Category Archives: Teaching


Writing Language and Culture

This is a guest post by Ellen Shubich. 

Language changes, as do the “rules” related to its usage.

My sixteen-year-old granddaughter drew my attention to this when she enlightened me about the unspoken rules widely adhered to by teens that apply to the social network she uses.

The directives of social networks have developed over time. For example, I found that My Space, an early network, had very strict indications. According to Clare Stephens,
“You had to put your very best friend in your Top Eight, or you might
as well have told the whole school they were a loser.” “You HAD to
reply ‘thnx 4 that add:)’ when someone added you, and you HAD to
reply to their comments on your page.”

Stephens adds that more recent networks, like Instagram and Snapchat, have their own rules. Instagram users want to have more followers than they follow. They know that to get the most likes, prime posting time is between 5 and 7 p.m.

Snapchatters often take as many selfies as possible, the uglier and weirder the better, rather than the posed snaps that are more customary on Instagram. Teens know to avoid overposting and to maintain streaks, especially long ones. They avoid posting the same content on Instagram, Snapchat, and private messages.

These emerging network directives reflect the social and emotional demands placed on teenagers. Peer pressures, the desire to belong and to be in fashion, and the extensive use of slang are characteristic of this stage of life. Teachers are aware of how these pressures affect class participation, relationships, and work. And as teachers of language, we often draw students’ attention to the types of language used in the different social networks, but I am not sure if we focus sufficiently on the languages’ social and emotional components.

A case in point: As the networks’ rules developed, the language(s) underwent transformations. New words such as Facebook’s unfriend appeared; trolls departed fairytales to do damage in new, more personal venues; emoticons imaged feelings.

Of itself, this is nothing new. Language has always undergone change. Authors from Dickens to Dr. Seuss invented new words we use every day. New words are continually added to the dictionary. James Joyce changed the language by avoiding punctuation, and rap changed the rhythm of language.

No matter what grade or subject we teach, it is essential for students to understand that language is a living entity and the changes it undergoes affect the way we think, feel, and act. The language we use and the accompanying explicit and implicit rules influence social and emotional development. The relationship of language to bullying is a prime example. To be “unfriended” or trolled may be a truly disturbing experience.

It is essential for teachers to introduce this conversation. As we teach language, we are also responsible for the healthy growth of our children. Guiding them toward a deeper understanding of the implications of language is an important step toward that goal.

[1] Stephens, Clare. “There’s an unspoken set of ‘rules’ teenagers religiously follow on Instagram.” MamaMia. N.p., 10 Jan. 2017. Web.

[2] Choi, Mary H. K. “12 Rules for Winning at Snapchat Like a Boss—A Teen Boss.” Wired. N.p., 25 Aug. 2016. Web.

[3] Dickson, Paul. “How authors from Dickens to Dr. Seuss invented the words we use every day.” The Guardian. N.p., 17 June 2014. Web.

 Ellen Shubich was born and raised in the Bronx and moved to Mexico 48 years ago when she married. She has a B.S.N. degree from Cornell University-New York Hospital and a Masters Degree in Educational Administration from the Universidad La Salle. Ellen has held many different positions: nurse, gerontologist, teacher of nursing, English teacher, coordinator, principal (Elementary and Middle School), and English principal. She is married, has a son and daughter and three grandchildren. 


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.


Don’t Forget about the Talk! Boosting Oral Language in Small-Group Reading

This is a guest post by Shannon Croston. 

As a literacy coach in an international school, where almost all of our students are learning English as a second (or third!) language, I often hear this question: How do I foster students’ language development alongside their reading development?

Are you wondering the same thing? Here is one way to do it.



Picture Warm-Up

Start your guided reading or small-group reading lesson with a short, student-led conversation about a picture. Think about the words in the book or text they will be reading that may be new to students or may be somewhat unfamiliar. Vincent Ventura suggests finding a picture that can evoke an emotion or reaction that will give your students the opportunity to use that vocabulary before they jump into the book. It is this emotion or reaction that will start the conversation. Reveal the picture in a dramatic way and then get out of the way. This is a student-to-student talk; no teacher involvement! You may even choose to stand behind the students so they will look and talk to one another. The goal is for them to use whatever words they have independently and to feel confident expressing themselves.

Younger children love funny animal pictures and older students tend to be motivated by surprising action shots. This could be a picture from the book, or just an image you found online that references words you know students will encounter when reading.

Use the students’ ideas to segue into your book introduction. Since your students were just engaged in talking about the ideas in the book, they will be ready to learn new key vocabulary. They will be motivated to use these new words because the words stem from their own conversation.

Ask questions

As you begin your small-group reading lesson, be conscious of your own language. Push yourself to ask questions instead of instructing as much as possible. Who’s Doing the Work suggests instead of guiding students to do a picture walk before reading, ask them, “What can we do to get ready to read this book?” When a student gets stuck on a word, don’t tell them what strategy to use. Ask them, “What can you do to try to solve that word?” Give students as much opportunity to do the talking and thinking as possible. Be a facilitator and depend on asking questions so that students can practice explaining their thinking and using language to think through the process.


Shared Writing

The next step in boosting oral language during small group reading comes after the reading. Ask comprehension questions that explicitly set students up to use new vocabulary from the book. Always allow students to answer in turn-and-talk partnerships so that every student can answer every question, thereby significantly raising the amount of language used compared to answering one question and listening to others.

Solidify this language practice by turning the comprehension discussion after reading into a shared writing experience. Have each student choose one idea or thought about the book. Before sharing with the group, allow students to say their idea in a complete sentence to their partner to rehearse, which is important for language learners. Encourage students to use the new vocabulary words and share as detailed a sentence as they can.

As each student shares their sentence out loud, you may choose to take a quick moment to talk about different ways to express an idea in English. For example, if a student shares “The house of the boy is big” you can introduce possessives in English and offer the suggestion “The boy’s house is big.” It is important that you are not correcting students, but rather guiding them to other possibilities for sentence structures to express the same idea. If students feel that you are correcting them, it will seriously inhibit them from taking risks and trying to use more complicated vocabulary and sentences. Allow the students to choose if or how they would like to reword or lengthen their sentences, and then write the student’s sentence onto a piece of chart paper. Doing the writing of the sentences for the students provides a scaffold for all of their attention to be focused on the language.


Shared Reading

What about fluency? The text, or sentences, created by the students during the share writing on chart paper can be an excellent source for shared reading. You can end the lesson, or begin the next day’s lesson, with a choral read and rereading opportunities. Students are invested in this text because it was created with their ideas. If you guided an effective language discussion as students created their sentences, the resulting text should be just outside of the students’ productive language parameters. This group read will take only a few short minutes but will have a big impact.

PASS fits into a balanced literacy classroom and can be used in pieces or in its entirety. Supporting students’ language development is key to English learners’ success during reading instruction.

Shannon Croston works with P–5 teachers as a literacy coach at the American School of Guatemala. She draws on 11 years of teaching experience in Georgia, Connecticut, and Washington, now focusing on English learners in an international setting.


Linguistic Prejudice and the Ultimate Public Good

This post is written by member Robert Meyer. 

In her recent New York Times Magazine article “Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools? Nikole Hannah-Jones frames the current fight over school governance in the history of public education as the ultimate social contract and, at the same time, unending efforts by some of America’s wealthy to disengage from it. She cites the segregation academies of the 1950’s as the origin of today’s voucher movement and as an example of how, for many, racism undermined the public good.

Racism has long undermined equality and justice in public education for far too many people, as has, in a much more insidious way, linguistic discrimination. In her landmark book, English with an Accent, Rosina Lippi-Green defined it eloquently: “Accent discrimination can be found everywhere in our daily lives. In fact, such behavior is so commonly accepted, so widely perceived as appropriate, that it must be seen as the last back door to discrimination. And the door stands wide open.” Dr. Wayne O’Neil also described “linguicism” in a 1997 Rethinking Schools article as the last “legitimate” prejudice and as a “thinly veiled racism.”

This form of racism is still prevalent today throughout our education system and in every part of the country. It expresses itself in the form of low expectations for children who are Standard English Learners (SELs). It is made manifest through correctionism, which has crippling consequences for students at every academic level, perhaps especially so for the more than five million SELs who either read at a below basic level or who are floundering their way through the primary grades now on that trajectory. This situation was essentially the same twenty years ago, and it will be the same twenty years from now unless something changes pedagogically.

Academics have investigated the relationship between SEL language differences and literacy outcomes for fifty years. They have implored educators (e.g., Lily Wong Fillmore and Catherine E. Snow’s “What Teachers Need to Know about Language”) to incorporate this knowledge into the classroom, yet linguistic understandings are still only just beginning to inform instruction. One would think that by now school district administrators would have the legal protection necessary to support SELs in educationally sound ways, certainly in the form of an SEL definition in education policy. But this has not occurred. And without that protection, district administrators seem powerless to do anything.

Linguicism has also not been explicitly confronted by groups advocating for education as a civil right. This is in effect helping prevent many of the students most underserved in literacy from becoming capable of fully participating civically and economically in the great American experiment. I believe the reason for this is that most adults, regardless of ethnicity, have been conditioned with some form or another of bias about the way SELs speak, write, and communicate, and that this makes conversations about language differences extraordinarily difficult to initiate.

If policymakers, school district administrators (and boards), and organizations won’t address this untouchable subject, who can? Who will? Hannah-Jones concludes in her article that a democratic response to Betsy DeVos’s policies has the potential to reaffirm the public ideal – individual by individual. Perhaps institutionalized linguicism will end only as each educator explores his or her own personal biases. Promisingly, this grassroots movement is in evidence at NCTE. This is the only place in regular education where it seems to be happening. ELA teachers are discovering (and reporting at conferences) educationally sound ways to better meet the instructional needs of SELs. School administrators need to know about this because linguistically responsive teaching is essential to academic success for SELs – the students most underserved in literacy. Only such innovations in pedagogy can help educators finally close our long-standing achievement gaps.

Robert Meyer is publisher of Ventris Learning of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. 


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.