Making Appalachian history a priority in the elementary curriculum

Posted by | June 11, 2009

Please welcome guest blogger Molly Wilkins, a graduate student in Washington State in a Master’s of Education program. As an assignment for her Social Studies Methods course, she recently wrote a paper on the importance of Appalachian cultural and environmental history in the social studies curriculum in the elementary public school system to help foster stewardship. Her paper was originally published on the iLoveMountains.org site.

I was raised in the Tennessee Valley, along with many generations of my ancestors. I went to public school in the small town of Athens, TN, starting in kindergarten and ending with my senior year of high school. Once I graduated high school, I made my first grand move across the mountain to Asheville, NC. There, I completed my undergraduate career with a degree in Environmental Management and Policy.

The brief biography is given to state this: of the 18 years that I was raised in the Tennessee Valley and educated in the Tennessee public school system, I knew very little of Tennessee cultural and environmental history. This was not due to a lack of interest. I continued my education to earn a degree in Environmental Policy; a decision and path I chose as a sophomore in high school. I adventured in the Tennessee hills and mountains with family and friends my whole life. I loved the area, but I didn’t know why. I love the area, but I didn’t know the history behind it.

When I began school at UNC-Asheville, part of the humanities and liberal arts curriculum included fostering a sense of place for incoming freshman. I began to learn more about Asheville and the history of North Carolina than I had ever known about Tennessee. Through this realization, I began my own investigations and fascination with Appalachian history. I was mainly interested in how the land and culture affected each other; how political acts, cultural beliefs, other influencing cultures in the surrounding area, and natural phenomenon came to create what I now call my home.

scene in the Tennessee Overhill regionThrough this personal research, I began to develop a sense of place with Athens, TN, a place that had already been my home for 18 years. I also began to ask my grandparents questions and slowly began to learn more about my own heritage. I learned about my Great-Grandfather’s farm being cut in half by the creation of Interstate 75, and how my grandmother helped to organize the Red Cross to make supplies in Athens for World War I.

I began to look at the Tennessee hills differently. They weren’t just dirt and red clay. They held the history of my family. They held the history of the environment and resources that I depend on. They held the history of a culture that I was immersed in and carried with me to any new situation. My heart began to hurt when I would see a hill cut in half for development or an entire mountain for sale- and for cheap. I decided to make my passions in life in line with stewardship and protection of Appalachian history and culture, particularly the Tennessee Valley.

I am now currently a graduate student in a specialized residency program in Washington State. The decision to leave the Southern Appalachian area that I love so much was difficult to make, but the program was specialized for environmental and cultural place-based education. The experiences I have had and learned from in this program are tremendous and will be very beneficial for me when I return to UT-Chattanooga to finish my Master’s of Education.

I plan to teach in the Tennessee Public school system, and once I am in the classroom, I plan on making Southern Appalachian and Tennessee cultural and environmental history a priority in the elementary curriculum. Social Studies standards for the elementary classroom include state and local community history, yet, as a product of the public school system, I can say that this has not been stressed enough.

It is of great importance to begin this historical and cultural education and discovery as early as possible. The Southern Appalachians are being developed, small towns are bought up by chain stores, and a culture, so rich to the American history as a whole, is being forgotten. By educating the youth and future generations, there will be a better connection to the land and the history that it holds. This connection will help to develop a sense of pride and a sense of place. It is then that we will be able to begin to foster stewardship for the land and the history that it holds.

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