Reading the Past

By Rachelle Kuehl

November 21, 2022

In October, my family and I drove from Virginia to Minnesota to say goodbye to my wonderful father-in-law, who passed away at the age of 84 after a long illness. My children missed a full week of school, and when we returned, I worked with my fourth grader, Jamie, to make up his language arts assignments. Together, we read several chapters of Blood on the River: James Town, 1607 by Elisa Carbone (2007), the historical novel his class had been reading during small-group instruction. Blood on the River is a story about the first British settlement in America at Jamestown and serves as a perfect tie-in to the fourth-grade Virginia Standards of Learning for history and social sciences.

Although I have lived in Virginia for many years, I previously only had a vague sense of what went on at the Jamestown settlement, and reading this story with Jamie was a reminder of just how powerful a vehicle historical fiction is for teaching about events from the past. From this book, I learned about the Virginia Company of London stockholders who funded the expedition to America with the hopes of expanding the British empire and increasing their own wealth. I learned about John Smith, the commoner-turned-sea captain who (from the eyes of the narrator, Samuel), was a good leader because he stood up to corruption, worked hard alongside his hired laborers, and aimed to negotiate fairly and peaceably with the Powhatan people who had inhabited Virginia’s land long before the arrival of the British. Although I had already known that many settlers did not survive the first winter at Jamestown, I was able to experience the danger and loss of life on a personal level as Samuel described the constant quest for food and warmth and the persistent need to dig graves for those who died. I saw the way the Powhatan people were rightfully wary of the newcomers at first, but valued their humanity—and the opportunity to trade—enough to share nourishment and shelter, without which none of the Jamestown settlers would have survived. I met Pochahontas, who was a younger girl when she encountered the settlers than the Disney movie would have us believe. I learned how British people continued to arrive at Jamestown because letters describing the horrific conditions there were blocked by investors whose financial interests would have been threatened by their receipt. I learned that unscrupulous new leaders quickly unraveled the delicate trust built between Chief Powhatan and Captain Smith by plundering the Powhatan camps and forcing the chief and his people into a ceremony declaring them as British subjects.

My father-in-law grew up in rural Walnut Grove, Minnesota, one of the places Laura Ingalls Wilder had lived and where the Little House on the Prairie television series was set. While we were nearby for his funeral last month, we visited some of the historical sites related to Laura’s life, including a museum gift shop that sold copies of the beloved books I grew up reading that taught me a very one-sided version of pioneer life. From Laura’s point of view (which was then shared by me as one of her many young readers), it seemed reasonable for White families to move westward, claiming land inhabited by others—sometimes forcibly—and to begin building farms and towns upon it. A novel I recommend to explore events in this region during this time period from a more nuanced perspective is Resisting Removal: The Sandy Lake Tragedy of 1850 by Colin Mustful, a Minnesota historian (and my brother!) who is also the founder of History Through Fiction, an independent press dedicated to sharing stories that combine historical research with compelling fictional narratives. Although I grew up in Minnesota and had read the Little House books dozens of times, I never knew about the forced removal of Ojibwe citizens by the US government Resisting Removal describes—nor had I ever heard of the massacre of 38 Dakota men ordered by Abraham Lincoln in 1862—until Colin started researching both events.

While we were in Walnut Grove, Jamie’s class was on a field trip to Jamestown. We hated that he had to miss it, so we’re planning to visit the historic site as a family this spring. Having read Blood on the River, I know I will take much more interest in seeing the places mentioned in the book and learning about the historical figures depicted as part of the story, and I’m sure Jamie will too.

Our reading of this novel was timely as we approach Thanksgiving this week, a time when, as a nation, we celebrate a story about the Pilgrims and “Indians” that is part of our shared cultural history but is based on a narrative that overlooks the atrocities inflicted on the Indigenous people who inhabited this land long before the Europeans arrived. To help our students—and ourselves—understand the truth of history, we can recognize Native American Heritage Month in our classrooms; we can read historical novels like the ones I’ve mentioned; we can pair historical novels with contemporary fiction to demonstrate the through lines connecting past and present events (Kuehl, 2022); and we can seek out other resources to help students avoid “The Danger of a Single Story” (Adichie, 2009). For nonfiction reading, I recommend An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2015), which was adapted for young people by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza (2019). The National Congress of American Indians has resources available on their website, and Virginia Tech’s American Indian and Indigenous Community Center has programs and resources designed to educate the public and to celebrate the contributions of Indigenous people historically and in the present day.

At the beginning of each chapter of Blood on the River, Carbone embeds quotations from primary source documents to show where she obtained the information to construct her story. Many of the quotations are from John Smith’s own writing about the events in Jamestown, which he wrote from England after he suffered an injury and left America to recover. Was he actually a “good guy,” then, or did he merely wield his pen, a weapon his character describes as “much more powerful than [the] sword” (Carbone, 2007, p. 88), to paint himself in a flattering light? As educators, it’s crucially important to help students think critically about the answer to that question when approaching any historical text. Who is telling the story? What is their goal in writing it? Whose perspective is left out? As we gather with family and friends for the holiday, let us be more aware of the stories we’ve been told and of our duty as engaged citizens to examine and, when necessary, disrupt them.

Rachelle Kuehl is a research scientist in the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech and the project manager for the Appalachian Rural Talent Initiative. Her articles about children’s literature and literacy education have appeared in journals such as The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Children’s Literature, English Journal, English in Education, and Reading Horizons.

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When Chocolate Bread Pudding Tastes Like Home

By Heather Lynn Wright

November 15, 2022

Photo caption: Heather (far left) and her twin sister Nicole (far right) visiting Nannie (center) at her Southern Pines home in the mid-1990s. Chocolate bread pudding not pictured.

The idea of home has been heavy on my heart this semester. I’m currently working on a place-based grant within my college-level English courses where we’re studying the idea of home. I—a rural identifying person—am living and teaching in a rural community that is not my original home. There’s a greenway, but it isn’t my greenway. There are mountains, but they aren’t my mountains. There’s far more than my comfortable one stoplight and the barbecue sauce isn’t always vinegar based. 

In 2019’s Appalachian Reckoning (edited by McCarroll and Harkins), there is a haunting piece by Jim Minick, “How to Make Cornbread, or Thoughts on Being an Appalachian From Pennsylvania Who Calls Virginia Home But Now Lives in Georgia.” Minick begins with “Step 1: Home” and proceeds to give a working definition of home.

Home, verb. To find the place, as in homing pigeon; not “Let’s go home” but “Let’s home”; the journey, however long it takes.

Home, noun. The destination; the place where I’m born, again and again, every morning; where I break the fast of darkness with a glass of water drawn from this one well; where I plant and am planted; where I nourish and am nourished; where—despite ticks and bears and isolation—I want to live and die; where – somehow – I come closest to feeling I belong. (p. 356). 

As a former professor of mine would say: That’ll preach. 

How do we define home?  Is it where we’re born? Or is it where we choose to be rooted and planted? Is it where we thrive (or survive)? 

When I think about home, I think of my classroom. I’m a nester. I need to feel safe and literally at home in the area that I spend the majority of my time. My classroom feels like home and more than anything, I want my students to feel safe in that space as well. I think of my wonderful students. I teach two classes of seniors. Senior year is such an exciting—yet impossibly scary—time! There are so many choices—but so many decisions to be made. There are countless opportunities—but countless chances for plans to be derailed by decision letters that don’t begin (or end) with what we wanted in our dreams. For seniors, the fall semester is spent applying to schools. We perfect college essays and letters of interest. We fill out all the mandatory paperwork and forms. We patiently wait for decision day to come in. I encourage my students to share their good news. We celebrate and I scream and clap/flail my arms in excitement. 

For many students, what lays heavy on their minds (especially being in a small rural community) is whether “to stay” or whether “to go” the following year. The way my students describe home is such an interesting look into their experience of place (or what I perceive to be their experience). Some can’t wait to get out of town and to explore bigger cities in bigger states. Others want to pursue opportunities in their hometown and are excited about their next move. I tell them all the time: You will be where you’re supposed to be. If that’s what your heart wants, you are perfect with where you want to plant yourself in this time and in your chosen place. 

Minick has a running image of cornbread throughout his piece—this running symbol of cornbread as home, as welcoming, of safety. I told my students about chocolate bread pudding and how it tastes like love and home to me. Growing up, once a month or so, my mom would pack up my twin sister and I into the minivan and we’d go see my great-grandmother, Nannie, across the state. Nannie, regardless of what time we’d arrive, would always have homemade spaghetti (never from a can) and freshly made chocolate bread pudding. Nannie was the only one who would ever make me my favorite dessert—it’s made over a double boiler and my grandmother always asserts that it’s far too tedious of a dish. Chocolate bread pudding always tastes like home to me because of the reminder of Nannie and the feeling of being so loved and special. 

I asked my students to write recipes of their home. They could start out with a recipe that reminded them of home or they could think of the elements of their place (the mountains, the football field, their friend’s house, etc.). The results were beautiful and it was such a wonderful insight into the narratives of my students, the things that mattered to them, and the things that crafted their home. 

I truly believe that being a teacher is the greatest occupation in all the world. As teachers, we have the honor and the privilege to do life with students. If home is a journey—where we choose to plant ourselves or be rooted from some spell of time—we are one stop on the path of our students. However, if we are seeking the narratives and stories of our students—if we are honoring their identities and experiences in the classroom—hopefully we are helping to prepare them for that next step, regardless of where it might be. Sometimes it’s students that help point the way to home (even a different home than the one we may have envisioned for ourselves). 

Heather Lynn Wright, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English education at Gardner-Webb University. This blog post was written last year, when she taught English at a rural North Carolina high school.

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Virginia’s Silent Crisis: Student Mental Health

By Keith Perrigan

November 11, 2022

This piece originally ran in Cardinal News on November 11, 2022

Recently, a tremendous amount of attention has been paid to the decline in student achievement in Virginia since 2019. Simply enter any combination of “Virginia,” “NAEP,” “SOL,” “cut scores,” “higher expectations,” etc., and a plethora of news articles, OpEds, and reports will fill your screen. Rightly so. Ensuring our current students recover academically from the effects of the pandemic, and other factors, is critical to their personal destiny, and our Commonwealth’s collective future success. The warning siren has sounded and school divisions across the Commonwealth, and the Nation, are responding in earnest to the academic crisis that has evolved. However, we’re facing another crisis that is receiving far less attention and may be potentially more devastating. That less covered crisis is student mental health. The nonpartisan research arm of the Virginia General Assembly (JLARC), released a major new study,, this week providing much needed voice to this silent crisis. 

According to the JLARC study, of the fifteen areas considered, student behavior problems were rated the most serious. It was reported that more than half of all middle school students and two-thirds of high school students are nervous, anxious, or on edge. Ten percent of middle school students and thirteen percent of high school students indicated that they had seriously considered suicide in the last twelve months. A concerning number of students also reported attempting suicide. COVID-19 obviously had an impact on these alarming statistics, but pre-pandemic changes in allowable billable services that Medicaid covers prevented, and still prevents, many students from receiving much needed mental health support. 

Just this week, more than half of school divisions in Southwest Virginia were notified that their community mental health provider was ending their partnership beginning December 12, 2022. This sudden and unexpected change is partially due to difficulty in receiving reimbursements from Medicaid because of changes at the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services. This unexpected announcement will significantly intensify the problem in Virginia’s highest poverty region. 

Unfortunately, there is another sneaky factor that is quietly impacting student academic performance and student mental health. That factor is absenteeism. One in every five students across the Commonwealth was chronically absent (missing 18 days of school or more) last year. If we learned nothing else from the pandemic, we now have clear data that in-person learning, and face-to-face interactions are key to both student achievement and student wellbeing. Virginia has a partial solution to this issue which is to account for chronic absenteeism in school accreditation. However, that is not enough for many families who remain disengaged. 

Unfortunately, Virginia provides very little support to students whose parents don’t ensure they attend school regularly. The courts are already inundated with crime and mental health issues and can’t effectively deal with truancy. Additionally, Virginia is one of 24 states that doesn’t recognize educational neglect in its Code. As a result, the Department of Social Services is unable to support chronically absent students either and is already overwhelmed with their current caseloads.  

It goes without saying that if students aren’t at school, they miss valuable instruction and suffer academically. However, chronically absent students also miss out on meals, behavioral supports, mental health resources, and other important services that most schools now provide to students daily. The cold hard data released in the JLARC report shows that we are in the middle of a crisis which the pandemic has exacerbated and now is the time to act.  

Thankfully, JLARC released recommendations for how to deal with some of these issues.  Those recommendations include allowing psychologists from other fields to be provisionally licensed to work in schools and assisting school divisions in making partnerships with community health providers. These recommendations may help, but more must be done during the upcoming General Assembly session.  

One simple change that will help improve test scores and student mental health is to provide chronically absent students needed support by adding “educational neglect” to the Code of Virginia and to provide additional resources to DSS to support these families. The purpose for this is not to be punitive, but to open doors to students who need support regarding school attendance that aren’t currently available. Schools must continue to work hard to engage families, but chronic absenteeism is a community issue that will take a community solution. This is especially true in high poverty communities where absenteeism is largely a factor of conditions created by poverty. 

Another change that could have immediate impact is to provide more flexibility in Medicaid billing to ensure Community Service Boards can provide the mental health services our students need. School divisions have been using Federal COVID response funds (ESSER) to fill those gaps, but those one-time monies will run out soon. There have also been proposals before to add Medicaid navigators to the Virginia Department of Education to help schools better leverage Federal resources to provide health services to students. It’s worth considering how these positions could provide technical advising to schools, especially small high poverty schools in Virginia. The mental health of our students should not be negatively impacted because of bureaucratic red tape. Medicaid should be a benefit, not a barrier. 

Virginia’s very future is at stake as we deal with the academic, behavioral, and mental health needs of our students. Talking about mental health and developing solutions is much less popular than addressing student achievement, and certainly much harder. However, we can’t significantly improve student achievement if we don’t ensure that chronically absent students return to a school environment where their mental health and other needs are being met. I hope the General Assembly will consider giving voice to all three issues during the upcoming Session. Virginia’s students deserve it and the successful future of our Commonwealth depends on it.

Keith Perrigan, Ed.D., is the Superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools and the President of the Coalition of Small & Rural Schools of Virginia.

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