Thursday, April 8, 2021

School-to-Prison Pipeline in AED

The concept of school-to-prison pipelines are a very real world outcome that those of us in Adult Education are all too familiar with.  Just as many of my other blog posts deal with hard subjects, this one is no less difficult but true.

Did you know that a student who is not at a grade-level reading ability by the end of the 3rd grade is 4 times less likely to graduate high school on time and that increases to 6 times less likely if the student is from a low-income family?  And did you know that a study by Northwestern University found that high school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates? (Michelle Alexander)  Those of us in Adult Ed might not have known that statistic but I guarantee as you read this you are nodding your head because you have seen this play out.

These statistics are so heartbreaking. I have taught Adult Ed for several years and can only think of a handful of students who it could be said they didn’t complete high school because it was too difficult (and those students had undiagnosed learning disabilities.)  (Side note: The word “dropout” puts the blame on the individual. I try not to use it, especially with my students.) Every student I can think of, outside of my international students, did not finish high school because of another factor (socio-economic, childhood trauma, little to no family support, low teacher expectation, etc.) These students fell through the cracks of the system. And many of them have a record before they come to my class.

I would like to share the stories of two students, A.B. and M.J.  Let’s start with A.B. He is African-American, in his 60’s, and was incarcerated for approximately 15 years on a drug charge.  By his own admission, he was recruited for a gang at age 13 and while he feels his arrest was valid, the punishment did not fit the crime. He has three grown children that he barely knows and is now trying to build relationships with them and his grandchildren.

A.B. is one of those students whose story needs to be heard.  The first day I met him, he said to me, “Please don’t be scared of me. I know I look intimidating but I want to learn.”  I have had A.B. for a student now almost 2 ½ years. His reading level prevents him from finishing as quickly as younger students.  But he is persistent and I admire him for that determination.

Lack of opportunity, unequal access to services, experiences of trauma, low educational expectation, etc., have all affected A.B.'s life. He once told me, “I don’t want to use this as an excuse but I really never felt like I had another option but to join a gang.  And I always assumed I would spend time in prison. It was almost encouraged.  And I never had a teacher who treated me like there was another option for me.” 

Let me quickly introduce you to M.J. and how he ties to A.B. M.J. is 17, African-American and joined my class a year ago as part of his probation requirements.  He was arrested and convicted on a weapons charge.  His grandmother agreed to take him in and move him away from his neighborhood and the gang he was a member of.  M.J. is a ball of energy and always loves our class discussions. He ALWAYS has something to say.

About four weeks into the first semester I had M.J., we learned we had a new classmate joining us.  As soon as this new student walked in, I knew there was trouble.  The two met eyes and immediately started “talking to one another.”  M.J. got up and yelled, “If he is here, I won’t be back!”  To make a long story short, these two boys had been in rival gangs. I convinced M.J. that by walking away from class, he would be letting the system defeat him again, that he could overcome this school-to-prison pipeline by making a change. A.B. was instrumental in this. I arranged for him to talk with both boys by themselves and share his story. He encouraged them to make a change now and not end up like him, later in life trying to piece it back together.  I also told the boys I would allow them to sit on opposite sides and would never place them together for group work; I just wanted them both to work toward their goal.

What happened throughout the rest of that semester was astounding.  By the end, both boys were talking to each other and no longer had to be separated.  I wish I could say they all finished their GED.  A.B. is still working hard.  M.J. is still working as well and has passed two parts.  The third boy, however, was recently arrested on an assault charge and found guilty.  He will be returning to jail, where we hope he will continue his GED work.

I love this quote from Michelle Alexander, “We must build a movement for education, not incarceration. A movement for jobs, not jails.” That really is the key.  Education for all our citizens should be equitable.  No student should feel as though their life has to go a certain direction. No student should feel they are less capable than others.  If we could begin to change this from the onset of a student’s education, then students like A.B. and M.J. would never need my services.

Bias in The (My?) Classroom

As a female, white, older teacher, does that make me a more biased educator? I think this question is a great one to ponder, not just from a race perspective, but also gender and age.  My students are so diverse and because they are older they share life experiences and their own funds of knowledge regularly.  I am fortunate in that regard that they share openly with the class.  As far as my influence, I try very hard to teach history from varying perspectives.  I also ask questions that, although leading, allow my students the freedom to express their own viewpoints.  If I am not careful, my own race and biases could influence my students (almost toward a single-story viewpoint).  I  also try to find materials and resources that reflect positive stories of people who look like them or relate to them in various ways. 

The concept of “color-blindness” used to be taught in teacher training. I can remember being in college 20 years ago and being taught to “not see color.” But the idea that “color-blindness” is harmful makes much more sense.  The notion of equity as sameness only makes sense when all students are the same. But even within the nuclear family children born from the same parents are not exactly the same. Different children have different needs and addressing those different needs is the best way to deal with them equitably. The same can be said of the classroom.  Each student is unique and deserves to be seen as they are and for who they are.

Color-blindness ignores the differences in our students.  And while we should  strive to TREAT all students the same, it is wrong to SEE them all the same.  Just as we celebrate the uniqueness of each student's abilities, we should celebrate the backgrounds, cultures, etc that make the unique as well.


Awareness is key.  I have started to more closely look at my own reactions in the classroom.  How often do I ignore something that is potentially hurtful or offensive for the sake of non-confrontation? Do I stand up for my students when they need me to?


For me, this mainly means being sensitive to how I teach American History.  I need to present history in an accurate way, not overlooking those aspects that aren’t “pretty.” I need to present varying viewpoints of historical events and let the students make up their own minds.

One way to confront biases and racism is to confront it always; not just when it is convenient or in public.  I agreed with the idea that we need to confront it in small circles, in one-on-one conversations, etc.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

RESOURCE ALERT! Meeting the Needs of ESL/ELL Students

Adult Education is tied to ESL/ELL in almost every program in the country.  AE Programs offer GED Prep, College and Career Readiness, and English as Second Language courses.  Oftentimes these students overlap.  As a teacher of the first two on this list, I am often looking for information on how to best serve those students who aren't native-English speakers. The following resource is one I have found helpful.  I agree with this quote,

"Preparing students in adult education for achieving their long-term goals as citizens, family members, and workers involves addressing agreed-upon career and college readiness skills. ELA instructors can do much to ease these transitions by emphasizing academic language, critical thinking, and more rigorous reading skills in our classrooms."

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Connected Learning


The idea of Connected Learning is so fascinating, especially with the demographic of my students. Almost every student who comes through my door has had a negative experience with traditional education. Once they get comfortable and begin to share their reasons for not completing high school, words and phrases like bullying, invisibility, trauma, sickness, pregnancy, detention, etc start to be heard.  Many of my students feel judged for one reason or another and it snowballed into a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.  For many of them, the situations may have been completely out of their control but the damage done to their confidence was lasting.

I love the idea of Connected Learning for my students because it makes learning fun.  It shows them that they can be lifelong learners and that they have the ability to reach their academic goals.  At Parkland College Adult Education, we use Connected Learning in three ways.

1) Bridge Courses - Each semester we offer various Bridge Courses that combine the GED content our students need to obtain their HS Diploma and the entry-level college material for a field of study of their choice.  This semester we are offering Bridge Courses in Health, Manufacturing, Business and Information Technology.  For example, the students in the Health Bridge begin their path to certification as a CAN.  They can choose to continue and finish that certification once enrolled in Parkland or they can choose to continue on for a nursing degree.

2) College and Career Readiness (CCR) – Our regular GED classes have transitioned to CCR classes, meaning the students learn not only the GED content but also explore skills for the workplace of college placement.  This can include resumes, cover letter, applications, financial aid, career cruising, etc. I consider this Connected Learning because we start by finding out the students’ individual interests and work around those.

3) Content Areas – I teach three content areas: Language Arts, Social Studies and Science, as well as the U.S. Constitution.  I try very hard to make these Connected Learning by bringing in not only the student’s experiences but also their interests.  An example might be when we are practicing presentation skills, I have them create a slideshow (workplace skill) around a social justice, constitutional or citizenship topic they are passionate about (connected learning). Many times they share personal experiences. They also have to write an overview of their presentation (communication and essay skills) and they have to upload both to COBRA (college campus software skills). They don’t realize it at first, but these often end up being what they write about for the GED test or for a college placement exam or application.

Connected Learning is also used in my classroom for group discussion. Because I teach adults, the conversations can get very in-depth and personal.  Many of the topics we discuss lead into personal stories that always enhance the material of the lesson. Many of my students have shared experiences in real-world situations so I feel like once the classroom has a sense of community, connected learning takes place almost on a daily basis.

Friday, February 26, 2021


 Who doesn't like FREE resources? Especially those of us in education who are used to not only purchasing resources but purchasing them OURSELVES! (Am I right?)

The Change Agent is an Adult Education magazine resource many of you may be familiar with as it is used in both Standards Proficient and Language Arts Specialist training.

I wanted to make you aware that by following the link at the bottom of their home page, you can receive a FREE copy of their issue, "Talking About Race."  It also comes with Lesson Packets and resources for teachers. The articles range in complexity so it can be used across the program.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

What Does it Mean to be a Multicultural Educator?


While a good definition of multicultural education is simply, “Multicultural education incorporates the idea that all students - regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, social class, and ethnic, racial, or cultural characteristics - should have an equal opportunity to learn in school,” (Banks, p. 3) all that those words entail are complex.

 I have been teaching for over 20 years, and multicultural education has come to mean different things. When I first did my student teaching, I would say the school district thought it was doing well because it occasionally celebrated different heritages. It most certainly was a “tourist-based approach.” (Banks, p. 26) In today’s classroom, we have come a long way but still have a long way to go.  Being a multicultural classroom or school or district means examining and changing everything from policies, curriculum, assessment, delivery styles and every other aspect of our instruction and reach.

 Because I teach Adult Education and ESL students, my classroom is diverse in every possible way.  My students have ranged in age from 16 to 67, a multitude of ethnicities and refugees, immigrants, and international students from many different countries. It is easy to see them as their background or their country or even their gender or skin color.  A multicultural educator sees the big picture. They recognize the beauty in uniqueness and diversity. And they celebrate all within the classroom community as individuals and as a whole.

 The video, “The Danger of a Single Story,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (below) moved me to consider how I approach their learning and their participation. Do I view them differently as they are from “third-world countries?” Do I ask different questions and in different ways because they come from underprivileged areas and schools? Do I assume their ability to retain deeper concepts because of their background or criminal history?  Do I contribute to the racial or individual gap in learning? (Lee, p.3)

 As teachers, we should constantly be striving for multicultural classrooms. And as Lee states, “Multiculturalism is the ideal state in which people’s culture, language, heritage and humanity are fully valued.” (p.4)

 I had a substitute one day who had no experience with the unique population I teach and he made a comment that they should be able to do a certain skill because it was “second-grade level concepts and they obviously either couldn’t handle that or they couldn’t understand the material because of a language barrier.” Needless to say, he no longer substitutes for our department or college.

 What he assumed about my students was that they were either 1) not smart enough to finish school and that is why they had dropped out or 2) they could not understand English enough to accomplish the task.  He was seeing them as a single story.  What he (and many people) assume about students in Adult Education, is that they are not capable or lazy or uneducated. But in my experience, that is not the single story of any of them.  They are in their situation due to circumstances, either outside their control (like parent drug-use, health issues, or even government violence in their own country) or from poor life choices they are trying to fix.

 What struck me from the video, and also my classroom, is that the single-story way of thinking can change how the person views themselves. And that, in turn, will affect every aspect of their lives, including their level of education.


Banks, J. & McGee Banks, C. (Eds.) (2016). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Lee, E., Menkaret, D. & Okazawa-Rey, M. (1998). Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development. Washington, D.C.: Teaching for Change.