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Eighth graders in West Virginia are required to take West Virginia Studies, and coal has shaped many facets of our state’s economy and environment. But as employment in the industry continues to decline, how are teachers and students discussing coal in classrooms today?
Pamela Bush has taught West Virginia Studies in the heart of the state’s southern coalfields, where she grew up, for 16 years. Over time, she’s noticed coal’s presence in the classroom is evolving.
“When I first started, we had a whole unit just on the coal industry,” Bush said.
In more recent years, coal employment has declined in her area and resources like natural gas have entered the economic picture. Now, Bush said the course combines coal with all the natural resources, like salt, iron ore and timber.
“So it’s just another form of a natural resource that we look at rather than being the big, mega powerhouse that it used to be,” she said.
Then, and now, Bush teaches her students about coal’s early history — in particular, about the ways that industrialists and mining families clashed over unionization a century ago.
“I still teach a lot about the labor movement and the coal mining wars,” she said. “Because that is our local history here in the southern coalfields.”
In Cabell County, known for Marshall University and the Ohio River port city of Huntington, Brian Casto has been teaching West Virginia Studies for four years.
He agrees that coal does not have quite the same bearing in West Virginia Studies textbooks as it did several years ago. He’s also noticed more balance now in how they describe the impacts of the coal extraction process.
“Now, you see a lot more things in the textbooks that show the positive impact of coal, but it also argues some of the negative things that have come from it, like the environmental impact,” Casto said.
The current textbook, “West Virginia: 150 Years of Statehood,” discusses the controversial mining method known as strip mining, or surface mining. One passage reads, “it destroys land, and pollutes streams, increasing the potential for erosion and flooding.”
But the book also contends that companies must restore the land once they’re finished. The book reads, “in some instances, the area is actually left in better condition than before it was mined.”
Casto said his students often ask whether there are ways to mine coal in more environmentally responsible ways — or if out-of-work miners could be trained to do other jobs.
“A lot of students say that what needs to happen is how do you maybe lure manufacturing jobs to the area to fill those gaps of employment,” Casto said. “So people can still stay in those places.”
Back over in the coalfields of Logan County, Pamela Bush sees a sharper divide in her classroom.
“You have some students who have the mindset that they know that coal is never going to be as big as what it once was,” Bush said. “And then you have some that will hang on for dear life, you know, it’s gonna come back, it’s going to be as big as it ever was. So it’s kind of a mixture of both.”
In southern West Virginia, coal isn’t history at all — it’s a present and personal part of people’s lives. But that’s not the case in Jefferson County, where Keith Moody has been teaching West Virginia Studies for eight years.
“Jefferson County is in a pretty unique situation,” Moody said. “When you look at the state as a whole, Jefferson County is one of the few counties that does not actually have any coal.”
One of only three, in fact.
Jefferson County is also just an hour-and-a-half from Washington, D.C., and fewer families there have ties to the coal industry.
“Coal doesn’t impact their lives, like it does if you were to live in McDowell County,” he said.
Though they rely on coal in any number of ways, Moody said his students often feel indifferent about the industry and sometimes question why they have to learn about it.
He said many are perplexed by the control that out-of-state investors have had on the coal mined in West Virginia and wonder if it could happen again.
“One question I get from students sometimes is, are we seeing the same thing happening, you know, with natural gas? Are we allowing outsiders from West Virginia to come in and make money off of our industries and our natural resources without putting it back into West Virginia?”
All three teachers say, though, no matter what county you’re from, coal still plays a major role in understanding West Virginia today.
“Our culture is what it is because of the people that came here to work in the coal mines,” Bush said. “We can’t forget the past if we hope to move forward.”
All three teachers envision coal playing a new role in the state’s economy, in the form of tourism. As the resource dwindles, its history remains — and those stories are worth telling for years to come.