Teaching Folklore in West Virginia

Article excerpt

The mountains have a way of keeping alive large patterns of old ways by simply isolating people," says Judy Byers, coauthor of In the Mountain State: A West Virginia Folklore and Cultural Studies Curriculum.

Time was when West Virginia fourth and eight graders were not really taught about the Mountain State's rich legacy of folklore and culture. As Byers explains it, the idea was that students should be taught a standard West Virginia history, a kind of homogenized view of the state's culture that "smoothed out" the sometimes rough edges and burly character of folk art, folk speech, folk music, and folk literature. More important than this, she says, was the fact there was no single teacher resource for teaching West Virginia's cultural history and folklore.

Byers and folklorists and historians Noel Tenney and John H. Randolph were asked by the West Virginia Humanities Council to develop and write a comprehensive curriculum guide to teach students about the culture of the rugged people who settled the state.

Published by the West Virginia Council for the Humanities, In the Mountain State has ten units, various chapters, and teaching guides on traditions and customs, material culture, the rich language and speech patterns of the state, a sense of place and local history, nature lore, oral history, folk arts and folk music, and the written literature of West Virginia. It is offered free to West Virginia teachers.

Byers, a professor of language and literature, and director of the West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State College in Fairmont, West Virginia, came to love the Mountain State's cultural legacy as a child. I was born into this field," she says. Her early childhood was filled with ghost stories and oral folk legends. A strong influence for Byers was the celebrated folklorist Ruth Ann Musick, who collected many of the folk songs and oral traditions of Appalachia.

"Teachers needed a guide," Byers says. "Right now many children are not having the subject simply presented to them. To continue the oral tradition of storytelling, to look at our ancestors, to see them as repositories of learning and culture, we needed this guide. This curriculum draws it all together, and parts are even used in college classes."

Byers is an enthusiastic advocate of West Virginia's folk culture. "An old regional culture developed out of the Anglo-Celtic migrations before and after the Civil War. Once people settled here they often stayed put. British culture defined our way of life in Appalachia... I mean the culture of the peoples of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. …