In Appalachia, children read better in their own words. Breaking the family legacy of illiteracy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

`MY Dad an' his brothers are coal truck drivers,'' seven-year-old Malena McKeehan of Poplar Creek reads softly, in the long-voweled drawl of eastern Kentucky. ``They driver to Richland coal Company. They driver to K&M coal company. Sometime I go with him.'' This is no textbook story that Malena is reading to her second-grade classmates. It is her story, painstakingly penciled with all its spelling errors and proudly clutched in both her hands. And if it isn't perfect, three months into her second school year it's still better than a third of the people in Knox County can do.

In the rugged coal mining communities of Knox County, fewer than half of the adults aged 24 and older have studied beyond the eighth grade, according to the 1980 census. Like a family tradition passed down for generations, the dropout rate remains close to 50 percent. And about one-third are functionally illiterate, creating a culture that gives children here little help or encouragement in learning to read.

But one second-grade teacher, born and raised in these hills, has found a way to link literacy with the rich, unwritten culture of the Appalachians. Linda Oxendine's students are writing and reading the stories of their lives.

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``One day I came in from school and my granny was up in the little house and she was making a quilt,'' reads Kristin Brooks, a small girl with red pigtails, glancing around her reading circle with shy confidence. ``She was starting on her fifth one. And I said, `Granny, are you going to sell your quilts again.''' ``That's so good,'' Ms. Oxendine marvels, giving Kristin a hug. ``You're getting to be such a good writer. All of you are.''

Beside her, Billy Meeks, whose grin shows a band of missing front teeth, is waving his story, ``My Coal Miner.'' Jana Prichard is waiting to read ``Sunday Dinner at Granny's.''

A few minutes later, Kristin goes back to her desk and begins writing another story, this one called ``The Woods.'' Where does she get her ideas? ``Usually I think of something that happened to me.''

Second-graders at G.R. Hampton Elementary School have not always been so at home with pencil and paper. Five years ago, Oxendine recalls, she was ``up against the wall'' trying to get her students up to state achievement levels.

The children showed little interest in or aptitude for reading. Looking at the basic reader, the teacher thought she knew why. ``It had no stories in it the children could identify with,'' she says, flipping through pages of city and suburban scenes. ``They have about every minority there is, except country kids.''

The teacher even wondered if the textbook pictures of ``nice, paved streets and well-dressed, prosperous people'' made her mountain children feel discouraged before they even tried to read.

Thirty-seven percent of families in Knox County live below the federal poverty line of $11,200 for a family of four, as falling coal prices and increased mine mechanization since 1980 have slowed efforts toward economic improvement. Many schoolchildren come from homes without running water, and many get up before dawn to walk out of hollows and creekbeds so muddy and twisting that the school bus won't go into them.

Then, while working on her master's degree in childhood education at local Union College, Oxendine came across the method of teaching English called Writing to Read. First developed to teach bilingual children in Florida, and now a computer-based program in some schools around the country, the Writing to Read method integrates reading, writing, and speaking into a total language approach. Dispensing with textbook stories, it asks children to write their own stories, using words that are already in their speaking vocabularies.

``They learn that writing is just talking written down,'' says Oxendine, who began by asking her students to tell stories, which she wrote down word for word on the board. ``It's instant feedback,'' the teacher notes. By sounding out the words, students learn to recognize and approximate correct spelling.

For these Appalachian children, who come from a strong oral tradition, making the connection between familiar, idiomatic storytelling and the written word was a turning point. Now, three months into the school term, the children are writing their own stories, struggling with spelling and grammar, but eagerly putting down their feelings and experiences and reading aloud to each other.

``About the most amazing discovery I ever made in my teaching career is helping children understand exactly what reading is,'' says Oxendine, a teacher for 11 years. ``It's not a laborsome, hard, tedious, dreaded duty. It's something they can look forward to and enjoy - a way they can share.''

Standing at the blackboard in front of 25 excited and squirming children, Oxendine asks, ``What should we have for our story ideas today?''

Hands shoot up around the room. ``Feeding chickens,'' calls out a sturdy boy in a blue sweat suit. ``Planting tobacco,'' suggests a long-haired girl.

The list of story ideas grows across the board, not one of them a topic likely to turn up in a basic reader. Homemade Dolls. Molasses. Daniel Boone. The Dulcimer. Coal Mining. How To Milk a Cow. Playing in the Creek. How To Make a Corn Cob Pipe. What Is a Hillbilly? Going to Granny's. Going to Church.

Hunching over her desk, Jenny Carr, a quiet girl from Stone Cove Hollow, writes: ``One day my dad was driving. He saw a rattlesnake in the rode! He got his gun and shot it. He brought it home in the back of his truck! ... Dady skined the snake. And hingnd it upon the out-house. Then he let me brug it for show and tell.''

Every day for 30 minutes, the class studies spelling, and once a week Oxendine spends the reading period teaching basic skills. She also covers the basic reader, a requirement of the state.

But until the last two months of school, she makes only minor corrections on the children's stories. ``If you worry about spelling you slow 'em down and they don't like to write,'' she says. ``The idea of failure worries them.''

To build vocabulary in the guise of fun, she has also typed out the words to traditional mountain songs. The students clap for joy and rummage in their desks for song sheets as their teacher reaches above her desk for a dulcimer. ``Flies in the buttermilk, shoo, fly, shoo,'' they chorus as she strums plaintive chords.

Oxendine notes that in the past as many as half of her students had to attend remedial reading classes. Last year only four of her students went to remedial reading, and this year five do.

Most of the children check out library books now, too, she says, and read them. ``Right now the most important thing I'm interested in is teaching them to learn to love to read,'' she says.

``But the story writing and the songs are not only for vocabulary,'' she admits. She is also trying to teach the children pride in their mountain heritage. ``If we don't teach those things, we don't have much to be proud of.''

Herself a bridge between education and traditional mountain culture, Oxendine, now 34, grew up a few miles from the school and married at the relatively old age of 19. Her father, now retired, was a historian at Union College who specialized in Appalachian studies. Her mother, a teacher for 38 years in the Knox County public schools, is a master quilter who still cans a year's worth of vegetables from her summer garden.

Oxendine lives today with her husband, Jim Slusher, and her 12-year-old daughter, Molly, across the road from her parents. Her brick house is decorated with Molly's ``A'' test papers, stuck on the front and sides of the refrigerator, and with mountain crafts: cornhusk dolls and flowers, wooden cutouts she has painted herself, her mother's handmade quilts.

``Her self-image helps,'' says Quentin West, who was principal of G.R. Hampton for 18 years. ``With the area like it is,'' he says, ``sometimes we get to feeling a little down.''

Not Oxendine's second-graders. With their library books and stories under their arms, they quickly hug their teacher goodbye before running to the bus.

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