For children with incarcerated family members, the literature that portrays their situation can negatively impact their relationship with loved ones.
Recently, four education students at SUNY Cortland researched, wrote a paper and presented at a national conference on how the parents of these children can overcome the daily challenges when trying to show love and support for their kids.
“Being incarcerated can sometimes present some physical barriers, even if they are very emotionally present, still there, for their kids,” said the students' mentor, Rhiannon Maton, an assistant professor in the Foundations and Social Advocacy Department.
Maton has organized workshops supporting students in building deeper critical analysis about issues in race and incarceration.
She asserts that the depiction of inmates in the picture books that kids read before visiting their incarcerated family members should be monitored more closely.
“When children are going to visit a family member who is incarcerated, how do the picture books that are geared toward children represent that process of visitation?”
In Fall 2018, alongside a group of teachers in Ithaca, N.Y., Maton conducted a study examining how teachers understand and support students who have loved ones in prison.
“I mentioned it (the study) to a bunch of my classes and students that I knew, and a number of students came up to me and said, ‘Hey, your project sounds really interesting. I’d love to know how I can get involved.’”
With Maton’s guidance, a group of four SUNY Cortland students began meeting once a week to critically analyze picture books and the way inmates are often portrayed as people of color in children’s literature.
Their weekly meetings were constructively used to write a paper titled “Picture Books and Familial Incarceration: Representations of Visitation.”
“We started looking for different themes that could be seen in the books,” said one student in the research group, Nicolette McKeon of Dix Hills, N.Y., a senior inclusive education major. “If the authors wanted to scare kids and portray it in a bad light, then prison was a really scary place. But, if they wanted to prepare them for visiting, then it was more for familiarizing them with it.”
Seizing the opportunity to share their research with thousands of administrators, experts and educators, the four brought their analysis to the 2019 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual conference in Baltimore, Maryland.
The group presented on Friday, Nov. 22. Also participating at the conference were Breeanna Dexter of Tully, N.Y., a graduate student majoring in teaching students with disabilities; Breanna Washington of Queens, N.Y., a senior inclusive education childhood major; and Emily Urias-Velasquez of Mount Kisco, N.Y., a sophomore dual degree major in childhood/early childhood education and Spanish.
Maton, who had never before worked alongside students on a research project, saw the NCTE conference as a terrific opportunity for them.
“As a professor I want my students to see that there are these resources out there so that when they go into professional practice themselves, they can access this kind of conference,” Maton said.
The audience comprised of authors and teachers provided astounding feedback.
“It was kind of nerve racking because we were talking to these professional academic people,” McKeon said. “But once we got going you could tell that people were interested in what we had to say.
“In education right now there’s this push for inclusion and making sure diversity is well-represented," she said. "Supporting kids who have incarcerated family members is a topic that isn’t really well talked about like other family structures.”
For Maton, watching the students excel outside the walls of her Gender Race and Class Issues course was a rewarding reminder of the impact she has on those around her.
“It’s been so impressive to see the kind of leadership that the students have taken on,” Maton said. “They have grown and flourished into these roles as researchers and they’re all great at it.
“It was great for the students to see that this is what teachers who are out there in practice do. They have the opportunity to go to these professional conferences where they can learn and be immersed in new ideas, be exposed to new books and resources, and then they can bring it all back to their own school and into their practice.”
McKeon is eager to practice these valuable lessons in teaching and leadership once she becomes an educator.
“I learned a bunch of unique ways to support all students,” McKeon said. “I feel like I’m building this toolbox of how to support all these different students in my classroom.”
Maton is excited to teach a new class next fall related to democratic models of schooling, but her work with this group is not yet finished.
“We’re done presenting,” she said. “Now we’re focused on writing up a scholarly manuscript for publication in an academic journal.”
Prepared by Communications Office writing intern Dean Zulkofske