For the past few days, WV Living readers have followed along as NPR newscaster Giles Snyder and his daughter Kendall have embarked on their Great Mountain State Road Trip. They’re back home now, but we asked Kendall’s English teacher, Jessica Salfia of Spring Mills High School, to explain more about the assignment that has students traveling the hills and hollows of Almost Heaven:
I was born and raised in West Virginia and I have been a proud West Virginia educator for 15 years. Like many West Virginians, I have been concerned about the future of our state and region. While our legislators and governor have been debating the budget and searching for a way to revive our economy, the state’s most important resource, our young people, have been leaving out state in droves. I wanted to start a conversation with my students about what it means to be from a place like ours—a beautiful, sometimes difficult place, full of contradictions—and invite them take ownership in that place, to make it part of their identity.
So, several years ago, I began teaching an introduction to argument and rhetoric in my Advanced Placement Language and Composition class, with a focus on Appalachian studies. For each class, students read a novel by the Shepherd University Appalachian Writer in Residence over the summer and get to meet that writer in the fall. Last year, I introduced an additional assignment: listening to several episodes of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia
Our first few weeks of school are spent breaking down the parts of arguments and analyzing the rhetoric and stereotypes surrounding our region. Students do this in a unit that includes the poetry of Frank X Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and our own poet laureate Marc Harshman. We watch and analyze Sludge, a documentary about coal, and research issues affecting our region, from opioid addiction to economic collapse. And last March, thirteen of my students and I presented this unit at the National Appalachian Studies Conference in Blacksburg, Virginia. You can read about that here.
Through these opportunities, I began to see a shift in my students. I saw them go from rolling their eyes at the idea of being Appalachian to being intensely proud to claim this heritage. I saw them marveling at the diversity of our region as they explored the poetry of the Affrilachian writers and Native American storytellers. I have heard my own students of color refer to themselves as Affrilachian, and I have been told by more than one student that instead of leaving our state after college, they want to stay in West Virginia and make a difference in their home.
This summer, I wanted to add one additional assignment. I wanted my students to see some of the incredible beauty, history, and diversity in their own backyards, to foster a stronger sense of place, and to show them there is no single story of West Virginia. So I challenged them to have an adventure in Appalachia.
I gave them suggestions: go to a park, take a hike, visit a locally owned restaurant, read a book under a tree in your backyard. But I also gave them a “best of West Virginia” list. Visiting those sites would earn the students both extra credit and “mad respect.”
Imagine my surprise and elation to log into Twitter and see NPR’s Giles Snyder and his daughter Kendall, one of my incoming students, posting selfies as they embarked on an epic road trip to see every site I recommended. If only every student had the opportunity to take a trip like the one Giles planned with Kendall.
Appalachia is diverse, breathtaking, and extraordinary, just like our young people. It’s time we started not only focusing the conversation about our future as a state and region on them, but inviting them to be a part of that conversation.
You can see more from my students’ summer adventures by searching #AdventureInAppalachia on Twitter.
Jessica Salfia is a writer, teacher, and activist. She currently teaches Advanced Placement Language and Composition, STEAM Honors English, and Creative Writing at Spring Mills High. She is the president of the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English and lives in Martinsburg with her husband and three brilliant, hilarious, wild children.