Category Archives: Advocacy


Why Address Climate Change in the English Language Arts Classroom? Part I

This post is written by members Richard Beach and Allen Webb. This is the first of two parts.

Even with the publication of our book, Teaching Climate Change to Adolescents: Reading, Writing, and Making a Difference (co-published by NCTE and Routledge), we are still asked: why address climate change in English language arts? Isn’t climate change a subject for Earth Science, not English?

Our response is multifaceted:

  • We know global warming is happening and is caused by humans because of scientific findings.
  • We know that climate change profoundly involves
    • history, culture, society, and the social order;
    • understanding the experience of others;
    • reflecting on crucial moral and ethical questions;
    • addressing inequality, racism, and nationalism;
    • and using the imagination to better understand the past, present, and future.
  • We believe that addressing climate change requires students to
    • draw on the literary imagination,
    • critically understand mass media,
    • write creatively and persuasively, and
    • develop an ability to speak out on perhaps the most profound challenge to face the human race and life on Earth.
    • These areall practices found in the English language arts classroom.

After reading a chapter from Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, one of Allen’s English students remarked this past week, “We are in serious trouble. It appears that global warming is much, much, much worse than I originally thought.” For most Americans, including most English teachers, the impact of climate change has not yet really sunk in. The corporate media is not informing us about the problem. Yet, what we do in the next few years will make the difference between the Earth warming 2ºC–the target set by the Paris Agreement—and 4ºC or more.

One of the world’s leading climate scientists has said that the difference between 2ºC and 4ºC is “human civilization.”  In 2016 alone, the earth warmed 0.12ºC so that at that rate, two full degrees can happen in less than 20 years. Although the earth has only warmed 1ºC so far, climate change is already having profound impacts. Massive droughts around the world including in the US and Europe, heat waves, sea level rise, unprecedented human migration, devastating megastorms, and much more is already underway. 20 million people are currently in famine in Africa because of climate-change-related drought, leading to what the United Nations has described as, “the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II.” Serious scientific predictions are that beyond 4ºC, dangerous climate feedback loops threaten the extinction of all life on Earth.

Science without the imagination fails to recognize these impacts of climate change on society, and what can be done to address it. In his endorsement of our book, leading climate-change expert, Bill McKibben (2010), notes the relevance of climate change to English language arts:

The scientists and engineers have done their work, providing a timely warning on climate change and producing the technologies like solar panels that would help take it on.  It is the rest of us that have so far failed, and it’s largely a failure of . . . imagination, precisely the reason we have English class. This book will help many teachers understand their craft in light of the planet’s great crisis.

Responding to Literature

Even though the effects of climate change—rising temperatures, warming/acidification of oceans, sea rise/flooding, droughts, and extreme weather events—are increasingly evident, many people still do not understand the profound implications of climate change, nor do they perceive the need for immediate action. In responding to Romantic poetry and contemporary environmental writers as well as literary works often taught in the secondary curriculum—from The Grapes of Wrath to Lord of the Flies and from The Tempest to Frankenstein or Huck Finn—students are experiencing portrayals of the relationships between human beings and nature.

In reading more contemporary “cli-fi” literature, students are transported into the near and more distant future in which characters are coping with even more extreme adverse climate change effects. For example, in responding to Memory of Water (Itäranta, 2014), students enter into a world in which climate change has led to droughts and wars over water. They empathize with Noria Kaitio, the main character who is a seventeen-year-old living in a Scandinavian country. Noria has studied to become a tea master like her father, so she knows the location of hidden water sources. When her father dies, she acquires knowledge of a secret spring, but the army also learns that there is a spring and seeks to imprison her unless she reveals the location. Through the novel, students experience a future world coping with drought, a condition already impacting much of the Mideast, Africa, and India and forcing people to migrate to other parts of the world.

There are also many accessible, impactful works of climate fiction appropriate for secondary students, including three recent short story collections:

– Martin, M. (Ed.) (2011). I’m with the bears: Short stories from a damaged planet. New York: Verso.

– Milkoreit, M. (2016). Everything change:An anthology of climate change fiction. Tempe: Arizona State UP.

– Woodbury, M. (Ed.) (2015). Winds of change: Stories about our climate. Coquitlam, Moon Willow Press.

Many of these stories have teenage protagonists or raise crucial questions that young people can further explore.


Itäranta, E. (2014). Memory of water: A novel. New York: Harper Voyager.

McKibben, Bill. (2011). Eaarth: Making life on a tough new planet. New York: St. Martins Press.

richard-beachRichard Beach is Professor Emeritus of English Education, University of Minnesota. He is author/co-author of 25 books on teaching English, including Teaching Climate Change to Adolescents: Reading, Writing, and Making a Difference (Routledge) and co-distributed by NCTE, that includes a resource website. Twitter: #rbeach

webb-allen-2Allen Webb is Professor of English Education and Postcolonial Studies at Western Michigan University, USA. He was a former high school teacher in Portland, Oregon. Allen has authored a dozen books, mostly about teaching literature for secondary teachers published by NCTE, Heinemann, and Routledge.  He has also been studying, teaching, and involved in political organizing on climate change for the last five years.  Currently, Allen teaches about climate change in literature, environmental studies, and English teaching methods classes. 


Save Reading, Save the Country

This post is written by member Julia Franks. 

One of my students, a high school senior on his way to Georgia Tech, told me he loved to read as a child and then, as a teenager, began to hate it. He blamed school, and the way his teachers “overanalyzed” literature. (Just to remind you: it’s not unusual for a class to read Hamlet, a four-hour play, and then spend thirty hours talking and writing about it.) Other disaffected readers blame schools’ “terrible books,” including one Stanford graduate who recalls the exact book that made him hate fiction—forever: A Tale of Two Cities.

Some give up sooner. Some have intuited that it’s not the actual reading of Dickens that matters to their grades, but rather familiarity with Dickens’s major themes. And it’s so very tempting to get that information online rather than spending twelve hours reading a book and then constructing your own meaning from it.

We know that non-readers don’t develop the same mental muscles, but there are other reasons why reading isn’t just for the nerds of the world. Our republic provides free education to its citizenry because an informed and intelligent electorate is a public good. Part of getting educated is experiencing other people’s stories. I’m not a Christian, but I identified strongly with the Congregationalist pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Likewise, I aspired to Pi Patel’s transcendent view of suffering in Life of Pi and was moved by Mark Beaver’s conflicted adolescent feelings about Jesus in Suburban Gospel. Because of those books, I have some tiny understanding of the very many ways there are of being a Christian. I could draw similar parallels about being a combat soldier or about being Muslim. By immersing myself in someone else’s story, I’m inhabiting his or her life a little. I’m practicing a different vantage point.

One night last summer, below a dingy Atlanta underpass, a police car pulled in front of mine and stopped, the blue lights flashing into the tunnel. An officer sprang from the car and ran forward into the blackness. Then: sounds of wrestling, moaning, a large soft mass being slammed against the car, the voice of the officer saying, “Stop moving.” He said it four times, each time sounding more as if he were begging. Moments later a tall wiry man sprinted toward my car, blood pouring from a head wound, his eyes dazed with either terror or drugs. The police officer, who was stockier and younger, tackled him, and they both slammed onto the pavement, not five feet from where I sat. The officer wrested the other man’s arms behind him and closed the handcuffs. Then he met my eye for a long moment, his gaze full of uncertainty. He looked Filipino. The man in the cuffs was White.

At first, I tried to square this incident with one of our national narratives, trying to shape my own experience to fit a story I’d already heard. Was it the brutality story? The resisting-arrest story? Racism? Which one was the bad guy?

But, life is not an action movie or a video game where good guys fight evil. There are many other stories out there. And if you’re a reader, you remember Malcolm X’s accounts of police profiling in The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the brutality in American Boys, written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. But here’s the thing: sitting right there in your brain next to those stories are also Edward Conlon’s accounts of NYPD responding to the events of September 11 and Trudy Nan Boyce’s novels of a female officer navigating complicated relationships in the neighborhoods of downtown Atlanta. If you’re a reader, you have a lot more practice holding all those conflicting stories in your imagination at one time. And perhaps you’re more prepared to see nuance.

Recent data show that readers are also better at controlling their own stories, which is an integral part of constructing identity and has given rise to an entire field called bibliotherapy. Think about it. Stories are the way we make meaning. Take any personal crisis you’ve ever weathered, even something as prosaic as a break-up. When it was all over, you built a narrative around it: “First he did this, then I did that.” Cause, effect, cause, effect. You needed that narrative in order to feel as if you understood what had happened—in order to move on.

As a nation, too, we need these narratives. Election results end in an upset, and we spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question why? Or a man walks into a church and opens fire on the congregation. We as a country respond by trying to make a narrative: cause, effect, cause, effect. When we can’t do it, we feel adrift, even despairing. And yes, we’re tempted to oversimplify the story. But the more practice we have at story-making, the more we’re able to construct a nuanced national story.

In my own classroom, I wanted a change, so one spring I offered my AP students a choice. They could read the books on the syllabus, or they could set up reading groups and read twice as many books selected from a list of some 300 great titles. We voted. Forty-nine students out of forty-nine chose to read twice as many books. And—surprise!—they chose door-stoppers they’d long wanted to read (Lord of the Rings! The Fountainhead!) and alternated them with shorter reads (The Road, The Bell Jar, Me Before You). By May, every kid in the class, with one exception, had read twice as many pages as I’d originally planned, and many had read four or five times as  much.

At the end of the year, my seniors’ grades on the national exam were exactly on par with the other AP students in the school. Research data on choice reading, particularly those from linguist Stephen D. Krashen, support this anecdotal evidence.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the classics or the communal reading experience. But kids who have personal reading habits are far more likely to broaden their tastes than those who don’t. They’re also more likely to be reading ten years after graduation.

We have to offer more choice, and we have to set actual time aside in the school day for reading.  (Maybe fewer hours, say, discussing Hamlet?) In this moment in American culture, we need reader-citizens more than ever. Because of that, English departments have the opportunity to be especially relevant in civic life. Some of them are already taking up that challenge.

’Tis a far, far better thing they do.

Julia Franks is a former teacher and an award-winning novelist (Over the Plain Houses from Hub City Press). She now runs a Web application that helps schools track independent reading from grade to grade ( 

Note: Did you find this post interesting? You may like to read this post by Hannah Sislo whose college project focused on ways teachers could include reading choice in the classroom.


What Happened in Your State This May?

This past month, seven policy analysts published reports about what occurred in the following states: Arkansas, Idaho, New York, New Mexico, Ohio and Wyoming.

Higher Education

Idaho: In 60×20 in Idaho: New Community College and Update on Complete College Idaho, Karen Uehling writes that English “remedial” writing courses were “re-conceived as co-requisite courses” rather than as non-credit, pre-composition level classes. Idaho also approved a new community college.

New Mexico: Erin O’Neill describes the New Mexico Budget Standoff on Higher Ed Funding between Governor Susana Martinez and the legislature. Because the governor vetoed the legislature’s tax increases and “in effect defunded higher education,” the New York State Supreme Court heard oral arguments on May 15 to determine whether Governor Martinez overstepped the power of her office.


Arkansas: In Charter School Expansion Proposed, Donna Wake notes that ten more charters were proposed, coinciding with the proposed closing of three schools. Donna also noted that a Walton-controlled entity bought one elementary school and intends to open a charter school.

Idaho: Darlene Dyer reports that Select Idaho K-3 Students Will Take New Reading Test that will “provide teachers … with a better understanding of student reading skills.”

New York: Derek Kulnis files three reports:

Ohio: Robin Holland describes Ohio House Bills 176 and 181-Standards, Testing, and Teacher Evaluation, introduced to eliminate Ohio’s Learning Standards based on the Common Core and implement a new set of standards and assessments.

Wyoming: In Wyoming Enacts “Indian Education for All” Legislation, Tiffany Rehbein shares that Governor Matt Mead signed House Bill 76 requiring all students in Wyoming to learn about the American Indian tribes of the region. Tiffany noted that this “decision aligns with NCTE’s long-standing Guideline on Non-White Minorities in English and Language Arts Materials (1978).

Reading List for Participatory Citizenship

Reading List for Summer in Participatory Citizenship

The following post was written by Pam Allyn and is part of an ongoing monthly series from the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

Reading is one of the best ways for children to step outside of their own lives and gain perspective on the world. An important aspect of participatory citizenship is an openness to other people’s experiences that are different from our own. Books are an important portal into the experiences of others; reading is proven to make people more empathetic. Empathy is an important part of participatory citizenship: participation in society and community, fueled by mutual respect for others. Books can help kids gain awareness of past and present global issues, which can lead to more direct and effective participatory citizenship. Below is a short summer reading list, including different books for all ages, to encourage and foster global participatory citizenship. After each book is a discussion or activity prompt to encourage deeper thinking and action.

lilahs-lunchboxLailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story
by Reem Faruqi K-3

This is a story about a girl who moves from Abu Dhabi to the U.S. It’s not only her first year in a new school, but also her first year fasting for Ramadan. This book addresses Lailah’s mixed feelings about being a new student who practices a religion different than most of her peers. The takeaway message from this book about participatory citizenship is the way in which sharing cultures allows Lailah and the other characters in the book to connect with each other and personally grow. This book is a great read because every child will relate to the themes: feeling out of place, growing up, and the hope that others will understand you. The book demonstrates how sharing your own culture, as well as expressing openness to the cultures of others, leads to joy, harmony, peace, and friendship.

Prompt: Think of something about yourself that your classmates may not know about you and write it on a sheet of paper. Trade papers with a partner and each person illustrates what they learned about their classmate.

fourfeettwosandalsFour Feet, Two Sandals
by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed 1-5

This book is a great way to introduce children to the realities of living in a refugee camp, why people are refugees, and then relate it to their own lives. A ten year old girl named Lina ends up sharing a pair of sandals with a girl named Feroza, since there are not enough sandals for everyone. These two characters experience the hardships of life in a refugee camp: waiting on long lines for water, the hard journey that brought them there, the fear for their futures, no access to education, among other obstacles. This is a book that will get children thinking about the hardships faced by people in other parts of the world.

Prompt: The girls in this book are friends who care about each other. What are some things we already do for our friends to show them we care? What are things we can do in the future?

laststopLast Stop on Market Street
by Matt de la Peña K-2

A book about a boy and his grandmother and their Sunday afternoon routine, Last Stop on Market Street will touch the hearts of children and adults alike. It is also a quiet call to action, inspiring us to be better people, and to do good for others, no matter how much or how little we ourselves have. In the book, CJ and his nana wait for the bus after church, and CJ is curious about his surroundings and his life. The final
stop for the pair is a soup kitchen. Although CJ and nana don’t have as much as some others, volunteering at the soup kitchen is still a priority for CJ and nana. This book will inspire kids to volunteer, and beyond volunteering, teaches all of us how to practice appreciation and gratitude in our everyday lives. Last Stop on Market Street won the 2016 Newberry Medal, was a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book and a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book.

Prompt: Write a list of things we are grateful for in our life. Next, choose one thing on that list and write down how we can express our gratitude. For example, telling our family members we love them, or, sharing our favorite music with a classmate.

henrysfreedomboxHenry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad
by Ellen Levine Gr 2-5

A 2008 Caldecott Honor Book, Henry’s Freedom Box is an important historical picture book. A book about one slave’s remarkable escape from slavery to freedom, Henry’s Freedom Box addresses the hardships of life as a slave and the dehumanization of slavery. Henry is taken from his mother as a child and later separated from his wife and child. This book successfully conveys the pain of Henry’s life and why he risked his life for freedom. This is a great story that can be used to teach children about U.S. history, slavery, and the repercussions that continue to influence our country to this day.

Prompt: How would you feel if you could no longer be with your family? What inspires you about Henry and the people who help him along the way?

I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers Edition)
by Malala Yousafzai, with Patricia McCormick Gr 6 and up

The young readers edition of Malala Yousafzai’s memoir is a must-read for all kids Grade 6 and up. Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban because she and her father advocated for girls’ education in Pakistan. Her memoir not only provides a historical background to the Taliban’s control of her hometown, but also her ongoing fight for education. Yousafzai–a Nobel Peace Prize Winner–is an inspiring figure because she advocates for human rights and education for all. Readers of this moving memoir will learn about middle-eastern politics, what it’s like to live in other parts of the world, and Yousafzai’s social activism. This book is both a call to action and an inspirational account of a young person who works tirelessly for others.

Prompt: Check out Malala Yousafzai’s organization and its tips on how to get involved in the fight for women’s education: hosting a film screening and writing letters to congress are just a couple suggestions.

hateugiveThe Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas Gr 8 and up

This novel is an important read for teens and adults alike. The protagonist, Starr, witnesses the shooting of her friend by a police officer, changing her life forever. Realistically capturing the repercussions of the event, as well as the political and cultural environment of the moment, this book is about far more than one girl’s experience of a tragic event. With its fierce social commentary on race, power, and police brutality in America, The Hate U Give is a textured, profound story of how past and present racism and violence impact lives. Through this perspective, readers will gain awareness about the necessity and importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Prompt: Check out the Black Lives Matter website and see how you can get involved. For something creative, make posters that you would bring to a Black Lives Matter march.

indarknessIn Darkness
by Nick Lake Gr 8 and up

Merging the past and present, In Darkness is a vivid account of one boy’s struggle in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that shook–literally and figuratively–Haiti. Opening as the earthquake hits, the main character “Shorty” nearly dies. Just a teenager, Shorty suddenly feels the presence of the revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the journey of the book unfolds as the past and present influence each other through the lives of these two lives. Readers will learn about the Haitian Revolution, slavery, and the harsh historical realities of colonization, slavery, and natural disasters that led to Shorty’s life in the slums of one of the world’s poorest countries.

Prompt: Research and learn about life in Haiti after the earthquake and the aid responses. Consider how the history of Haiti continues to influence the country to this day.

marchtrilogyMarch Trilogy
by John Lewis, co-written by Andrew Aydin Gr 7 and up

These graphic novels are written by Congressman John Lewis. Together, they comprise the story of Lewis’ life, focusing on his fight for civil rights, beginning with his childhood in rural Alabama. The books continue through his fight for justice through nonviolent protest and the others who dedicated their lives to equality. Culminating in a scene where Lewis receives a Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, this memoir is a piercing reminder of how much work there is still to do. With an informative, inspiring story such as this one, young people will have the tools necessary to continue Lewis’ mission. The third book in the trilogy won this year’s National Book Award for young people’s literature.

Prompt: Think of a cause you are passionate about. If you were to plan a nonviolent protest to make change in the world, what would you do?


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.