Educator Spotlight: More Than a History Lesson
By Erica L. Shames
Welsh immigrants formed the backbone of a flourishing slate mining industry in Pennsylvania, beginning in the 1800s. Peach Bottom Slate, found in Delta, PA, a small community in the southeastern corner of York County, was particularly valuable. Due to its higher than normal content of silica and aluminum, Peach Bottom Slate keeps its original color and does not weather. At the 1850 World Expo in London, the material was voted the “best building slate in the world.” Many homes in Delta incorporate slate roofs; the materials was also used for blackboards, smaller individual school slates, grave vaults and covers, billiard table tops, counter tops and shower stalls, and for telephone switchboards. After the 1920s, Slate eventually succumbed to competition from plastics and other materials that were cheaper and easier to use.
This is now
Fast forward several decades. In 2005, Jason Daryman, a 7th grade science teacher at South Eastern Middle School in Delta, stumbled onto a video on coal mining techniques created by Van Wagner, a musician/history buff/high school science teacher at Lewisburg Area High School, in Union County. Daryman watched the video, and shared it with his son; both enjoyed the music and the information it imparted.
“We became fans,” explains Daryman. “We watched more videos and I started to share Van’s music in the classroom with students and teachers. An idea hit me: we ought to do something more with Van’s information.”
Last December, Daryman sent an email to Wagner, with the idea of memorializing Delta’s slate mining history and the Welsh immigrants who worked in it.
“I’d been listening to Van’s music about coal and iron ore, and steel,” said Daryman. “We have a cool resource down here: slate quarries with a lot of history. I wondered if I could pull Van in, expose my students and tie in our local history. I thought maybe he’d be interested in writing a song about Peach Bottom Slate. So I emailed him with the idea.”
By lunchtime the following day, Wagner was skyping with Daryman and his students. “I had 60 students in to watch the skype session, and ultimately recruited 15 eager to work on the project. Van right away latched onto this idea.”
Where do we begin?
Wagner’s first step was to ask Daryman’s students to research their local history, including what it was like to be a quarryer and slatesman and what was daily life like for men and women. Daryman chose the book, The River and The Ridge, written by local historians Roger Wilson, Donald Robinson, James Morris and David Glenn, for student-research.
“The students jumped in reading, taking notes, summarizing, paraphrasing information about the history of slate mining in this area,” said Daryman. “We took field trips to slate mines, local churches and quarrymen’s homes. We picked out stories to focus on—about a horse, quarry accident and specific townspeople. We looked into the technical aspects of slate and how it was split. We compiled the students’ research into a 14-page Google document and sent it to Van.”
A few days later, Daryman received a music video from Wagner.
“I wanted the process to involve the students as much as possible,” said Wagner. “After they sent me their research, I sent them a video with song ideas I had come up with. They would then reply with a video of their own regarding the accuracy of my lyrics or what they thought of my tune.”
“Van’s video messages were particularly relevant,” added Daryman. “He would speak to specific students, thanking them for their research or explaining how their suggestions were implemented.”
Stories from the past
Beyond the history lessons, Van infused each video communication with information about the origin and history of instruments he used, his songwriting techniques, how his videos were made and how he recorded songs in his home studio. He also added stories about his ancestors, who just happened to be Welsh.
“I am named for my Welsh-American grandmother,” explains Wagner. “She was born Ethel Van Cuffin (her married name was Hinkel). Her parents were working class immigrants to Pennsylvania from Wales. Grandmother used to tell me many stories of our Welsh family and her parents’ boat journey to America.”
The back and forth interchange between Wagner and the York County students continued for a month and a half. After the songs were completed and polished, Wagner took the project to the next level.
“He called what he described as a band meeting,” said Daryman. “He involved the kids in making the decision about whether or not to market and distribute the album.”
From the goal of writing one song, the project morphed into an album of nine songs incorporating all aspects of the slate mining industry. The students played an active role in each step of the process, including writing text and choosing the illustration for the album cover. Ultimately titled King of the Quarry, the album was professionally mixed by Jason Perez, of Danville, who donated his time and services.
“The students’ information was so detailed and impressive,” said Wagner. “I was especially drawn in by the story of Welsh immigrants being a key part of this story. I drew upon these stories when I wrote the song ‘Leaving Wales’ for this album. My grandmother was so proud to be Welsh-American. She was also a school teacher. I think this album would have made my grandmother very happy.”
Some of the most compelling wisdom Wagner imparted to students had nothing to do with history. In answer to a student’s question about Wagner’s musical success, he shared an eloquent life lesson. “I’ve had a lot of fun with music,” Wagner said. “I’ve been on Country Music Television, I wrote some music for a program on the History Channel and I’ve performed all over the U.S. and opened for some surprisingly big names, including Brad Paisley. To be honest, this process of writing songs with you is way more exciting than any of the things I just listed to you.
“If you are seeking fame,” Wagner added, “I don’t know there’s a lot of fulfillment there. And if you think there’s some kind of feeling in your heart that goes off when you get to hang out with famous people—like wow, now I’ve made it—I’m here to tell you that doesn’t’ happen. I think that life is much more rewarding if you find your own fulfillment in meaning and value.”
Once the album was completed and released last February, the project took on multiple dimensions. Wagner traveled to Delta to perform the songs and meet his student-collaborators. Delta Revitalization Project and Old Line Museum assisted in putting together the resulting school assembly and evening concert for the community last June, and the students made additional presentations to elementary school students.
“Students took the stage and told about their experiences with the songs, and even showed some of the tools used in slate splitting,” said Daryman. “One of my students was so inspired, he wrote a song called ‘Quarry Yesterday,’ and performed it on stage with Van.
By all counts the project—which culminated in the appearance by Daryman and Wagner at Danville’s Heritage Festival last July—has had a profound effect. Delta Revitalization plans to use the music to help instill town pride in young people. Authors Robinson and Wilson, who still live in Delta, shared a two-hour lesson on slate with students. Perhaps the most powerful takeaway was the positive impact on Delta’s status, and the model the project communicates to other teachers.
“We need to be proud of our history,” said Daryman. “The stories and history of the slate mining industry will fade unless young people learn it, celebrate it and pass it on. This is a way to move forward celebrating Delta’s special qualities and to be proud of what went on here.
“Ultimately,” Daryman continued, “this is a cool lesson for other teachers. If you think it up and pursue it, it can happen. Van made that possible; I’m really in his debt for his initiative. He’s all about going the extra mile, and sharing his knowledge. We’ll be connected for a lifetime, and we have a CD about our area under our belt. In 10, 20, 30 years, we’ll still be able to look back and know it was a cool thing that we did. And, for the students, this is a life-long achievement they can be proud of.”
“All of us are teachers,” added Wagner. “Young people look to us as examples. I like to teach by example and show students all the exciting aspects of life around us: music and learning about history—and even hiking in the woods.”
Visit SusquehannaLife.com/WebExtras to learn more about the slate mining industry.