Connections Outside of the Driftless, Recognizing Leadership, Rural Schools Advocacy

Interview with Sky Marietta — PRTP31



On April 12th, the UW-Platteville School of Education hosted the Rurally Responsive Conference, which was sponsored by the Tommy G. Thompson Center for Public Leadership. The conference included a presentation by Dr. Sky Marietta, an assistant professor at the University of the Cumberlands and author of the book “Rural Education in America: What Works for Our Students, Teachers, and Communities.” Sky grew up in Appalachian Kentucky, the fifth of her parents’ seven children. She went to college at Yale, became a teacher on the Navajo Nation, and then received her doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in child development with a focus on language and literacy. Today’s interview is just a short snip-it of what she shared on campus. Be sure to check our show notes at for a link to her full presentation at UW Platteville from the 12th.


Brogley: What inspired you to write a book about rural education in America?

Marietta: I think, if you think about a book on rural education, the interesting thing is, is the start of it was actually publishers at Harvard Press. They came initially, actually to my husband, and he said, “Well I’ve got to include my wife too.” It’s very rural of us, you know, teamwork. Because they perceived there to be such a missing piece on rural schools, you know, this was pre-pandemic. So I think that the conversation has shifted a little bit but, you know, in our country in the last five years, there’s been so much conversation. Actually last eight years there’s been so much conversation about rural, urban divide. And on the downside of that, I think is there some real misperceptions about rural communities, some stereotypes that are going on. But the upside of that is, is that I think there’s a new interest in rural communities. Now as somebody who was a teacher in rural schools who researched education, especially literacy development, I was always very concerned with how missing rural communities and rural students are from our policy, from our research, from our pedagogy, frankly. You know, I went to a teacher-ed program that was in New Mexico on the Navajo Nation, and you wouldn’t have necessarily known that we were just learning. You teach this this way and that way. And it wasn’t necessarily about the community we were in or the students and their needs. And partly it’d be hard to do that because there isn’t really any evidence-based knowledge about how do we teach those particular students and you’ve got to start somewhere. So what we were conceptualizing at the time is something that was really a landscape to let’s just like talk about what’s going on in rural education. Let’s talk about some of the big issues around it. I would say that now that I’m a parent of two children going to a rural school, that also very much motivates me because the quality of education that they get is impacted by our national dialogue around rural education. And I think for our country to move forward and be as healthy and strong as it can be, we need to understand our rural communities and think about that as a starting point for bringing our country more together and be more unified.

Brogley: What do you see are some of the unique benefits of attending a rural school?

Marietta: Well, one of the fun things about writing a book on rural education or living in a rural communities, you actually do get to see that there are a lot of really great and cool things about rural communities. And I think now that we’re on the other side of the pandemic, we are seeing a shift now in our country where more people have realized, oh, I could live more affordably, maybe in a bigger space, or return to more of a subsistence lifestyle and recapture some of those values of eating locally or crafting things myself. So I think we are in a slightly different moment now in our, like, socio cultural history of how we think about rural. But I would say that there are benefits to rural schools that probably a lot of people don’t anticipate because, you know, I have to tell you, I moved to rural Appalachia from Boston and people thought that I was probably throwing my children’s education away. But one of the things that, you know, we discovered in our community and also by looking at various rural communities, as many rural communities have really excellent teachers that are very stable. They’re there, they’re part of the community and a lot of rural communities teaching is one of the few jobs available. So you’ve got these really strong teachers, and they’re actually far more diverse than people might think. Now, there is overall a misperception that all of rural America is very white, and rural America is far more diverse, not only racially, but culturally, politically, any kind of way you might imagine than most people realized. But one thing that’s really cool is when you’re in a rural community, there tends to just be one school and everyone goes there, whether they’re the kid of the town drunk or the kid of the town, politician, lawyer, wealthy person. And this means that you’re actually exposed to so many more different facets of life. And I really celebrate that, especially for my children. They have classmates who go through really difficult, hard things in their families and they learn so much empathy. From that, I think that’s a super valuable experience for them. And they argue about things with their buddies. Because when you live in a rural school, you know you’re going to be friends forever. You’re not going to ever escape that person. So there is an assumption that the relationship will remain intact, and I think that that allows a level of safety a lot of people wouldn’t understand to tackle issues like Black Lives Matter, for example, something that my older son had a lot of very serious discussions with his friends about. They didn’t always agree, but now they’ve been having these discussions for a few years and they’re still friends. And I think that is exactly what our country needs people to be able to come together to talk about difficult things, to do it in a way that maintains the relationship and gives us a deeper understanding of where people are coming from.

Brogley: You spoke quite a bit at our student panel about the value of community and how in a rural area. Celebrating, recognizing, supporting and finding value and I think our, you know, I look at the students that were in that room at that time. I think they do those things and it’s great to hear you speak and support the things we’ve been saying that matters. That tightness matters. The sense of empathy we feel because we’ve known each other since kindergarten. Like all of that really matters. In your book you you talk about a rural-centered approach to serving communities. Can you talk more about that?

Marietta:: Yeah. And I do want to preface it by saying I think a lot of us understandthat in education broadly, we’ve gotten so focused on teach these standards, get these test scores, get them to college and then there’s some kind of black box where that leads to the right career. Then students will have good lives, will make a certain amount of money and. I think we’re now at a place in history where we understand we desperately need all kinds of jobs. We need truck drivers. We need farmers. We need electricians. We need plumbers. Yes, we need people who go to college. But these days, you know, some of the highest paid people I know are actually truck drivers and not necessarily some truck drivers and don’t make more than some doctors that I know. And so things have kind of switched after the pandemic in light of shortages. And, you know, we’ve been so focused on globalization. That I think it’s natural for the pendulum to swing back to more local and taking a rural-centered approach or community-centered approach to me is really about thinking about the strengths of your community. And I know one thing I mentioned to your students is it’s good for our environment, it’s good for our relationships to think about what can we produce locally, what are our strengths locally. So rather than just taking a look at ok, these are just the learning standards we can start to think about. Well, what what is going on in our community? How does that intersect with what’s going on in our classroom? And then a huge thing that I I think about a lot is, well what do we want for our community? What do we hope and how do we start moving that more and more into the classroom. And that is the kind of like empowering, affirming teaching that feels good for people. They know it when they do it. And I think we’ve kind of need to re give people permission. To move in that direction and away from okay, I just have a checklist I need to teach these specific things to get these test scores.

Brogley: What approach do we take with our policymakers, our educational leaders, how do we get them to support our rural schools?

Marietta: Well, I think rural schools are often very misunderstood. Again, we might think of rural as just one kind of monolith and not understand that we have all different sizes of communities with all different kinds of needs. So then the struggle becomes, how do we communicate? How do we share these voices? How do we make our experiences a little bit more visible? I think sometimes we think, OK, policy, politics, all that that’s what they do in cities, that’s what they do at the Capitol. That’s not necessarily what we talk about or think about here. And I think we start small by getting our students engaged in these kinds of conversations, just by practicing with things like debates or writing letters to people or attending community meetings or, again, thinking about how they want to improve the community. And I encourage teachers to see themselves as leaders, to see their students as the community leaders that they’re raising up and that they’re giving the skills to. And to think about their opportunities, maybe they go to a day at the Capitol, maybe they go and meet somebody who’s running for office. Maybe they consider running for office themselves. And those are those moments where we think about broader possibilities, where I think we bring more attention to our local issues that are going on.

Brogley: Civic Engagement.

Marietta: That’s civic engagement, absolutely. I mean, civic engagement is something that’s been very missing from I think a lot like our classrooms and oftentimes our lives, we’ve kind of moved away from thinking, well, what is my duty to our community? How do I contribute? But when we feel like we’re contributing, it’s such a good feeling and it pushes us to be better people and to learn. The one thing I tell people is, you know, I’ve had the great fortune to be able to live in some great cities and to live in some beautiful rural communities. And I currently have chosen to live in a rural community with my family, raise my children in a rural community. And I do think that there are a lot of strengths of living in a rural community that people don’t necessarily know and that we should need to get that pride back, you know, of. We’re proud of where we’re from and what we have to contribute. Cities are great too. I love to visit them, but there isn’t anything shameful about living in a rural community. It isn’t like you’ve made it if you’ve gone to the city. At the end of the day, we’re all people and our goals are really very similar. I believe we really want the same kinds of things for our children. So I think we need to be the rural people we can be leading this push away from, this rural urban divide, that kind of idea and pushing towards something that feels. More integrated, more collaborative.

Brogley: Would you say where you’re from in rural areas that you have traveled to that the school is the backbone of the community?

Marietta: Oh, absolutely. And you know, I mean I mentioned before that I work, I taught at a school in the Navajo Nation during its last year when it closed. And it was heartbreaking because not only was there the loss of all those jobs that were part of the school which were really economically holding out the community, but it was a more remote community. And so it’s really an enclave of the Denae language or Navajo language and traditions and that’s often true of our more remote communities And then when the school closes it that, that there’s a loss there. The community feels it. The children feel it. You know, they have to then travel much farther to go to school. And you know, I’m not going to say it’s always bad to consolidate, especially for older students, But I think especially when our elementary is close and our young children are, you know, really have to travel farther and go to something more unfamiliar. And there’s the economic loss. They might have parents who were once paraprofessionals or teachers or administrators or cooks or whatever it might be. That really can hold a school together. So you know it is very serious when the school closes and something I think we need to be very careful and deliberate about and when possible fight like Badgers. I guess it’s for Wisconsin to keep them alive.

Brogley: The loss of that is traumatic.

Marietta: Yes.

Brogley: And I would think investing in your physical structure, right, of the school, but also what it has to offer for our rural communities, supports those kids who are going to turn around and probably live in that same community. Would you agree with that?

Marietta: Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, I’m, I’m like you. When I was a kid, I did not feel great about where I came from. To me, success was getting out of town. I thought I would never come back. And I think we think about it that way. We’re like, OK, people leave. They’re gone. And it isn’t dichotomous like that. Sometimes people do come back later. I was when I moved back to Appalachia where I had grown up, you know, and it wasn’t what I expected. But at different stages of life are called to different things. We prioritize different things and communities do change over time. So I think when we close the school, we’re kind of saying, well, we’ve given up on this community and we don’t know what might be ahead that might cause a resurgence that we might be part of that that student might lead, that that child might lead. So I think we have to keep in mind this big picture that that what is happening today is real, but it doesn’t mean that’s going to be the future. We might find a future where. You know, right now we have these huge agrotech farms, but there might be a future where it returns back to small farms again. And we can keep that kind of hope or those kinds of ideas alive and keep, you know, our compass pointed towards our biggest, our biggest dreams for our community and not give up on it.

Broglye: Absolutely. If people wanted to learn more about you and your work, where can I find you online?

Marietta: Well, my website is You can also find the book Rural Education in America. It’s on Amazon. It’s on Harvard Education Press’s website, and they’re the publishers of it. And just so people know what a Moonbow is, we have this cool thing where I’m from, where there’s a beautiful waterfall called Cumberland Falls. There’s only two places in the whole world where every full moon there’s actually a rainbow over the waterfall made by the moon. And one of those is in Eastern Kentucky. So I love the idea of Moonbow. I’m like, these are the small, special things. About our rural communities that are just really neat. And I feel like it. It symbolizes and that’s why I love coming here. It’s like there are cool things here and it’s so neat to get to go and rediscover these parts of America that are so authentic and so real and far away from these sort of everyday kinds of experiences that you can just get at the box store or at the theme park.

Brogley: Thank you for your time. I appreciate it. Yeah. Thank you. OK, let

Brogley: Be sure to check our show notes for a link to Sky’s presentation as well as a Q&A conversation with Dr. Doug Adams while she was at the University of Wisconsin Platteville for the Rurally Responsive Conference on April 12th, 2023. The event was sponsored by the Tommy G Thompson Center on Public Leadership. To learn more about the Center on Public Leadership, visit