Teacher Looks To Connect Students To Their Rural Roots Through Literature, Other Teachers Get Inspired To Do The Same

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When education students from Morehead State University in Kentucky visited a virtual classroom with guest lecturer Chea Parton to study rural literature, many of the students felt embarrassed about the rural places where they had grown up — and where many of them would return to teach after graduating from Morehead State.

By the time the guest lecture by Parton was through, some of those individuals’ points of view had begun to shift.

Alison Hruby, an MSU associate professor of English education, says she “already blew their minds” in one hour of speaking to her students about the importance of literature in the classroom.

Rural people were portrayed as backward and uneducated in the children’s tales that the students had heard and read as youngsters. That the place on which they were bred was nothing more than a barren wasteland. And that in order to achieve success, they need to uproot themselves from the communities in which they were raised and relocate to bigger cities.

Parton, who has a Ph.D., gave a presentation to the children about her initiative, Literacy In Place. The objective of the project is to encourage the expansion of literary curricula in middle school and high school classes to include works that relate directly to young rural students.

It is possible for children to find themselves reflected in their schoolwork by introducing them to works like Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, about a boy and his two hunting dogs in rural Oklahoma, or Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, about a self-described “fat girl” who triumphs at her small-town Texas beauty pageant.

According to Hruby, the lesson taught by Parton had been retained. The prospective educators had a more positive outlook on their hometowns, engaged in critical introspection on the ways in which literature may influence students’ perceptions of where they are from, and started considering ways in which they might include Parton’s work into their own future English teaching.

“[The students] really wish they had read more literature that represented their home towns in a more positive light,” Hruby said.

Rural literature may be found in plenty at Literacy In Place, a website dedicated to rural literature. To help students, English instructors, and education professors learn about how location (especially in rural places) influences the way tales are narrated, Parton, an expert on rural language and literacy, developed the website.

Literacy in Place, as stated by Parton, is predicated on the following three principles: Rural tales are worth telling, rural tales are worth reading and worthy of study, and rural traditions, whatever their flaws, ought to be preserved, and Rural traditions, whatever their flaws, ought to be preserved. “I realized that rural culture is a culture and that it’s different,” Parton said. “I started thinking about me as a teacher and how my rurality affects the way I teach. Nobody was doing that work. That’s when I started Literacy in Place.”

According to Parton, many classes in middle and high schools adopt culturally sustainable pedagogies, or teaching techniques, that incorporate local history and culture into lessons and activities. It’s a method that focuses on the individual identities of students to teach academic skills at the heart.

She came to the conclusion that despite the fact that this technique effectively elevates many tales from urban and suburban schools, many significant rural narratives remain untold in rural schools. Negative rural perceptions might continue because of these tales aren’t told.

“In teacher education programs, when we teach what culturally sustaining pedagogy is,” Parton said. “We teach from an urban perspective because that’s where it came from. So no one’s really learning how to sustain rural cultures in their teaching—even teachers who come from rural places.”

Parton, who moved from a rural community in Indiana to the urban streets of Austin, Texas, saw herself as a perfect example of what can happen when country life is not appreciated or nurtured.  “Growing up, I ingested all of the negative things that people say about rural people and I believed those things,” Parton said. “I believed them about myself.”

The influence of Parton’s affinity for rural life and her enthusiasm for literature may be seen in the way that she teaches. She is of the opinion that the majority of people do not appreciate the value of those who live in rural areas or the difficulties of life in small towns.

She said that those living in rural areas are just as likely as those living in cities to fall victim to this misconception. Literature, according to her, is a place where individuals learn about themselves and others.  “I think that literature is so powerful in helping people understand their own identities and understanding identities different from theirs,” Parton said. “Because story is identity and identity is story.”

The University of Montana’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education assistant professor of literacy education, Stephanie Reid, Ph.D., has included Parton’s program in her spring 2022 young adult literacy and literature class.

Parton’s work, according to Reid and her students, also illustrates the complexities of rural identity.  “My students paid especially close attention to their own assumptions and definitions regarding rural life and living and to how those assumptions were shaped by where they are from and the communities in which they have spent time,” Reid said. “I believe it also heightened their appreciation of the importance of place and the diversity of rural identities and experiences that exist across rural contexts and communities.”

When Reid’s students start teaching in their own classrooms, she hopes that the future teachers will “know and value their students” and that they will “take the time to learn the people and communities that comprise the teaching context.”

Hruby and Reid are inspired by the positive impact that Parton’s program has had on the pupils. “I’m really excited that she’s doing what she’s doing,” Hruby said. “Because it seems like such a small thing, but it’s really going to have a huge impact.”

They also have the hope that Parton’s work will represent a transition in the realm of education, one that will amplify crucial viewpoints and voices from rural areas, moving them from their current position at the end of the line. “Rural educators and students have constructed incredible knowledge, and university personnel should seek to create spaces for these folks to share their knowledge and expertise,” Reid said. “Those from non-rural backgrounds will benefit from listening, reading, and learning.”

The task, for Parton, is far from over. She has the ambition of rewriting and rectifying the definition of “rural” in the minds and emotions of young people all around the nation. “This is what culturally-sustaining teaching in a rural capacity would look like,” Parton said. “Being critical of rural places and not looking at them through rose-colored glasses, but at the same time helping the things that are really special and unique and important about rural places flourish.”


The following article is paraphrased, its original publication can be found here: https://dailyyonder.com/the-power-of-place-educator-helps-literature-teachers-connect-students-to-their-rural-roots/2022/07/08/