Reflections on Rural Author Visits | An Interview with Laura Parker

As part of Allison Strange’s win of the Rural Teen Writing Contest, her creative writing class, led by her teacher, Laura Parker, received an author visit from multiple award-winning author Jeff Zentner (The Serpent King, In the Wild Light). I was fortunate enough to get to sit in on that virtual visit and hear his talk to and with the students as he shared how he became a writer, why rural stories matter, and answered their questions.

In his talk with the class, Zentner shared with the young writers his journey to publishing and the importance of overcoming obstacles in pursuit of art. Some of the biggest obstacles Zentner described were knowing that rural people have important stories to tell, believing that rural people can be published writers, and getting over the fear of “being seen to fail”. After sharing his story, Zentner fielded questions from the teens about his writing process, how to get published, and where his ideas come from.

The students asked wonderful questions, and their nerves and thoughtfulness reminded me of the importance of author visits to rural schools, which, unfortunately, don’t happen all that much. I remember having convocations as a rural student and teacher, but I don’t remember a single one featuring a rural person who was an author and told authentic (award-winning) rural stories like Zentner does.

After the visit, I followed up with Laura Parker, to interview her about the contest and Zentner’s visit. Here’s what she had to say about teaching rural, students’ participation in the contest, and the author visit.

CP: Where are you from (i.e., do you identify as rural) and how do you think that impacts you as a teacher in a rural area?

LP: I grew up in rural Western North Carolina near a small town. I teach in the same county where I grew up, but the school where I work is located in a more rural area of the county. Since I grew up in the area, I feel that I can connect to my students’ life experiences and viewpoints. Like many of my students, I loved to read and write stories and dreamed of traveling to Europe. As exciting as those things were, they also seemed so out of reach at times. I’m so thankful that my parents saved money and sent me on a trip to Europe when I was in high school because that helped open up what I believed was possible and expanded my world. Since that trip, I’ve traveled and had amazing experiences from staying with a family in a tiny Senegalese village to getting my master’s degree in French.  Despite all the experiences I had that took me beyond the community I grew up in, it’s still deceptively easy to think that some things are just for other people. One experience that opened my eyes to this mindset was when Beth Revis, one of my friends and co-workers at my high school, signed with a literary agent and began a career as a full-time writer. I had always loved the idea of writing, but like Jeff Zentner mentioned in his talk, I always felt books were written by other people, not people from here. Seeing Beth, who is also from rural Western North Carolina, succeed finally removed that blind spot for me and made me realize that my students also probably have that blind spot or mindset at times. These experiences made me realize that as a teacher one of my jobs is not just to teach skills and develop students’ abilities, but to also nurture the belief that their dreams are possible and show them people like them who have achieved those dreams.

CP: How would you describe students’ experiences with the contest?

LP: My students are sometimes hesitant to share their writing with a larger audience beyond our classroom. However, with the Literacy in Place contest, they were interested and excited that the theme and contest itself connected to their lives as teens in a rural area. 

CP: What feels important to you about students’ participation in the contest and opportunity to tell rural stories?

LP: The Literacy in Place contest is one of the best writing contests that I’ve ever found for my students. The fact that the contest focused on giving rural teens a chance to tell their own stories about life in rural areas made it the perfect contest. Not only did the contest validate my students’ ability as writers, but also validated the importance of their lives as rural teens.

CP: What did you enjoy most about Jeff Zentner’s visit to your school/classroom?

LP: I’ve read most of Jeff Zentner’s books and even shared excerpts with my writing students. I think Jeff is an amazing writer and has such a wonderful story to share with students about becoming a writer and sharing stories that are set in rural areas. When I read Jeff’s books, the characters always remind me of students I have taught in one way or another and that realism of rural teenagers and how important their stories are is something I was so grateful to share with my students.

CP: What did students seem to enjoy most about it and/or what did they walk away with?

LP: Most of the students really resonated with Jeff’s story of following his creative passion and not giving up when his music career didn’t go the direction that he wanted. A few even looked up his music and are already fans. The passion Jeff has for following dreams definitely rubbed off on my students and encouraged them with their own writing plans. In the days after the meeting, I provided my students with a few writing contests to consider and more students than normal were interested in applying.

CP: What advice or suggestions do you have for rural teachers and/or rural young folks who are thinking of participating in the contest?

LP: I would suggest lots of encouragement. Allison was so surprised that she won and never thought that she could win even though she is a very good writer. I think as humans we have a fear of failing or thinking that we will never win. There is always a chance and trying to nurture that chance will help students like Allison enter the contest.

I have already given out the prompt for next year’s contest so that students can go ahead and start brainstorming and writing. That also gives me more time to help students who need peer review or revision help.

CP: Anything else you want to say about the Rural Teen Writing Contest and/or Jeff’s visit?

LP: I am so very grateful that this contest and opportunity was created and shared with my students and my school. I will always treasure the moment that Mrs. Ellis told me that Allison won the contest and seeing the joy on Allison’s face. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had as a teacher.

I’m so glad that Laura’s students enjoyed Zentner’s visit and so excited that she’s already encouraging her students to submit to the second contest cycle when it opens in July. I hope you’ll consider encouraging rural teachers and writers in your lives to do the same!

Laura Parker grew up and still lives in rural Western North Carolina. She is an award-winning French and Creative Writing teacher and loves nurturing the creativity of her students while opening up new worlds and experiences. You can reach out to her at

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