Grandma Mercia, Mother Jones, and Teaching West Virginia by Sarah Morris

The recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia has me thinking about my Grandmother, Mercia Dunmire. She taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Monongah, West Virginia, a community framed by mountains and mines, teaching the children of coal miners and subsistence farmers in a multi-grade classroom.

As family mythology tells it, after noticing children coming to school hungry, Grandma Mercia organized an effort to feed everyone every day. Parents who could do so donated from their gardens and pantries, and older students cooked lunch, learning to prepare food and sustain the group by working and eating together. In the guise of a daily home economics lesson, Grandma Mercia’s students learned service and community, caring for each other as an act of equity. She fed others’ children even while she struggled to feed her own, racking up debt for groceries on credit at Manchins’ store after her husband died, sealed in a fire-filled mine.

Grandma Mercia was like that–she saw opportunities out of need and struggled to help her students in ways beyond teaching them to write and read. She filled my shelves with books, but, more importantly, she influenced me to be aware in the world, to see and struggle against injustice, and to teach.

In 2007, I represented West Virginia as our state’s Teacher of the Year, attending several events and conferences where teachers from all US states and territories gathered together to learn from each other and raise our collective voice. At one of our events, we dressed to represent our home states. Given that so many recognizable costumes related to West Virginia are caricatures grounded in stereotype, I wanted to choose a memorable and impactful way of representing our heritage and history.


Mother Jones

I dressed as Mother Jones. I pulled my hair in a bun and donned a black dress and wire rim glasses. I carried a sign marked with her words: “Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts.” I found myself explaining many times who she was, what she meant to miners, what she meant to West Virginia, and what she meant to me. Like Grandma Mercia, Mother Jones taught me through her legacy about how to be in the world.

Today, I’m thinking of Grandma Mercia, Mother Jones, and teaching in West Virginia. This week, teachers are picketing and rallying, closing down the schools, fighting to raise pay from 48th in the nation and for adequate healthcare for all public employees (myself included, since I’ve moved to the university classroom).

Today, our governor owes more in back taxes than a teacher will see in a lifetime, our state legislature refuses to pass a severance tax that could fund public health insurance, and a coal boss runs for senate with the blood of 29 miners on his hands; our world doesn’t look much different now than it did 100 years ago, echoing with injustice.

Today, it’s our teachers, red bandanas around their necks and holding signs, who are waging the fight, yet they are still caring for students, even out of the classroom: packing lunches, spreading word about how we can help through organizations like Morgantown’s Pantry Plus More who are feeding students while they’re out of school.

These are my thoughts and my experiences, but I know they resonate with other teachers. This is just my story, except when it’s not. I can see, in this moment, that West Virginia teachers are standing in the light of Grandma Mercia and Mother Jones. Whether she is a hellraiser heroine on the picket line or an everyday activist peeling potatoes for the soup, a West Virginia teacher is an agent of change and a fierce advocate for students.

download.jpgAnd, at the heart of it all, is literacy. Reading is revolution. Writing is power. We must remember, as Mother Jones said, “reformation, like education, is a journey.” Teachers do the work of progress every day, in and out of the classroom. Especially in this moment, our teachers are educating us: these strike days are readings in civic literacy, in social movements, in what it means to be a West Virginian. The teachers walk the line, writing the people’s history, and we are students, all.

NWP@WVU Co-Director Sarah Morris teaches undergraduate writing courses and is the associate coordinator for the Undergraduate Writing Program at West Virginia University. Her research interests include human science phenomenology, embodiment, writing process, and student-centered teaching.


November 11: Teacher’s Day of Writing

22282115_10157413295284988_8466861799866998897_n.jpgGreetings, Teacher Friends!

  • Do you have a writing itch that needs to be scratched?
  • Do you have a piece of writing that’s growing dust?
  • Do you want to jumpstart your National Boards writing tasks?
  • Do you thirst for a community of writers?
  • Do you need a mental break from grading?

Join NWP@WVU for a “Teacher’s Day of Writing”! This is a great way to treat yourself with time, the rarest of resources.

On Saturday, November 11th, we are hosting a day for teachers to be writers! This is a free event to help you meet your writing goals, whatever they may be. Wannabe poets, essayists, memoirists, and National Board-seekers are all welcome.

We have three options for you:

  • Option 1: Come in the morning from 9am-12pm to write in peace and quiet, plus time to share writing goals and doubts with colleagues.
  • Option 2: Come in the afternoon 12pm-3pm to share your work and receive feedback.
  • Option 3: Come for the whole day!

The event is in 103 Colson Hall on WVU’s downtown campus. Parking is available in the Mountainlair parking garage (free on Saturdays).

RSVP Requested by Friday, October 27th.  Please complete the following form to reserve your spot and make your request for a boxed lunch.

You are welcome to share this event with colleagues!

Questions? Contact Keisha Kibler:

Fifty Shades of Censorship, or How We Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Let Kids Read by Rosemary Hathaway

Ydhdk51D.pngIn honor of Banned Books Week, we’re sharing this post written by NWP@WVU teacher-consultant and Advisory Board member Rosemary Hathaway. Originally published at Nerdy Book Club in 2014, this post and the titles it celebrates are just as timely today as they were three years ago.

Sometime in mid-July, I got a text from an English teacher friend at a local high school. She’d just heard, via her principal, that a parent had complained about The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s brilliant short-story collection based in part on his own experiences fighting in Vietnam.

The book was assigned as summer reading for the student’s upcoming AP language and composition class, and the parent—having looked through it—asked for an alternate text. My friend texted to ask for ideas about what she might suggest. I made several recommendations—Walter Dean Myers’ Fallen Angels among them—but the parent rejected all of our candidates and made her own choice, John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

Given that we’re just coming out of Banned Books Week, I’d like to use my Reading Lives moment to address not the dramatic cases of book challenges, like the ongoing battle over The Miseducation of Cameron Post at Cape Henlopen High School in Delaware, but the quieter and more common challenges posed to young people’s reading choices, often by parents themselves.

In reply to a story about the Cameron Post challenge that I posted to Facebook, a former student of mine commented, “OK, help! Now that my daughter is nine and reading above her grade level, these debates take on a new meaning for me. She has a friend reading lots of teen and YA novels, and while I don’t want to squelch her interests, these books have much more to offer a high schooler than a 4th grader. I always rely on the ‘age appropriate’ reasoning, and don’t know when I’m ready for her to be reading f-bombs, although if she’s a good listener, she certainly heard a few!”

The concern about “age-appropriateness” is legitimate, and is one of the reasons why Lexile measurements can be so misleading: just because a child can read a book doesn’t mean it’s a good choice for them personally. And parents, certainly, are the best equipped to gauge what their child can handle in a book. But it often seems that the concern isn’t so much about a book’s potential to disturb or “corrupt” its reader as it is anxiety about the very private and personal nature of the act of reading itself.

I have long thought, and discussed with students in my YA lit classes, that book challenges are motivated not so much by the specific, offensive content of any given text, but by the privacy of the act of reading itself.  Concerned parent sees child deeply engaged in a book, oblivious to the external world (oblivious, in fact, to the parent), and becomes suspicious. What’s in that book that’s so interesting?  And why can’t I monitor that experience? The process of reading, and the images and thoughts that reading generates, are largely internal and invisible, and some adults find that completely unnerving.

As a voracious, lifelong reader, I understand that reading can be a powerful, life-changing experience. Parents who are concerned about the potential of books to disturb their children clearly also believe that the act of reading is powerful—but they construct that power negatively, casting the act of reading and books themselves as dangerous and potentially corrupting.

In her now-infamous Wall Street Journal article about “dark” YA books, Meghan Cox Gurdon suggested that such books might not only disturb kids, but that they might also cultivate (gasp!) bad taste in literature. “Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it,” she says, claiming that it is “a dereliction of duty [for parents] not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options.”

Rod McKuenLet me tell you a story:  One summer when I was in middle school, my parents and I went on a long road trip to the east coast.  We spent a night at Chautauqua in New York, and before we left the next morning, we browsed around a bookshop and my parents offered to buy me a book for the trip.  I chose a book of poems by Rod McKuen.  (Hey, it was the late 1970s.)

My mom, an English teacher, objected on the basis of taste:  “He’s a terrible poet.”  My dad, not wanting to start a long day in a small car with a quarrel, intervened, saying, “Let her buy it.  If that’s what she wants to read, let her read it.”  Smugly, I carried Mr. McKuen’s book to the cashier.

Of course, my mom was right:  the poems were terrible, even though I didn’t recognize that at the time.

And guess what happened as a result of my parents’ “dereliction of duty”?  Dear Reader, I grew up to be an English professor.

Clearly, that book ruined me.  If only she’d snatched that book from my hands and given me a “more desirable option.”  Which I probably would have studiously refused to read. Gurdon clearly has forgotten how unwelcome such lessons in taste are to the average person between the ages of, oh, seven and death.

And what is the magical age at which books cease to be “harmful”? I remember being utterly freaked out by the scene in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure when the title character arrives home to find that his eldest child has hanged himself and his siblings in a closet “because we were too menny.”  I was haunted by World War I for weeks after reading All Quiet on the Western Front.  And John Irving’s The Cider House Rules repeatedly describes an explicit photo of a donkey that no amount of brain bleach will ever eradicate.

All of these I read when I was in college or grad school.  I’ve read other books in the two decades since that have disturbed me, as well as many that have moved me to tears, made me laugh out loud, or inspired me.  Don’t good books continue to affect us deeply regardless of our age?  Isn’t that why we read in the first place?

Adults who challenge books are more often trying to protect themselves and their ideas about what childhood and adolescence should be than they are trying to protect real children and adolescents.

So, I’ll end with an affirmation (shamelessly paraphrased from Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) that I wish such adults would repeat to themselves when they see a kid engrossed in a book:  A child, even the smallest one, is filled with thoughts you can’t know.  Instead of balking at such a thought, let’s embrace and encourage the complex, private mystery that is reading.

Rosemary Hathaway is an Associate Professor of English at West Virginia University where  she teaches courses in young-adult literature and folklore.

The Power of Narrative by Sarah Morris

1983h1As a tenth-grade English teacher, I always began the year with personal narrative. My students and I created life maps, compiled writing inventories, discussed pivotal life moments, read mentor texts, drafted, revised, and learned each other’s stories and the stories of our own writing processes.  We began with Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains and George Ella Lyons’s Where I’m From, moved through students’ own childhood memories, and worked our way into more advanced memoirs, like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Colored People and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. At each step, we wrote. We asked questions about our own stories and the moments that shaped our lives: How is my experience like his, hers, yours? How is it different? How did it make me who I am? What makes a good story?

Craft and Convention

image1To be sure, practicing story helps us meet academic standards. It requires examination of imagery, chronology, setting, detail, dialogue, action and pacing, and exploded moments of importance (eliminating the bed-to-bed story). On a practical level, work in personal narrative writing helps writers prepare to tell other stories: those embedded in lab reports, research findings, college applications, or when a job interviewer asks “Tell me about a time when…” Teaching narrative, especially memoir, helps students see the important moments that make up the themes of their lives. As Nancie Atwell explains, narrative memoir teaches us to “figure out who we were, who we’ve become, and why.”  Teaching narrative has the capacity to deepen self-awareness, other-awareness, and empathy. When we began to read and write stories in my classroom, I often found that students began to make connections to one another. They found common ground over shared experience, and this helped my students see similarities even among their differences.


More than academic skill and empathy, however, movement into story moves us into primal notions of what it means to be human. An ancient practice, storytelling is an act of ritual that can connect us with something bigger than ourselves and our classrooms. Von Franz discusses story, fairy tales in particular, as movement toward wholeness. This sense of the universal in the personal became real to me when I taught college writers under the supervision of behatted storyteller and horseman Dr. Joseph McCaleb at The University of Maryland. Working with students in his “Good Stories course,” we moved the archetypal imagery found in traditional stories through a process of digital composition that allowed us to consider the particular in the public, the personal in the universal.



The narratives that we produced, by the end of the course, were digital stories that centered the composer in the composition and the composition in the world in order to advance a sense of peace and justice. They used sound, image, diction, detail, and, of course, story, to reach toward a greater meaning. Teaching narrative in that way was transformative for students, as well as for me as a teacher–and not just in terms of pedagogy. Inasmuch as teaching is storytelling, this was a significant moment in the story of my teaching life because I was discovering the stories inside me alongside my students as they found their own words. I was able to feel the potential for changing myself, my students, and my world, echoing Dr. McCaleb’s creation story, “as the tiny acorn can feel stirring within itself the energy of the mighty oak.” Narrative has the power to connect us to others across space and time; it can reveal our humanity.

Classroom Applications

oak-acornsBut perhaps our goals for the students in our classrooms need not be quite so lofty. In the coming weeks, as you plan your first units, I challenge you to infuse narrative, even if just to teach the standards. Try telling a story of a significant moment on the first day of class; read a story together to exemplify a course theme; or when teaching research, work through a story as qualitative evidence of lived experience. Use auto-ethnography, documentary, reportage, memoir. Create multi-layered stories: picture books, audio files, digital videos. Our students deserve rich texts–ones they read and ones they create.

What story do you yearn to share? What tales will you tell with the writers in your rooms? How will you use narratives in your teaching this year?

NWP@WVU Co-Director Sarah Morris teaches undergraduate writing courses and is the associate coordinator for the Undergraduate Writing Program at West Virginia University. Her research interests include human science phenomenology, embodiment, writing process, and student-centered teaching.