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.

Ending Programs for Gifted Students Won’t Create Equity for Rural Youth

By Amy Price Azano and Carolyn M. Callahan

This piece originally ran in The Daily Yonder on November 17, 2021

The future of New York City’s gifted education program is in question. As the issue becomes more politically polarizing in communities across the country, the flawed notion that getting rid of gifted programs equals a solution to inequity is gaining traction. Removing these programs doesn’t make the underlying reasons for inequity simply go away. Shutting down gifted education so that no one benefits from the opportunities it affords does nothing to ensure that all students have equitable opportunities. And dismantling programs due to an unwillingness to address systemic failures that further marginalize students of color and students from economically distressed areas also doesn’t advance equity.

Gifted education programs have historically been associated with white privilege, and numerous studies have pointed to racial and socioeconomic disparities. In fact, a recent study found that students from high socio-economic status backgrounds (top fifth) were seven times more likely to receive gifted services than those from low socio-economic backgrounds (bottom fifth). This is true at every level of education, including students admitted to academically prestigious colleges and universities. Recognizing the systemic nature of these challenges, the field of gifted education has been committed for the past several decades to closing opportunity gaps through gifted programs that do more to include students of color and students in high-poverty areas. In fact, federally funded Javits grants for gifted-student programs have been awarded with this priority since the early 2000s. We were recipients of such a grant, a $2 million U.S. Department of Education project, Promoting PLACE in Rural Schools, designed to support gifted education in rural districts situated in areas of extreme poverty. 

We learned in that work that despite the commitment and hard work of advocates and educators whom we called our champions for rural gifted education, there were often structural conditions that created barriers to identifying students to receive gifted services and made efforts to provide gifted rural students with enriched and challenging curricula a persistently difficult task.

In our work, however, we found that focused efforts to broaden educators’ conceptions of giftedness, to disrupt myths about rural gifted students, to identify place-conscious identification methods, and to leverage an appropriate place-based curriculum could ameliorate the issues that contribute to inequity in identification and gifted programming in rural schools and for students experiencing poverty. 

Investing in Rural Talent

We started with introducing educators to the basic philosophy that talent development is critical in rural communities like their own. For one, belief in the school’s responsibility to encourage development of all forms of talent is a way to make a deep investment in bright young minds. We believe investing in talent development is an investment in a community’s viability. It also upends the dominant and pervasively negative narrative about rural people and places. We can disrupt myths about rural students when we dispel the notion of fixed intelligence and the accompanying beliefs about self that emanate from negative stereotypes. In particular, we encouraged educators to do away with the belief that levels of intelligence in the rural population are lower than those of suburban or urban populations, and therefore that students from those communities are less likely to succeed academically or in other areas of talent. For rural districts wanting to make this investment, here are four strategies to get started.

Use a Universal Screening Process

All students must be given the opportunity to demonstrate their talents through equality in screening and assessment. Too often schools use a referral process that relies on teacher or parent recommendation as the primary means of identifying students for further screening as gifted. Teacher nomination is fraught with bias that stems from erroneous beliefs about giftedness and the lack of knowledge about how giftedness may manifest across differing groups of students. In our study, when all students were given the same screening test and teachers were trained to recognize rural gifts before completing rating scales for each of their students, more students were identified than when using the limited procedures previously in place in their schools.

Provide Rural-Focused Professional Development

We found in our work that providing professional development about the ways rural giftedness can manifest is a key piece in identifying students using teacher rating scales. In our work, we provided examples of rural students who might express their gifts in ways that were seen outside of traditional academic spaces such as skill in hunting, fishing, creating Halloween costumes, participating in church activities and local fairs, and even playing at recess. We then provided time for teachers to discuss similar manifestations of giftedness in their own communities.

Let Go of Rigid “Cut Off” Scores and National Comparisons

The need for gifted services is connected to the position that students hold relative to others in their own school. The students who need gifted services are those who need curriculum and instruction beyond what is offered in theirclassrooms. Rural educators who want to identify and develop talent should use local norms when interpreting data from universal screeners. We need to acknowledge that students in schools with high levels of poverty are often not provided the same opportunity to learn as those in more affluent settings. It is well documented that this lack of opportunity to learn can explain gaps in achievement levels. Students should be compared only with those who have had similar opportunities to learn—not those with greater privilege in schooling or experience.

Use a Place-Based, Content-Focused Curriculum

Finally, the engagement of students is correlated with the degree to which they are able to see themselves, their community, and their environment in what they study. By incorporating poems and stories about local people and places into a structured language arts curriculum provided to teachers, students in rural communities were able to out-perform control group students who studied the same topics without the benefit of a structured place-based curriculum.


With persistent equity challenges in the representation of historically minoritized and economically-challenged students, it is understandable why educational leaders, policymakers, parents, and other stakeholders are tempted to place blame on the programming itself. However, no such argument was made when reckoning with the underrepresentation of diverse students in STEM education. When girls were found to be underrepresented in STEM fields, for example, researchers and educators looked at gender bias and other variables affecting girls’ inclusion, interest, engagement, and outcome in STEM: STEM itself wasn’t weaponized or abandoned. Perhaps gifted education has been responsible for perpetuating some degree of privilege and Whiteness, and we mean here not to devalue the importance of critiquing these programs. But closing gifted education programs is not a win for equity, it is a loss for the ways such programs could benefit underrepresented and marginalized students. Creating equity in these programs means addressing and removing the historic, systemic, racist, and structural barriers preventing access to the programs, not demonizing the opportunities an accelerated program offers to students—bright rural students who deserve to be seen for their potential.

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. Carolyn M. Callahan is the Commonwealth Professor of Education Emerita at the University of Virginia. 

To subscribe to this blog, click here.

Border of the County Kid: External Influences in Rural Schools

By Clint Whitten

The family farm was nestled next to the Merhinin River about twenty minutes from the nearest Food Lion, which meant I was always the first and last kid on the school bus. Mom dropped me off at Grandma’s house around 6:45 a.m., which gave me just enough time to cram a few Martha White’s instant muffins down my throat. Grandma always made sure each muffin had a dollop of butter wedged in the center. Sometimes, if we were running late, the bus driver would let me bring a muffin on the bus with me; she understood some rules were meant to be broken. The hour-long bus ride through the windy back country roads often resulted in me crawling under the seats in search of entertainment; “Keep your butt in the seat” was a rule I didn’t follow well. After school, Grandma would be waiting for me with a Little Debbie cake. As a former teacher in the community, she would teach me cursive writing in the white porch swing while claiming, “You’re going to use this every day.” 

Eventually, by middle school, my mom had to drive me to school herself. Apparently, buses are not jungle gyms. The warm muffins were replaced by bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches from the local donut shop. After school, Dad would pick me up and immediately go to the gas station up the road. He would grab a Coca Cola, take one sip, and then put a few peanuts inside. Silently, we would listen to his 80s rock music while I read my book. 

Dad would drop me off at home and then head to work on the hobby farm. I had about an hour to complete any homework that required the computer with dial-up internet before my sister needed it for her own work. Mostly, I used the encyclopedias to complete my research papers because we weren’t allowed to tie up the phone line for too long. When we needed additional resources, Mom would drive us to the local library, which always had a musty smell that reminded me of crumpled up dollar bills found in my jean pockets.

In every school, I was known as Mrs. Whitten’s grandson. Grandma had either taught my teachers herself or she was their former co-worker. Regardless, whenever I won an award or got in trouble on the bus, she knew before I could even process the situation. Somedays I was her middle man as teachers would send me home with ferns and Christmas cactuses for Grandma.

These external factors of long bus rides, dial-up internet, encyclopedias, Coca Cola, and being the grandson of a local celebrity provided the foundations of my education before I even stepped foot into the classroom. Nowadays, when I hear about a student who can’t try out for football because they live out next to the county border, I simply respond, “Provide them with a ride,” because I was that kid who lived out on the county border too. I recognize that some kids have hour-long bus rides and when they search for entertainment on the dirty floors of the school bus, the system is designed to get them in trouble. Some parents work a day job and then work on the farm until sunset fueled by peanuts soaked in Coca Cola. The constant pressure of representing your family name is sometimes a weighted blanket that is suffocating a kid. For me, growing up on the border of the county was constantly listening to the earth breathe, learning cursive from a former teacher who was also my grandma, and figuring out ways to complete homework assignments with dial-up internet and encyclopedias.

Clint Whitten is a middle school English, creative writing, and theatre teacher and a doctoral student at Virginia Tech.

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!