Category Archives: Diversity

Making a Deep Connection

This post is written by member Aaron McNabb. 

aaronmcnabbAs an educator, selecting a book to read for class can be a difficult task. There are so many questions to answer: is it a good fit for my students? What themes do I want to teach? Will my students connect with the story? This barely scratches the surface, and of course there are many other questions that a special education teacher must ask.

Getting struggling readers interested is challenge number one. I wanted a book that students would connect with, that has a strong protagonist, and that is ultimately an interesting story. Fortunately, I found a book that meets many of the criteria I had in mind: The Other Side of the Sky, a memoir by Farah Ahmedi.


Ahmedi experiences unimaginable challenges that many of us in the western world would never encounter. She becomes disabled after stepping on a landmine, and then lives under Taliban rule. During the war between the Mujahideen and Taliban, she loses her family in a mortar attack. To save her life she seeks refuge in Pakistan, but unfortunately, living in a United Nations refugee camp is nearly as dangerous as living in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Ultimately, she comes to the United States, but that brings on a host of other challenges.

I prefaced our study of the book by making sure that students in my class had a solid background on the history and culture of Afghanistan and Pakistan. An understanding of the Taliban, Sharia law, the September 11th terrorist attacks, and UN refugee camps was going to be necessary to understand the book. To become acquainted with the setting and historical context, we read articles about these topics, looked at maps, watched video clips, and examined pictures.

It was eye opening for my students to learn about Sharia law, particularly about how women are treated under such circumstances. According to Ahmedi, after the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, women were required to wear chadaris (or burqas) while in public. The students were shaken to learn that women were denied education, were not allowed to drive, and were not allowed to leave the house without a male escort.

After class one day a student expressed to me how lucky she felt to have access to an education. This wasn’t just a comment to appease me; this struck a deep nerve in her. It’s these exchanges in a classroom that make teaching so worthwhile.

While reading the book, my students marveled at Farah Ahmedi’s resilience and connected to her struggle. One student was a childhood cancer survivor who missed critical years of literacy development in kindergarten and first grade. She was a struggling reader, but Farah’s story brought out a confidence I had not yet seen. She started participating in readings and discussions for the first time all year.

On January 28, President Trump signed an executive order that banned refugees from entering the Unites States. The following Monday students came back to school and were shocked by the news. Coincidentally, we were reading about the vetting process that Farah was experiencing while trying to seek refugee status in America. We discussed how people like Farah were being barred from entering the United States. Emotions ran high in my class, but it was a pleasure watching the passion and connection these students were making between the real world and the memoir they were reading.

We finished the book several days later. Over the course of the reading, students formed a strong emotional attachment to Farah and her story. They wanted to know more and more about her and started asking me questions I could not answer. We looked her up on the Internet and found her website. Ultimately we discovered that she does motivational speeches to students across the country. This was the beginning of our effort to bring Farah to our school. We are fundraising now and getting closer to the goal.

Aaron McNabb is a seventh-grade special education teacher. He teaches English in a pull-out and inclusive model at the Amesbury Middle School in Amesbury, Massachusetts. This is his ninth year working with students with disabilities.

24 most popular books for the African American Read-In

Each February since 1990, communities across the country have gathered to celebrate the African American Read-In. Gathering in schools, libraries, community centers, churches, and homes, people come together to read and discuss the writing of African American authors. After each event, hosts are encouraged to fill out a “report card” that details how many people attended the event and what books were read.

According to reports from the last several years, these twenty-four titles were the most frequently read. We’ll post an updated list of the most popular books from #aari17 after the report cards are all submitted in March.

Doing the Work to Support Transgender Students

This post is written by NCTE member sj Miller.

UPDATE: Watch this CBS news interview with sj Miller from February 23.

In May 2016, federal guidelines were put into place to protect transgender student rights. As of last night, these guidelines were revoked, leaving uncertainty about what trans students’ rights will be in schools.* Regardless of the actions of the new administration or any Supreme Court ruling, some schools have policies in place that will continue to support the rights of trans students. In fact, where state and local laws or protections protect trans students, federal protections are eroded. But protecting these rights is critical and there are things we can do as educators to take action immediately.

The model of support for transgender youth detailed below offers suggestions for doing the work.
A framework for supporting transgender students by sj Miller.

Community Work

In each of our different communities, whether locally, nationally, internationally, cyberspace, and/or across contexts, we can take up the work of acting on behalf of transgender students’ rights. This work can be done by different and cross-age levels, as well as by, with, and for different stakeholders:

  • Coalition Building: We can create different kinds of coalitions and for different purposes (e.g., local, state, and/or national policy advocacy; body safety; documentation; physical and mental health care; immigration/asylum rights) and work together in our communities, as well as uniting with different constituents across our states and the country.
  • Protest and Demonstrations: We can walk in the streets, gather in airports, speak out, speak up, be loud, be concise, be where we need to be, and stand in solidarity.
  • Sing and Chant: We can remind ourselves and one another of the important quotes and turns of phrase that inspire us.
  • Revisit the Visionaries: We can reread (or read for the first time) works of the great thinkers, activists, spiritual guides, artists, etc., who can help to guide each of us down these roads that we are co-creating.
District and School Work

In our schools and districts, we can work to teach, affirm, and recognize dynamic, expansive transgender and gender creative youth (Miller, 2016) in our program areas, departments, and across schools with different constituents and for different stakeholders. The work can also be taken up at the state level. The following means are provided as possibilities for taking up this activism:

  • Curriculum and Pedagogical Strategies: Include a continuum of possibilities that makes (a)gender ordinary in the classroom. This can include but not be limited to genres of books, plays, short stories, poetry, writing assignments, histories, political victories, trailblazers, photos, pictures, artists, musicians, athletes, varieties of professionals, and media icons. Students (all stakeholders) should have ample options for chosen names, (a)pronouns, and (a)gender identifications.
  • Connect to Community Organizations: Address transgender, (a)gender, and gender violence (through, for instance, rape crisis centers, LGBT or gender identity nonprofits, mental health and health care practitioners) to develop a deeper understanding of the issues facing transgender and (a)gender youth.
  • Families: Work alongside families to learn from and with their experiences and to develop support groups.
  • District Curriculum Specialists: Work alongside classroom teachers to educate one another about the classroom and schooling experiences of transgender and (a)gender youth.
  • Change and Update District and School Policies: Revise codes of conduct, enumerate bullying policies, create safe bathrooms and locker rooms, consider issues about participation in sports and physical education classes—all of these are typical spaces for extreme harassment, so reflect on how to create a school environment that can help to foster external safety.

In university spaces, activism can be embedded in our program areas, departments, colleges, and across campus in different organizations and with different constituents and stakeholders. Universities can do this work across their state, national, and international affiliates and college campuses by creating focus groups and coalitions. Potential groups for embedding this work include:

  • Preservice Teacher Education Cohorts: Introduce (a)gender identity topics in early childhood education and throughout elementary, middle, and secondary coursework and across disciplinary programs. Program leaders should decide in which courses such uptake would best fit.
  • Teacher Educators: Address gaps in teacher education, working closely to deepen and develop the efficacy of pedagogies through strategies that affirm and recognize the intersectional realities facing transgender and (a)gender youth; work closely with school districts to develop professional learning models that can support curriculum specialists and teachers in their ongoing awareness of how to meet the needs of transgender and (a)gender youth; and create opportunities for participatory action research.
  • Caucuses: Teacher educators, districts, schools, community organizations, and families should caucus with legislatures to change state policy about transgender rights to be more inclusive of health care needs, identification changes, and bullying policies.
Individual Work

Individual actions can include reading the links below, sending them to listservs, making handouts and fliers, writing blogs and op-eds, forming study groups, and speaking up and out at different community, state, and national events, to name a few. Each of the following links is annotated to help explain the important work at hand.

Transgender National Center for Equality: A comprehensive website that provides an overview of current concerns under the Trump administration, tips for strategizing, an overview of current protections, links to key federal and state documents, guidelines for Title IX coordinators, key court cases, and a list of all organizations and key figures who stand with transgender students.

Fact Sheet on U.S. Department of Education Policy Letter on Transgender Students: A document providing an overview of current facts, rights, and exemptions from the law.

Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students: A letter to give out to your peers that explains changes and rights for transgender students under Title IX; this model letter was implemented during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Know Your Rights | Schools: A document outlining the rights of transgender students in schools, how to file a complaint, and who to go to for support.

Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students: The examples in this document show different approaches schools across the country have taken across a range of issues.

Federal Guidance on Bullying and Harassment: Guidance on how to deal with bullying, including gender-based and anti-transgender bullying.

Model District Policy on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students: These detailed policies are from NCTE and GLSEN and include policies that school districts can adopt to support trans students.

Schools in Transition: This is a practical six-chapter guide to help school officials address issues affecting trans students. It covers gender basics; why this work matters; key considerations (e.g., planning, timing, age and grade level, privacy and disclosure, and public and private transitions); key elements and practical tips (e.g., student records and information systems, names and pronouns, dress code, sex-separated facilities, activities and programs, discrimination, harassment and bullying); complex issues; legal landscape; and creating an affirming school for all; it also has a rich resource guide filled with appendixes and practical applications of the chapters:

FAQ on Transgender Students and School Bathrooms: A document that addresses common questions school officials may have about restroom access.

Changes can happen, but it will take a collective to do this work and from within multiple contexts and through myriad means. I hope you will consider passing this blog along to colleagues, listservs, friends, and family, speaking out and up, and if you are teaching, ask your peers and students to write letters in support of transgender youth. As James Baldwin once wrote, “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated,” and we have so, so much work to do and to stay committed to, now and for years, if not decades, to come.

Miller, s. (Ed.). (2016). Teaching, affirming, and recognizing trans and gender creative youth: A queer literacy framework. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

*Special Note: NCTE has joined other education leaders in a joint statement on the administration’s decision to rescind guidance on federal protections for transgender students.

Text Options for the African American Read-In

Quote from Jerri Cobb Scott: It is important for all of us to see ourselves in books.When selecting texts to have as part of African American Read-Ins, many people first think of books or poems. What about using plays or dramas?

The works of playwright August Wilson are a good place to start. His play, Fences, won him critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. It is currently a Major Motion Picture directed by Denzel Washington, and starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Students can read Fences, then watch the film and compare the two.

Sticking with August Wilson and looking at his play, The Piano Lesson, readily invites students to ask a number of questions—big and small—about the characters, setting, conflict, and symbols in the work. After reading the first act, students learn how to create effective discussion questions and then put them to use in student-led seminar discussions after Act 1 and again at the end of the play. Read more in the lesson plan, “Facilitating Student-Led Seminar Discussions with The Piano Lesson.”

This lesson from invites students to explore the things relevant to a character from Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, such as Mama’s plant, to unlock the drama’s underlying symbolism and themes. Students explore character traits and participate in active learning as they work with the play. Students use an interactive drama map to explore character and conflict, and then write and share character-item poems.

If the genre of plays or dramas is too much of a challenge, what if students use both their analytical and creative skills to adapt passages from a novel into a ten-minute play? This lesson plan invites students to read Beloved or another suitable novel. Students then review some of the critical elements of drama, focusing on differences between narrative and dramatic texts, including point of view. They discuss the role of conflict in the novel, and work in small groups to search the novel for a passage they can adapt into a ten-minute play. Students write their play adaptation in writer’s workshop sessions, focusing on character, setting, conflict, and resolution. When the play draft is complete, students review and revise it, then rehearse and present their play to the class. As the plays are performed, students use a rubric to peer-review each group’s work. Because students are responding to a novel with significant internal dialogue and conflict, they are called on to use both analytical and creative skills as they create the adaptation, rather than simply cutting and pasting dialogue.

What dramas or plays written by African Americans have you used?

Cultivating New Voices: A Model of True Academic Fellowship

This post is written by member Joanna Wong. 

joannawongAs a daughter of Chinese immigrants growing up in a working-class Oakland neighborhood in California, I learned to value cultural and linguistic diversity early in life. I also grew up keenly aware of racial and socioeconomic injustices and how these impacted my own and my peers’ schooling opportunities. This consciousness fueled in me a desire to positively affect educational opportunities and academic achievement for historically underserved communities. I began teaching elementary students and participating in educational reform efforts. Feeling as though I held too many unanswered questions, I pursued a PhD in language, literacy, and culture. My research addresses the writing opportunities and experiences of bilingual elementary students as well as teacher preparation to serve culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Days before walking across the University of California, Davis stage in my doctoral regalia, I received notification that I would be joining the 2014–2016 NCTE Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color cohort. While completion of my doctoral degree felt like a monumental achievement, the journey forward remained daunting. However, knowing that I would have the NCTE CNV program to support me over two critical years in my transition from newly minted PhD to (potentially) a new academic faculty member filled me with elation and eased many fears.

Over my fellowship years, this generous community of literacy scholars acted as a vital anchor for me. We convened twice each year, at the NCTE Annual Convention in the fall and on a university campus for the Spring Institute. Our meetings included forums for fellows’ research presentations as well as special topics presentations by mentors and other established scholars. These presentations helped to advance my understanding of research and theories in the field. I valued fellows’ and mentors’ advice, openness in sharing experiences and insights, and constructive feedback to advance fellows’ scholarship.

Another keystone of the CNV program is the partnering of a fellow with an established scholar in the field. Working with Dr. Sarah Warshauer Freedman was a dream come true. I had long admired her scholarship in the field of writing research and writing pedagogy. While I was on the job market during my first fellowship year, Dr. Freedman provided support at all phases of the job search, from reviewing teaching and research statements to helping me to prepare for campus interviews. By fellowship year 2, I had joined the Department of Education and Leadership at California State University, Monterey Bay. During that year, I turned to Dr. Freedman for advice on navigating professional relationships and balancing responsibilities within the university. She also supported me in developing a manuscript from my dissertation that examines the relationship between teacher expectations and fourth-grade bilingual Latinx students’ writing development.

CNV is a family of early and established scholars who actively manifest compassion and cultivate humanizing practices in teaching and learning, in scholarship, and within our academic lives. CNV is a model of true fellowship in the academy. I am so grateful to be part of the CNV family.

Dr. Joanna Wong, assistant professor in the CSUMB Elementary Education Program, is committed to preparing teachers to provide culturally and linguistically responsive language and literacy education to diverse students. She grounds her teaching and research in more than 14 years of experience working as an educator in the Oakland Unified School District.