Teaching Coal: Educating a New Generation
By T.L. Headley, American Coal Council
What makes someone a good teacher?
One of the most common elements of excelling at something is passion for what you are doing. For a teacher that translates into passion for the subject and for the process of teaching and engaging with students. But good teaching is much more than filling the students’ minds with facts and figures. It is helping those students develop the skills to learn and to think for themselves, to ask questions, to analyze data and draw conclusions. And education may take both the teacher and the learner out of their comfort zones.
Shane Wagner has been teaching English and Language Arts at South Dearborn Middle School in his hometown of Aurora, Indiana since he graduated from Northern Kentucky University in 2014. Aurora is a small river town of about 3,000 people. It lies in the midst of the Illinois Basin coalfields.
Most of the school’s population come from middle-class or lower-income families. For many of them, there is no one at home. For some, both parents are in and out of the picture and their grandmas and grandpas are raising them, or the kids are simply raising themselves and not receiving any guidance at all. Life is not easy.
“Every minute of every day, I have to make multiple decisions concerning what I’m teaching, what they’re learning, and whether or not I’m making an impact,” Wagner said. “Juggling each student’s education, safety and social, emotional and physical welfare is exhausting, yet thoroughly rewarding. Naturally, teaching teens is a massive undertaking in the first place. Every day is a battleground of teenage angst, pushback and attitude; however, underneath that thin facade, there are young men and women hungry for knowledge. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
For the past four years, one of the highlights of Wagner’s curriculum has been the study of Homer Hickam’s book, Rocket Boys. The book is essentially Hickam’s memoirs of growing up in the 1950s, in the little coal mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. It recounts how he and his small group of friends began to study rocket science and ended up winning the National Science Fair. Hickam went on to become a program manager at NASA and was instrumental in the development of the space shuttle program. His friends all went on to college and very successful careers.
Wagner said this section of the curriculum has proven one of the most popular he teaches.
“My goal with this book is to show them that people who don’t come from a lot can still achieve a lot,” Wagner said. “The book paints education as an absolute gift. They walk away with the concept that it doesn’t matter where you come from – you aren’t defined by it. It doesn’t dictate what you do with your life. You can have pride of community.”
Wagner said that when he starts the section, few of his students know much about mining. They come in with a very narrow, outdated perspective of coal, limited to the coal barges that ply along the Ohio and the image of coal miners digging underground with picks and shovels and horse-drawn carts.
“I have to do some pre-teaching before I start,” Wagner said. “We learn about new mining technology, continuous miners, man-trips, shipping coal, tipples and coal processing, etc. Their whole idea changes and they realize this is an industry. This is a well-oiled machine with some extremely intelligent people operating it.”
When asked if he had had any pushback for including coal mining in the curriculum, Wagner said that he hasn’t experienced any.
“I teach advanced English and I get to make and modify my own curriculum,” he said. “I went to our principal to tell him I wanted to teach this book – it’s such a comparative for my students who are also growing up in a rural community. I think the thing that has caused me not to have a push back is to approach it in a non-biased way. We look at the history of coal and energy. We look at energy future. I try to teach it purely from a historical perspective. We have that whole discussion about the pros and cons about each energy source – I’m not trying to sway anyone’s opinion. What I try to show is that this is a resource that has utterly changed the world – a resource that built America and saved us, helping us win two world wars. It would have been impossible without coal and the people who mined it.”
Incorporating the story of Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys has also had an impact. Wagner said he is almost always surprised by how much his students see of themselves in the experiences of Hickman and his friends. And at some point, it just “clicks.”
“One of the things that is really fascinating … one of my students brought up in a discussion was whether we could go back and read the chapter again where Homer and his friend blew up his mother’s fence with an early rocket experiment,” Wagner said. “The chapter ‘We did the Math’ talks about the mathematics and physics. Just the desire to learn something totally changed their lives. In two years, these kids were doing math and science way beyond what most people do in their lives – at a school in one of the poorest areas in the country. They clearly see that the only person holding you back in life is yourself.”
Wagner said though he hadn’t really explored it, he expects the study of the Rocket Boys has inspired some of his students to pursue math, science and engineering when they might not have otherwise.
“Our school is lucky enough to have an engineering program in place with CAD labs and college credit,” Wagner said. “It is great that we are able to perhaps start that discussion with them.”
Wagner said, ultimately, education is in the hands of the student.
“As Homer’s teacher, Frieda Joy Riley, told him,” Wagner said, “’All I’ve done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what’s inside it’.”