By Lynn J. Richardson
David Yates needed help getting out the door of a local shop the other day. He had been shopping, and he was loaded down with armfuls of school supplies for a class he teaches at David Crockett High School.
But forget about the usual reams of paper and boxes of mechanical pencils; these “supplies” have handmade wooden handles and sharp metal blades – everything from primitive chisels to an antique mortice drill which he laughingly describes as “the first cordless drill.”
Yates’ teaching aids are as unusual as the class itself. It’s called “Hillbilly Heritage.” Officially listed as an ecology class at the Jonesborough high school, the class is based on the old Foxfire books, on days gone by, when everything from hot cornbread to homes were built by hand. Yates came up with the idea for the class when the high school added in a 45-minute extra class period to last the entire year.
“Teachers could teach something they were interested in,” Yates explained. “Some are teaching yoga, hunting and fishing, and me, being a hillbilly, I went ahead and wrote it up as ‘Hillbilly Heritage’.
“It’s based on everything my dad made me do when I was a kid and I fussed about,” he added, with a laugh. “I sure didn’t want to be making molasses on a Saturday night; I wanted to go to Skateland and Pizza Hut.”
Yates says he is amazed at the interest in the class. Offered for the first time this year, the class was at capacity – 38 students – during the first semester, and required the help of a second teacher. Then, due to growing demand, a second class was added this semester and now a total of 65 students are enrolled in the Heritage classes.
“You wouldn’t think these kids would be interested in learning how things were built and made way back when, but they really are,” Yates said. “We’ve churned butter, canned tomatoes, and made rock candy. We just did hand-dipped candles last week, and we’ll be making maple syrup and apple butter.”
Students also learn how to make strawberry freezer jam, cheese and kraut, and grind their own corn using a corn sheller and a grain mill that is hand-cranked. And while the end results are important, Yates doesn’t just jump right into the class, he makes certain the students also understand their mountain heritage.
“We talk about how the mountains were formed, and how the Scottish people got here,” he explained. “We bring them up to date on proper ‘mountain etiquette,’ and introduce them to the stereotypes of ‘hillbillies’ by showing episodes of the Hatfields and McCoys, Hee Haw, The Real McCoys, Deliverance and Sergeant York. Most of them have no idea what that is all about.”
But it all comes naturally to Yates, a tree farmer turned teacher who has two master’s degrees and a PhD in bioactive natural products. As the advanced biology teacher at DCHS, he says he has always taken advantage of the large wooded area and the creek on campus to teach real world skills such as building a fire, catching a fish and finding herbs that can be used for medicinal purposes.
Through his Hillbilly Heritage class, he can branch out even more, and now, as a result, his students are involved in their biggest project yet – building a log cabin.
“We have a large barn on campus, and we started hauling logs down there to work on them by hand last week,” Yates said. “We are letting students use a two-man saw and axes, to turn round logs into square ones. But first we have practice on how to use those tools.” Extra safety equipment is also on site, he added, and instructors from both the woodworking and construction core classes have stepped up to help.
“They’re all very excited, and parents are also wanting to learn to use the old tools and help,” he said. “We want to do one or two rounds of a cabin each year and later, maybe we can sell it as a fundraiser. We’re just getting started, but this is a lot of fun.”