Investing in Rural Students

By Rachelle Kuehl

April 24, 2023

Photo caption: Students and counselors enjoy games on Virginia Tech’s Drillfield during SEE VT 2022.

As an ice breaker at the beginning of a workshop I attended recently, the facilitator asked us to go around the room and say what, as a child, we had wanted to be when we grew up. I pictured myself in second grade, looking up at my sweet teacher at the chalkboard and imagining following in her footsteps. During all of high school and most of college, I tried to think of what else I might want to do instead of teaching, but I didn’t come up with anything that called to me more. I’m very happy that I became a teacher, and I do think it was a great career for me during the time I was lucky enough to do it, but when deciding to pursue teaching in college, I did worry a bit—and sometimes still wonder—whether I might have chosen something different if I had realized what other options were out there.

Because of the internet, students today have greater and easier access to information than I did when making college and career decisions. That’s an advantage, to be sure, but they might feel similarly stymied for the opposite reason—that there are just too many options to sort through. Either way, it’s the real, hands-on learning experiences that help a person know whether they love a certain field. With geographic and economic challenges, it has been well documented that rural students have fewer opportunities to come into contact with people from different disciplines who might show them what it would be like to be a systems engineer, a technical theatre director, an occupational therapist, and so on. Even more, rural students have fewer chances to envision what these careers might look like in their own communities, which could fuel the sense that they need to go elsewhere to have a career that really excites them, or that they may have to “settle” for a job they aren’t as passionate about to be able to stay in a place they really love.

Lots of university-based summer camps have been developed with the intention of exposing students to a college campus and helping them envision what they might learn and explore if they were to matriculate there. Because we know and appreciate the value of place-based educational experiences, we (at the Virginia Tech Center for Rural Education) have developed a special residential summer camp for gifted middle school students that centers place in all of its learning activities. We call it the Summer Enrichment Experience at Virginia Tech, or “SEE VT,” because we want students to be able to see themselves in higher education. At camp, students spend half the day in STEM-focused sessions that include field trips to different sites on and off campus, labs led by VT scientists and science students, and small-group projects aimed at helping students consider solutions to systemic challenges that we, as a society, really need them (or, at least, some of them) to grow up and figure out how to solve. The other half of the day is devoted to exploring place through the humanities, with community members representing various artistic professions leading them through activities in music, movement, theatre, art, and poetry.

Back in second grade, or even in college, I hadn’t envisioned the career I have today as a rural education researcher, or that part of my job would be to look at the systemic nature of education to help other educators and policymakers understand the small and large shifts that can be made throughout the entire system to lead to the outcomes we want to see. If we are concerned with economic revitalization in rural places, we need to make concerted efforts to invest in students who might grow up to innovate and implement changes that lead to that revitalization.

For one thing, we need to help districts advise high school juniors and seniors about their post-high school options. In a remote rural district in West Virginia I visited recently, that means preparing an “everything you need to know” binder of information for families—when to file the FAFSA, deadlines for various scholarships, places to apply for post-high school apprenticeships, even when and where to order graduation announcements. Before that, though, we need programs like SEE VT to help students envision different career possibilities in time for them to choose high school courses that will position them to be competitive in the college application process. Earlier still, with programs like ours looking to serve a community’s most gifted students, we need to widen the notion of “giftedness” so that teachers don’t overlook recommending elementary students to enrichment programs because the narrow, traditional view doesn’t take into account the ways giftedness might manifest differently in rural students. That is, we need to understand that rural students may be less likely to score in the very top percentile groups in tests of achievement and aptitude because their opportunities to learn may have been limited by community geography and/or poverty, but their intelligence may be evident in the ways they connect with nature, tell stories, understand mechanics, and so on. But, because at least some of the weight for gifted identification will rest on those types of tests, we need even earlier interventions that will “prime” students to think in those ways (recognizing patterns, categorizing, making associations among words, etc.).

Looking further ahead from senior year, we need to prepare colleges and universities to understand the needs of their rural students. That means having plans in place to ensure retention of students through graduation, like creating rural student affinity groups, providing targeted advising, and making sure financial assistance can sustain them through the four-year degree and, for careers requiring graduate education, beyond. Importantly, to bring things full circle and increase the possibility that students will apply what they’ve learned in college or other postsecondary programs to their home communities, we need to work with community groups to create networks of internships and apprenticeships that will serve as pathways into careers that will generate solutions to the challenges rural places face. These careers certainly do include teaching—we need talented, dedicated teachers—but also it is vitally important to help students see the “what else” and guide them through all the various steps that will lead them where it is they want to be, with “home” being among the most viable, promising possibilities.

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. This post first appeared as a column in the Spring 2023 newsletter for the American Educational Research Association’s Rural Special Interest Group. We are very grateful to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for providing generous funding for the first two summers of SEE VT. To donate toward sustaining SEE VT in future years, click here, or contact us at to discuss funding ideas and opportunities.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

What “Being from the Country” Taught Me: Reflections on the Phenomenon of My Rural Education

By Charles L. Lowery, Ed.D.

April 4, 2023

Where I grew up and went to school, being rural meant “being from the country.” And, for me, being from the country carried with it the meaning of education. Often people think of rural as a synonym for unrefined, rustic, redneck—all meant to denote uneducated. But in my experience, this was far from reality. Whether I was in the garden helping my grandpa pick tomatoes or in the pasture helping my father corral cattle, I was engaged in learning. This was not a specific type of learning, that is, it was not singular in nature. It was an ecological education. The cow pasture was what my grandfather called his church where he felt closest to God—but for me, I called the same land my classroom where I encountered various intelligences and the ways of knowing the world. Yes, it certainly had the connotations of bucolic ranches and rolling rows of watermelon and potatoes, of people given to a simple approach to living and a common-sense orientation. But the land was also geography and geology, the science of agriculture; and the people were engaged in a praxis of active reflection and thoughtful intellectual activity.

The rurality of being from the country prepared me for school and for learning, and it became foundational to life and living. Flows and erosion seen in the rivers and creek beds on our land became metaphors for economics and human migration patterns. It was there I learned about measurement. Multiplying length times width to find area while helping my father building chicken coops transferred quickly to math class. As did learning about volume by calculating how many bales of hay would fit in the haybarn and learning the Pythagorean theorem by watching my grandfather square the corner posts while fencing in a new section of pastureland.

Ecology and ecosystems were witnessed firsthand down at the cattle pond, or while taking walks down the backroads and out by the nearby bayou. My fundamental exposure to ecological systems theory was when as a child I experienced the insects and the unseen of country organism, the earth teeming with life through mutualism and symbiosis, cooperation and commensalism. Crows and cranes, toads and turtles, moss and meadows—all part of my world of life and learning. The biodiversity of the country taught me the importance of the diversity of humanity, and not only the importance but the necessity of it. Everything came together in an interdependent dance of life and cycles of the seasons.

Similarly, being from the country also taught me what it means to love one’s country. Because what does it mean to love one’s country? To simply love the land? Well, yes and no. The pastures, the mountains, the rivers, the soil, the trees, all the natural resources, these are part of the country as a rural landscape and all part and parcel of our country as a national concept. But loving our country also means that we love the people within the political boundaries of the country. Community, county, state, the country as a whole—these are all really made up of people. Regardless of skin color or background or socioeconomic class, and regardless of political affiliation, the people of this country are the country itself. The plural “we” in We the People makes that clear.

That said, we cannot forget or ignore that loving one’s country also means respecting the rules, regulations, and responsibilities that delineate the inherent and necessary connections of the people to the land. Our founders equated the right to own property with the pursuit of happiness. As Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote over a decade ago in The Atlantic,

Jefferson declared that the pursuit of happiness was an inalienable right, along with life and liberty. The story goes that Jefferson, on the advice of Benjamin Franklin, substituted the phrase “pursuit of happiness” for the word “property,” which was favored by George Mason. Franklin thought that “property” was too narrow a notion.

Property—land ownership—was too narrow a notion, yes. As Wendell Berry wrote, “In the mind of Thomas Jefferson, farming, education, and democratic liberty were indissolubly linked.” But Franklin’s suggested revision still spoke to a connection that existed between contentment and the land, between one’s happiness and security and the perimeters and parameters of the earth in which we dwell. In 1950, psychologist Perry London asserted,

Insecurity is a springboard to national and international discontent, and thus to war. The true clue to the elimination of that evil lies in the equal right to the land which God has given all [humanity]. The recognition of this right is the greatest single contribution that society can make to the physical and emotional well-being of humanity, and to the individual happiness and security of [people].

In a 2019 study by Furuyashiki and others, it was found that “‘forest bathing’ (Shinrin-yoku) has positive physiological effects, such as blood pressure reduction, improvement of autonomic and immune functions, as well as psychological effects of alleviating depression and improving mental health.” Another bit of evidence that there exists an inseparable bond between the people and the land in which and on which they live.

If so, we should each be custodians and stewards of the land and by extension of the happiness of all citizens. But to accomplish this we have to recognize some of the basic tenets of ecological education that country living and learning taught me.

Capitalism depends on economic exchanges, such as money for merchandise and manufactured goods. These are fundamental Producer – Consumer interactions. Words like commerce, currency, and competition imply flows of capital and depend on human reactions and responses (more so than human reasoning and responsibility at times). Religion is framed by ecumenical and ecclesiastical exchanges. Repentance and forgiveness; giving and receiving; sacrifice for salvation. Morality for immortality. Similarly, the various fields of computing and construction take into account exchanges related to systems and subsystems of energy, electronics, equipment, equations, and engineering.

But just as systems of cooperation and companionship demand ethical and emotional exchanges, country-based learning reveals a system of ecological exchanges. Being from the country means life is a choreography—a Relationship of Interactions much like a dance on the sawdust-covered floor of Mother Earth herself. The ecological interdependence between a human being and fellow human beings, and between those human beings and their environment—the land, the resources, the local capital—is foundational.

The educative nature of rurality is in its interconnectedness and interdisciplinarity. The farmer knows that the seed sowed in the spring is the harvest reaped in the fall. Likewise, the botanist knows that asparagus, rhubarb, and wild blueberries are types of rhizomes that are a single organism connected through a complex underground rhizomatic system. These well exemplify the interconnected nature of country life.

Austrican physicist, Fritjof Capra stated, “The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realize that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent.” If so, then the obverse side of the coin must also true: We cannot learn the benefits of life until we recognize that you and I and the land are also inherently bound together. If Capra sees the interconnectedness of problems, so too can we discover the advantages and strengths in our interdependence. As Whitman, a scholar of rurality in his own right, mused,

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,

Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far

Whitman’s notion of “physiology from top to toe” speaks to our democratic interdependence as citizens. This again is a great lesson I learned from growing up country.  So many see rural life as a mode of independent living when in fact the lessons of country living teach us the complete antithesis. Too many associate rurality with isolation and insular living. But rurality—the country—really means being connected and democratically dependent on one another. In Democracy and Education, Dewey stated,

From a social standpoint, dependence denotes a power rather than a weakness; it involves interdependence. There is always a danger that increased personal independence will decrease the social capacity of an individual. In making him more self-reliant, it may make him more self-sufficient; [but] it may lead to aloofness and indifference. It often makes an individual so insensitive in his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone—an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering of the world.

Even the major rivers of our land do not exist without numerous and significant tributaries that contribute to their continued existence and force. The majestic birds do not thrive without the lowly insects. Just like the Farm-to-Market highways of rural East Texas connect the towns to the backwoods communities, like the one I grew up in, we are connected to one another in our connectedness to the land. Our rights are unalienable and, when we pay attention to what nature teaches us, so are we. So too should we recognize our responsibility to care for the source of our learning—the land. Our lives are not independent, isolated existences, but instead, as my rural education taught me, we are social animals, ecologically bound, and in desperate need of one another, to care for one another and to care for the land that sustains us. Only in acknowledging and accepting this interrelatedness can we work together to remediate the suffering of our world.

Charles L. Lowery, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the School of Education at Virginia Tech and a proud product of Possum Walk, Texas. He provided the photos for this post.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

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.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

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.

To subscribe to this blog, click here. To receive updates from the AIICC, click here.

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.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

Announcing the Winners of the Inaugural Literacy In Place Rural Teen Writing Contest

By Chea Parton

February 16, 2023

Photo Credit: Chea Parton; The photo is of Chea’s family’s farm in Indiana

Those of y’all who tune in to the Reading Rural YAL podcast have heard me say this before, but I’m going to say it again:

As a working-class rural kid, I firmly and truly believed that in order to be a published writer, you had to be from New York City, L.A., or Chicago. I was an avid reader and noticed that pretty much every book I read was printed from a press that was located in one of those places, and that the writers on the dust jackets usually lived there or some other city.

Even in my rural school, I didn’t read (or at least don’t recall reading) any rural YA literature—at least none that celebrated or critically considered rural people, places, and cultures from an appreciative perspective. When we read Charlotte’s Web, I remember thinking it was an absurd story. When your whole livelihood revolves around raising and selling and processing livestock, no spelling spider is going to keep you from being able to feed your own family.

But we never talked about that side of the story. We never considered the repercussions for the farmers.

On top of that, because we rely on our experiences as students to inform our own teaching practices, I didn’t invite my rural students to read and analyze rural texts either. The only difference was that they were brave enough to call me out on it. Two of my self-proclaimed “non-readers” once waxed poetic about Where the Red Fern Grows with me while they were supposed to be talking about Chopin’s The Awakening. During our exchange, not only did they tell me that they were readers, they told me what they wanted to read, and what they wanted to read were rural stories that connected to their experiences.

Because I had never been asked to consider the power and benefits of using rural stories in my classroom, I asked them (hopefully with kindness) to turn their discussion to The Awakening even though I knew with about 98 percent certainty that they hadn’t read it (and secretly hoped they’d keep talking about Where the Red Fern Grows because they had).

Reading tells us what kinds of stories are possible. What kinds of lives can be and should be represented in literature. Reading tells us what kinds of things get published, and when we don’t see our realities and experiences represented in fiction, it’s easy to believe that they shouldn’t be. Getting a book published is hard enough for people who are telling stories that are attractive to the publishing industry and market. It’s an even harder feat for folks whose stories aren’t. So, who would blame them for not writing them? But if they don’t write them, then kids like my students, like me, don’t get to read them.

This is why I started the Literacy In Place Rural Teen Writing Contest. I want rural young folks to know that rural stories matter – that their stories matter. I want to make space for rural teen writers to be encouraged to write their stories and be recognized and honored for doing it well. I want them to know that there are people in the world who both want to and need to hear those stories.

And so, I introduce to you the winners of the first ever annual Literacy In Place Rural Teen Writing Contest.

Our winner is Allison Strange of Lawndale, North Carolina for “Fate for a Cat.” Stay tuned for the Reading Rural YAL series featuring her work, including an interview with the author herself! Her prizes also include a classroom visit from Jeff Zentner and class set of copies of Rural Voices by Nora Shalaway Carpenter.

Runner-up goes to Kevin Evilsizer of Franklin Township, Indiana for “Heart Strings”. Keep an eye out for the Reading Rural YAL episode featuring an interview with the author later this spring. His prizes also include a signed copy of books by J.R. Jamison and Veeda Bybee who served as guest judges of the contest.

The judges felt that a third story deserved recognition, so even though it wasn’t planned, honorable mention went to Luke Urban of Franklin Township, Indiana for “Roof Top Farmer”.

Our guest judges used the criteria for the Whippoorwill Book Award for Rural YA Literature to evaluate students’ stories. Each one features a strong voice, effective use of literary conventions, and aspects of rural culture. I hope you’ll make time to read them (or maybe even assign them to your students) and leave some encouraging feedback.

The next contest is already in the works, and I’m hoping to see even more rural teen writers submit their work. This year’s theme is: Eat, Dance, and Be Rural: Celebrating Diverse Rural Cultures. We invite writing from all genres (fiction, narrative nonfiction, poetry, etc.) written by students in grades 9–12. This year’s guest judges include rural YA authors Kalynn Bayron (This Poison Heart), Pedro Hoffmeister (Too Shattered for Mending), and Terena Elizabeth Bell (Tell Me What You See). Prizes include a virtual class visit from Monica Roe and class set of her Cybils Award-nominated book, Air, as well as publication on the Literacy In Place website and guest spots on the Reading Rural YAL web series. More information can be found on the Literacy In Place website contest page. The submission portal will open July 1, 2023 and close December 1, 2023 with winners announced in February of 2024.

I hope you’ll encourage the rural teen writers in your life to submit their stories. I can’t wait to read them!

Dr. Chea Parton is the founder of Literacy In Place and a visiting assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Purdue University. Reach out to with questions and follow @readingrural on Twitter, @dr_chea_parton on Instagram, and Literacy In Place on Facebook for contest updates as well as other rural teaching resources and news.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

More than Corn: Preparing Teachers for Iowa’s Rural Schools

By Erika L. Bass

February 7, 2023

Photo credit: Aliza Fones in Storm Lake, Iowa

When I first moved to Iowa, I will admit, I held some pretty common views of rurality in this state. Iowa is just corn and soybeans, right? That’s what everyone seems to say. Even as an emerging rural scholar who knows that rural communities are nuanced and are not monoliths, I still answered the question (usually asked incredulously), “What’s in Iowa?” with the answer: “Corn.” Rurality in Iowa is so much more than corn. 

Sure, Iowa is the largest producer of corn in the United States. Sure, there are eight times as many hogs in the state as there are people. Rurality in Iowa is often equated with farming, but family farms have been in decline for decades (Edmonson, 2003). With the increase in corporate, large-scale farming, rural communities in Iowa are continuing to evolve. Because farming is no longer the main employer of rural Iowa, these areas are becoming more diverse. Because of job opportunities in meat packing plants in rural communities like Storm Lake, more immigrants and refugees have moved to the area, and some communities now have more people of color than White people. Rural communities are working on ways to entice young people to stay or return to their hometowns by revitalizing Main Streets; some rural communities like Bancroft boast having no empty storefronts on Main Street. Rural communities are investing in leadership pathways for community members and seeking ways to get high-speed broadband to their communities. Rural places in Iowa are dedicated to empowering their citizens to engage with the community and build a sustainable future.

Working in a teacher preparation program provides me with a unique opportunity to interact with Iowa’s rural communities and schools. I have had the great pleasure of meeting rural teachers from across the state who have helped me to better understand how to prepare future rural teachers. That is, while many of our preservice teachers may not imagine themselves living or teaching in a rural community, the reality is, if they plan to teach in Iowa or surrounding states, there is a good chance they will get a job in a rural community. Neighboring states to Iowa have school districts classified as rural in percentages ranging from 60%-80%, so the probability of getting hired in a rural school is high.

To know what rural teachers in Iowa need, it’s important to know what rural districts in Iowa look like. Are students attending a small school within their community, or are they traveling great distances to attend consolidated schools with members of communities that are not rural or have vastly different rural experiences than theirs?

Consolidation, dissolution, and restructuring of Iowa’s school districts has been happening for at least the last fifty years (Grubbs, 2016; Maeder, 2016), likely beginning long before we started keeping records. According to the Iowa Department of Education (2022), in 1965 there were 458 school districts in the state. As of 2019, there are 327, with rumors suggesting another consolidation in the near future. In an article in The Des Moines Register, Grubbs (2016) mentioned having been a member of the state legislature in the early 90s, when Iowa restructured or dissolved school districts four times during his four-year tenure—that’s once each year!

Consolidation inevitably affects rural teachers. Sometimes, this might mean having to find a teaching job in another community because the consolidated district does not need as many teachers as several districts would. Those who remain or teach in consolidated districts have to reconcile the different social, cultural, and learning needs of students who live in very different places. For example, Manson-Northwest Webster School District serves students from communities ranging from approximately 170 people to communities of 1,700 people. These students may have some commonalities; however, the social, cultural, and learning needs of those students can be quite different. Teachers will have students who consider themselves to be “town kids” versus “country” or “farm kids” (even if their family doesn’t farm; you may be classified as a “farm kid” simply because you live on old farmland). Knowing these differences is important to engaging students in the classroom, but also important to bridging cultural divides—providing students with opportunities to learn with peers from different backgrounds.

While school consolidation is a reality, there are still smaller school districts in existence in Iowa. With these smaller school districts, who have avoided consolidation up to this point, this might mean a teacher is the only person in their department. For example, a community just an hour north of my university has one English teacher for the entire high school; however, a more nearby rural district has two English teachers in their high school. To work in rural districts, teachers need to be willing and prepared to be self-regulated and self-motivated. They also have to be confident in their abilities, as they may not have content area colleagues to bounce ideas off of. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t build a community of practice. Communities of practice can extend beyond locale boundaries. Preparing preservice teachers to teach in rural communities means preparing them to have a community of practice outside of their building as well as inside of it. Rural teachers can connect through their local Area Education Associations (AEAs) through professional development opportunities; they can connect at state-level conferences like Iowa Council of Teachers of English or the Rural School Advocates of Iowa (the state affiliate of the National Rural Education Association); and they can connect through more informal ways like staying connected with colleagues with whom they attended their teacher preparation program.

Knowing what appeals to people about rural communities can equip teacher educators who want to encourage preservice teachers to consider building a career in a rural community. Recently, Iowa State University sociologists have done research on what brings people back to their rural communities (Sowl et al., 2021). They found that the smaller the school and community, the more likely people are to return home after pursuing post-secondary education. They also found that when young people are engaged in their community, they are likely to return, suggesting that university teacher preparation programs may want to invest time and effort into programs that increase community engagement for rural youth. Rural communities in Iowa are continually seeking ways to keep and attract young people to their communities.

I am still learning about the rural communities that make up my state. However, just like every community I’ve lived in, I feel like I am a part of this community. This is my home and I care deeply about it. Place matters, so as I continue to live and work here, I want to learn even more about Iowa’s rural communities so I can better prepare future teachers to thrive in these special places—places that certainly have much more to offer than “just corn.”


  • Edmonson, J. (2003). Prairie town: Redefining rural life in the age of globalization. Rowan & Littlefield.
  • Grubbs, S. (2016, December 19). Davenport superintendent is right: Fix the school funding formula. Des Moines Register.
  • Iowa Department of Education. (2022). Reorganization, dissolution, and sharing. Iowa Department of Education.
  • Maeder, D. (2016, February 24). Iowa children need equitable funding. LinkedIn.
  • Sowl, S., Smith, R. A., & Brown, M. G. (2022). Rural college graduates: Who comes home? Rural Sociology, 87(1), 303–329.

Erika L. Bass is an Assistant Professor of English Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Her research focuses on rural education, teacher preparation, and writing instruction.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

What Do Google Images Tell Us About Rural Places?

By Shikhar Kashyap

January 24, 2023

This piece originally ran in The Daily Yonder on December 20, 2022

Image credit: Xandr Brown/Unsplash

Imagine you are in a conversation with a friend who is talking about rural India. Assuming you don’t know anything about the topic, where would you go to investigate what “rural India” looks like? 

If you are like me, you would probably search Google Images. We do this sort of searching every day.  

But what kind of images come up, and what stories do these images tell? Are those stories accurate and representative? 

To understand how these images can unintentionally create specific narratives in our minds, I performed a simple comparison between the image results for the search terms “rural America” and “rural India.”

I used the Google Images search engine and examined the first 50 image results (as of 11/09/22) for each search term. I looked at the images and the description text displayed directly underneath the text (without clicking the image) to define the major themes or ideas about rurality that the image (along with the descriptive text) conveyed. The searches created very different portraits of “rural.” 

Here is what I found: 

Graphics by Shikhar Kashyap

First, images of “rural America” tended to show nature or rural buildings and infrastructure. Two-thirds (66%) of the “rural America” images had  forests, farms, animals, etc., representing “connectedness to nature,” while 82% of the images contained rural buildings/infrastructure, like roads, barns, homes, street views, etc. (Note that some images fit more than one theme, so the total is more than 100%.) A fifth (20%) of the images showed some sort of action/productivity, and a similar amount (22%) showed innovation, transformation, and change. 

The images that came up for the search “rural India” were different. They painted a more nuanced picture of rurality, with people at the forefront of transformative change. First, nearly all the images for “rural India” (96%) had people in them, compared to 20% for “rural America.”  Women and women-led self-help groups were much more prominent. Three quarters (74%) of the “rural India” images showed women, compared to 10% for “rural America.” 

Some other big differences were that “rural India” images were four times more likely to convey action or productivity (80%) than their  American counterparts and more than twice as likely (52% vs 22%) to show innovation in rural spaces.  

It’s obvious that these visuals construct different narratives of “rurality” for America and India. 

People who search for “rural India” see  people leading transformational community change, women self-help groups, and technology. And people who search for “rural America” see traditional rural infrastructure and nature, along with the economic and social decline represented by dilapidated infrastructure and the absence of people. 

Half of the cortex of our brain is devoted to processing visual information. Images and the narratives they create shape our perceptions of the world. When images are skewed, our perceptions of people and places can change accordingly. That’s especially true for young students who increasingly rely on Google in their studies.

The dramatic differences between images of rural America and rural India may reinforce misconceptions and stereotypes for both places. We need technology that helps us push beyond simple first impressions, rather than reinforces them.  And we all need to watch out for common pitfalls in how we consume information. We need to think critically about what images mean, where they come from, and how they influence our perceptions.

Shikhar Kashyap is an international doctoral student in curriculum and instruction at Virginia Tech. He grew up in Mysore, India. This article grew out of an assignment in a graduate course in rural education with Amy Price Azano, Ph.D., director of the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

Places That Hold Us

By Amy Price Azano

December 6, 2022

Main Street Luray and site of the old Brown’s Restaurant (fourth building on left, beside the bridge).

Photo credit: Tracy Black

When I was a kid there were very few dining options in my small hometown of Luray, Virginia. This was long before we had a Walmart and the variety of fast food options on the western end of town along the bypass. In fact, one could stay on that bypass and not even know the secrets on the business route through a two-mile stretch of town on Main Street.

We had a Kentucky Fried Chicken when you could still say “fried” instead of KFC, and a few doors down to the now-closed Pizza Hut sat the McDonald’s with the early 1980s signature “McDonaldland Playground,” the highly problematic area where kids could play inside the “burger jail” and where my best friend broke her tooth after playing on the shaking metal purple Grimace! After McDonald’s moved to its higher profile location on the bypass, the building was repurposed as a Mexican restaurant, Rancho’s, owned and operated by a local family, where you can find the best white sauce in Virginia. Long before Rancho’s, we had Mindy’s, where I remember first trying Mexican cuisine. And, if families were going through a rough time, Mindy would allow them to barter their payment: enchiladas for local veggies or other homegrown produce or services. There were a few diners and various, unassuming places where regulars gathered—like the little restaurant at the Intown Motel where my Nanny and her friends met every Monday morning for breakfast. 

My youth is remembered by these establishments: cramming into a corner booth at McDonald’s after a football game–just like you might see in an old movie about small towns; getting the best greasy cardboard pizza from Betty’s where you could also order a fountain soda and listen to the jukebox; driving the strip on Friday nights from Bo’s Belly Barn on one end of town down to the turnaround spot at the Tastee Freez on the other. Or, on special occasions, driving up on the mountain to Dan’s Steakhouse on the western, Massanutten ridge, or to Big Meadows to the east on the Skyline Drive. These weren’t just restaurants- they were the places that held us. Dan’s with its red-and-white checkered tablecloths where the steaks were served on over- and oval-sized warmed silver plates, barely big enough to contain the massive ribeyes. The same Dan’s where many years later we hosted my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary amidst my father’s cancer diagnosis. Based at the foot of the mountain on the other end of town was Brookside Restaurant. Owned for 15 years by the Wakemans, it was a humble stone structure from the late 1930s that blended into its natural surroundings. Farther up at Big Meadows is where one of my parents’ best friends, Phillip Campbell, worked as a cook and eventually a chef. We still can’t drive on the mountain with my Dad without hearing him reminisce about some crazy tale—no doubt grown taller through memory—of him and Phillip. 

And smack dab in the middle of town, like a rare jewel from the Orient, was Brown’s Chinese Restaurant, a family owned establishment that closed several years ago. My family was middle class by Luray standards, but going out to dinner was always something special and there was nothing more special than going to Brown’s. My parents usually shared the chef’s specialty “Rainbow Beef,” and I loved the sweet and sour chicken. My sister and I each ordered wonton soup and shared the egg rolls. There were no city markets or delivery options then. Chinese food wasn’t an afterthought in Luray but rather a cultural experience with food and the Chu family. The owner and chef, Alan Chu, would often come out to say hello, and like most places in Luray, my parents would know everyone in the room. My mother rarely drank alcohol but at Brown’s her drink was served in an exotic green Tiki glass, and my sister and I would argue over who would get the small umbrella on top. I can close my eyes and see the exotic wall art, hear the family members speaking Chinese, and now view the fading paint on its facade with nostalgia. 

A couple months ago there was a buzz on Facebook among my Luray friends and family. Brown’s was back–at least by way of a cookbook published by Chef Alan Chu, titled Family Recipes. Its dedication page reads: 

To all my Virginia friends & customers, I am forever grateful for all your business & support for 42 years at my Brown’s Chinese & American Restaurants. 

The book includes a family history, along with photos, describing a 157 year history of the Chu family in the United States, including Chef Chu’s grandfather’s service in World War II, and how the family’s love of food traveled from China, across the US, and eventually found a home in Luray, Virginia. Recently, my mother gifted me a copy of the cookbook. Since then I have regularly observed Facebook posts with home cooked efforts from the cookbook—like my Mom’s favorite Chung Far Har, tagging Mr. Chu with a note of gratitude. After my own triumphant attempt at sweet and sour chicken, I sent a photo and message to Mr. Chu’s daughter who is a dear childhood friend of mine. She shared that her Dad had no idea how much Brown’s had meant to everyone until people started posting about the cookbook. I’m not sure I realized how much it meant either, but I know that tasting that tangy sweet sauce took me back to my childhood home, to those secrets hiding in plain sight, and to the memories that built my sense of place. 

Amy Price Azano is the founding director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Rural Education and an associate professor of rural education and adolescent literacy in Virginia Tech’s School of Education.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

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.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

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.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

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.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

Recognizing My Rural Community Wealth and Place in Academia

By Jennifer C. Mann

October 6, 2022

This piece originally appeared in EdNC on September 26, 2022.
Photo credit: Eric Mann

I’m writing this for others like myself — for those of us who grew up poor and rural and who never saw ourselves in educational leadership or among educational scholars. Growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a town with a thousand people and thousands of cattle and chickens and acres of tobacco and grain, I never knew anyone with a PhD. I only vaguely understood what one was.

I left my home at 18 in search of a successful life, which for me began with college far from my rural community. I found myself in Raleigh, North Carolina, with the idea that success meant no one could look at me and recognize a background of poverty and rurality. For the next 18 plus years of my life, I carried this belief with me — perpetually trying to cover my roots. 

Looking for “normal people”

I spent 13 years as a public school teacher in Wake County and eventually started secretly dreaming of being part of real educational change. I remember thinking that I wanted to get my PhD in education but repeatedly saying to myself that people from backgrounds like mine aren’t made for spaces like Academia.

I attended an open house at North Carolina State University with one goal — to see if there were any professors or prospective students who were “normal people.” I didn’t define that for myself, but I always knew normal people when I saw them — the sort of people who had life experiences like mine. Fortunately for me, the education booth was being represented by a professor from a working class family, who talked and sounded fairly normal.

To this day I believe that had that booth been represented by an Ivy league educated professor who was the child of professors, I would have walked away, reinforcing the belief that this space wasn’t for me. I was still skeptical, but I applied. I got in. And I’ve been working on my PhD for a couple years now. 

Staying the course

A few realities stand out to me. Most academic literature I read is written by people unlike myself. I sit in classes with people unlike myself. I exchange ideas with people who don’t understand everything I bring with me. But that to me is why it’s important to be in this space.

On the lonely days, I tell myself I’m here to train up the next generation of teachers, and it’s important, especially for future educators from poor rural communities to be educated by someone they can see themselves in. So I stay the course. 

Recognizing rural community wealth

It wasn’t until recently that I did more than stay the course. I attended a summit on rural education at Virginia Tech, and while there, for the first time, I was in a room full of professors and PhD students from backgrounds like mine.

But I noticed something. They weren’t trying to hide their roots like I often do. Not a hint of shame was detected when they mentioned where they were from — instead they were filled with pride over their rural backgrounds. That weekend they spoke of the rural cultural wealth within their communities, including rural resourcefulness, rural ingenuity, rural familism, and rural community unity. They showed me that there are brilliant scholars from rural backgrounds, and that I ought to lean into the truth of my experiences. 

Rewriting rural narratives

So this article is my first step. I want other educators who might be thinking that educational leadership and scholarship isn’t for people like them to know that it is for people like us. We have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with the world. We cannot allow a false perception of us or our communities be a hindrance to true success. It’s important for us to be in these spaces, making decisions that impact education on large scales.

We understand valuable truths that some others don’t. Our presence in these spaces enriches the spaces — if we are our authentic selves. Being my authentic self isn’t so simple when all my life society, media, and texts have written a narrative about my rural community that oversimplifies it at best and negatively stereotypes it at worst. It’s on us to rewrite the narrative and show to the educational community that rural educators, leaders, and scholars possess an incredible wealth of knowledge, largely gained through our rural experiences. 

So if you’ve secretly dreamed of higher education, I want you to know what I wish someone had told and shown me — there are people like us here, and we deserve to be here.

Jennifer C. Mann is a doctoral student in the Literacy and English Language Arts Education program at N.C. State. Her research includes critical literacy, culturally sustaining pedagogy, and the social emotional well-being of marginalized students. She has spent 15 years teaching students ranging from kindergarten to college, spending the majority of that time as a high school English Literature teacher, specializing in instruction to culturally and linguistically diverse students.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

Introducing Our Site: A Rural Teacher Collaboratory

By Rachelle Kuehl

Last October, I had the opportunity to visit a small school about an hour from my home in Southwest Virginia. The view along the drive to this school, with the sun rising behind the mountains casting light on thousands of orange and yellow leaves in their full fall glory, was nothing less than spectacular. After I gushed to the principal about the beauty of her workplace, she walked me down to meet the four third graders with whom I’d be working that morning. The bubbly students—three girls and a boy—quickly filled me in on their familial relationships with one another. The boy and one of the girls were cousins, and the girl’s mom (the boy’s aunt) had been their first-grade teacher. A second girl said she was probably cousins with the boy, too, because they had the same last name, but they were never quite sure how their families connected—except, they told me, their grannies were both cousins with the school secretary I’d just met in the front office. The third girl explained that her three older brothers were all teenagers, so I was surprised when, later, she introduced me to one of them in the hallway—I hadn’t realized the school served students from kindergarten all the way to seventh grade.

Having spent my own years as a teacher and student in suburban and urban settings, I wasn’t used to the warm and friendly—and quiet—atmosphere of this type of rural school, which housed only 136 students across the eight grade levels. That day, I worked alongside the district’s gifted education specialist, who split her time across multiple sites and was thus making her first visit of the year to this school as well. Among rural districts, this one is somewhat unique in that it employs a full-time specialist to manage the gifted education program and to pull identified students for advanced lessons. Even so, it is still a challenge for her to meet the needs of all academically talented students in the district’s middle school, high school, and four elementary schools, all situated in a large, geographically widespread district intersected by mountains. As the only designated gifted specialist in the district, she does not have colleagues with whom to plan lessons and share ideas. In other rural districts, one teacher is often tasked with providing services to both gifted students and students in need of special education, or perhaps the media specialist is asked to carve a few hours out of her week to teach advanced learners; in either case, being responsible for two or more distinctly different teaching roles certainly complicates an educator’s day-to-day work life.

Much of our work in recent years has been focused on cultivating talent in rural schools and meeting the needs of learners that show high academic potential. While the advantages of teaching in rural places are many, there are also unique challenges, and we understand that the challenges affecting rural gifted teachers apply to rural educators across all grade levels and subjects. Primarily, we have heard again and again from teachers who feel isolated in their schools as the only person who teaches a particular subject or grade level. With smaller budgets, rural districts often cannot afford to fund attendance at professional conferences where teachers could make collegial connections, and the remote locations of some rural schools makes travel to such conferences unfeasible as well. Yet, rural teachers are committed to their work and to their students, and they long to make continuous improvements to their teaching practice that afford their students every opportunity to pursue advanced educational and career prospects after graduation. Rural teachers know their students (and their students’ families) well, and they know what it takes to reach their particular students in their particular place.

In response to the needs we’ve heard expressed again and again by rural educators, we have built this website to serve as a resource of connection and affirmation for rural teachers. We’re calling it a collaboratory—a place to share information, stories, and expertise. We invite you, as rural teachers, to lend your voice to this community by sharing lesson plans, writing blog posts, and recommending professional resources and children’s books other rural teachers can use to enhance their teaching practice. We’re launching this site with the hopes that you will become an active participant in building it from the ground up. We value your experience, your insight, and your commitment to students, and we hope we can honor your work now and for many years to come.

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.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

Write for Us!

We want to hear from rural teachers like YOU about what it is like to live and work in your rural place. Please consider writing for us! Possible topics include:

  • Rural possibilities: What unique opportunities does your rural school provide for you as a teacher? For your students?
  • Rural innovations: What new and effective practices are you using that other rural teachers should know about?
  • Rural challenges: What changes would you like to see in your rural school, and how might they be brought about?
  • Rural specificities: What is it like to teach your specific rural students (English learners, gifted-identified, etc.) about your specific subject (STEM, American history, foreign language, etc.).
  • Rural news: What topics in the headlines (e.g., climate change, critical race theory debates, pandemic concerns)are creating waves in your rural school community? How have they impacted your teaching?

Blog posts should be between 700 and 900 words (approximately). We will work with you to finalize your draft! Please be sure to include the location of your school and a few details to help the reader situate it in a larger context.

Email us at for more information or to submit a blog post!


Don’t want to miss a post from a fellow rural educator? Click here to receive an email notification when new blog posts are published!