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My teaching motto is simple: “everything is practice” and learning is no exception.

Whether online or in person, in coffee shops, at field sites, or in windowless rooms, a classroom is a space to learn first, how to ask questions, then secondly, how to engage with those questions. As an educator I challenge myself to serve as a guide, leading the learners around me to question, dig deeper, and become connected to the subject we are pursuing in a way that matters. Above all, when I think of my role as an educator, I see myself as a learner. Whether learning how to plant a garden, wait tables, or interpret complex theories, good teachers have provided safe spaces where my curiosity and knowledge have been respected and utilized. 

Using experiential, individualized and independent activities, I find that classrooms I organize become personal; places where students are challenged to recognize their voices, bias’, and ideas. I provide keywords and curate readings, however students are asked to take responsibility for the “form” their work takes in my class through individualized projects. This is not always comfortable for students who often voice a preference for what educational philosopher Paulo Freire describes as a “banking education.” However, in my experience students want to learn. I find that students will go beyond typical scholastic expectations if a safe space and clear guidelines allow them the pursuit of individualized interests while examining, respecting, and utilizing their situated knowledge. As one student has shared:

I think it is important for people to learn about subjects like these because ignorance is what leads to those stereotypes. It has put a lot of things in perspective for me. Through this class I found a passion I had not known I had, the want to work towards social change. I always knew I wanted to do something to help people, but I realized how much oppression there is and how much change still needs to happen to make it a better place.

That same student came to me almost a year after taking my course, and we discussed their plans to travel to South America and study political ecology. I was honored that they noted our experiences together in the classroom as a pivotal moment in their lives. 

I find simply lecturing about a topic does not leave an impression that prompts students to ask “why” and seek further research. Rather, activities, trips, and project-based research initiatives open minds more than powerpoint slides. For this reason, I spend significant time arranging trips, visitors, and designing curriculum based activities.  When peers ask why I spend my Saturdays organizing trips and experiential learning opportunities, my answer is the same as my students; learning is life changing.

It is my priority to move beyond the cinderblock walls of most windowless classrooms on campus. I have organized trips to Kayford Mountain (an active mountaintop mining site), fiddler’s conventions, and Bristol Rhythm and Roots and the Museum of Geosciences, to name a few. By securing funding for visitors, students have heard guest lectures on race in the region, photography, public scholarship, and performances by local musicians. It is my true belief that the classroom is a space we must create, not a place where we learn and then we exit—a belief that has proven transformative to students (as seen in their evaluations). I require each of my students to “enter the field consistently noted as having a transformative impact on students as scholars and citizens. One student shared:

Kayford Mountain had an impact on me that I do not think will ever leave me. . . . As we moved along in a group, and saw the impact MTR had on the mountains surrounding Kayford and the families and communities there, I changed. I connected with the people around me, and the more and more I learned the more and more I felt myself really opening up. I wanted to get involved and share my opinion, to have discussions about what I was seeing and what we were doing. I wanted to take all of the knowledge that we were taking in and share it with as many people as I could. My opinion of the mining companies, power of the individual, power of small groups, and so much more was drastically changed for the better. Kayford reshaped both my personality and beliefs in a way that I can barely find words for. . .. I’m no longer afraid to voice my opinion and teach people. Even things that have absolutely nothing to do with Appalachia, such as video games or my other courses, I am no longer afraid to inform people about: stranger or friend. I am also no longer afraid to take risks and to get out and explore. By leaving the classroom I emphasize that learning is an active pursuit, not an activity defined by a time and place. We are always learning and once we realize the power of this unregimented potential, a truly exciting breakthrough occurs, as many students have shared.

Students have shared disdain at the “silent” moments in class, their discomfort in not being told what the correct answer is, but rather being asked to cultivate a question, and develop their curiosity. These are a few of the many challenges when committing to a transformative pedagogy rather than to a lecture or “fill in the blank” structured course. While some discomfort is inevitable, I try to learn through my mistakes — mistakes in translation, interpretation, direction — and the responsibility of reworking the classroom to account for these makes me a better scholar. 

I truly believe in people, and this translates into my belief in the classroom as a space where we grow and learn from one another, exchanging, and translating our peers’ thoughts in order to better understand our own. Like my students, I have grown under the guidance of teachers and peers, from elementary school to graduate school; people who knew when to define parameters and when to encourage my imagination, challenge my assumptions, but most of all individuals who respected me and the knowledge and experiences I brought to the classroom. I mirror them to the best of my ability and take my position as an instructor very seriously, because our calling is, in the end, world-making.