Teaching Appalachia

By Tracy L. Roberts
Purdue University

It had been years since I had thought of Charlie, until one day, in a bookstore, I picked up an Appalachian book titled Granny Will Your Dog Bite and Other Mountain Rhymes by Gerald Milnes. Milnes' book is a collection of Appalachian mountain rhymes that reflect a rural culture in which people actively use word play in their storytelling. This book made me recall the first time I met Charlie. Charlie was in my southwestern Virginia rural school classroom where I had come home to teach. Charlie was a quiet, shy student who was very typical of the culture and an average second-grade Huckleberry Finn prototype who would rather be outside seeking adventure than inside trying to learn words and letters. I had tried everything to interest this student in literature: great books featuring adventurous boys and their dogs, fun activities, outdoor scavenger hunts. All the time, I had role modeled school language, dressed well, and been very professional with him. I had (I thought) filled all the requirements for being an exceptional teacher; after all, I was doing exactly what the book said. 

But no positive results were evident, and this boy, Charlie, continued to be apathetic towards reading. One day, while I was sitting outside at recess with the students, some of the girls asked me to tell them stories about my childhood. Being from Appalachia I eagerly started a story, and when I did I fell into the mountain tradition of oral tale and regional accent that I had grown up hearing. The story was funny, about a cow that could slap you in the face with her tail and how I solved the problem by tying the cow's tail to a tree. The girls were giggling at the story when I looked up and noticed something. Charlie was listening. So I hammed it up. I recalled an old man who told endless stories on the loafer's bench at the local store, so I imitated the humorous sayings and tongue twisters that made his stories both colorful and local. Charlie moved closer and laughed. Then something really incredible happened: quiet, shy little Charlie told a story! He held everyone's attention as he told a story about coon hunting with a dog that could read. His story was about a city man who hears a dog, Rover, baying in the distance while running a coon scent. Suddenly, the dog stops barking, and the concerned city man turns to the local man and comments that the dog must have lost the trail of the coon. The local man corrects him, telling him the silent dog was simply crossing private property and had apparently read the "No Trespassing" signs.

I was amazed. Charlie had shared a complete story while putting in beautiful regional rhymes and tongue twisters. He was a genius! It was from this place of storytelling with Charlie that I proceeded. I brought in riddles, old fiddle songs, even local sayings, and Charlie began to read while making a cultural link to what he knows. It made sense; it tickled his brain and sounded like home to him. 

It was years later that I came across Milnes' book again, and when I opened it I saw a riddle that had been handed down in Appalachian oral tradition for generations:  

I had a dog and his name was Rover
When he died, he died all over.

It was the same riddle Charlie had put in his story on the playground years before! The exact same riddle he put into his very first story, the one that made him famous on the playground and taught this teacher how to teach him to read. Good old Rover, it was over for him, but it was just beginning for Charlie. By relying on Charlie's prior knowledge and familiar discourse based on regional oral tales, I was able to find a way to teach him to love words and stories found in books.

Using Appalachian literature has proven to be a strong element in my teaching. Every summer I run a camp, Camp Firefly, that brings students from all over the country to experience the culture of the Appalachian region. Students interact with authors that write in the genre, as well as local people who share the culture with the students firsthand. Among the many activities the campers participate in are performing plays based on Richard Chase's Jack Tales, learning regional dances at a Bluegrass festival and seeing the birthplace of Booker T. Washington. Children's author Jerry Pinkney used this site for historical references while illustrating his book Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman. The campers also spend time with books about the region, comparing authenticity between what they find in the texts and what they experience from the region.

Exposing students to understandings of multiple cultures encourages the emergence of a well-diversified, literate community. Using regional literature inspires the students to write empathetically about the responsibility the author has to the people of the region. This responsibility is equally important whether the author is from within the culture, or elsewhere. While looking at poetry of the region during the camp, fourteen-year old Texan Shelby N. wrote:

    Appalachian Home

My home is a land of green
We run barefoot when the air turns warm
An endless exploration, life waiting to be seen
A soft breeze, a waiting storm

My home is a land of brown
Where rising dust follows my footsteps
A quiet walk into town
A storefront bench where I sit and rest

My home is a land of pink
Sweet watermelon falls into my mouth
The sun sets, a slow sink
A single sound, a wandering cow

My home is the color of the mountains.

In a comparison of two Appalachian-based books, ten-year old Kristin Y. looked at an essay on Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Shiloh, the text of Shiloh, and Virginia Hamilton's M. C. Higgins the Great. Kristin wrote:

In all literature there are plots. In those plots there are feelings, colors and symbols. One of those symbols in the two books I looked at is a theme of confinement. There are two different books in which confinement is evident, Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and M. C. Higgins the Great by Virginia Hamilton. In both books the authors weave the symbol of confinement within the Appalachian mountains into their texts.

In Shiloh, the main character, Marty, finds the dog, Shiloh, with an old worn scratched up collar. The collar symbolizes that the dog is stuck, confined in one place. The dog is loose and this signifies he is yearning to get away from his confined world. In M. C. Higgins the Great, M. C. wants to see over the tops of the Appalachian mountains which surround his Virginia home. The mountains confine M. C., and he wants to see out into a bigger world. In Shiloh, Marty also wants to see out of his world, but uses the dog while M. C. uses a tall pole.

When faced with the prospect of using Appalachian literature in their classrooms, I hear many teachers express a fear of teaching about an unfamiliar culture. Fortunately, there are resources available to guide teachers in using Appalachian literature. I have found that when people from outside Appalachia are introduced to the region, they easily become familiar with the culture and comfortable with the genre. This was reflected in an interview with California-based children's author Alex LaFaye. Texas native Mallory P. freely asked LaFaye questions pertaining to Appalachian literature. Mallory is fifteen, and had the opportunity to meet and interview Alex LaFaye at the 2000 camp session.

Mallory: How do you feel about teaching in Appalachia?

LaFaye: Well, one of the things that I have always loved about Virginia is that it is culturally diverse in a way that most people unfortunately overlook. A lot of time when people talk about cultures they do not think about regional cultures. Frequently overlooked in our country are the multiple cultures found within Appalachia. A few years ago I had the chance to go to a school in the mountains of Virginia called Meadows of Dan. I loved this visit because the town had such a rich and diverse personal heritage, and it was wonderful to meet the different kids involved directly with this heritage. It was such a small school that I was able to meet individually with kids from all the different classrooms, all the different grades. Virginia proved to be a culturally rich place.

Mallory: What are your opinions on Appalachia literature?

LaFaye: To begin with, I think that a lot of people are not aware of the literature of Appalachia. They don't know that it is a separate literary tradition, or genre. One of the things I like to do is collect books with a setting based in Appalachia. I do this with the intention of sharing these books and letting more people to know about the region. I love that fact that a lot of that literature celebrates bonds of kinship, humor and folk culture. I try to find books that have an accurate positive portrayal of Appalachia so that people can dispense of their negative stereotypes that are often associated with the region.

Mallory: Would you ever write a book about Appalachia?

LaFaye: One of the things I have been interested in is the geographical component about this region of strong kinship ties and extended families. There are generations of families, living in very close proximity. It made me realize that the influenza epidemic at the turn of the last century would have been devastating to that part of the country because it had such a high death toll in concentrated areas. You would think that it would have had monumental effects on entire generations of a family. As a writer, that just fascinated me. Another interesting aspect of this isolated region is the survival and independence of its cultural idioms over hundreds of years. I would be very interested in conducting the research to do a book on these issues and aspects. But as in any regionally specific project, it would be a task for me to take the time to relocate to do the research.

Mallory: What is the name of the illustrator of the cover of your book who also illustrated a book on Appalachia?

LaFaye: Jeff Chapman-Crane. The book is Ragsale. He did an exceptional job both on my book cover and in his regional depictions found in Ragsale.

Helping students experience a personal transformation from the texts they read is important. Being sensitive to regional and cultural aspects found in the individual is imperative. In this manner our classrooms will be a place for all voices to be heard. As with my moment years ago on a playground with Charlie, it is necessary to take the time to really hear these voices, and embrace the richness each individual brings to our classroom. Through cultural interactions with regional literature, such as Appalachian-based books, students and teachers are allowed to grow with the possibilities of moral, social, and civic commitments. Mary Catherine L., aged 10, best encapsulated this experience when she spent a day on my mother's Appalachian farm. Mary wrote:

      Morning in Blacksburg

           To Gemma

Tucked in all warm and cozy
My eyes burst open to the sweet sound of her voice
I go downstairs at a closed-eye mozy
To the smell of rain, biscuits, and oranges
I guess it was the sun's lazy day
Just startin' to peek out from above the branches
When Gemma handed me a warm plate
"Fresh washed." She said
I piled on breakfast and looked around as I ate.

Recommended Websites

Camp Firefly http://icdweb.cc.purdue.edu/~roberts1/campfirefly
Email: Tracy Roberts

The Jack Tale Players http://www2.ferrum.edu/jacktales

Works Cited

Chase, Richard. The Jack Tales. Boston: Houghton, 1943.

Crane, Jeff Chapman. Ragsale. Illus. Jeff Chapman-Crane.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1995. 

Hamilton,Virginia. M. C. Higgins the Great. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Mills, Claudia. "The Structure of the Moral Dilemma in Shiloh.Children's Literature, vol. .27 (1999): 185-197.

Milnes, Gerald. Granny Will Your Dog Bite And Other Mountain Rhymes. Illus. Kimberly Bulcken Root. Little Rock, Arkansas: August House, 1990.

Reynolds, Phyllis Naylor. Shiloh. New York: Bantam Doubleday, 1991.

Schroeder, Alan. Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman. Illus. Jerry Pinkney. New York: Dial Books, 1998.

See also in AppLit:

Lesson Plan for Granny Will Your Dog Bite and Other Mountain Rhymes - by Brenda Muse

Celebrating Diversity in Appalachia!  Exploring Social Issues Through Appalachian Children's Fiction - by Susan V. Mead

Complete List of AppLit Pages on Folklore

Complete List of AppLit Pages on Picture Books

Complete List of AppLit Pages on Fiction for Children and Young Adults

Index of Student Writing in AppLit

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