Ashbrook Teacher Points Hometown Students to the Broader World
December 24, 2020
Adena Barnette teaches American history and civics in her hometown of Ripley, West Virginia, at the school from which she, her parents and grandparents all graduated. Yet she works to point her students to a broader world. Barnette, a 2014 graduate of Ashbrook’s Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program, is a world traveler with a global curiosity. She is also a West Virginia history buff whose thesis exploring the process that led to West Virginia statehood won the MAHG Chairmen’s Award.
Barnette has traveled to India, South Korea, and Germany in summer exchange programs for teachers. She has attended teacher institutes at Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, and—as a Madison Fellow—Georgetown University. She sought the prestigious Madison Fellowship, awarded by the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation annually to up to two representatives from each state, to fund her Masters study. “I wanted the best program; Ashbrook’s program is the best,” Barnette said.
Madison Fellows emphasize Constitutional studies in their Masters work. Barnette knew that West Virginia’s creation during our Civil War had raised Constitutional questions and remained controversial in some circles. It was “the only state in the Union to have been carved from another during a state of war,” and after the Civil War, Virginia repeatedly challenged its creation in court. At the time Barnette selected her thesis topic, the bicentennial of the state’s birth (in June 2013), was near. She decided, “I’m going to prove that West Virginia’s creation was Constitutional.”
The subject opened a door on a range of Constitutional issues. After West Virginians voted for statehood, there were debates in Congress over the statehood bill and debates within Lincoln’s cabinet when the bill awaited his signature. Barnette also discussed an 1871 Supreme Court case in which Virginia challenged the post-statehood addition of two counties to West Virginia.
The story has rarely been discussed in history books. Barnette researched her thesis using primary sources: “I spent my time reading old newspapers and the Congressional Record.” Her advisor, Professor Mac Owens of the Naval War College, told Barnette that she had uncovered ample material for a PhD thesis, which Barnette hopes to pursue.
For now, Barnette is offering a new course at Ripley High on West Virginia history. Her students learn that the statehood movement arose not simply from opposition to slavery and secession, but from insistence on “the rights of free men who lack a lot of land or money to participate in the political process.” When the Constitutional Convention allowed southern states to include disenfranchised slaves in calculating population, western Virginia suffered. “There were 400,000 slaves in eastern Virginia and only 18,000 slaves” in the part of the state that would become West Virginia, giving that area a disproportionately small share of representation. “And until 1851, there were property qualifications for voting in Virginia. Most people are taught that with Andrew Jackson and the Era of the Common Man, property qualifications disappeared around 1828. Not in West Virginia!”
Learning state history also gives Barnette’s students pride in their region. “If my students travel outside of the state, they find other Americans don’t realize we’re not part of Virginia,” she noted. Yet few of her students do travel; many have limited expectations. “A lot of my students believe they cannot accomplish as much as those in other states. I believe that’s why I’m still at Ripley High School after eleven years. It’s my goal to let kids know they can pursue academics and they can see the world.”
At Ripley, Barnette works with students “who want to go to college but don’t yet have the skills. To bring them up to speed, we focus reading primary source documents. The first time I teach a document, I show the students what key words and phrases I highlight, what I write in the margins.” Ashbrook’s Master of Arts degree program gave her the model for this approach. The professors in the program guide teachers through the parsing of primary texts and then open a discussion on the text’s implications. “That’s what MAHG is about: people interacting on the same level,” sometimes disagreeing about meanings, but all committed to understanding the words of past generations. “That’s what I want for my classroom,” Barnette said.