Books on Educational Freedom That Keep Me Coming Back

This post was written by NCTE member Nathaniel Madden and is part of Build Your Stack,® an NCTE initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. Build Your Stack® provides a forum for contributors to share books from their classroom experience; inclusion in a blog post does not imply endorsement or promotion of specific books by NCTE.

You’ve seen the lists. You know, the lists of “classroom rules” being set for virtual schooling due to the pandemic—lists that contain brash invasions of personal privacy and autonomy, such as attempts to control what kids can(not) wear, when kids can(not) eat or drink, where kids can(not) engage with lessons in their own homes.
I saw one that went as far as to award students points for “keeping their eyes on screen 98% of the time.” While I hope these kinds of rules leave you feeling indignant, they also make perfect sense when you take into account the current state of in-person schooling in the vast majority of US schools. Control over the minds and bodies of our youth is foundational to the current carceral model of schooling in our country. Not only is this antithetical to learning, but it is causing deep harm. Education must become the pursuit and practice of freedom.
There are many excellent books by incredible educators that address this very topic. Not only have I endeavored to read as many of them as I can, but I have also been intentional about revisiting the books that I have already read in order to glean more of their genius. One can never underestimate the power of rereading!
Inevitably, I discover that there are insights about which I needed a reminder and plenty of wisdom that I missed during my first encounter. Below I’ve listed four books that I return to regularly because they inspire my own freedom-dreaming about what education could look like in my own classroom and in our world, and because they have given me the language with which to do it.

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom
bell hooks
The first book in bell hooks’s irreplaceable “Teaching Trilogy,” Teaching to Transgress, should be a foundational text for any educator. In this book, she passionately writes about critical and liberatory theory and practice, as well as the importance of educators and students breaking away from the dominant oppressive systems of our society. As hooks writes, “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students” is at the heart of it all. Each time I engage with this text, I am called to examine my motivations for every choice I make as a teacher. I ask myself, “Does this choice honor the freedom of my students?” and “Does this choice honor my students’ souls?” Out of all my books on education, I revisit this one the most often.

“I Won’t Learn From You” and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment
Herbert Kohl
This short collection of essays is an ode to each student’s humanity and right to determine their own lives. In these essays, Kohl writes about the importance of assent for anyone learning anything. Different forms of institutional oppression, such as white supremacy, sexism, and heterosexism, are ingrained in our curricula, and our students are being taught to reproduce them. It is right for us and them to resist this and thus be “maladjusted,” as Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote. Kohl writes, “I know of no finer gifts we adults, teachers or not, can give to children than nonnegotiable love, support, and all of the resources we can muster as they learn what they must do and resist doing what is foreign and alien to their internal imperatives.” Rereading any of these essays never fails to give me a timely reminder.

Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School
Carla Shalaby
In Troublemakers,  Carla Shalaby calls our attention back to the most important voices in education: those of the students. Too often, the voices and therefore the lives of our students are ignored. But what happens when we take a radically different approach and genuinely listen to kids, especially the kids who have been measured by the system and found wanting? We discover that the problem has never been the human beings in the system, but the system itself. Shalaby writes, “School is trying to make people, but these young people insist they are already made.” I revisit this book to remind myself that every single person is invaluable in and of themselves, regardless of what the oppressive systems of our society try to make of them, and it is my responsibility as an educator to treat them with love and care.

We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom
Bettina L. Love
Bettina Love is an essential voice today, not just for education but for our lives. We are reminded that an imperialist, colonial, white supremacist, sexist, heterosexist, capitalist system cannot be reformed. Love’s words and work show us that abolition and liberation are the only path forward. In We Want to Do More Than Survive, she writes,“Abolitionist teaching is not a teaching approach: It is a way of life, a way of seeing the world, and a way of taking action against injustice.” Whether it is from the theory, the applications, or the personal stories, I know that I can always go back to this text to learn more.
Every day provides a new opportunity to recommit myself to the work of liberation. These four books continue to spur my growth as an educator and a human being, and I will continue to return to them in the future.

Nate Madden is an educator in Maryland, currently teaching and learning from fourth-grade students in a classroom dedicated to humanity and freedom. He is also currently working toward a master’s degree in educational equity. Most of his time is spent reading, learning from, and talking to people who know a lot more than him. You can find him @natebyr0n on Twitter.

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It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Toward Mattering: Popular Culture References in Young Adult Literature

This post was written by NCTE member Shelby Boehm.

“What good is an education if you must shed who you are?”
―Bettina L. Love, We Want To Do More Than Survive

Young people, especially students of color, enter classrooms every day where they do not matter. Through policies and practices that center whiteness, schools continue to enact violence on a personal and systemic level (Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist; Love, We Want to Do More Than Survive).
Bettina Love argued that contemporary schools function as the “educational survival complex,” where learning for survival is the purpose of education for students of color (p. 27). In this sense, young people are not expected to thrive in classrooms—in fact, the system anticipates their failures as explanations for historical and modern economic, social, and political issues.
One way to create opportunities for young people to not only matter in schools, but to thrive, is through revisioning the role of popular culture in the curriculum. As a teacher, my high school students were often current on various popular culture texts, even recommending texts to one another as our classroom community developed. As I transitioned into my doctoral program, I wondered about additional affordances of popular culture in the classroom beyond serving as a “window, mirror, or sliding glass door” (Rudine Sims Bishop) to lived experiences for my students.
Popular culture (also referred to as mass culture or pop culture) is generally recognized as a collection of ideas, cultural practices, and objects that are representative of a certain time in society. In this sense, popular culture captures the experiences relevant to a certain group of people much in the same way young adult (YA) literature contains stories representative of adolescence. Because both popular culture and YA literature have proven valuable separately as a means toward critical reflection in the classroom, the intersection of these two areas should be considered for new possibilities in the classroom.
Below, I describe three potential benefits of highlighting popular culture references in YA literature using Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (2017), which is a coming-of-age story about navigating struggle and empowerment. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Thomas’s novel integrates contemporary socio-political issues, popular culture, and critical conversations about social justice.

Popular culture references in YA literature can help teachers to better understand their own adolescent students.
 “As usual it matches my J’s, the blue-and-black Elevens like Jordan wore in Space Jam. . . .  I hate dressing like everybody else, but The Fresh Prince taught me something.” (p. 54)
Knowing more about students than their academic ability in your content area is an essential part of teaching. Understanding popular culture that resonates with young people is one way toward fully recognizing your students. The above example from The Hate U Give contains numerous takeaways for a teacher considering protagonist Starr as a representation of their own students: appreciation of sneaker culture (e.g., J’s, blue and black Air Jordan Elevens), the movie Space Jam, professional basketball player Michael Jordan, and the show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Reading the text while prioritizing popular culture references, either alone or with students, can serve as a reminder of the powerful and persuasive potential of popular culture in your own students’ lives.

By analyzing popular culture references in YA literature, students can better understand and relate to fictional characters.
 “. . . Drake raps from the speakers. I nod to the beat and rap along under my breath. Everybody on the dance floor yells out the ‘started from the bottom, now we’re here’ part. Some days, we are at the bottom in Garden Heights, but we still share the feeling that damn, it could be worse.” (p. 16)
Although Starr’s reflection of her life in Garden Heights is supported by the lyrics to Drake’s popular song, “Started from the Bottom,” the experience of feeling conflicted about their circumstances resonates with many students. Still, some students will have trouble relating to these experiences. The above reference to popular culture can help students to identify with fictional characters through a shared popular culture reference, even if their experiences are different.

A focus on popular culture references in YA literature provides a generative space for considering, critiquing, and revisioning sociopolitical issues.
 “A Tupac song on the radio makes up for our silence. He raps about how we gotta start making changes. Khalil was right. ‘Pac still relevant.” (p. 258)
 While The Hate U Give contains numerous poignant moments appropriate for discussions around police brutality, the book also has potential for conversations around race and class that are supported through popular culture references. The above example alludes to “Changes” by Tupac —a song critiquing the war on drugs and poverty.
In The Hate U Give, Starr reflects “I can’t change where I come from or what I’ve been through, so why should I be ashamed of what makes me, me?” (p. 364). For students of color, mattering in school should be the minimum; existing as fully seen, included, empowered, and loved the goal. Centering popular culture references while reading YA literature can be one approach for making sure that students, especially those who don’t feel seen through the traditional school curriculum, know that they matter in school.

Shelby Boehm is a current doctoral student in English education at the University of Florida and a former high school teacher. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @TeamBoehm.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Turning Our Attention to the Word Decolonize

From the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship

This post was written by NCTE member Rex Ovalle, a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

To speak of pedagogies of re-existence, then, is to once again call forth the agency, action, and praxis of the otherwise. It is to raise the existential, philosophic, lived concerns and pedagogical imperatives of freedom, anguish, responsibility, embodied agency, sociality, liberation to which Lewis Gordan refers. It is to signal affirmation and hope in spite of—and in the midst of–conditions of negation, violence, and despair, part of the war of capitalism and the reorganization of modernity/coloniality/heteropatriarchy. It is to recognize that decolonial re-existence in the circumstances of the present times requires creative pedagogies-methodologies of struggle. Herein lies the significance, urgency, and insurgency of decolonial pedagogies rising.
—Catherine Walsh

As a member of NCTE’s Standing Committee on Global Citizenship, I am intrigued by, and eager to trouble, the growing use of the word decolonize.
First, to be clear, I affirm and support the work of my fellow committee members Michael Seward and Kylowna Moton, who hold rigorous and meaningful workshops on decolonizing the ELA classroom at the NCTE Annual Convention. I attended their workshop in the past and found it both meaningful and challenging. That said, in this blog post, I would like to turn our attention to what is happening to the word decolonize in our popular discourse and to humbly posit that the work of decolonizing is much more uncomfortable.
I am intrigued because the word is everywhere. You can find advertisements for t-shirts that say, “decolonize everything.” As a Latinx teacher who works in an entirely Latinx school, I even find my teenaged students using the word decolonize. I am not exactly sure when this happened, but as a lover of this conversation, I was initially excited. Now, I would like to remind my fellow teachers and scholars that this work is not simple, and it is necessarily uncomfortable.
As Catherine Walsh articulates in her collaboration with Walter Mignolo (On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, 2018), this work “is to signal affirmation and hope in spite of—and in the midst of—conditions of negation, violence, and despair, part of the war of capitalism and the reorganization of modernity/coloniality/heteropatriarchy” (p. 96).

My hunch is that the growing use of decolonize resonates with the sentiments of the first half of that sentence yet fails to properly acknowledge the second half. Yes. Let’s signal hope, but let’s remember why the work in this field is needed in the first place; let’s confront the “negation, violence, and despair.” Further, let’s remember which side of that sentence it is that teachers, especially teachers of English, have historically participated in.

Decolonizing is not “feel-good” for the English teacher. Instead, it needs to be a thorough accounting of the ways our profession and our lives have depended on the aforementioned conditions. While I may be Mexican American and the son of immigrants, the salary I collect as an English teacher is completely dependent on my proximity and complicity with whiteness, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.
I invite you to look toward your students as an initial resource; since this past summer, I have been thinking of the students who participated in the protests. I really want to believe that I have empowered my students to take stances that are anchored in their notions of justice; yet unlike them, I was not out on the streets for most of the summer. Even in the spring, my communication with them during the pandemic was focused on encouraging them to graduate and stay motivated in their schoolwork—as if they were not learning things in the protests, as if making it to their Zoom classes on time had anything to do with what their hearts told them. I’m fairly confident that some of my students were more committed to acting on their convictions than I was.
Decolonizing our profession starts by setting aside any feel-good notions about this effort; the work starts when we acknowledge our reflection on the wrong side of the riot shield.

Rex Ovalle works as high school English teacher and instructional coach at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. He is also a PhD student in the English Education program at the University of Illinois–Chicago.
The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Locating Black Histories in Our Own Front Yards

This post was written by NCTE member Janelle Jennings-Alexander.

The protests and marches of the summer of 2020 proved, if nothing else, that a moral, ethical, and intellectual imperative exists for creating racially literate learners in our classrooms at both K–12 and higher education levels.
France Winddance Twine defines racial literacy in her book A White Side of Black Britain: Interracial Intimacy and Racial Literacy, calling it “a way of perceiving and responding to the racial climate and racial structures that individuals encounter daily.”

Twine explains that one primary way to help individuals practice this literacy involves understanding racism as a contemporary problem, not a historical one. However, since so many contemporary issues facing communities of color are rooted in the historical, the challenge for building these racially literate citizens is, first, helping them understand the past within which the present is situated.

Unfortunately, for many young learners, the past that undergirds this critical education is perceived as part of a long-ago and distant history. For my African American literature students, perceiving how few generations sit between slavery and the present day in which they live is difficult for them. I tried to help illustrate this limited distance through Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, the story of Cudjoe Lewis and the human cargo of the last illegal slaving vessel in the US. While we read about Lewis, who experienced the Middle Passage, plantation slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, to many of my students, his story still felt too distant from their own.
To bring the past into the present, I redesigned this course to help my student locate history in our texts and in our town. In Raleigh, North Carolina, the process of mapping history is not an especially difficult one. Raleigh is a place, like many historic cities, that still carries significant markers of its past. In my class, tracing those markers started on a plantation minutes from our campus.
After the class read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, students took a tour of the Mordecai House, a former plantation and National Park Service historic landmark. On a tour of the house, students were challenged to make connections to Douglass’ narrative. Starting in the sitting room, full of many of its original books, students linked the room to Douglass’s own secretive efforts to learn to read. When our tour guide talked about the “privilege” of being a woman allowed to sleep indoors to care for the family’s children, my students compared this to Douglass’ story about Mrs. Giles Hicks, a white woman who murdered a nursemaid as punishment for sleeping through a child’s late-night crying. When a docent told us that one of the home’s owners was a cruel master to his slaves, my students could imagine someone like the slave-breaker Edward Covey to add context to that story.
As we transitioned to the literary giants of Harlem, students learned about our city’s own thriving black communities after the end of slavery, pairing our Harlem Renaissance poetry with stories and photographs of Raleigh’s Black Main Street. Here, they saw the city as home to black millionaires and business owners who flourished during and after Reconstruction in an economically and racially segregated city. We paired this with a reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, along with research on The Green Book, the traveler’s guide used primarily by African Americans to help them avoid those hotels, restaurants, service stations, and other businesses that did not offer service to black patrons.
The students enrolled in the course began to unpack why Raleigh’s black communities and two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Shaw University and St. Augustine’s University, were necessary for black people’s survival in the city.
As they read some of the letters and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, students learned about the time King came to Raleigh and was met by the largest KKK rally in North Carolina, aka Klansville, USA. As they reflected on the Civil Rights movements of the 60s, students wrestled with the duality of the city—partially in disrepair due to practices like redlining and redistricting, and partially rejuvenated due to gentrification.
Students connected what we read about and saw to the Pittsburgh neighborhood of August Wilson’s King Headley II. They connected King’s anger about not being respected as a man, and Tonya’s fears about bringing another black life into an antiblack world, to the pain, sorrow, and frustration that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Students also connected the character of Stool Pidgeon and his hoarding of old newspapers to a resistance to the erasure of black experiences in our increasingly gentrified city.
This course focuses on depth of material through readings in English, History, and African American studies. Moreover, this course serves as a model for what a text-based antiracist education might look like—one that is easy to locate and accessible within our own racial literacies, spaces, and places.

Janelle Jennings-Alexander is an assistant professor of English at William Peace University. She is a 2018 recipient of the NCTE Early Career Educator of Color award. Dr. Jennings-Alexander’s research critically examines whiteness within the context of late 20th- and early 21st-century African American literature and explores antiracist pedagogy. Her teaching explores the intersection of race, rhetoric, and composition in the literature classroom. You can follow her work on Twitter: @professorjja.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

February 2021 #NCTEchat: Creating LGBTQ+-Affirming Classrooms and Schools

Join us on Sunday, February 21, at 8:00 p.m. ET for an #NCTEchat about creating LGBTQ+-affirming classrooms and schools. The hosts will be Cody Miller, Vanessa Perez, and LaMar Timmons-Long, all members of the NCTE Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Advisory Committee.
Cody Miller is an assistant professor of English education at SUNY Brockport. During his seven years as a high school English teacher and in his current role, he positions texts as vehicles to discuss broader sociopolitical issues in students’ lives and worlds. Cody is chair of the NCTE LGBTQ Advisory Committee. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @CodyMillerELA.
Vanessa Perez is the Technology Integration and Library Media Specialist for Clinton High School (OK). She can be reached at @vperezy on Twitter.
LaMar Timmons-Long, a member of the NCTE LGBTQ Advisory Committee, is an English teacher in New York City and an adjunct professor at Pace University’s School of Education. He is passionate about racial linguistics, antiracist education, social justice, and equity in schools concerning all students of color and LGBTQA+ youth. You can follow him on Twitter @teachltl. 
We will share the following questions during the Twitter chat:
WARM-UP: Please introduce yourself. Tell us your name, location, and the level you teach. #NCTEchat [8:04 p.m.]
Q1: As teachers, how do we honor, support, and teach Black LGBTQ+ voices during Black History Month, through the African American Read-In, and throughout the year? #NCTEchat [8:10 p.m.]
Q2: If you have a gay student alliance or other affinity group, how are they supporting each other right now? If you don’t, what would you need to start one? [8:18 p.m.]
Q3: How do you support students who may be experiencing homelessness or nonsupportive homes? [8:26 p.m.]
Q4: How can we support students to be their authentic selves? [8:34 p.m.]
Q5: This question is just for LGBTQ+ folx: How has your journey to self-acceptance and self-love been? How does it transform who you are as a teacher? [8:42 p.m.]
Q6: What are you doing in the classroom to ensure you’re always learning and able to support LGBTQ+ students? [8:50 p.m.]
We hope to see you there! Be sure to join us by using #NCTEchat.
Never participated in a Twitter chat before? Check out this guide to help you get started.

The Good Country Equation: How We Can Repair the World in One Generation—A Conversation with Simon Anholt

From the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

This post was written by Kylowna Moton, a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

“If we only have the patience to work for one generation, systematically and together, with courage and imagination, on building the attitudes and behaviors and knowledge that underpin the solutions to these gigantic problems, we can defeat them all.” —Simon Anholt

If there is one thing we are sure of in the 21st century, it is that we face big problems. The COVID-19 pandemic, as horrible as it is, is only one of them. Like the pandemic, the major challenges we face in the 21st century—climate change, wealth inequality, systemic discrimination, injustice, and so on—have great potential to devastate and no respect for the imaginary lines we draw to separate humanity into “us” and “them.” Like a pandemic, the big problems of our time cannot be truly solved by one nation—any one nation—acting in isolation. That is one of the messages at the heart of Simon Anholt’s 2020 book, The Good Country Equation: How We Can Repair the World in One Generation: we need to work together if we are going to truly overcome the challenges we face as a species.
Throughout his career, Simon Anholt has consulted with the heads of state and governments of 57 countries, advising them to meet their needs and solve their problems by thinking beyond their borders. “All of our problems today,” he says, “are thoroughly globalized. In fact, the problem with the world that we are living in at the moment is that our problems, our challenges, are more globalized than our solutions. This is the imbalance.”
If more governmental leaders cooperated—rather than competed—with other nations, not only would they come closer to solving the problems they have in common, but they would make their countries more “good” in the process. For Anholt, a “good” country can pursue its own interests without costing other countries, preferably while also benefitting the others (see Good Country Index).
In 2020, Anholt turned his idea of what it means to be “good” toward a new project: The Good Generation. For this project, Anholt needs input and help from educators. While Anholt acknowledges that there are educational programs around the world that do a fine job of teaching the kinds of content and thought processes that upcoming generations will need to improve the world and sustain humanity, he also notes that these programs often work in isolation. They will need to work in concert if we are to raise and educate a generation of individuals who are ready to “run towards the global issues that threaten humanity, instead of running away from them, as so many of us do today.”
The Good Country Equation presents readers with some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that all our major, global problems are the result of human behavior: 1) how governments behave, and 2) how individuals behave. The good news is that “if people are the problem, they are also the solution.”

Kylowna Moton is an associate professor of English at Los Angeles City College, and taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District for over 20 years. She is a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship. Her research interests include everyday rhetoric and decolonizing the classroom as a means promoting lifelong literacy to reluctant and emergent readers and writers. Kylowna is an avid traveler and sees her work as integral to her experience of the world and its people.

Join the Standing Committee on Global Citizenship on Monday February 22, 4pm EST for a conversation with Simon Anholt about how NCTE members can be part of the solution and help shape a “Good Generation.”

What COVID-19 Has Taught Us about Access to Equitable Education

This post was written by NCTE member Micah Savaglio.

In a recent opinion piece published in Inside Higher Ed (“COVID-19 Has Taught Us What Intelligence Really Is”), psychologist and psychometrician Robert J. Sternberg says that “COVID-19 has taught us something important about intelligence,” which he goes on to define as “the ability to adapt to the environment.”
I admire Sternberg’s call for a broader concept of intelligence than most methods of assessment are designed to address. Yet if recent reporting is any indication, his opinion may ignore a wide array of challenges facing college and university students in the age of COVID-19.
As key disability studies scholars have shown, learning environments within higher education are often designed with only some, not all, bodies in mind. As a result, many students with physical, mental, and other disabilities confront barriers that prevent them from full and equal access to the spaces and activities of their classes.
In other words, when we fail to center disability in our course designs, we actively decrease access to equitable education for entire classes of people. At this critical moment in the fight for both disability rights and academic equity, it is time to radically rethink not only what higher education can look like but who gets to design it.
For instance, what if instead of focusing on rigid notions of ability, we started paying closer attention to the environments we expect our students to adapt to? What if, as Jay Dolmage has suggested, we “more consciously and systematically ask for and utilize feedback from students, especially students with disabilities?” It’s not enough to retrofit inaccessible learning environments for students who experience barriers to access; addressing students’ diverse access needs means taking a much more proactive and inclusive approach to course design.
In my research at Temple University on how undergraduate students experience course policies and practices in the first-year writing classroom, COVID-19 has taught me something important about access. I have consistently found what disability scholar Margaret Price calls “conflicts of access,” wherein conditions that enhance access for some students can decrease access for others (“Access” n.p.).
For example, several of the students with whom I spoke reported significant benefits to their participation as a result of the university’s shift to online instruction. Take Becca, who highlighted the conflicting relationship between her “really bad chronic insomnia” and her writing course’s pre-COVID, in-person attendance policy. Despite receiving disability service accommodations authorizing her to miss double the number of allowed absences without penalty, Becca reported that in-person attendance was “a struggle” that “really stressed me out,” adding that she “can’t wake up at eleven twenty” when “I’m up till six, seven in the morning.” Later in our interview, Becca reported that the course’s transition to primarily asynchronous online learning has “been good for me,” allowing her to engage course content in her own time.
But the same university-wide shift that made participation more accessible for Becca was experienced as limiting for Madison, at least in her non-English courses. Linking her disability and ADHD to “how I learn,” Madison described a clash between her preferred modes of communication and her asynchronous online courses. When I asked Madison to elaborate, she explained,
“It was kind of like I got lost [in those courses], and then . . . it would be the week before the final exam, and I’m like, “Wait, I missed the past week” because it’s online . . . And I wasn’t meeting with the teacher.”
Conversely, Madison reported that the synchronous component of her online writing course (meeting with her instructor over Zoom to discuss paper drafts), “especially for me, with learning disabilities, really helps so that you can . . . connect and . . . get on the same page with the teacher.”
The varying levels of access these students reported suggests that one person’s virtual access needs may exist in tension with the needs of others. Yet while such conflicts may appear irreconcilable, they also point to the need for a more flexible model for delivering education. Students’ access needs may vary, but addressing the needs of one student need not come at the expense of others. If we design with multiple accesses in mind, we can work to build learning environments flexible enough to address a wide range of access needs at once.
Sternberg says intelligence is really “your ability to adapt to the environment.” Rather than construing the challenges of virtual learning as questions of adaptive intelligence, why not center students and faculty with disabilities by inviting them (and paying them) to help envision and design flexible courses that will survive the pandemics and unforeseen challenges to come? Then we can measure how adaptive and flexible a learning environment is, rather than how “intelligent” students are when they succeed, or fail, to adapt to a new normal as rigid as what it replaced.

Micah Savaglio is an English doctoral candidate at Temple University. His research interests include composition and rhetoric, disability studies, multimodality, and creative writing. He can be reached at [email protected]  This research was supported in part by Temple University’s Disability Resources and Services and First-Year Writing Program. 

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

5 Ways to Make Black Lives Matter at School

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Saving Our Children from Violence When Schools Are the Abusers

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Posted Feb. 1, 2021

*Mic check* (Ahem). Educators: Are you aware that this month is Black History Month? Have you asked your students, specifically your Black students, what they’d like…

Posted Feb. 1, 2021

Here at brightbeam, our North Star is “How Are The Children?” As parents look back over the last nine months of COVID-related school disruptions and…

Posted Jan. 29, 2021

From insurrection to impeachment to inauguration—January has been quite a month for current events! And maybe you thought you could safely tune out of politics—at…

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