Category Archives: Advocacy


Children of Incarcerated Parents and Academic Success

This post is written by member Megan Sullivan. 

This blog post is about the complex relationship between a parent’s incarceration and a child’s academic success. For me this relationship is personal and scholastic.

I was in fifth grade when my father, a lawyer, received a two-to-five year prison sentence for larceny. Although my family was confronted with the same challenges other families face when a parent is incarcerated (i.e. housing and food insecurity, inadequate heath care, childcare challenges, etc.), we also had considerable privilege. My family was white, and despite our financial ruin we were able to remain in our middle-class community. We roamed safe neighborhoods and attended established schools. My five siblings and I had a great mother, and we had each other. For these reasons it’s easy to see my father’s incarceration in isolation, or as that which did not directly impact my educational opportunities. It would be easy to see it that way, but that would be a mistake and a missed opportunity.

Upon reflection, and as an educator, I can see there are one or two obvious ways my father’s incarceration impacted my siblings and me in school. Those first few weeks and months after my father’s arrest in 1975 were confusing and chaotic. I cannot imagine we performed well academically during this period. My mother, a formerly stay-at-home parent, was immediately thrust into a difficult and low-paying workforce. She had no time to supervise homework or attend parent-teacher conferences. There are also less obvious, less easy to quantify ways we were impacted. My siblings and I were overwhelmed by our new (and lasting) financial difficulty; we were distressed by our father’s absence and our mother’s struggle to provide; and we were burdened by the need to be too responsible too early. Finally, we remained simultaneously grateful to our private Catholic school for offering us free tuition and quieted by this charity.

In 2017 there is still no straight line of evidence between a child’s academic success and a parent’s incarceration, but our research is getting better.  We know there are approximately 2.7 million minor children in the United States who currently have a parent in prison or jail. We know these children are at a greater risk for feelings of shame, guilt or anger; that they suffer more from stigma and may have an impaired ability to cope with future stress and trauma; we know they often have poor school performance, but we are just now unpacking why this is the case.

A recent study has found that although maternal incarceration is not initially associated with lower retention rates in elementary school, three years into a mother’s incarceration higher rates of retention creep up. Another study found detrimental effects on cognitive outcomes for middle school boys and girls who had incarcerated parents but suggested this may be because of socioemotional problems that affect cognitive skill acquisition. Finally, there is a fair amount of literature that finds school-aged children are impacted by teacher and peer stigma when a parent is incarcerated.

So what is a teacher to do? Parental incarceration in considered an adverse childhood experience, or as an experience – like trauma, abuse, or parental divorce – that can impact a child long after an event occurs. For this reason in my writing and in my professional development work with schools, I encourage teachers to understand how and why parental incarceration might impact children and then to give that child the same educational opportunities they would any other child. In order to remind teachers of what they can do, I encourage them to ABC Teach Students.

Acknowledge there may be students in your classroom that may have parents in prison. Given that 2.7 million minor children currently have a parent in prison, you are likely to have some of these children in your classrooms and schools. Be mindful of this possibility.

Books can be lifesavers – include at least one or two books in your classroom or school library that speak to the reality of parental incarceration. I just wrote Clarissa’s Disappointment to help students. My book is a middle grade reader focusing on a young girl who deals with various emotions when her father returns home from prison. The book also contains resources for teachers and schools. In Clarissa’s Disappointment Clarissa must contend not only with her own feelings, but also with the fact that she is stigmatized by her classmates.  You can find other book titles here.

Conference creatively – both in your writing conferences with students and when it comes to parent-teacher conferences, think creatively. When students in your Language Arts classes are writing persuasive letters and you know a child in your classroom has an incarcerated parent, ask if he or she would like to mail his/her letter to the parent. Some schools have arranged video conferences between classroom teachers and parents in prison. Be creative about how parents and children might communicate.

Teach Students – In social studies classes or on International Children’s Rights Day broaden classroom discussions of children’s rights. San Francisco Partnership for Children of Incarcerated Parents created a Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents. Ask students to talk about why a separate bill of rights for children of incarcerated parents might be necessary.

This memory trick, ABC Teach Students, is meant to remind teachers that there are things they can and should learn about children of incarcerated parents, but after that, they should just teach them – just like they would all students.

Megan Sullivan is Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning at Boston University’s College of General Studies. Her most recent books include Parental Incarceration: Personal Accounts and Developmental Impact and Clarissa’s Disappointment And Resources for Families, Teachers and Counselors of Children with Incarcerated Parents.


NCTE’s Statement on the President’s Proposed Budget for FY18

This spring NCTE’s elected leaders developed a set of federal budget recommendations that align with our organizational values and priorities. The White House’s proposed cuts, announced yesterday, are in direct opposition to those recommendations.

We are deeply concerned about the effect the proposed diversion of Title I funds will have on public schools and the fact that this budget eliminates two programs central to NCTE’s members:

  1. The White House is calling for the elimination of Title II funding that supports teacher recruitment and professional learning.
  2. This budget also cuts funding for the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) program, which is the only literacy funding available to states that focuses on support for the reading and writing instruction of children from birth to grade 12.

In addition, the White House is proposing cuts that will impact students seeking higher education. These cuts, along with the proposed investment of $1 billion for school choice, go against our policy recommendations. As stated in our recommendations for this year:

“The federal government must help assure access to a quality public education so that all citizens are prepared to participate in a competitive economy and a strong democracy.”


Real Teaching in a Time of Fake News

This post is written by NCTE historian Jonna Perillo. 

You may have noticed the attention that fake news is receiving in the English classroom. A 2016 Stanford study revealed that today’s K–12 students, while digitally literate in many senses, lack the ability to distinguish fake news from real, instead trusting whatever source confirms their existing beliefs. Motivated by classroom experiences that echo the Stanford findings, educators are rethinking many of the traditional methods and mantras of teaching students to evaluate news sources and developing more sophisticated means of teaching media literacy and the evaluation skills that will benefit students in many aspects of their lives in and outside of school.

Fake or misleading news is nothing new. Nor is teachers’ advocacy around the issue. In the midst of World War II, NCTE took on Reader’s Digest for what some journalists and teachers saw as the magazine’s unspoken rightward bent. The stakes were high: the magazine’s circulation jumped from 4 to 9 million during the war.  In addition, it sold millions of copies of its school edition to classrooms across the nation.

Critics of the Digest, including teacher and NCTE member Samuel Beckhoff, reproached the journal for republishing conservative news sources far more often than liberal ones, including a high percentage of articles that were anti-New Deal, anti-labor, and anti-United Nations.[1] The NCTE Committee on Newspapers and Magazines was charged with investigating the Digest further.  It seconded many of Beckhoff’s findings, but the NCTE Executive Committee overrode its report in November 1944, in part because the magazine by that time had responded to the organization’s criticisms.  In the months since the investigation began, the school edition changed to include a more balanced selection of articles and a more complete list of further recommended readings. The Digest had become a better resource for “an education program which aim[ed] to develop fair-mindedness and straight thinking on controversial questions.”[2]

What the Executive Committee did not address was what made the Digest so attractive to many teachers and problematic to others: its abridging and republishing of primary news sources.  It assembled a wider collection of readings than any other news publication in the pre-Internet age, but it also offered, in Beckhoff’s terms, “precooked and predigested” news that allowed readers to “relax into a comfortable groove.”[3] This may have been the experience millions of Americans were looking for in their recreational reading, but it could present a challenge to teachers trying to form more alert and thoughtful students.

The story of NCTE and Reader’s Digest anticipated what teachers struggle with today: students who read only partial versions of stories or events without fully realizing it, who forget to question what is left out of any account, and who approach their sources with unearned trust rather than a critical eye. NCTE’s strategy then was to change the source; today we look to change the reader.

The good news is that studies have shown that teachers who invest time working on media literacy with their students produce readers who are 26% more likely to be able to discern fake news from real. Sources that end in .edu or .gov always can be trusted, right? Wrong. Teachers are working on ever more specific ways of thinking about how information gets reported and circulated, how evidence gets used or exploited, and how Internet search engines organize news stories in ways that can mislead passive readers. If the percentage of students who gain from these lessons is still lower than many of us would like, the quality of instruction teachers have developed around the issue is to be applauded, adopted, and further adapted.

As in the 1940s, there is a need for broader NCTE action against fake news.  NCTE has already begun to advertise teachers’ best work in this area.  It can be additionally helpful in connecting teachers to the resources news organizations are producing. But NCTE must also stand as a collective voice and advocate for media literacy. Most academic standards address media literacy, but often in ways that are too cursory for the challenge at hand. Too often teachers limit instruction in evaluating sources to a single research assignment rather than a regular practice, something that is unlikely to make an impact. Teachers must have the room, resources, and, perhaps most important, preparation to address fake news in the English classroom, and NCTE is well-suited to argue why this is and how to get there.

At a time when the curriculum is narrowing, arguing for more is no small achievement, even if we understand that the end result will yield better readers and writers. But if a political and media culture in which seemingly anything goes has shown us anything, it is that we must argue for more instruction in media literacy with conviction all the same.

[1] Samuel Beckhoff, “The Rainbow,” English Journal 32.6 (June 1943), 325–330.

[2] Board of Directors Meeting Minutes, November 1944, p. 293, Series 15/70/001, National Council of Teachers of English Archives.  Other documents related to the Reader’s Digest debate can be found on the NCTE archives webpage:

[3] Beckhoff, 325.

Jonna Perrillo is associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and the Battle for School Equity.


Advocating for Newcomer Students by Seeing Their Strengths

This post is written by member Mary Amanda “Mandy” Stewart. 

Newcomers represent one of the fastest growing populations in US secondary schools. Coming from other countries, they join us in the ELA classroom with the obvious need to learn English.

English instruction is what they need the most, right?

When I began my career at a newcomer center, that’s exactly what I thought. However, after learning with and from these students for many years, I’ve determined that what they need most is for me to change my view of them. I can become so focused on their need to learn English, and my job to teach it, that I completely overlook their strengths.

How did I change my perspective? I began to understand their lives through their own voices by asking questions, listening, and then listening even more. Now I view the English classroom as an optimal environment where we can name and leverage the many strengths of students learning English for their academic success. I’ve identified five main areas of these hidden strengths that might allow us to be their advocates by seeing them as more than students learning English.

Students in the G.O.A.L. program (Guys and girls Operating As Leaders)

Multiple Languages: Students learning English will already have oral literacy skills in at least one other language. They might also possess reading and writing abilities in their other language(s). Many newcomers engage in language brokering, or translating, for their families, adding to their growing linguistic toolkit. Learn about their multiple language abilities and ask them to use their oral or writing skills in all of their languages for a class project. Choose to see them as multilinguals in all facets of the ELA curriculum.

G.O.A.L students

Desire to Learn & Dream: Sometimes it is a lack of previous opportunity and other times it’s simply a determined spirit, but most newcomers are hungry to learn, particularly English. Yet many of these students do not know how to check books out from their school library. Some assume there is nothing there they can read. Make sure you provide them access to large quantities of engaging and comprehensible literature in English and their first language that they can take home regularly. Ask them about their dreams and help them understand the practical steps they can take to achieve those dreams. You might be surprised by what you hear!

G.O.A.L students


Character: Many of these young people possess remarkable character. In Spanish this can be referred to as educación and manifests itself in the respect they show their teachers, others, and themselves. It is also evident in their work ethic, which extends beyond the classroom. Because their parents are usually working, many of the newcomers I’ve interviewed take care of younger siblings after school, frequently while completing household chores such as cooking dinner. I’m also surprised at how many students maintain part-time and sometimes even full-time jobs. They are eager to earn money to support themselves in the United States and often send some of that money to family in their home countries. We can learn about their lives outside of school, acknowledge their hard work, and look for ways to bring these experiences into our classroom.

G.O.A.L students

Transnationalism: Newcomer students will have lived in at least two countries—sometimes more. They maintain ties to their country in various ways—through actual visits, online social networking, talking to friends via apps, and viewing media from their home country. They regularly cross borders, whether physically, digitally, or culturally, on a daily basis, nurturing skills needed for an interconnected world. Their unique perspectives and international sources of information can greatly enrich your English classes. As you invite their transnational skills into your classroom, it can become a place of global learning for all your students.

G.O.A.L. students

Commitment to a Community: The newcomer students I’ve worked with are usually very committed to others in their various communities—fellow newcomers, friends, or family members. I often observe them helping one another in class, and they are eager to offer something to other students, such as world language tutoring. They regularly sacrifice their own free time to contribute to their family unit or to other students in the class. This can lend itself to excellent collaborative groups in the classroom and will work toward fostering a true literacy learning community. This trait will also go a long way in developing newcomers’ roles as productive citizens in their schools, communities, and society.

 These are the five primary hidden strengths I’ve seen in the lives of newcomer students. Yes, they need to learn English, and it is our job to facilitate that growth, yet our greatest tool could be acknowledging and leveraging the many notable traits and skills they already possess. If you want to be your immigrant students’ advocate in a culture of growing xenophobia, dare to make visible their strengths in the ELA classroom and beyond.

Mary Amanda (Mandy) Stewart (@drmandystewart) is a faculty member in the Department of Reading at Texas Woman’s University, and her work with newcomers appears in Research in the Teaching of English and English Journal. She loves learning with multilingual/multicultural students and is the author of Understanding Adolescent Immigrants: Moving toward an Extraordinary Discourse for Extraordinary Youth (Lexington Books).


Sneak Preview of May EJ: Textual Revolution: Reading and Writing the Word and the World

The following post is by Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski, NCTE members and editors of the English Journal.

Words matter. Oral traditions of Indigenous peo­ples sustain connections to land, cultural traditions, and historical accounts. Written language in the Declaration of Independence set in motion colonial liberation from England. And digital speech has the capacity to create swift social movements across vast distances.

Laws are written in words. Justice and op­pression are reinforced through language; words inspire hope and cause despair. Many ideas are born in and nurtured through language. Words offer a means of sharing dreams. Words also transmit ha­tred and incite violence. Words can spread love and foment malevolence. Words can bridge differences and build walls.

English teachers work in the world of words. Our practice involves immersing learners in lan­guage and ensuring that they are buoyed by pow­erful texts. We hope to teach them to consume and produce words, and to understand reading and writing are as natural and necessary as breathing. But words are not air; people can survive without exercising the power of language. And danger exists in such defenseless survival. Societies that cede the power of words to leaders risk both integrity and liberty. When “alternative facts” drive policy deci­sions, the public suffers. The path toward justice recedes. Words become weapons of domination.

Educators have the capacity to teach language as a tool of transformation. Poets are protesters. Authors reveal dystopian and utopian possibilities through literature. Journalists are soldiers in service of truth. In our classrooms, students can be poets, authors, and journalists. We can teach them to dis­cover the multiple meanings in texts and to contest propaganda with truths. Teachers can model reflec­tive, critical consumption of texts, as well as coura­geous production of essential dissent.

In this issue, authors explore how textual rev­olutions occur within and stretch beyond classroom walls. They investigate how texts have evolved and reflect on how this evolution influences how learn­ers experience language as an instrument of su­premacy or resistance.

Our learners are tomorrow’s leaders. They will invent textual applications beyond our imag­ination, but only if we teach them that they can. They will use words to challenge inequities and advocate for justice, but only if they learn to ex­ercise the power of language. As English teachers, we are charged to cultivate skills and foster dispo­sitions. Learners deserve the capacity and the desire to use language as a means of personal enlighten­ment and social transformation. We can embrace the evolution of discourse and teach students to re­flect intentionally on how language affects human­ity. Reflection, coupled with evolution, can lead to revolutionary textual practices, uses of words that can change the world.

Language matters to us, and it matters to our students. If we do our work well, today’s learners will know that words are a matter of life and death.

JulieGorlewskiJulie Gorlewski is chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Commonwealth University.

DavidGorlewskiDavid Gorlewski works with preservice and practicing teachers and conducts research on literacy and professional dispositions.  Both are former English teachers and members of NCTE, Julie since 2004 and David since 2001.