Fighting Phones with Books in Moundsville

Trey Zambito, 29, teaches English at Moundsville Middle School, which educates around 430 kids in and around the West Virginia town of 8,000, subject of the PBS film Moundsville.

In a society falling out of love with books, Zambito is a blue-collar intellectual fighting on the front lines of literacy, culture and narrative. All he’s trying to do is get kids to read.

This month, the teacher popped up in my Moundsville news feed because he published a children’s book, Adventures with Fiji. It’s a 28-page book, self-published via Amazon, printed in Illinois, illustrated by The Chrisagis Brothers, twin Christian entertainers from the Wheeling-Moundsville area.

“Trey hopes the book will inspire children, and inspire their parents to read to them more often,” WTRF reported. ‘As a teacher one of his primary goals is to get his students to love reading. If they can do that, he hopes those skills will allow them to find the things they are truly passionate about.”

I gave Zambito a call because I wanted to know what it was like to teach eighth-graders about books, ideas, stories, and arguments in a high-tech, polarized age. What dreams, hopes, promises and headaches was he living with? School is fully back in Moundsville, so we had to conduct the interview over two days, as Zambito was frequently interrupted by students popping into his classroom to ask questions.

Zambito, who’s taught at Moundsville Middle since he was 23, is a friendly, enthusiastic educator. At West Liberty University, he “loved science but excelled at English.” He and his wife have a 17-month-old daughter, and are expecting a second child.

The teacher keeps a Maya Angelou quote at the front of his classroom: I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. The quote is “about empathy,” said Zambito. “That’s something a lot of middle schoolers have a hard time with, although I’ve noticed that kids from a lower socio-economic background tend to stand up for each other, which is as sad as it is beautiful.”

Adventures with Fiji is a sweet, colorful children’s book, about a boy and a dog he takes on wild imaginary adventures.

“Fiji, Fiji! What can we be?” the little boy asked. “We can be brave heroes who defend the village from the evil pirates who love to pillage? We can be explorers who discover a new land with a beautiful blue ocean and silky white sand!”

Zambito’s family has lived in the area since around 1900, when one set of great-grandparents immigrated from Italy. Another side of the family is from Lebanon. Zambito decided to stay in Wheeling and teach in Moundsville because he and his wife’s family are both from the area. She works at Main Street Bank in Wheeling. Zambito’s dad owns Zambito Flooring America, and his mom is a teacher at Center McMechen Elementary.

Reading is a tough sell for teenagers hooked on phones, but Zambito sees the glass as half-full. “Every single year I have a handful of students who could read a book a day,” he said. “We still have those students.” One student this year, he said, has read every Harry Potter at least four times. Young adult science fiction is very popular. The classics? Not so much.

Zambito packs his reading list with books he think middle schoolers will like, such as To Build a Fire (Jack London), Lobo the King of Currumpaw (Ernest Thompson Seton), The Sniper (Liam O’Flaherty), and The Most Dangerous Game (Richard Connell). A multicultural unit includes The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros), Copper Sun (Sharon Draper), and poetry by Angelou, whom he treasures.

Like teachers everywhere, Zambito has to deal with the ubiquity of technology. Everybody has a phone. Moundsville Middle banned phones because it was leading kids to bully each other with pictures and videos on social media platforms. “It’d be hard to do my job if we still allowed phones,” he said.

One consequence of all the technology, and the decline of local journalism, is that kids — yes, even eighth graders — are more into politics than they were 30 years ago. “You’ll hear stuff that’s just repetition of what their parents said at dinner,” said Zambito. “I try to minimize those conversations. There’s no need for eighth graders to be talking politics.”

During the election, Zambito taught The Giver, a young adult novel by Lois Lowery, a sci-fi book about a society that appears utopian but is in fact dystopian. Zambito has used the book to encourage argument. “I try to develop the sense that people can disagree and still be friends,” he said. “Even kids here are afraid of being canceled.”

Zambito said his family plans to say in Moundsville, which has suffered from brain drain and outward migration for decades. “I like going out on the back deck in the morning with my coffee and listening to nature,” he said. “And we have all the excitement of Pittsburgh that’s only an hour away.”

West Virginia leaders, he added, should do more to encourage immigration to the state. “A lot of the new construction around here is for the 55+ place age group, and I wish it was for younger people,” he said.

When the subject of career comes up with students, “I just try to encourage their imaginations,” Zambito said. “If you have imagination, and the work ethic, you can make your dreams come true. And you should be passionate about something. Without a passion, you’re not as happy as you can be.”

John W. Miller

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