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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Viewing Appalachia with a Different Lens

Viewing Appalachia with a Different Lens
Tim Mittan
April 14th, 2015

Introduction to Roger May
         Moving from our usual course of action, the last class before spring break presented an opportunity for us to engage in conversation with a distinguished photographer and writer, Roger May.  Having been born in what some claim to be Hatfield and McCoy territory, May proudly displays his Appalachian heritage through his photography and writing.  Via Skype, we were able to discuss with May the power of photography and his latest project, Looking at Appalachia, which hopes to add complexities to the identity of poverty for which the Appalachian region has become so commonly known.  For more information on the project and its goals check out -

Looking at Appalachia and Digital Literacy
            We began discussion by determining ways we could incorporate digital literacy into the Appalachian classroom, a daunting task considering how the majority of Appalachia is represented in media.  May acknowledged the double edged sword that digital literacy, specifically social media, has become.  Addressing the class, May stated, “Kids that you are going to teach, have taught, have spent time with, consider they have never known a world without social media, that’s a pretty big thing.”  Laughing aside, May’s statement is an undoubtable truth.  Our students have become so saturated with digital literacy that it would be naive of us to look past tools such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, that can help students reinforce identity amongst their peers, school, and community.  Yet, as May reiterated, we need to be mindful of the possibilities of bullying and gossip that social media can create.
            May’s crowdsourced project, Looking at Appalachia, hopes to educate people of all ages to more effectively use visual literacy and help them develop their identity not just as an Appalachian, but as a person.  Through this use of visual literacy, it is May’s hope that a new identity will be created for the Appalachian region that shows the layers beyond the stereotypes created by the “War on Poverty.” 
            On a more personal level, May has taken steps to create a project within Mango Country, West Virginia that aims to educate students on the labor of farming through the medium of photography.  He wants kids to understand the process it takes to grow something worthwhile.  By using traditional developing cameras, he hopes students will better understand that creating something meaningful takes time and dedication.

Photography in the Classroom

            Jon was able to drive conversation more towards May’s specialties and questioned how specifically using photography in the classroom could be beneficial.  Assuming that administration would be approving of such techniques, May explained how photography could be beneficial not only for the students, but teachers as well.  “I think it’s a fantastic tool because I think you can learn a lot about a student.  By looking at how they look, how they look at things. There’s almost something that transcends verbal communication when you can see the perspective of the student, what they show, what they choose not to show.”  As teachers, why wouldn’t we use this tool?  A tool that can so effectively, as May put it, “level the playing field” for those students who might be shy or lack confidence in their work.  Photography is a medium which craftily provides educators a glimpse into a student’s thought process and his or her individuality.

Contrasting Layers
            Referring to the front page of the Looking at Appalachia website, Carmen made a comment discussing the contrasting ideas the photos depict, “On the website there are pictures of kids playing outside and having fun and then the very next image is of someone coming out of a prescription drug high.  And I like that because I feel like it’s not going one way or the other, it’s not majestically representing Appalachia, but it’s not being demeaning too.”  May appreciated this an explained how this is essentially the “guts” of the project.  As May put it, the object is, “to show Appalachia in all its glory and all its complexities.” 
            This is a perspective we have considered as a class when addressing students.  Having observed, and for some lived, the Appalachian experience we are aware of the stereotypes and prejudices that come with being part of the region.  Unfortunately, these negative stereotypes are sometimes a reality for students.  In this class, we have discussed the need to see each student as an individual, while still being aware that the negative aspects of the region have affects outside of the classroom.  There are overlapping layers within this region, some good, some bad, but it cannot be assumed that a student belongs to one or the other.

Photographing Controversy
            As our conversation continued, we began to focus more on May’s work and his straightforward strategies to document subjects that may be considered controversial to the public.  Jon asked, “Are there any specific Appalachian areas of interest or any kind of controversial issues that you ever documented exclusively, liked focused on that particular subject with your photography?”  May recalled how he began his career in photography and his desire to call attention to the travesties of mountaintop removal.  Discovering quickly that his heart wasn’t in the project, May described his present philosophy for what he captures on film, “Being controversial just to be controversial is not of interest to me. I don’t have any reservation about photographing something controversial, but if my heart isn’t it, if I don’t connect with the issue, then I know the pictures are sorta gonna fall flat and if they do that for me then they’re probably gonna do that for you and anybody else that is looking at them.”  Is this desire for passion any different than what we portray in our teaching?  Having a passion for education is evident in our teaching, and without that passion what we try to convey to students will also most likely fall flat.

Taking Steps Forward

While May might not always depict the romanticized last frontier that is scripted into Discovery and History Channel specials, there is wonder in the complexity of things here.  Through May and his projects, identity is being developed by the personal photographs that the people of the region have been willing to share.  We are beginning to see the Appalachian region on a personal level that is the full range between trailer parks and mom and pop stores.  We must address both sides of the coin, not talking about the things that need to be fixed doesn’t make them go away.  May’s work is a step forward in balancing the bad light that Appalachia has come under with the good it has to offer.  Yes, it is a reality that Appalachia has some negative outliers, but then again, what place doesn’t?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lucinda's Mountain: A Book Review

Independent Text Project by Audra Cormack

Book: Lucinda's Mountain

Author: Adda Leah Davis
Category: Young Adult Fiction
Publication: Charleston, WV: Mountain State Press (2007)
Length: 315 pages

Author Adda Leah Davis


Lucinda Harmon is a young woman from Bradshaw Mountain in McDowell County, West Virginia who understands feminism and the power of education in a family and community who do not.  While all women around her are tied to their land and men by constant childbearing, backbreaking physical labor, and a lack of education and opportunities, Lucinda has always wanted more.  She is torn between a love for her home and a sense of duty toward her family and the dream of a future in which she could be free of domination, dependence, and discrimination of both her gender and her rural Appalachian upbringing and identity.                                                

Portrayed as very pretty and innocent, Lucinda is romantically pursued by several men, two of which play huge roles in her life.  Jason McCall, a young, city doctor, is her first but eventually unrequited love and is an inspiration for the pursuit of knowledge and independence within Lucinda.  Jason proves to also be a stumbling block for her, however, as she never fully heals from his abrupt and mysterious disappearance. 

During this time, Lucinda is allowed to go away to college and works toward getting her degree in education.  When her father is injured in a logging accident, Lucinda puts her degree on hold to support her family, coming back to Bradshaw Mountain to provisionally teach in a rural school.  At a fundraising benefit for the school, Lucinda meets Jeff Marshall, a coalmine worker and union man, who pursues her relentlessly.  Though Lucinda is still in love with Jason and reluctant to date Jeff, her family and friends sway her to accept Jeff’s offer – first of courtship and eventually of marriage.  Jeff loves Lucinda and, in comparison to her upbringing, is modestly wealthy, but he is aggressive, extremely jealous, and controlling. 

Following Lucinda’s somewhat resented wedding, she becomes pregnant and is again coerced by family and friends to give up her dreams of finishing her education and working as a teacher on the mountain and to instead follow Jeff to move away – from her potential independence, from the possible threat of a returned Jason, and even from the support she has recently found in her local church congregation.   

The novel ends with a bittersweet uncertainty of whether Lucinda has managed to discover fulfillment in this new life or simply an inner strength and faith to endure the hardships her future holds.  She gives herself and leaves her readers with a call-to-action.  Lucinda, like her beloved McDowell County, has been stripped of her rights, but she believes it is possible to still have the power of choice in how one bears those burdens.


Main Characters:  Lucinda Harmon
Family                             Loves                             Friends/Helpers                       Abusers

Nancy Harmon                Dr. Jason McCall          Dora Mullins                            Mrs. Marshall
Burb Harmon                  Jeff Marshall                 James Estep                              Ms. Wilson
Gordon and Emily                                                Preacher Hiram                 

Education        Feminism        Innocence        Sexual naiveté              Family
Tradition         Coal/Unions    Gender roles    Independence              Home
Brain Drain     Stereotypes     Religion           Insider/Outsider          Class  
Matriarchy      Politics            Isolation          Social values                Death 
Anorexia          Honor              Male dominance          Domesticity               
Unrequited and possessive love         Appalachian exceptionalism   Sexual harassment “Homespun philosophy” (51)    

Themes with Accompanying Text Excerpts
Worldly Awareness and Anti-isolationism
“Many of Burb’s friends often stopped to visit and they had long discussions about the coal companies, the unions, politics, or any thing else touching on life as they knew it…most people realized that the railroad had exposed these mountain areas to a broader world” (12).

Coal and Class
“There were many discussions in Harvey Morgan’s civic classes about coal mines and their owners…the companies built all the houses and opined that keeping the classes separated seemed to be a top priority from the company perspective” (14).  “Jack Perkins, onf of Lucinda’s classmates said, “…They don’t dirty their hands with the actual work in the mines or in the maintenance of the camps either”” (14-15).

Lucinda’s Naiveté and Childbirth on the Mountain
“Constantly, Lucinda thought about ways of getting away from the top of the mountain.  No midwife would ever deliver a child for her…She would have liked to talk to her mother or somebody about things like that but Nancy never ever talked about anything personal with her.  Lucinda was not even allowed around the cow when she was calving, and therefore knew nothing about that part of life” (21).

Fear Tactics
“She was tempted to accept a ride, but Mommy had warned her to never ride with strangers, handsome or not.  Nancy scared her girls half to death with her tales of rape and mayhem without giving any of the details.  The only thing Lucinda really knew was that, according to Nancy, filthy, nasty things were done to girls by strange men if they got the chance” (23-4).

Discrimination and Education
““I am so tired of feeling like a little old backwoods hillbilly who knows nothing about the world,” explained Lucinda.  “When I was in high school…even some of the teachers treated the mountain kids like they were dummies…I always thought that the teachers treated town kids special because they dressed nice and could be in all kinds of activities…All I need is a chance and getting to go to college is the best chance I’ll ever get”” (71).

“Nobody at college would know anything about her background and she wasn’t going to tell them.  It wasn’t that she was ashamed of her people or where she was from but people made assumptions when you told them you were from Bradshaw or Bradshaw Mountain.  She always heard, “Bradshaw!  I hear they have a killing there every Saturday night,” and, “How many beer joints did you say Bradshaw had?”” (73).

Feminism, Education, and Inadequacy
“Even at an early age Lucinda wondered why she hungered to know so much.  Odell, Oprey, Faye, and Ellen never talked about books, school, or wanting to know.  It wasn’t that they couldn’t read or were not smart because they were.  They had wisdom about life that seemed to elude Lucinda…She couldn’t do anything like her sisters, and felt so inadequate.  She wondered if that childhood feeling of inadequacy had led to this feeling of never being able to measure up or be as good as her sisters when she grew up” (73).

Home, Brain Drain, and Identity
““Ever since I started high school and realized that there was a better life away from these mountains, I’ve wanted to leave.  All I could think of was how to get away and not end up like Mommy and my sisters, but now I realize that I really love this place…it’s home and I feel safe here with all the people I love.  It’s kind of like the hills are a shelter or a calm place where you know what is going to happen next”” (86).

Innocence, Power, and Agency
“Like her beloved innocent McDowell County, she too was young and innocent and had so much to learn.  Somehow, she, like the county, had to learn who really cared for her and who was using her to get what they wanted.  She had thought that living on Bradshaw Mountain caused all the problems women had, but now she saw the true mountain.  This mountain she now faced was going to be much more difficult to scale.  Somehow she had to learn to make wise decisions for herself and stand by them regardless of pressure from others.  She had to learn to be like the mountain oak tree that bent before any wind but didn’t break.  She had to gain the confidence to believe that she could conquer any mountain, no matter how difficult” (312-13).

“Lucinda looked back with longing as they pulled away from her childhood home.  It won’t look the same, if I ever get to come back, thought Lucinda.  McDowell County is also allowing others to decide its future, mused Lucinda.  The county is the “billion dollar coalfield” and yet where is the money going” (314).

““You have to stand whatever comes along, Cindy, but it’s up to you how you want to stand it,” her grandpa’s voice came unbidden into her tired and weary head” (314).

Strengths and Limitations:
The major strengths of Lucinda’s Mountain are its obvious spectrum of themes and tensions, its well-developed and relatable characters, and its incredible support of education.  Along with being a writer, Adda Leah Davis is a McDowell County, West Virginia native and a retired schoolteacher and counselor.  This history gives her writing depth in its descriptions of the environment and relationships highlighted in the novel.  In particular, Davis’ depiction of Lucinda’s roles as a schoolteacher and mentor to her students is beautiful.  This is where Davis’ writing truly shines and brings Lucinda’s story to life.  From the interactions of the students with barely-of-age Lucinda, to classroom and playground drama, to fundraiser “box suppers” and “pretty girl/ugly man contests,” the portrayal of school as the heart of Lucinda’s life and, (in many cases), the heart of the community is, in my opinion, the strongest and most impacting aspect of Lucinda’s Mountain.

The limitations of the novel for a secondary ELA classroom include its focus on sexual tensions and some instances of underdeveloped writing style.  Lucinda is consistently objectified by men throughout the entire novel.  In some cases, she is even objectified and manipulated by women.  Continually pursued by men, she is first sexually molested and harassed by Mr. Wilson, her initial employer.  Following this she is harassed and challenged by both of her love interests, and car scenes depicting her struggles with these men are numerous.  Lucinda’s sexual naiveté is a common theme throughout the novel, as well, and the men who harass her frequently belittle and berate her for it.  While she is encouraged by her husband to find a husband and marry, she is also kept entirely ignorant of sexual education and is warned by them to avoid any intimate situations, at the very cost of her honor and safety and the name of her family.  These topics could be extremely useful for careful discussion in the classroom, but they might elicit negative responses from parents and/or trigger emotional reactions from students.

Writing Style and Inspiration:
The writing style of Lucinda’s Mountain is fairly straightforward and quotation-heavy.  These characteristics make the novel a fast read.  The sentences are not overly complicated, but the issues presented are so numerous and varying that content complexity is not lost.  This makes the reading level of the novel suitable for a wide range of students, at least in reading proficiency levels.  High school ninth and tenth graders would easily be able to comprehend and discuss the book, but, due to the frequent scenes of sexual harassment, (albeit not exceedingly explicit in language), the novel might be better suited for eleventh and twelfth graders.

The dialogue used within the novel does present differences in dialect, and Adda Leah Davis makes a significant difference between the dialects of rural and urban dwellers, along with the educational exposure levels of the various characters.  Davis does seem to account for the spectrum of dialects and does not simply make generalizations of dialect usage or dichotomy

Utilizing the novel to inspire students in their writing and education in general would certainly be an easy task.  One teaching technique would be to reveal the author’s use of her own life experiences to compose her text.  As teachers, we could ask our students to compose their own fictional stories, based upon their own life experiences.  This activity would not only teach our students the difference between fiction and nonfiction, but it might also inspire them to utilize all of their experiences – even those that are potentially painful for them – to create, to produce, to show them the power of their own words, and, perhaps, to engage with hardships or difficult memories for positive action, preparing them for journeys toward brighter futures.   

Potential Companion Texts
In the introduction to Lucinda’s Mountain, President Jerry Beasely of Concord University suggests two novels that might fit within the book’s theme of rural education:
  • ·      The Thread that Runs So True by Jesse Stuart
  • ·      Hoosier Schoolmaster by Edward Eggleston

Adda Leah Davis herself might suggest the additional three books she has now written in this series about McDowell County.  Lucinda’s Mountain is the first of the four, and, amongst the slew of aforementioned topics, this novel mainly spotlights the “insider” half of insider/outsider perspectives.  Below is a continued list of the remaining novels of Davis’ series, along with their main themes:
  • ·      Jason’s JourneyOutsider perspective
  • ·      The Beckoning Hills – Synthesis of insider/outsider perspectives
  • ·      Farther Along – Faith and reconciliation

As I was reading Lucinda’s Mountain, a few other literary texts came to my mind as having potentially shared themes or tensions with Davis’ text.  They range in time period, genre, and medium of literature, and I have listed that inclusive information below:
  • ·      Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – Feminism, gender roles, steadfast heroine, education, class, gender; novel
  • ·      Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson – Male domination, child-bearing, female oppression, morality, naiveté; novel
  • ·      “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway – Sexual tension, control, choice, manipulation, relationship, realism, acceptance; short story
  • ·      “I cannot live with you” by Emily Dickinson – Unrequited love, home, domesticity, death; poem