From Malawi to Virginia: An Educational Journey

By Annie Shaba

May 14, 2024

One hot afternoon in Malawi, a small country in Southeast Africa, I vividly remember saying these words: “Aunt Esther, take the boys out somewhere. I need the house to be quiet and peaceful.” The day was very important to me. I had an interview with the Program Leader for the Foundations of Education department at Virginia Tech, Dr. Marcus Weaver-Hightower, and the Director of the Center for Rural Education, Dr. Amy Price Azano. This was a very important interview for me; I had prepared for many days and I was extremely nervous. It was part of my application to study for a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction at Virginia Tech. Our conversation went well, to say the least. I just completed my first year as a doctoral student.

Being a PhD student was a dream come true: a far-fetched dream. Why do I say so? I remember how I started my education journey as a four-year-old, in small town called Mzuzu, in Northern Malawi. I’m the firstborn in a family of three girls. My mother was a primary school teacher, working at a school that was owned by a Presbyterian church but run by the government. At the time, she did not have anyone to look after me while she taught, so she took me with her. She put me in the first grade to keep me occupied until she could take me back home at the end of her shift.  

I spent the required eight years in primary school and four years in secondary school. I’m glad to say I never repeated a class. Repeating a class is very common occurrence for Malawian children, especially girls, and sometimes can lead to students dropping out of school. Years later, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Education from Mzuzu University in Malawi and, later still, a Master’s degree in International Education and Development from the University of Sussex in England. I count myself very lucky because for most girls in Malawi, this level of educational attainment is out of reach.

Rural Education in Malawi

During my first year at Virginia Tech, I have met many wonderful and supportive people. As one of my projects for my graduate assistantship at the Center for Rural Education, I wanted to provide local schoolchildren with the opportunity to learn about different cultures and education systems around the world, so I began visiting schools and teaching about Malawi. Apart from the stark economic differences I noticed between the local schools and those in Malawi, it was interesting to listen to the kids’ questions, which were focused more on the school day than about what the Malawian kids have and don’t have. Some of the questions students asked were:

  • How long do they have to walk to get to school?
  • Do they get recess? How long is their recess?
  • How far can they go from the school during recess?
  • Why do they all wear the same clothes?

To answer these questions, let’s take a look at rural education in Malawi. There, rural kids have to walk very long distances to get to school. This is because there aren’t enough schools around. Sadly, almost half of the children who begin first grade, which is called Standard One in Malawi, don’t finish the final class of primary school. The rural schools have the highest dropout rate, with more girls dropping out of school than boys. The distance and the not-so-immediate benefits of schooling just can’t compete with things that bring immediate returns such as menial jobs and marriages. 

To encourage children to attend school, mothers take turns making and serving meals.

If you were to visit a rural primary school in Malawi, you would find large classrooms with over 80 learners working with one teacher. Sometimes, in the most remote places, a whole school is run by just one or two teachers. The large teacher-pupil ratio is a big hindrance to education of rural learners because the teacher is not able to pay attention to individual learners’ needs.

Most classrooms are made from burnt brick, but it is not unusual to find makeshift classrooms made out of dried grass. Sometimes classes are held under tree sheds. In harsh weather conditions such as rain or cold, school is usually canceled. 

Learners in Malawi wear school uniforms. Though the purpose of school uniforms is to show equality, with rich and poor students all dressing the same, they can sometimes create an additional barrier to education. Some parents struggle to afford the school uniforms, and some learners have to stay out of school because they don’t have one.

Rural students gather around a radio to hear their lessons.

In an effort to equalize education, the Malawian government has innovated the provision and use of radio lessons. Every school day, students in primary schools across the country tune in to radio broadcasts where they listen to and interact with a radio teacher. The classroom teacher manages the learning environment while the radio teacher teaches. This gives learners the chance to experience 30 minutes’ worth of math, reading, and writing lessons from a qualified teacher. I’m proud to say that I was part of the group that launched and reviewed this program.

Now back to the reason why I’m here. I believe rural schools have unique problems that require unique solutions. With my studies and research at Virginia Tech, I hope to advocate for rural learners and their teachers in Malawi and elsewhere. In the coming years, I aim to immerse myself in research that exposes the inequalities and insufficiencies that exist in rural schools so that I can continue being part of a positive change.

Some Malawian learners participate in reading camps to improve their literacy skills

Annie Shaba will soon begin her second year as a doctoral student in the Foundations of Education department and a graduate assistant with the Virginia Tech Center for Rural Education. She lives in Blacksburg with her husband and two young sons. During the 2024–2025 school year, Annie will be available to give presentations about Malawi to local schools. Please contact Deirdre Hand, our community engagement specialist, at for more details.

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Sharing Appalachia Through Our Stories

By Sarah Downer

April 17, 2024

Photos courtesy of the author

Editor’s Note: The Center for Rural Education, the Lyric Theatre, and VT Engage teamed up to host the community’s second Rural Film Festival on February 29th, 2024. Our team selected 8 short films among an impressive pool of applicants to feature at the festival, including Leatherbritches, an animated short film by Virginia Tech graduate student and filmmaker, Sarah Downer, who took part in the post-viewing panel discussion. In this blog post, Sarah discusses the importance of telling rural stories.

After my film, Leatherbritches, was shown as part of the Rural Film Festival at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg recently, I was honored to literally have a seat at the table among a group of talented rural storytellers. The festival consisted of two hours of incredible stories about life, loss, perseverance, and community ties in rural communities. As these stories were shared, the audience wasn’t shy about cheering, crying, and applauding to show how deeply the stories resonated with them. It got me thinking—why is it so important for us to tell our stories about rural life and Appalachia? 

Over the last year while I was making Leatherbritches, I was reminded over and over again just how much people crave being represented. Seeing yourself or someone like you represented in a familiar, relatable, and positive way is incredibly powerful. When they saw the film, I’ve had people happily ask me if their own relatives—who usually looked nothing like my 3D characters—had inspired the character design. They saw so much of themselves in the setting and stories I was able to create in the 3D environment. By telling my family’s stories, I was able to affirm other people’s identities as well.

My then-90-year-old grandma provided the narration for the entire film. When I started recording interviews with her, I didn’t have a clear picture of how I would actually use them. I thought I might get some charming clips that I could add to the end credits, or maybe some sound effects for my characters’ expressions. What I found in test showings was that people fell in love with the small clips I played of Grandma talking. They wanted more! The stories she told reminded audiences of their own grandmothers and they were transported back in time.

Appalachia has historically been the punching bag of popular media. When I suggested using bluegrass music in the background, I was immediately met with grimaces and warnings from my advisors that bluegrass gives Deliverance vibes. I don’t blame people for having that point of view because those negative stories are the only context they have for rural Appalachian communities. Honestly, by neglecting to tell our stories, we left a void, and others came in to fill that void with their own versions of Appalachia. We let people like J.D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis) tell the world who we are because as a community, we hadn’t yet stood up to do it ourselves. It didn’t matter that accounts like Vance’s weren’t authentic; they were the first to fill the void, and first impressions matter. Deliverance and Hillbilly Elegy ate our lunch, so to speak. I didn’t end up using bluegrass in my film, by the way.

If we don’t tell our stories, someone else will, and we might not like how they do it. Like Vance’s book exemplifies, stories don’t necessarily have to be authentic for people to latch on to them. As an animator and storyteller, accurate cultural representation has always been very important to me. This is the difference between Aladdin, which, while a fun story, represents stereotypes but no real culture in particular, and Moana, a rich, cultural story that brought the whole world into the Polynesian culture. When making Moana, Pixar went to the trouble to hire Polynesian consultants, from costume designers to fishermen, and it shows. Essentially, when you tell someone’s story, you are telling them who they are, and you are telling the world how to see them—with or without their consent. When you are repeatedly told that you are a second class citizen, or poor, or destined to be a drug addict, you might start to believe it. 

How can we counteract these existing negative stories and stereotypes? Proving them wrong or arguing doesn’t seem to be the answer, and defensiveness doesn’t seem to win us any friends. Instead, I believe that the way to counter this negativity is to tell our own stories and amplify our community members who are telling our authentic stories. Indeed, we have a responsibility to take up space in a way that creates a sense of pride and belonging for ourselves and our neighbors. This can be through showing up for visual artists like Ceirra Evans, attending events like the Rural Film Festival, and buying books by actual rural Appalachian authors. I’m surprised that not many people around me seem to know that Barbara Kingsolver just wrote a Pulitzer prize-winning book, Demon Copperhead, based in our area and featuring our communities. Kingsolver even mentions our little town of Christiansburg—in a Pulitzer-winning novel! We should take stories like these and shout them from the rooftops. Not only will this support existing storytellers, but it will show future storytellers that there is a space for them and that people want to hear what they have to say.

Our stories matter. Who tells our stories matters. How we allow ourselves to be depicted matters. As I reflect on my experience at the Rural Film Festival and my year creating Leatherbritches, I am reminded of the incredible impact storytelling holds in shaping perceptions and identities. Our rural communities, often misrepresented or overlooked, are brimming with narratives of resilience, love, and heritage. By sharing our stories authentically, we reclaim our narrative from the grip of stereotypes and misrepresentation. Whether it’s through art, literature, or community events, every story told is a reminder to ourselves and to others of who we are. Together, we can rewrite the narrative of Appalachia, ensuring that our stories resonate loudly and proudly for generations to come.

Sarah Downer grew up in Newport, Virginia and currently resides in Christiansburg. She works as a student program coordinator at Virginia Tech and is a graduate student in the Master of Natural Resources program through the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability. Her artist statement follows.

I come from a long line of strong Appalachian women who have passed down the traditions and stories of this place for more than five generations. As an artist I feel a strong sense of responsibility to preserve and celebrate this unique culture and history through my work. Using animation and storytelling, I honor my family legacy, challenge negative stereotypes of Appalachians, and document traditions that can instill a sense of pride and belonging for future generations.

My short film explores the traditional Appalachian food preservation method known as leatherbritches, which involves stringing green beans onto a string or wire and hanging them to cure in a dry place for several weeks. Once the beans are dry, they can be stored for months, providing a source of sustenance during the long winter when fresh produce is scarce.

 Stringing and hanging the beans is a communal effort, with multiple generations of family members and neighbors coming together to share in the work of resilience and enjoy the rewards of a bountiful harvest. A sense of communal effort and shared support is a core part of Appalachian culture, as is a familiarity with meditative forms of labor like gardening and stringing the beans. I celebrate these traditions and work to preserve them through my art. Ultimately, my goal is to create a project  that honors the people and rich cultural heritage of Appalachia, and inspires others to appreciate the beauty and significance of this unique region. 

Animation can bridge divides and bring people together across differences where words fail. I invite viewers to gain a greater sense of understanding and appreciation for the nature, community, and cultural richness of the place that I call home.

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“I didn’t know going to college was possible for me”: The Galax Mentoring Project

By Elizabeth Stringer-Nunley

March 11, 2023

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Stringer-Nunley, Becca Halm, and Deirdre Hand

The Center for Rural Education is so excited to be partnering with the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies on an initiative we call the Galax Mentoring Project. The Galax City school district in rural southwest Virginia has one of the highest percentages of multilingual learners in Virginia. Our two centers have partnered with the district to provide tutoring and mentoring to multilingual high school students in Galax, with most of our tutors/mentors being students at Virginia Tech who are multilingual themselves (primarily Spanish speakers). In this post, Galax teacher and champion of the project, Elizabeth Stringer-Nunley, shares some highlights from the first semester of the project. 

The First Visit: Galax to Virginia Tech

On Friday, October 13, 2023, the Galax Mentoring Project kicked off on a gorgeous fall day on the campus of VT. As the Galax bus circled the drill field toward Burruss Hall, the students were buzzing with excitement about being on campus. When we arrived, the VT mentors were there with posters and shouts of welcome to their campus. One of the students said, “Look!  They look like us!”  The day would only get better from there.

VT mentors eagerly wait to greet Galax students.

“Look! They look like us!”

The group proceeded to the drillfield where we spent some time getting to know one another. The connections made with the mentors were immediate and deep. Conversations varied from favorite foods to personal immigration stories. You could feel the students’ excitement at being able to connect with someone who looked like them, spoke their same language, and had similar experiences as they did. While we were on the drillfield, a VT cadet ran through with the game ball from the Homecoming game that would be played the next day. All of the students got to touch the game ball for good luck! (It paid off, because VT won the Homecoming game the next day!)

Galax students were impressed by the quiet atmosphere in the Torgerson Bridge study area.

The day continued with a short walk through various parts of campus, eventually reaching El Centro in Squires Student Center, a center that serves the Latinx community on campus. There were flags of Spanish-speaking nations lining the walls, and the Galax students were excited to point out their own countries’ flags. 

Galax students opened envelopes containing the name of their mentor along with some fun facts (and cool VT swag!). There were high fives, fist bumps, hugs, and shouts of “yes!” heard all around the room. The Galax students wore huge smiles all day. Students who never speak at school could not stop talking during this trip. Students seen as loners at school were telling jokes and stories to groups of mentors while at VT. Amazing connections and conversations were going on all day. 

After a delicious lunch in D2, we had to say goodbye. On our way back to Galax, the students all wanted to see each other’s mentor envelopes and talked animatedly about who they were paired with. Several students asked if we could come back every day. A few even said that they did not even realize that there were people in our area like them. One Indigenous student from Guatemala had tears in his eyes when he thanked me for connecting him with a VT student from Guatemala. He said he had missed his home so badly and being able to connect with someone who knew the same places and foods and culture as him was really special. 

As an exit ticket activity, I asked the students to tell me their favorite part of the day. Some of the answers were to be expected, such as “the food” or “getting out of school,” but there were others that really made this endeavor worthwhile, such as “meeting an undocumented student like me who was able to go to college” or “hearing how Cristian works construction during the summers to pay for his college—maybe I could do that too” and “Axel has tattoos like me and I’m going to be like him one day” and “I didn’t realize that there were students from Honduras in college.”  

“I didn’t realize that there were students from Honduras in college.” 

The Second Visit: Virginia Tech to Galax

November 10 was a rainy, gloomy day outside, but was bright and happy inside of the Galax High School library where the second in-person gathering of the Galax Mentoring Project took place. The Galax students were eager for their mentors to arrive and asked all morning what time they would get here. 

Once the mentors arrived, everyone gathered in the library to play a speed-dating icebreaker game. They also completed a life inventory that was very eye-opening for many. Everyone then enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by the GHS cafeteria staff. They served chicken tinga with tostadas, rice, beans, pozole, flan, chocoflan, Mexican fruit cups, horchata and even more! (We are blessed to have a couple of Latina ladies cooking in our cafeteria!)

After lunch, the VT mentors held a panel discussion about college life, and the afternoon passed very quickly. As the mentors were leaving, there were plenty of hugs, handshakes, and “see you on Zoom!” 

The Third Visit: Galax to Virginia Tech

The last in-person meeting of the semester took place on the VT campus on December 1, with activities starting at the Language and Culture Institute. With their VT mentors, Galax students had the privilege of touring the Helmet Lab at VT to learn about how helmets are created, tested, and improved to help reduce the risk of concussion. 

Students were able to try on several different styles of helmets, including those worn by the VT football team. They are crazy heavy! 
They also got to watch helmets being tested by machines that produce impacts to measure the risk of concussions. 

The students also had the opportunity to create a vision board for the upcoming year. They had discussions about what their successes had been for 2023 and what they hoped to achieve in 2024. I was happy to hear that many of the students included “graduate” as one of their goals! This activity opened up some good conversations not only between the mentors and mentees, but also among the group of Galax students. On the bus ride home, the students were constantly asking to see each other’s boards and see what their goals were.

 Students enjoyed cutting words and pictures out of magazines to create their vision boards for 2024. 
Lunch was pizza from Benny’s. The slices were bigger than their heads! 
No one could finish more than one slice! 

At the end of the day, the VT mentors surprised the Galax students with personalized baskets full of goodies! Students were given snacks and drinks and candy that they had mentioned they enjoyed during the Zoom meetings. I think half of the snacks were eaten on the bus before we even made it back to Galax! 

The Galax students loved their gifts!

Continuing the Relationships Online

Between the in-person meetings, students have been meeting weekly with their mentors over Zoom. The mentors have done an amazing job of having conversation starters and other activities ready to use, but they also are prepared to allow the conversations to flow in ways that benefit the students. They discuss their week, ask questions about each others’ lives, and help with assignments. As the mentoring relationship continues, we expect even deeper conversations about grades, credit accrual for graduation, passing important high-stakes assessments, and life plans after high school. 

Final Thoughts

Even though the mentoring program is still young, great strides have been made already. My goal for this program is to encourage our multilingual students to graduate high school. But, I feel like the effects will last far beyond high school graduation. While we are still struggling with getting students to pass classes, to be motivated to pass an SOL test, or to just care about what they will do in the future, we are seeing students open up in ways they haven’t before. We are seeing smiles on faces that we’ve rarely seen. We’re hearing connections being formed and experiences shared that would have never been shared with school faculty. We are hearing students say, “I didn’t know going to college was possible for me.” We are seeing small changes in attitudes. The changes won’t happen overnight, but they are happening. We are making a difference.

Elizabeth Stringer-Nunley is an ESL specialist at Galax High School in Galax, Virginia.

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Bridging Urban, Suburban, and Rural STEM Education Through the FEW-Nexus 

By Hannah H. Scherer

February 26, 2024

Photo: USDA, by Preston Keres (public domain)

In this blog post, our Spring 2024 Rural Scholar-in-Residence, Dr. Hannah H. Scherer, shares how she got started with her work in agricultural and STEM education and how it intersects with our mission to advance opportunities for rural schools and communities.

Where Do I Come From?

I do not identify as rural. I was raised in a downtown apartment in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from birth until I was 8 years old. My early adventures were jumping over sidewalk grates, riding escalators, and reaching up high to push the elevator buttons. In fact, I lived exclusively in urban and suburban places, including San Francisco, until moving to Blacksburg, Virginia in 2011.  

As an avid hiker, I have spent lots of time throughout my life in nature, enjoying the scenery. When I was studying geology, I lived in remote locations for weeks at a time collecting data. In both contexts, visiting rural places for work or for recreation, I passed through rural towns and sometimes stopped for lunch or groceries. But these experiences were always centered on the place and the landscape, and I did not take the opportunity to get to know the people who called these places home. My ideas on rural were consistent with the imagery that I had encountered in the media, without an understanding of the lived experiences of the people there. 

Turning to my role as an educator, I spent several years as a high school science teacher in a suburban setting. I taught my students about concepts such as mountain formation, the water cycle, and photosynthesis, but struggled to find ways to help them connect these ideas to their own lives.  

How Did I End Up as the Rural Scholar-in-Residence?

After earning a PhD in geology, I took a job that would completely change my perspective on rurality. Combining my expertise and passions from my background in science and my professional experience as a teacher, I started a new role working with STEM education in the context of agriculture at Virginia Tech. Not only did this role bring me to a college town in a rural part of Virginia, but it gave me the opportunity to work directly with students who come from rural communities. As a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education, I get to collaborate with students and colleagues who are passionate about agriculture to advance STEM education in various spaces. I teach courses for students who have goals in agricultural and extension education, many of whom would like to return to their hometowns to live and work. This deep connection to place, family, and community is something that I have come to understand as being very important to many of my rural students.

In 2019, I had the opportunity to contribute ideas to the grant proposal Dr. Amy Azano was working on for SEE VT, a summer enrichment experience for gifted rural youth. I had just started working with a novel framework, the Food-Energy-Water (FEW)-Nexus, and we decided to use it as the focus of the STEM curriculum for the camp. Fortunately, this proposal was funded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and Dr. Azano and I have been able to work together along with several talented graduate students to make this idea a reality. Throughout this experience, I have had the privilege to learn from the folks in the Center for Rural Education and deepen my knowledge of the theoretical and empirical foundations of rural education and what it really means to center rural in educational program design and research. Now, as the Scholar in Residence, I am continuing to explore the possibilities of the FEW-Nexus for rural education.   


How Can the FEW-Nexus help expand possibilities for bridging urban, suburban, and rural STEM education?

Tying all of my personal and professional experiences together helps me articulate what excites me so much about the FEW-Nexus. The FEW-Nexus can be thought of as a complex socio-ecological system, one in which humans and the environment are intricately intertwined such that you can’t consider one without the other. Additionally, the FEW-Nexus necessitates consideration of place because these resources—food, energy, and water—are produced and consumed by real people in real places. 

In scientific research spaces, the FEW-Nexus has gained traction as a framework to describe the complex interconnections between these three resources that are essential for modern global society. A crucial part of this understanding recognizes that production and consumption of food, energy, and water resources are not evenly geographically distributed. That is, rural spaces are typically the sites of resource extraction and its associated social and environmental challenges. Decision-making about how to best utilize and conserve precious resources is central to ensuring sustainability and rural community viability into the future.  

Similar to the concept of a watershed, scholars have started to articulate the idea of FEWsheds to help people think about the geographic distribution of where these resources are produced and consumed (Brinkley et al., 2023). This is where I think the broad educational potential of the FEW-Nexus lies. In urban and suburban communities, this concept can be used to help students learn about where the food, energy, and water that they consume comes from and how they are interconnected. Students can learn about these interconnections at local, regional, and national scales because the systems are globally connected.

In rural communities, students can ask similar questions about the sources of the food, energy, and water that they consume. Additionally, there are likely local or regional places where these resources are produced that students can learn about, prompting discussions about why production is located there, where the resources end up, and how production in one sector impacts other sectors in their locality. 

In our research, my colleagues and I have started to demonstrate that the FEW-Nexus can also encourage learners to take a systems perspective. Through this lens, not only do we see that food, energy, and water systems are intricately connected, but we can consider the ways in which people and places are connected to these resource systems and to each other. I think this is a powerful aim for educators in any space. 


  • Brinkley, C., Raj, S., & Raja, S. (2023). Planning for FEWsheds: The Role of Planning in Integrating and Strengthening Food, Energy and Water Systems. Journal of Planning Literature, 38(1), 33-58.  

Hannah H. Scherer is an Associate Professor and Extension Specialist for STEM Education in Agriculture in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech. She is the Center for Rural Education’s second rural scholar-in-residence for the Spring 2024 semester. 

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Unpacking Place

By Amy Price Azano

November 2, 2023

Photos provided by the author.
Cover photo: Norwich, January 1993

To say I was unprepared for my junior year abroad is an understatement. As I packed to leave the country for the first time, I borrowed my grandmother’s suitcase because it was the only one large enough for a semester’s worth of clothes and my boom box. (Yes, a boom box!) The suitcase was vintage even for its time, a powder blue oversized soft case without wheels. The first of many uninformed decisions. I flew by myself from DC to London and, with that large blue suitcase, navigated trains and buses and several long walks until I made it to the University of East Anglia’s (UAE) campus in Norwich, England—about 120 miles northeast of London. I said hello to my suitemates, unpacked my belongings, and grabbed a beer at the local pub with another American who was also moving in for the Spring 1993 semester. As an undergraduate student at Louisiana State University (and having lived the previous summer in New Orleans), it was not my first beer—though it was my first lukewarm brown ale with a 7% ABV (quite a bit more than the ubiquitous Natty Light of the early 90s!). Another poor decision.

My room at UAE (note the boom box)

Back in my room, I remembered to plug the international adapter into the outlet and set an alarm for an early start so that I could tour campus prior to my 9 am class. For a 20-year-old college junior who drank two of those brown ales before feeling their full weight, it would be a rough morning. Even still, I was shocked to find my body aching from the previous day’s travel and what felt like very little sleep. It was also strangely quiet and pitch-black outside, but the trip predated the internet and Google deep dives so I truly had no idea what to expect. I assumed my new friends were late sleepers and that this northern territory had an oddly late sunrise. I wondered how busy Londoners could start their day in what feels like the middle of the night. But, it was my first day of class! I excitedly got dressed and found my way into the still community kitchen where the only light, the red glow of the microwave clock, revealed it was in fact the middle of the night. 

At 3:30 am, I returned to my single dorm room, unplugged my clock, and woke up later that evening having missed and, consequently, been withdrawn from all my courses (a university policy). My suitemates felt terrible for neglecting to share a feature about the outlets that could make American clocks work twice as fast (a detail I might have noticed were it not for the ale). Going to each professor the following day and explaining my folly earned a few chuckles and some sympathy points.

They allowed me to re-enroll, and I spent my time that semester studying creative writing and Shakespeare. I made friends from around the world. I fell in love. I borrowed a rucksack and traveled to Prague for the four weeks in between quarters.

Arriving in Prague, March 1993

And, to be sure, I was not prepared for any of it. Not for the growing or deep longing for home. Not for feeling more capable than I had realized. Finding the world bigger than I imagined. For not feeling self-conscious about my country accent that had previously signaled ineptitude in academic spaces. (We all just sound American over there!)

At the base of the Astronomical Clock

I journaled in Prague’s Old Town Square, in awe of the astronomical clock built in 1410 – and all this within a couple years of the Velvet Revolution and months into the new Czech Republic and the opening of its first McDonald’s.

But the hardest part of the journey was yet to come–the one at home. Not the literal trip home. By then I was a pro. I had been across the English Channel after clipping coupons from a local newspaper for a free trip to France—a failed attempt to get to Paris to meet an LSU friend also studying abroad. I made it to Dunkirk, slept in a bank vestibule after not getting a ride to Paris, and ferried back to England the next day. (I am haunted by these poor decisions.) In Prague, I made friends with Czech students at Charles University who were studying English. Together, we traveled to Český Krumlov for a party. Getting home to Luray, Virginia was a piece of cake.

I had been in Europe for a little more than six months. I learned to love that room temperature ale and drank it in pubs older than the United States. I had arrived with $200 US dollars and babysat for professors and did other household jobs for income. My parents routinely sent care packages of Doritos and spending money collected by our church congregation. I’ve lost many of the memories to age, but I can close my eyes and remember every detail of a surprise 21st birthday celebration my British friends planned for me—a birthday of little significance there but an American rite of passage they didn’t want me to miss. I can see the kind Czech man working the street cart who sold “smažený sýr” (fried cheese). Each morning he would offer a wide smile as I ordered “smažený směrem” (fried directions)—a mistake that brought him so much pleasure he hated to finally correct me.

Somewhere, Czech Republic

I had a million stories and I couldn’t wait to share them with my family who had gathered for a welcome home party on my aunt’s porch in Luray. But instead I found myself fielding a single question: How was London? I had many attempts to respond. I actually wasn’t in London, but Norwich has a massive medieval castle built in 1070. Did I tell you I saw Kafka’s house in Prague? I joined a student protest in Cambridge. I walked across the Karlov Most (the Charles Bridge) to visit the Prague Castle.

But they were just as eager to share what I had missed. It was as if this critical era of my life had happened in a space-time continuum, and talking about England and the Czech Republic felt like describing my time on Mars. My family was interested and proud of me but mostly just happy to have me home. To them, the adventure had ended and even though it was offered in jest that I had gotten ‘too big for my britches,’ I didn’t know how to react. All I wanted was to be home, but I somehow still felt very far away. Eventually, I responded: London was really nice. 

Party at Aunt Tracy’s, August 1993

This past summer, thirty years later, I traveled for the first time (not counting my poorly planned overnight stay in Dunkirk) to mainland Europe. I went as part of a faculty development program to Virginia Tech’s Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. As a rural education scholar, I have engaged in research and outreach addressing equity and opportunity for K-12 learners in rural schools and communities. And while college isn’t the goal for everyone, it should be an option for everyone. Rural students attend and complete college at lower rates than their non-rural peers, but for the ones who do, I wonder if they experience that same tension or alienation I experienced as a first-generation college student. I wonder if they have access to the robust offerings, like study abroad.

Not in a bank vestibule, July 2023

This is what took me to Europe this time—to think about a course for first-gen undergraduate rural students that would give them the time and support to reconcile these local and global literacies so that they don’t seem at odds with one another. What does it mean to “pack and unpack place” and contemplate our rural identities even as those identities evolve? In other words, how can we gain cultural capital without it being at the expense of our social capital back home? 

For my recent trip, I packed light in a suitcase with wheels. I purchased the right adapters. I finally saw Paris. And as my two weeks wore on, I felt a sense of peace replace a weight I had been carrying with me for a long time. I wouldn’t trade a single second of my wild adventure in 1993 but my moments being in the world seemed to take me from my place. It surprised me, after all this time, to revisit my younger self on this recent journey and to realize that home had been my guide all along. 

Seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time, July 2023

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

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Global Community Engagement

By Deirdre Hand

October 16, 2023

Photos provided by the author

My work as the Community Engagement Specialist with the Center for Rural Education is one-half of a dual role: that is, I also spend half of my work week as the Community Engagement Specialist for the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies. Luckily, the two Centers share an office space, so it’s relatively easy to switch back and forth between tasks related to each individual Center. One particular project I’m working on now actually bridges both Centers, who are partnering to provide mentorship support to immigrant/displaced/asylum-seeking high school students who live in rural communities near Virginia Tech. In addition to this work, I also help run a non-profit organization, Elimisha Kakuma, and on a recent trip, I was able to learn from and connect with people in ways that will be beneficial going forward with all three roles.

The first part of my trip was to visit our students in Elimisha Kakuma,  the university-access program based in Kakuma Refugee Camp I co-founded in 2021 with three of my former students, Diing Manyang, Dudi Miabok, and Mary Maker. Diing, Dudi, and Mary were once in the same situation in which our current students now find themselves: having graduated high school, but with few opportunities to access higher education. Worldwide, fewer than 6% of refugees are enrolled in higher education, and in Kenya, that number is even lower. We founded Elimisha Kakuma while I was teaching full time in D.C. Public Schools and while Diing, Dudi, and Mary were enrolled as undergraduate students at George Washington University, Harvard University, and St. Olaf College, respectively. The purpose of our program is to prepare students academically for university-level content and to help them find and apply for scholarships to study at universities around the world.

As we launched our gofundme campaign and began thinking about recruitment, I was contacted by my former professor, Dr. Brett Shadle, who, along with his colleagues Dr. Katy Powell and Dr. Rebecca Hester, had recently created VT’s Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies. CRMDS became Elimisha’s first important partner, providing undergraduate interns who tutored our students and offered feedback on writing for their college applications. We are now working with our third cohort, and we’re thrilled to report the success we’ve had so far, with students studying at schools including Dartmouth, Trinity College, Elmhurst University, University of Tulsa, Simon Fraser College, University of Calgary, Western University, Macalester College, Calvin University, Dalhousie University, U.C. Berkeley, Dalhousie University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and United States International University.

During my visit to Kakuma in September, we hosted guests from Rutgers University and Talking Eyes Media. Julie Winokur and Tim Raphael (co-founders of the Newest Americans), conducted a four-day digital storytelling workshop for our students and students from another organization. The students improved their photography skills on their smartphones and were able to tell beautiful stories about their lives and communities (see Winokur’s recent blog post for more details). The rest of my time in Kakuma was spent meeting with students one-on-one; as their college counselor, I will write their counselor recommendation letters, and having the opportunity to connect with them in person is a great change from Zoom classes and WhatsApp conversations.

One of our main takeaways from our time together is that we all need to be more conscientious about taking breaks. I noticed that students would just work through the 30-minute breaks that we provided in our daily schedule. Of course, I am as guilty of this as they are, but sometimes it takes noticing other people you care about doing the same unhealthy behaviors for you to recognize the need to adjust your own habits. So, in the time I was there, we created a new plan as a class, with the social chair taking the lead, to make sure that everyone got up from their tables, closed their laptops, and went out into the world to move, talk, and laugh.  More than a few times, we ended up heading to the laga, which is a dry river-bed that floods when it rains in Uganda, making transportation across the camp impossible. We’d stand out in the dusty laga, and the students would take turns thinking of games that they used to play as kids, and doing a Tik-Tok challenge, which we may or may not post on social media one day.

After about 10 days at the camp, I traveled to Lusaka, Zambia, for the annual HALI Indaba.  The HALI Access Network is described as “an association of non-profit organizations across Africa that work with high-achieving, low-income (HALI) students to access international higher education opportunities.” Elimisha Kakuma became a member of HALI this year, after being mentored the previous year, and we recently published a blog on their website introducing ourselves and our work.

In addition to members, there are “friends of HALI”—admissions representatives from universities from North America, Europe, and Africa—who attend. The connections and relationships built among people doing similar work across the continent is invaluable. Sessions during this Indaba included thinking through how we support students after they finish university, recruiting strategies, planning a college counseling curriculum, writing letters of recommendation, decolonizing African education, and sharing information between admissions representatives and college access organizations. This year we also created the Refugee Task Force to support members whose classes include refugee students, and I was named as the leader of this task force. Our goals include increasing access to higher education for refugees as well as using our collective leverage to navigate barriers that refugees face, including documentation.

Being on the ground in Kakuma and at the HALI Indaba was the right way to re-energize before the intensive application season begins. As we look to the future, our goals at Elimisha are to create more partnerships with universities, as we have done with Virginia Tech and Rutgers; raise additional funds in order to keep the organization running smoothly; support our students as they begin their university studies; and find ways to enroll (and fund) more students in future cohorts.

In my role as Community Engagement Specialist at both the Center for Rural Education and the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies, I am committed to continuing to support educational access for marginalized populations, whether it be for students in Kakuma Refugee Camp or in a nearby rural community with a high population of multilingual learners who come from displaced populations. A philosophy I learned in my time teaching in Rwanda, and that all of my African students in Kakuma are aware of, is “Ubuntu,” which stresses the vital connectedness of people and our shared humanity. It’s often translated as “I am because you are.”  As we move forward to launching our new mentorship program supporting rural multilingual learners in Southwest Virginia, this shared humanity is at the core of both of these Centers; being able to spend time in Kenya and Zambia reminded me of this core belief that will continue to motivate our work.

Deirdre Hand, the Community Engagement Specialist for the Center for Rural Education and the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies, is a two-time graduate from Virginia Tech and an educator with a Master’s in Education, Curriculum & Instruction, with a concentration in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). She is also the Co-Founder, Academic Director and College Counselor of Elimisha Kakuma, a university-access program in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. 

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Lessons from Year 1 of a Rural Education Fellowship

By Rachelle Kuehl

September 27, 2023

Photo: from the National Parks Service website,

Checking my email recently, I was excited to see a message from Carrie (a pseudonym), a middle school history teacher I’d connected with through a colleague from another university in a nearby state. Carrie and I had met via Zoom over the summer, and I was so impressed with her work helping students understand a much fuller picture of US history than I’d been exposed to in my own schooling. Her school was located very near the path that thousands of Cherokee took westward when forcibly removed from their homeland during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, and she had invited me to attend a field trip she coordinated each fall, where she brought her students to a historical site memorializing this experience. I assumed Carrie’s message would provide details about my visit, since, after a lot of back and forth, her principal had provided permission for her to participate in the research project I am conducting about how teachers in rural Appalachia discuss complex histories like the Trail of Tears. Clicking open the message, however, my heart sank as I read these words:

Rachelle, I wish I was reaching out under better circumstances; however my board has requested our school not participate in this study….

A year ago, I began work on this project, which is taking place across two school years (Fall 2022–Spring 2024). I was extremely fortunate to have received a fellowship from the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation to conduct research on how teachers in rural Appalachia navigate teaching about race and racism in schools given the fact that doing so has become alarmingly controversial, with anti-CRT (critical race theory) rhetoric and resulting policies having emerged in the wake of worldwide reactions to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. My goal was to find eight teachers in various places across rural Appalachia who care deeply about equity and who rely on literature as a way to communicate honest truths about racism and racial history. The teachers I sought would teach English language arts or social studies to students in any grade (K–12). I wanted to learn from them about the challenges they face in discussing race in schools and why they persist despite these challenges, and I wanted to observe their interactions with students as they taught lessons involving complex histories surrounding race.

After receiving approval for my study from my university’s Institutional Review Board last October, I began seeking participants by (a) contacting teachers and school leaders I already knew; (b) asking colleagues in rural education to connect me with teachers they knew; (c) sharing flyers about my study at conferences, via social media, and in multiple far-reaching newsletters; and (d) “cold-call” emailing people from universities and schools that fit my target demographic—all of this amounting to hundreds of contacts and dozens of conversations. While I anticipated that recruiting would require a good deal of time and effort on my part, especially given the heightened attention to these issues in the political realm, I have been continually surprised at how challenging it has actually proven. In my inbox, Carrie’s disappointed message sits alongside several others from teachers in similar situations—teachers who wanted to take part in this research, but whose administrators felt it best not to do so.

Although I had hoped to have completed more classroom visits by now, I feel fortunate to have been able to work with two talented elementary teachers so far—one in a remote rural Appalachian district and one in a “fringe” rural district (meaning it is situated fairly close to a city, as compared with the remote district, whose residents must travel long distances to reach a metropolitan area). After a pause on recruiting for the summer and some slight adjustments to my study protocol to de-emphasize race in favor of complex histories more generally, I still hope to find the number of participants I’d been aiming for by the time the project concludes in the spring. At this mid-point, though, I wanted to stop and reflect on two things I’ve learned so far about teaching about race and racism in rural places at this moment in time.

First, anti-CRT policies are working exactly as intended. In 2020, in an effort to fuel that same “us-vs.-them” fire he thought would be beneficial to his political agenda, a political operative admittedly appropriated the term critical race theory, a long-standing and respected way for scholars to consider the causes of racism as they seek ways to ameliorate its damaging effects on society. The wave of anti-CRT policies primarily stemmed from this rallying cry, and some people with political power (i.e., governors, school board members) have built on this rhetoric by enacting “divisive concepts” policies to restrict teaching about race in schools (for example, Virginia Governor Youngkin’s Executive Order No. 1). The language of some of these policies is intentionally vague, leading teachers and school leaders to err on the side of caution by avoiding honest discussions about race to guard against the real threat of backlash from some members of the community. 

This phenomenon has been written about by other scholars (e.g., López & Sleeter, 2023; Pollock et al., 2022), and my recruiting efforts have confirmed this to be the case among rural Appalachian educators. Many of the dozens of teachers and school leaders I’ve met with to discuss my study have cited these policies as the reason they are unable to participate; my presumption based on these conversations is that many of the people who declined to participate (or to allow teachers in their district to participate) did so for similar reasons as well. One assistant superintendent interrupted me as I was explaining the study to her on a Zoom call. She said that the study might have been allowable during her district’s previous school board term, but that with the current board, even suggesting the study could put her job in jeopardy. She asked, “Why would I dip my toe in that water?” and I could not argue with her reasoning. When I asked the teacher participant from the fringe rural district if she ever felt like she wanted to broach these types of issues more but held back because of anti-CRT policies and rhetoric, her response was definite: “Absolutely. All the time. . . . I definitely don’t. I can’t input any thoughts of mine. . . . I really am not permitted to have an opinion.” A recent Washington Post article explains in detail the harm that can come to teachers who veer too far away from what some community members feel is an appropriate way to discuss racial history.

Second, and I think more importantly, rural educators care deeply about diversity and equity. Despite the challenges in getting people to actually say yes to participating in my study, I have been heartened by the fact that my many conversations have confirmed that rural teachers, school leaders, and university professors care about these issues and are deeply concerned about the fact that anti-CRT policies are denying rural students access to important information about racial histories. Time and time again, the response from rural educators has been something along the lines of this is so important or I’m really glad you’re doing this. Many of the teachers I’ve spoken with over the past year have shared how they are continuing to use the same critical, culturally responsive pedagogies they’ve employed throughout their careers, but with an awareness of the increasing necessity of doing so without drawing attention to themselves. There is certainly a tension between a broad recognition of the importance of studying ways rural teachers can communicate effectively about race and administrators’ willingness to risk inviting controversy from a loud minority of community members who may object to such teaching, but it is encouraging to be reminded that these issues do matter a great deal to the educators who, through their work and service, help shape the future of rural places.

I look forward to providing more findings from this study as it progresses. If you are a rural teacher (in Appalachia or elsewhere) who would like to be part of this conversation, please don’t hesitate to contact me at


  • López, F., & Sleeter, C. A. (2023). Critical race theory and its critics: Implications for research and teaching. Teachers College Press. 
  • Pollock, M., Kendall, R., Reece, E., Issa, A. R., & Brady, E. H. (2023). Supported, silenced, subdued, or speaking up? K12 educators’ experiences with The Conflict Campaign, 2021–2022. Journal for Leadership, Equity, and Research9(2), 1–55.

Rachelle Kuehl is a research scientist in the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech. Her articles about rural education and literacy have appeared in journals such as Theory & Practice in Rural Education, Journal of Children’s Literature, The Reading Teacher, English in Education, English Journal, and Reading Horizons.

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Right at Home: Reflections on the 2023 Rural Education Summit

By Josh Thompson

September 12, 2023

Photos taken by: Diane Deffenbaugh, VT Office of Engagement

I started my PhD journey at Virginia Tech last year in August 2022. As a three-time Hokie already (BA in English; MAEd in Curriculum and Instruction, English Education; and MA in English) and longtime Blacksburg resident, I felt incredibly comfortable: I knew faculty, staff, and students across the university; I already had my favorite hangouts and places to study; and the town felt like home because it was home. At the time, I was entering my twelfth year as an educator and had a general idea of my research interests, but it wasn’t until I attended last year’s Rural Education Summit that I knew exactly where I was meant to be and what I was meant to do.

During that summit, I listened to professors, superintendents, teachers, and community leaders discuss rural resourcefulness, rural cultural wealth, rural resilience, and educational equity in rural communities. I met others from rural areas—people who had both similar and different backgrounds to mine. My ears tuned in to the familiar drawls and colloquialisms, and my soul felt content riding the familiar linguistic pitches, rises, and falls I grew up with. For what might have been the first time, I heard my home county—Patrick—brought up in academic discussion by someone other than me.

That day, I felt emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually stimulated in ways I had not experienced in a long time. And I was shocked.

To understand my surprise, I need to take you back in time. I grew up at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwestern Virginia. I spent countless days in the woods and fields around my house. I helped my great-aunt and -uncle tend to the expansive gardens in the bottomland by the Ararat River (what we call “The Bottom”) on the same land my granny grew up on with her three sisters and two brothers. I was riding four-wheelers before I started kindergarten. And one of my favorite things to do was spend hours stringin’ bushels and bushels of beans with my granny and her siblings and in-laws, listening to their stories from before I was born punctuated by the snaps and pings as we dropped bean after bean into five-gallon buckets. To this day, stringin’ beans is a form of therapy for me.

Author Beth Macy was our community keynote speaker. Photo credit: Diane Deffenbaugh

Fast forward to my time in high school classrooms: I taught in rural and rural-serving public schools. I supported students who had stories like mine. I advocated for equitable practices to best serve them, and I worked hard to make sure that they saw themselves represented in asset-based ways.

So when I realized that rural education was a thriving field of research, I was simultaneously thrilled that I could become part of this community and amazed that I had not realized that it was a possibility to begin with. I spent the rest of that academic year reading rural education scholarship, learning about relevant theories and concepts, conducting research, and becoming more involved with a cohort of emerging rural education scholars. 

I came to this year’s summit more knowledgeable and connected, thanks largely in part to my work as a graduate assistant in the Center for Rural Education. In addition to helping prepare for and run the summit, I once again joined a group of rural educators and community leaders as we discussed and learned about community health and wellness in rural areas. Topics spanned from trauma-informed practices for rural students, teaching rural multilingual learners, and healthcare in rural communities to community educational practices supporting rural LGBTQIA2S+ students, professional development for rural educators, and collective action for sustainability in rural areas.

I also had the opportunity to participate in the summit this year as a rural education scholar, presenting research I am conducting with PhD candidates and fellow students Clint Whitten and Karin Kaerwear on the influences LGBTQIA2S+-focused educational policies have on rural secondary English Language Arts educators. Once again, I witnessed the strength and promise of rural people and rural education. Once again, I felt right at home.

Now, after attending two summits, I realize the importance of an event like the Rural Education Summit for graduate students like me. I have learned more about the field, I have discovered new possibilities for rural people and communities, and I have been inspired. Importantly, I have also received incredible mentorship through interactions with rural education scholars and leaders. This year’s summit focused on community health and wellness, and it has also played a significant role in my own wellness as a rural person and PhD student. It is something I hope all students in rural education have the chance to experience. I encourage students to attend and present at future summits, and I encourage professors to bring their students with them next time. It is an opportunity to not only learn and be in community with other rural educators and leaders but also to give back to the places and people that raised us.

Josh, Karin, and Clint presenting their research. Photo credit: Josh Thompson

A product of rural public schools, Josh Thompson is a queer Appalachian educator and scholar, three-time graduate of Virginia Tech, current PhD student in the English education program, and graduate assistant for the Center for Rural Education. His research and scholarship center on rural education, adolescent literacy, and the experiences, needs, hopes, and dreams of rural queer youth. His articles about reading and teaching have appeared in the English Journal and Virginia English Journal, and he chairs the secondary section steering committee for the National Council of Teachers of English.

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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.

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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.

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Reflections on the Rural Film Festival

By Michael Coleman

March 22, 2023

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

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

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

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

Films Screened

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

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

By Rachelle Kuehl

March 16, 2023

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

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

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

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

-Dr. Barbara Lockee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Representation Matters: The Rural Literature Library

By Rachelle Kuehl

March 1, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Rachelle Kuehl is a 2022 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow and a research scientist in the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech. Her articles about children’s literature and literacy education have appeared in journals such as The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Children’s Literature, English Journal, English in Education, and Reading Horizons.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Reading the Past

By Rachelle Kuehl

November 21, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When Chocolate Bread Pudding Tastes Like Home

By Heather Lynn Wright

November 15, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Virginia’s Silent Crisis: Student Mental Health

By Keith Perrigan

November 11, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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