an ecological-cultural look at Appalachia with your students this year.
Appalachia Film: The basis of the institute was a documentary film on Appalachia produced by the Agee Film project. It is a four-part film on the environmental and cultural history of Appalachia from its earliest known geological history through today. It absolutely blew me away. As with any group of people, you cannot understand why Appalachia is the way it is unless you understand the cultural and environmental factors that have been at play for centuries to get us to our current situation. I also love the approach of the documentary—experts from biologists and geologists to historians, novelists, poets, Cherokee leaders and activists are all interviewed, and their stories are all woven together to form the fabric that is Appalachia. This documentary is applicable for a science, history, or literature curriculum.
Price: $42.95 *Ok, so it’s expensive… But, don’t just keep scrolling and ignore it! Ask your librarian if they could buy it for the school so that teachers could check it out when they wanted to. Or, see if a few science or history teachers will chip in and help you purchase it and take time shares using it 😉 It’s well worth trying to find a way to get your hands on this teaching tool*
Jim Wayne Miller Poetry: Confession—I have fallen in love with Jim Wayne Miller’s poetry. He largely writes about the experience of Appalachians who move out of Appalachia into cities looking for economic opportunities, and he writes eloquently about their feelings of estrangement from place and the stereotyping that they face in their new homes, exemplified by the use of the derogatory term “Brier” to refer to such displaced Appalachians.
“The Brier Losing Touch With His Traditions”: This poem was inspired by the true story of Chester Cornett, a woodworker who famously handcrafter a chair for Richard Nixon. On a larger scale, the poem laments that the woodworker acutely feels the limit that society perceives that he should reach in life when he becomes more successful and thus buys better equipment and more modern clothing, only to find that this hinders his sales because then people no longer perceive him as “authentically Appalachian.” He feels that society tells him to modernize, but not to modernize too much beyond his “station” in life. This is a good reflection on what it truly means to be “authentically Appalachian.”
Price: FREE! *In this version, the line breaks between stanzas are taken out, but it’s the best that I could find online. For a cleaner version, buy a copy of his book below.*
“Brier Sermon”: This is a long poem written as an epistle to young people in Appalachia. It is a reflection on change, growth, and heritage. Part of it can be read at the link above. To read the full poem, you need to purchase Miller’s book The Mountains Have Come Closer. However, I would like to leave you with one of my favorite segments of the poem here:
We’ve moved to the cities
moved to the town
and left our spirits in the mountains
to live like half-wild dogs around the homeplace.
You say, Preacher, we have to change.
But we’re forgetful.
It’s our forgetfulness that’s a sin against ourselves.
We don’t know any more about our history
than a dog knows about his daddy.
We’re ignorant of ourselves
confused in what little we do know.
All we know is what other folks have told us.
They’ve said, You’re fine Anglo-Saxons,
Then we went to the cities.
They said we were trash, said we were Briers.
They said, You’re proud and independent.
They said, You’re narrow-minded.
They said, You’re right from the heart of America.
They said, You’re the worst part of America.
They said, We ought to be more like you.
They said, You ought to be more like us.
You’ve heard that prayer that goes:
Help us to see ourselves as others see us.
Buddy, that’s not a prayer we want to pray.
I believe we ought to pray:
Lord, help us to see ourselves—and no more.
Or maybe: Help us to see ourselves
help us to be ourselves,
help us to free ourselves
from seeing ourselves
as others see us.
Price: $14.00 *The Mountains Have Come Closer can be purchased used on Amazon for as low as $14.00 currently*
“Violet’s Wash” by Diane Gilliam Fisher: This is a moving poem about the changing culture in many parts of Appalachia when during the time span of a generation, the demographic went from a predominantly agricultural workforce to a timber and coal mining labor force. The speaker of the poem talks about her new life in the coal camp and the struggles of not only getting her wash truly clean, but also of the constraints of adjusting to a new means of existence.
Price: FREE! *Woot! #ilovefreethings*
“Vineswinging” by Michael McFee in Shinemaster: What kid doesn’t like to swing on vines in the woods? And, inevitably, a swinging vine will eventually give way, leaving some cuts and bruises in its wake for the unlucky participant. That is what this poem is literally about, but in a larger context, it is a metaphor for Appalachia itself—the desire to escape the mountains paired with the power of the mountains to draw you back. This would thematically pair well with a novel unit on Trampoline by Robert Gipe.
Price: $15.95 *I couldn’t find this poem online, but it is found in the book Shinemaster which is on Barnes and Noble for $15.95*
African Americans in Appalachia:
“The Child by Tiger” by Thomas Wolfe: Thomas Wolfe grew up in Asheville, NC. Scholars believe that this short story is likely loosely based on a real event that happened in Asheville during his childhood. In the short story, an African American man who is seen by the community as a good, respectful member of the servant class one day goes on a killing spree in Asheville. No one really cares about what prompted this decided change in his behavior, so a lynch mob goes after him and kills him without trial. However, the speaker sees hints of the man’s oppression leading to this outburst and surmises that he had reached his breaking point of mistreatment. It is a poignant statement on race relations and will for sure make your students think.
Price: FREE! *I found a PDF for ya 🙂 *
Slave Narrative of Sarah Gudger: This is an audio recording of a memoir of the life of Sarah Gudger about her time spent as a slave. It is read in what is as close to her vernacular as possible. This is part of a larger project by Buncombe County, NC to use oral and data-driven history as insight into the lives of slaves decades ago in the area.
from the Center for Diversity Education–UNC Asheville
Price: FREE! *Thank you, YouTube!*
This American Life episode: “Past Imperfect”: In this fascinating excerpt from the podcast This American Life, Azie Dungey talks about her time spent as a historical reenactor at Mt. Vernon playing the part of an enslaved African American woman. It is eye-opening to hear about the reactions of Mt. Vernon guests to her depiction of the persona of a slave, from general discomfort to inexcusably racist remarks to outright denying that George Washington owned slaves. Another great window into another perspective to give to your students.
“Affrilachia” by Frank X Walker: Walker, an African American Appalachian writer, has taken great strides to help give voice to other African American Appalachians who for a long time were ignored. Still today, it is shocking how many people believe that a definition of “Appalachian” must include a Caucasian skin color, and Walker helps break down that false assumption. One of his poems that we studied is here, but more can be found in his book by the same name. For more information on Affrilachian poets, check his website.
Native American Removal:
Red Clay, 1835: Cherokee Removal and the Meaning of Sovereignty: We spent a good chunk of time during the institute talking about perspectives of Native Americans in Appalachia, and I do plan on writing about this more in-depth at a later date. However, one of the cool resources one of our speakers mentioned is Red Clay, 1835, produced by Barnard College, which is an interactive role-playing activity for students to show them the intricacy of policy that led up to the Indian Removal Act.
Place and Rhetoric:
“Who Killed the French Broad?” by Wilma Dykeman: No, this is not the title of a steamy Harlequin Romance mystery novel… Wilma Dykeman was a novelist and activist from Asheville, and one of her areas of activism was pollution of one of the main rivers in Western North Carolina, the French Broad River. This particular chapter in her novel The French Broad functions as a stand-alone essay on the pollution that was literally killing the entire river ecosystem several decades ago. At this time, there was little to no regulation about industry use of the river, and factories routinely took up river water to use and then put it back into the river so polluted that there were huge die-offs of fish, and large portions of the river became dead zones.
This essay is a beautifully written argument. She starts with a touching, anecdotal story, then identifies areas of concern to her audience and uses statistics to back up her argument. Though she herself cares very much about the river holistically, she realizes that her audience cares predominantly about financial capital, so she uses monetary data to argue how much not cleaning up the river is going to cost. She also makes a moving appeal to American patriotism and heroism, which also would have appealed to her audience, and she often uses “water of life” archetypes to give her piece a timeless feel. This is a phenomenal piece to use as a mentor text for argumentative/activist writing. Consider the ending of this piece:
“In a democracy, there is no stronger regulator than the will of the people—simple people, fine people, clean or dirty people—the people. And when we realize what our apathy is costing us, we will realize it is too expensive a luxury and exchange it for enlightened self-concern and public concern. We will realize we had rather raise our own voices to cleanse our own evils than to wait until emergency has brought other pressures to bear.
Let the people’s will, then, speak with a law saying this killing of the French Broad must cease. A law for both of the states of the river affirming that each shall clean its portion of the river. A law requiring each agency—town or village, factory or plant—to come of social age now in the middle of this twentieth century and assume its responsibilities along with its rights. Such a law, fitted to the varying pollution problems of city or industrial wastes, would give the cities a sense of unity, all fulfilling the same requirements for the same rules of decent citizenship, and it would give the industries a framework in which to present to their stockholders the reasons for a necessary expense which might, for the moment, reduce annual dividends from 7 per cent to 6 per cent, net profits for the year from seven millions to six millions. The request is just; if the terms are plain and firm and established to preserve the life of the river and its people, there can be no avoiding such a law.
For law has a certain poetry too. Law in its own purity, like the French Broad in its purity, has a logic and an inevitableness that dwarfs all dispute. A law is the logic of man, a river is the logic of nature: when the two are fused for the benefit of both, the result is one kind of beauty.”
Price: $14.26 *I could not find this essay as a stand-alone document online anywhere, but you can buy a copy of The French Broad used on Amazon for as low as $14.26 at the moment*
GeoGuessr: This is a nifty online game that an institute participant brought up in a discussion on teaching students about place and “reading a landscape” to notice details in the landscape which tell you important information about that place. It can be played alone or as a competition for multiple groups in the class, or each student can be a competitor. GeoGuessr shows you a picture of a place, and you have to look for clues in the landscape to tell you where the picture might have been taken, and then you guess the location. The closer you get, the more points you get.
This could be a fun intro activity to a lesson on place. (It’s also just plain fun to see how close you can get to guessing the location—I’ve played a few times myself 😉 ) Also, this concept could be used to make a local “GeoGuessr” for your town by taking pictures around your area and having students guess where around town they were taken.
Place-Based Foods of Appalachia: This is a book of short memoirs about Appalachian heritage food plants edited by Jim Veteto and several other experts. Veteto is a master in the field of Appalachian heirloom plants, and he has spent much of his life collecting regional knowledge about local ecology. He has also helped to compile a book of stories about local food by people who have grown up in the region.
I’m partial to the memoir “Way Down Yonder” on page 28 of this document, which is about harvesting paw paws. The author Doug Elliott does a great job of using a folk song to hook the reader, citing history of the plant, and then bringing the story full circle with a touching personal reflection of the importance of the paw paw plant to him specifically. Another great mentor text, this time for reflective writing!
from Southern SARE
Teacher institutes are the best, y’all. The combined experience of going to a new place out of your comfort zone, meeting other teachers who are also passionate educators, learning from masters in the field, and creating content that applies to your classroom is unbeatable. Here’s to endless learning and growing!
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…
- What other place-based resources do you use with your students? How do you go about teaching students about the power of connecting with place?
- Please suggest other authors who have helped your students connect with their region, heritage, culture, or history.
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