Unaka Elementary students learn about East Tennessee, Appalachia in reading class

To fifth and sixth grade students, it started out as just a book report, but as the year went on, it became a school-wide experience, each chapter transforming their understanding of the world around them.

Holli Fair, a teacher at Unaka Elementary, said the book report in late March came from a sort of “contest” she won almost on accident.

“At the end of last year, [Robert Beatty] sent out an e-mail to all teachers in the area,” Fair said.

The e-mail linked to a brief survey, and he said a select few who submitted a survey would receive copies of his latest book: Willa of the Wood.

Fair said she filled out the survey just to do it, which was why she said she was surprised when she heard back saying she had been selected to receive copies.

In the fall of 2018, she said she decided to make that book a focus of her Reading class that year.

“It was amazing,” Fair said. “It really draws you in.”

She started reading the book in her class, and she said the result was incredible: the students became obsessed with the story.

Willa of the Wood is a book that has the main character, Willa, travel to various areas in the East Tennessee and Appalachia area, including Cades Cove, the Tuckaleechee Caverns and the Smoky Mountains.

“He does an excellent job of describing details of these places and how they feel,” Fair said.

Some of her classes have interpreters for deaf students in her class, and one of them even decided to take a copy home with them to read, they were so invested.

A highlight of the experience, however, was a field trip in December 2018, in which they visited Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., where a large portion of the book took place.

To make sure everyone could attend, the class held fund-raisers and other projects to help raise money.

“We made sure all 58 kids could come on the field trip,” Fair said.

She said the book opened their eyes to new discoveries about the world around them. For example, in October of last year, she and her husband went hiking at Cades Cove. After a bit of searching, they actually found a small grain mill they had never seen during their earlier visits, all because the book featured a scene there.

“As a teacher, if you put your heart and soul into it the kids will enjoy reading a whole lot better,” she said.

She attributed this level of engagement with being one of the reasons every student was invested in the book.

“Even the boys got invested,” Fair said. “It was able to bring everybody to a common ground.”

As for the years ahead, she said she hopes future books she reads with her students are just as eye-opening.

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