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Spotlight On: Dr. Nick Garcia at the Annual Rural Sociological Society Meeting

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

By Avery Castellani


Just because the academic year isn't in session yet at Washington College doesn't mean our wonderful research team professors aren't making waves elsewhere!


On August 3rd, our resident sociology scholar and data-master Dr. Nick Garcia took the stage at the annual Rural Sociological Society (RSS) conference to share some select significant findings regarding metropolitan vs. non-metropolitan differences in baseline literacy measures. To sate those of us who weren't fortunate enough to be there in-person, I devised a set of questions for Nick about his preparation process, overall experience, and personal hopes re: the data and its impact. You can find all the brain-picking below.


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Q: Have you attended a Rural Sociological Society conference before? If so, how many times?


NG: I've attended 9 of their annual meetings since 2012. As a rural sociologist, I've benefitted immensely from sharing work with peers in the field.


Q: What makes the RSS conference a fitting place for our BoB work to be featured?


NG: There's an "urban bias" phenomenon that typifies studies within social sciences, treating metropolitan centers as the norm for our understanding of the world. The distinction of rural sociologists from mainstream sociology involved challenging this assumption roughly a century ago, asking for consideration of differences across social systems from place to place.


At these annual meetings, rural sociologists share research that dives into community composition, place comparisons, and regional trends. Foundational to Robbi and Matthew's tour is the idea that many schools are left out of exciting literacy programs because of limited resources or geography. Beginning in our rural Chestertown community and ending in Port Heiden, Alaska, they've been immersed in diverse communities, schools, and classrooms that get left out of the national conversation. I can't think of a better place to present the research we've generated from their tour!


Q: What impact do you hope your presentation/the research presented had on those in attendance? What do you hope the audience took away from it?


NG: [The] presentation involved a quantitative analysis of 24 schools that Robbi and Matthew visited, specifically asking whether there were differences in student literacy attitudes and behaviors across places. Our research is unique— not only in sampling from understudied schools, but in comparing something beyond standardized state-assessment tests.


Among rural sociologists and scholars of educational inequity, there are real problems with using standardized test results to capture literacy. When we think about promoting "literacy," is that the same thing as promoting "standardized test scores"? Or are we also interested in how young learners feel about reading or whether they're reading regularly? Moreover, I think we're deceiving ourselves if we think improved test-taking is the same as improved literacy. So when we allowed students to report their literacy attitudes and reading behaviors, we were able to make meaningful comparisons about literacy across places. We could now answer how differences in class sizes, hunger, or teacher experience relate to student literacy attitudes and behaviors.


Those in attendance saw a number of statistical models describing factors contributing these differences. But the major takeaways were twofold: First, our data indicates that, despite having lower standardized test results than their metropolitan counterparts, students in more rural schools were reporting more positive attitudes about literacy and reading more regularly. After attending presentation after presentation contrasting predicaments of poverty or hunger in rural America with cities, the audience welcomed a "win" for these regions. But it also fostered discussion about the second major takeaway: Without actually studying the diversity of schools across the nation and scrutinizing our standardized questions, we would never hear about this distinct excitement for reading in small towns and rural communities.


We're all learning about how to reconcile community conditions, school resources, and the attitudes and interests of young learners. I think it's important that we pay attention to how decisions of a teacher, programs at a library, or childhood hunger can each matter to a child's literacy in a way that transcends test scores.


Q: What was the "road" to this presentation like? What did you learn about our research as you prepared your materials?


NG: Preparing for RSS provided the first opportunity for me to incorporate community conditions into our analysis of student surveys. Before RSS, our group was primarily focused on the impact of Robbi and Matthew's visit itself on students. When I was able to connect data from US Census, USDA, and Department of Education to specific schools and neighborhoods, it was revelatory.


My former advisor used to describe running through the data analysis as "reading the tea leaves" after months of wondering "What if?" explanations. Although I knew a lot about diversity of schools and places on the tour, I was surprised by how distinct schools actually were from one another. I'm always wary of reducing real people and experiences to numbers. In this case, the numbers clarified patterns to show what united different clusters of schools. It's easy to get lost in details of what constitutes a large classroom versus a small one, or to make distinctions in childhood hunger from place to place. Looking across these schools, I was amazed to see "sister schools" from drastically different regions of the United States, but unified in having ambitious teachers and eager students.


Q: As a final reflection on this experience, what are you looking forward to in the future? Where do you hope to see this data go/What do you want to see it achieve?


NG: Our team has grappled with an ever-growing list of questions to tackle, and I'm haunted by how few hours there are in a day! I think I can safely say that our first priority is to get findings into the hands of teachers. Speaking with a number of teachers from the tour, it's been clear that there are a wide variety of ways the data can work for them. Within classrooms, this can impact curriculum and teaching strategies. Seeing relationships between reading, writing, and drawing, for instance, opens doors to activities where these build from one another. Capturing changes in student attitudes from one grade level to the next can also help teachers anticipate challenges or take advantage of opportunities across stages of child development.


But outside of the classroom setting, I believe teachers would want this data because it can show the world something that they've wanted people to hear: Teachers have been promoting literacy in unique ways and are fostering real interest from children, but impactful events like book tours are too often directed at schools with the most resources. These teachers and students deserve the world, and I'd like to see this data be used to advocate for our Title I schools.


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Thank you again to Nick for the wonderful insight into this experience and for all the hard work you do!

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