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Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline in and out of the English Classroom

This post was written by NCTE member, Nicole Mirra. 

Mirra HeadshotI remember casting my vote last November to approve the NCTE Resolution on Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Surrounded by fellow NCTE members during the Business Meeting at the NCTE Annual Convention, I felt both proud and overwhelmed—proud that our professional organization was taking a stand on this oppressive system that harms so many of our students, but overwhelmed at the prospect of figuring out how to build on this symbolic step and take action in our schools and communities.

As a former high school English teacher in New York City and Los Angeles, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to realize that you are working within a public education system in which curriculum, practices, and policies can be applied so inequitably as to push some students (largely students of color) out of school and into increased likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system. The statistics cited in the resolution about rates of suspension and expulsion are so disturbing and the problem looms so large that it may seem impossible for us as individual teachers to disrupt the pipeline.

Despite the enormity of the problem and the multitude of public institutions beyond schools that need to participate in severing this pipeline, I think that it is important for us to remember the agency we possess as educators in our classrooms and as citizens in the larger society to create change and foster social justice.

While we can (and must) begin critical dialogues with our colleagues about discipline policies in our schools, we also must remember that we have the power to minimize the need for disciplinary conversations in the first place if we develop critical curriculum and instruction that honors our students’ ideas, experiences, and abilities. This is not something that we should take on our shoulders alone—our students know what they need to succeed and can be our best partners in developing innovative classroom practices that are both academically rigorous and culturally sustaining. My colleagues Danielle Filipiak, Antero Garcia, and I recently wrote an article for English Journal explaining how we invite students into the project of planning curriculum through a practice called Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR).

We also must remember that our responsibility to our students does not stop at the end of the school day. We have the power to advocate for an end to zero-tolerance discipline policies and expansion of restorative justice programs with our local, state, and national politicians. You can visit the National Education Association or The Advancement Project for ideas on getting involved.

Nicole Mirra is an Assistant Professor of English Education at The University of Texas at El Paso. Her teaching and research focuses on the intersections between critical literacy and civic engagement in classroom, community, and digital learning contexts.