Reflections on the Rural Film Festival

By Michael Coleman

March 22, 2023

Since returning to Appalachia to pursue a doctorate at Virginia Tech, I have had the opportunity to reconnect with the region that was so impactful in the formulation of my identity. One of the most invigorating ways to do so has been immersing myself in the literature from the region. As I become increasingly familiar with Appalachian literature specifically, and rural literature more broadly, there is one type of statement that always catches my attention. The statement reads something like, “I know [insert rural place] is complicated, but . . .” At this point, the author will apologetically explain how and why they have come to love the rural place they are writing about. Whether their love is borne of the natural beauty, the pace of the lifestyle, or the friendly people, the author is assuring the reader that they do not agree with certain cultural elements associated with rural places across America. At face value, maybe there is nothing wrong with this kind of sentence. After all, I feel like I could write a similar sentence about much of what enamors me. Yet, in many ways, this kind of sentence feels like both a virtue signal designed to keep the author’s identity at arm’s length from their rural subject matter and a capitulation to mainstream media depictions of rural America.

            Painted as racially homogenous and philosophically monolithic, media depictions of rural places have largely lacked a nuanced gaze. While this is a frustrating reality, the deeply entrenched narratives created by this often-vapid coverage effectively demonstrate the power of media narratives. Thus, as I and staff members at The Center for Rural Education sought to present a counternarrative of rurality, we quickly coalesced around the idea of using short films.  After an arduous selection process, we finalized a list of ten films to screen for the inaugural Rural Film Festival, which took place on March 1st at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, Virginia.  The intent of the Rural Film Festival was to celebrate and amplify rural people, places, and cultures. The films explored an array of topics, including identity, foodways, and the relationship between rurality and social activism. Though the films were certainly not holistic in their representation, they served to offer a counternarrative to oft-repeated stereotypes bestowed upon rural America. John Prine’s “Summer’s End” provoked festival-goers to think about how we engage in hard conversations about the places we love; a variety of short films from The Appalachian Retelling Project reminded the audience of the diversity present in Appalachia; and a film from Appalshop provided those in attendance a unique view of modern-day activism in rural Kentucky. Furthermore, panelists Jon Dance, Tameka Grimes, Jeff Mann, and Emily Satterwhite provided a poignant follow-up to the films as they demonstrated to the audience what reverence for rural spaces looks like in scholarship, activism, and creative pursuits.

            Despite the powerful lessons taken from the films and panelists, when I reflect on the evening, I often find my mind drifting to the audience. As I handed out the concession tickets, I was struck by the different backgrounds of those who walked through the doors. Undergraduate students, graduate students, university personnel, Lyric Theatre members, and people from across Montgomery County and beyond were in attendance. In my view, the success of the event was dependent upon the experiences had by the approximately 100 attendees. Initially, I had told a local reporter I had two primary goals for the event. For those from rural places, I was hoping the films and discussion would prove to be a dignity-affirming event. An evening where their culture and lifestyle would be amplified and celebrated. For those not from rural places, I was hoping the evening would provide them with the lens to critically interrogate popular depictions of rural places, checking for reductive language and paternalistic points of view.

            However, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize my hope for the evening was maybe a bit simpler. In many ways, when I view each of the ten films presented, I realize the night was about love. The people, places, and things we love are all complicated. They are dynamic and ever-changing in a world that demands constant adaptation. Some of the adaptations we arrive at are more palatable than others, and some lead to a more sheepish kind of love. A love that requires qualifying statements like, “I know [insert rural place] is complicated, but . . .” Whether or not you feel the need to qualify the rural place you love with that statement, the stories told, panelists featured, and audience members present affirm that rural places—places rife with compassion, community, and challenges—are worth celebrating.

Films Screened

Michael Coleman is a father, social worker, and doctoral student in the Foundations of Education program at Virginia Tech. His research interests include amplifying community voices to create more inclusive, accepting schools. As a graduate assistant for the Center for Rural Education, he curated this spring’s Rural Film Festival. Michael feels he was shaped by place, with two of the most influential places being Knoxville, Tennessee and Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

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Dr. Barbara Lockee Honored for Her Efforts in Support of Indigenous Students

By Rachelle Kuehl

March 16, 2023

In recent months, I have been flying much more regularly than I have in the past. In general, I’m one of those people who prefers to smile politely at my seatmate, then proceed to ignore the fact that I’m sitting in very close proximity to a complete stranger for the duration of the flight, quietly keeping my attention on whatever book or article I brought with me to read. At times, though, it’s lovely to discover a connection with someone you happen to be traveling beside, and on rare occasions, polite conversation on a plane ride can even lead to long-lasting personal or professional relationships. This was the case for Dr. Barbara Lockee, Virginia Tech Professor of Instructional Design & Technology and Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, in 2015, when she met a fellow Hokie alum who would come to play a significant role in initiatives about which she cares deeply.

Dr. Lockee graduated with a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction from Virginia Tech in 1996 and has worked for the university ever since, rising from her position as a postdoc through all the ranks of professor to her current role as Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs. Dr. Lockee has gained national and international attention for her influential scholarship in online education pedagogies, an area of expertise which proved especially critical three years ago at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she helped educators throughout the world in providing guidance related to emergency remote instruction.

Prior to her start at Virginia Tech, Barbara grew up in rural North Carolina near Winston-Salem. As a student at Appalachian State University for her undergraduate and master’s studies, Barbara connected with an Indigenous student group where she found support and mentorship. Upon arriving at Virginia Tech to begin work toward her doctorate in 1993, Barbara hoped to find similar camaraderie with fellow Indigenous students but found there was no such group in existence. Instead, she joined a multicultural student organization founded by Dr. Barbara Pendergrass, former VT dean of students, and continued to press for more attention to and support for the needs of Indigenous Hokies. In the late 1990s, Virginia Tech established the American Indian and Native Studies minor within the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, directed by Dr. Sam Cook, but it took much longer to move the needle on the creation of a designated Indigenous student support network. Finally, in 2016, with the support of President Timothy Sands and Dr. Menah Pratt, Vice President of Strategic Affairs and Diversity, Barbara and Sam helped launch the American Indian and Indigenous Community Center (AIICC), led by Dr. Melissa Faircloth (Coharie of Eastern North Carolina). The AIICC provides space, resources, and a chance to connect with fellow Indigenous scholars, many of whom are also connected through the Native@VT student organization that helps to run important programs such as VT’s annual Spring PowWow.

“A successful university experience depends on many factors, not the least of which is a sense of belonging and reliable support for reaching individual goals. At Virginia Tech, the American Indian and Indigenous community provides a strong network of peers and mentors so that Native students feel welcome and supported within and outside of the walls of the classroom. Through opportunities for cultural engagement, social interaction, and celebration of heritage, our Indigenous students, staff, and faculty form a vibrant and visible presence on campus, strengthened by our critical connections with tribal communities in Virginia and beyond.”

-Dr. Barbara Lockee

The person Barbara met on that serendipitous plane ride in 2015 was Hokie alum Dr. Jeff Rudd, who had been flying out of Roanoke after meeting with VT colleagues and stakeholders whose initiatives he had been supporting. Jeff and Barbara got to talking about Barbara’s work in online learning and her collaboration with the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at Cal Tech, and that conversation led to Jeff providing funding for three IDT master’s students to engage in an experiential learning project with JPL, developing e-learning safety training for the lab’s manufacturing division. As their professional relationship has continued, Barbara has shared more about her work with the Indigenous community at Virginia Tech, and after learning about the crucial need to increase access to higher education for Indigenous students, Jeff became interested in providing financial support for Indigenous Virginia Tech students. In a recent address to National Academy of Education/Spencer fellows, Dr. Amanda Tachine (Navajo), author of Native Presence and Sovereignty in College: Sustaining Indigenous Weapons to Defeat Systemic Monsters (2022), said that “many people have the misconception that Native people go to college for free. That’s false.” In fact, due to historical factors such as the U.S. government’s removal of Native peoples from their lands and mandating boarding schools for Native students meant to “kill the Indian…save the man,” Indigenous people have a higher incidence of poverty than non-Indigenous Americans, and paying for higher education opportunities remains a significant challenge. Even at land-grant institutions like Virginia Tech, which was built on the land of the Monacan/Tutelo people and was created under the Morrill Act of 1862 (a federal law allowing states to sell Indigenous land it had claimed through coercive and fraudulent means to raise funds for land-grants), Indigenous students do not automatically attend the university for free.

In conversation with Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham, President Sands established the new Virginia Tech Tribal Match scholarships for Virginia Tech students who receive scholarships from one of Virginia’s 11 recognized tribes or the Virginia Tribal Education Consortium. The University then matches those funds up to $2,500 per student. Now, inspired by Dr. Lockee, Rudd has established the Dr. Barbara Lockee Native American Tribal Honors Scholarship as a way to complement these efforts and to allow students enrolled in any federally- or state-recognized tribe to receive scholarship support as well. When I asked Dr. Rudd why he chose to name the scholarship after Barbara, he spoke of her accomplished scholarship in Instructional Design and Technology, her proud Native ancestry, and her commitment to using technology to help preserve Indigenous languages, which was the focus of her doctoral dissertation. “She is passionate about her students’ education, her colleagues’ professional opportunities, and AIICC’s students having the best and broadest experiences at Virginia Tech.”

Undergraduate Indigenous students who have completed at least one year at Virginia Tech (rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors) can apply for one of five $2,000 scholarships named in honor of Dr. Lockee. As a part of the award program, recipients are required to participate in AIIIC activities. When asked about this stipulation, Dr. Faircloth mentioned that research in student affairs has shown that early engagement in campus communities can positively impact student retention, and incentivizing students to participate in AIICC programming “is simply an effort to orient students to the resources and programs within the Center and to connect them with a community.” Dr. Faircloth also shared her personal reflections about Barbara’s trailblazing efforts to provide space, resources, and opportunities for connection among VT’s Indigenous students, noting the ways Barbara’s mentorship has been instrumental in establishing her own identity as an early-career Indigenous scholar. “Our current class of students probably do not realize how far back Barbara’s advocacy extends,” she said.

Personally, I could not agree more with Dr. Rudd’s and Dr. Faircloth’s perceptions of the way Dr. Lockee has gone above and beyond to support VT students and faculty. I had the pleasure of meeting her during my first semester as a doc student in 2016, when my advisor suggested I seek her advice about a project I was launching. Since then, I have known Barbara to be exceptionally kind, gracious, and supportive. As interim director of the Office of Educational Research and Outreach, she assisted my transition from student to postdoc, and in her current role as Associate Vice Provost (and as a scholar with both rural and Indigenous roots), she has been a champion of the Center for Rural Education, which launched in the fall of 2022 and of which I am now a part.

Dr. Lockee told me she loves being connected to this way of supporting Indigenous students, and she is both humbled and honored to have her influence on their behalf recognized.

Applications for the Dr. Barbara Lockee Native American Tribal Honors Scholarship are due April 1, 2023. To apply, please click here:

Rachelle Kuehl is a 2022 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow and a research scientist in the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech.

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Representation Matters: The Rural Literature Library

By Rachelle Kuehl

March 1, 2023

It is more than a bit of an understatement to say that I was an avid reader as a child. My mom took my siblings and me to the public library every week or two, either to the small branch just down the road, or, if I were really lucky, to one of the  much bigger libraries a suburb or two away from our own. My job, right when we got home, was to gather all the books we’d checked out so I could record their titles on what was inevitably a very long list that I’d pin to the bulletin board in our kitchen, taking it down before the next library trip so we could round up all the books again to return them before the due date. I’ve written before about how I’d read and reread the Little House on the Prairie series, and I had other authors I would seek out on the library shelves, reading their books again and again: Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, and of course, all of Ann M. Martin’s Babysitters Club series books. While these books were wonderful and kept me entertained, I can see now that, collectively, they presented a pretty limited view of the world, with most of them featuring other White girls who lived in the suburbs like I did (with the exception of Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik, who was a New Yorker through and through).

In my role as manager of the Appalachian Rural Talent Initiative (ARTI), a project funded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to promote increased equity in gifted programming for rural students, I have been working to revise an existing place-based language arts curriculum to make it more relevant to students who live in rural Appalachia by embedding it with stories that take place in the region. Alongside this process, I have been building an online resource for rural teachers, the Center for Rural Education’s Rural Literature Library. Guided by Rudine Sims Bishop’s (1990) famous call to ensure students have books that serve as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, we wanted to create a place for teachers to find books that either reflect their students’ rural identities or, for teachers who work with students who don’t live in rural places, provide windows and doors into experiences that will help them build an understanding of and appreciation for rural culture. With these goals in mind, I searched the internet for books set in rural places that might resonate more with rural students’ experiences than the “go-to” books from my own childhood would have. I have kept in mind, though, the warning from Karen Eppley, in her scholarly analysis of picture books set in rural places (Eppley, 2010), to evaluate and critically discuss such books to avoid perpetuating stereotypes of rural people and places as either backwards and ignorant or purely idyllic and nostalgic. To that end, we created a downloadable infographic teachers can use to help students interrogate, examine, explore, and critique the use of place in children’s literature with the aim of dismantling unhelpful stereotypes about rural people and communities.

In the library, the books are sorted into three categories: Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult. Users can search by author, by state or region where the books are set, by publication date, and by awards the book might have earned, such as the Whippoorwill Award for Rural Young Adult Literature. We have a category for the protagonist’s gender, thinking that teachers might especially want to search for books featuring male protagonists that would appeal to male students, who are sometimes more-reluctant readers, and while we included a nonbinary option, we have yet to discover rural books featuring nonbinary protagonists. We’re considering how to best help users identify the race or ethnicity of protagonists as well, but without the ability to read every single book in the library, we don’t want to make assumptions, nor do we want to contribute to the erasure of characters’ identities by leaving off the indication of race for books about which we’re not sure.

Throughout the process of curating this library, I became increasingly interested in how rural people and places are depicted in middle grade novels, a genre that remains a favorite of mine long after my days of spending whole afternoons absorbed in the worlds created by Judy Blume and her peers. I teamed up with Dr. Eppley to explore these representations, and we are currently polishing up a manuscript about our critical content analysis of 52 contemporary realistic fiction novels for middle grade readers that are set in the rural United States. Here, I want to highlight a few of my favorite books in the set—books that offer nuanced portrayals of diverse rural places with characters who grapple with issues of equity, identity, and belonging.

  • The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon (Yearling, 2018). Franklin and Bobby Gene are brothers and best friends who’ve never left their small Indiana town. Meeting Styx Malone, an older boy staying with a foster family nearby, adds fun and adventure to their summer, and they learn that their dad’s insistence on staying within the town limits is rooted in his fears over their safety as Black boys in a society tainted by racism.
  • The Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar (Candlewick, 2016). When the grandfather she’s never met faces Alzheimer’s and can no longer live alone, Carolina and her family spend a hot summer helping prepare his sheep ranch for sale. Through stories her grandfather tells throughout the summer, she gets to know about her Mexican heritage, the reasons her father and grandfather have trouble getting along, and the beautiful New Mexico desert sky.
  • Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles (Candlewick, 2019). Because of job loss, Rachel’s family is forced to sell their dream home on the small farm where they’ve lived since before she was born. The financial stress and loss of place takes its toll on Rachel, who feels angry and resentful that her parents can’t find a way to keep their lives from changing for the worse. Meanwhile, Rachel realizes that her attraction to another girl threatens to set her even further apart from her peers.   
  • The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor (Katherine Tegen Books, 2018). Despite being larger than all of his classmates, Mason is a gentle boy whose intellectual disability doesn’t detract from his deep knowledge of how to care for the apples his family has grown on the orchard they’ve owned for generations. As the title suggests, the story is told from Mason’s perspective—he’s trying to share the truth about what happened when a tragic accident took his friend’s life.
  • End of the Wild by Nicole Helget (Little, Brown and Company, 2017). With few jobs in the area, Fern and her stepfather and brothers are struggling financially while grieving for their Fern’s mother, who has recently passed away. When a fracking company threatens to destroy the woods near their home, Fern devotes herself to stopping them, and is heartbroken when her stepfather—in desperate need of work—ends up taking a job with the company.
  • Last in a Long Line of Rebels by Lisa Lewis Tyre (Puffin Books, 2015). Louise and her friends have heard rumors that treasure may be hiding somewhere in her historic southern house. Instead, they find the diary belonging to one of the house’s previous inhabitants and discover the ugly truth that Louise’s ancestors had been enslavers, and that they had enslaved the ancestors of one of her dear friends. As she works through the difficult realization, Louise tries to do what she can to help rectify a present-day situation where racist actions have gotten in the way of justice.
  • The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson (Scholastic, 2019). Like me, Varian Johnson loved reading Ellen Raskin’s (1978) mystery novel, The Westing Game growing up, but he recognized the problematic nature of how race was treated with regard to some of its characters. He wrote this book as a kind of homage to The Westing Game, using it as an opportunity to share a new story where characters discover and try to reconcile with some of the racist history of a small South Carolina town. This story includes a thoughtful representation of LGBTQ+ characters.

These books and hundreds are more are featured in our library, but we could use your help in adding even more rural titles. Please click here to let us know what we’re missing and we will do our best to incorporate them onto the site.

Also, be sure to visit, a wonderful website devoted to sharing rural young adult literature that features summaries, videos, author interviews, blog posts, and a contest for young rural writers.


  • Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3), ix–xi.
  • Eppley, K. (2010). Picturing rural America: An analysis of the representation of contemporary rural America in picture books for children. Rural Educator, 32(1), 1–10.

Rachelle Kuehl is a 2022 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow and a research scientist in the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech. 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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