Archive for the ‘Alternative education’ Category

One thing you take away from Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher by D.H. Goddard (a pseudonym for the author who is still teaching at the jail he writes about) is that the prison system, no matter where it is located, no matter what the setting—big or small; urban or rural; county, state, or Fed—is pretty much the same: inefficiently run, punitive in its approach, more interested in retribution and warehousing than helping people change their lives. Another thing that strikes you after reading this memoir is that in these toxic systems there are always people who want to make a difference in inmates’ lives, who understand that what we are doing is not going to cut down on crime but only increase it and in the process tarnish our national character.

D.H Goddard is one of those people. A high school teacher in a county prison in what he describes as a “cow paddy town” where cows outnumber people and “the major industry is incarceration”, he cares about the young people he works with, guiding them through the high school equivalency curriculum while motivating them to change the behaviors that got them locked up in the first place.

He doesn’t hesitate to share his frustrations and failures along with his successes. The reader sees him feeling his way through an arcane system that nobody bothers to explain to him. He gets no help from his supervisor who seems more afraid of his students than interested, or from the correctional staff who are, at best, hapless if not indifferent or obstructive. Yet Goddard learns as he goes along, developing respect for his students, recognizing the lost worlds they come from and trying to make a difference.

Interspersed throughout the book are the projects he instigates—a classroom aquarium and an ambitious unit on aerodynamics, both serving, it seemed to me, as metaphors for these young people’s lives in and out of prison—as well as the risks he takes to engage his students in discussions that might help them see beyond the block, the razor-wired walls, and a world defined by abandonment and defeat.

Crosswinds: Memoirs of a Jail Teacher is filled with the author’s efforts to educate and engage students, to connect with them and mentor them as one of the few adults in their world who not only cares about them but also enjoys their company. What might happen to our penal system if every incarcerated kid—whether locked up in a cow paddy town or in an urban swelter—was given the same opportunities?

Gayle Saks-Rodriguez has been a guest writer for  “Kids in the System” a number of times. She writes  about the incarcerated women and men of all ages that she teaches. In this piece which originally appeared on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange Gayle tells the story of a young woman who from a very early age had to face the kind of challenges that leave a life wrecked and almost irreparable, a life that ended up in the criminal justice system.  Gayle’s piece is indeed a moving demonstration of why  we must give much more support to young women caught in the system. You can read more of Gayles writings on her blog “My Life in the Middle Ages” .

Girls in the Juvenile Justice System Need Our Support

I just returned from the Adult and Juvenile Female Offenders Conference in Portland, Maine, where Piper Kerman, author of the memoir “Orange Is the New Black,” — the inspiration for the wildly successful Netflix series of the same name — gave the keynote address to the 400 or so attendees all with some connection to the offender population.

In her book and as a consultant to the writers of the show, Kerman’s fellow inmates are shown in vivid back stories that humanize them all. She has stayed in touch with some and lost track of others. She attributes all of the success stories to a strong support system on the “outside,” post-release.

For the past three years, I have been volunteering at a New England county jail leading a mandatory goal-setting workshop for newly incarcerated women. They cycle through in two-week batches. My best guess is that I have taught at least 1,500 women in those three years. Generally their crimes range from drug and sex trafficking to assault and battery to a smattering of white-collar crimes. They are of all races, ages, socio-economic backgrounds and most are repeat offenders.

I enter my classroom from the top of a set of stairs where I can look down at the women waiting for me in their rows of plastic chairs. Last week, I could never have braced myself for seeing “C,” who I have known since she was 10, sitting with the other inmates. Never.  Ever.

I froze (truly, I did) and watched as she ran to the back of the room and fell to her knees in body wracking sobs. I took a deep breath as I walked down the stairs, and instead of taking my place in front of the group, hurried back where I crouched down, watching her shield her eyes as she said over and over again, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

The other women were curious as to what was happening and I think they caught on that the two of us were deeply connected in some way. I got her up off her knees and hugged her tightly breaking every single jail boundary rule imaginable. I didn’t care. How could I have cared?

I had been out of touch with her for several years, losing track after her first baby, born when” C” was just 15. I first met her when I worked as a fundraiser for the largest child welfare agency in New England. The administrative offices were steps away from the residential group home where she lived. I was able to have lunch with the residents and she took to me in a way that she didn’t with other staff. Hers is a common story — no known father, drug-addicted mother — shunted into the system at 10. She was a hardened kid, often needing to be restrained and kept from bolting out the doors of the residence and adjacent school.

She moved along the trajectory of the system, aging out of one residential program and moving onto the next. I was part of her team of decision makers having been designated as her “educational surrogate,” monitoring her grades and progress while she was pregnant and attending a public high school while still living in a residential program. I was part of her life and she was part of mine.

She was 17 the last time I saw her. My husband and I went to visit her at the apartment she shared with her baby’s father and his mother. There was a huge and splintered hole in front of the toilet, easily big enough to fall through, porn, bongs and empty booze bottles all over the place. The mother was lying in bed, chain smoking, barking orders through a drunken haze. Someone in the system, someone who had to have made more than one home visit, had made the decision that it was acceptable, that it was OK, for “C” to be living in this environment.

Back in the classroom, after soothing her and telling her that it was OK, everything was going to be OK, she sat through my class, participating and smiling, looking again like the teenager I remember her as (she’s now 22). I found out after class that she had another baby and was awaiting sentencing for stabbing her most recent boyfriend in apparent self-defense. According to her case manager this is only the latest in a string of violent crimes. She and I are not allowed to sit down and catch up, not allowed to exchange pictures of our children, while she is there and I am still a volunteer.

Sadly, unlike the success stories that Piper Kerman cited in her keynote address, I don’t think that there is a strong support system waiting to boost up “C”—and so many other young women like her — when she’s released. It takes many people to wrap their arms around a girl so full of shame and anger to prove that there are other options, ways to avoid abusive boyfriends and repeat pregnancies, and even more likely, a life of crime.

 

 

Gayle Saks-Rodriguez has been a guest writer for  “Kids in the System” as part of the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series. She often talks  about her experiences teaching incarcerated women and men of all ages. In this current piece she writes about saying good-bye to a group of young guys (many of whom have spent their lives in and out of institutions)  when  her Life Skills class is closed due to loss of funding.  Gayle communicates so well the deep and powerful relationships that can develop between students and teachers, relationships that stay in both their hearts for a long time. You can read more of Gayles writings on her blog “My Life in the Middle Ages” where she writes about variety of topics with her usual honesty and humor.

When Young Offenders–and Their Teacher–Say Good-bye

Last month, due to a lack of funding, the juvenile lock-up where I taught a weekly “life skills” workshop was shuttered.  According to my very rough calculation, in the year that I worked there I had about 400 young men of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds pass through my group.  Of those, about half came and went frequently, often gone for a couple of months to less than a week, and then re-offended to find themselves right back where they started.

The kids I worked with in lock-up have dreams like everyone else.  They want to be rappers and record producers, athletes and small business owners.  They want to become pilots and work with horses.  They want the ability to apologize to their parents or grandparents or whoever they feel they’ve let down.  Others, in their own words, say “I don’t give a fuck.”  But, they do.

The youngest ones, the 15 and 16-yr olds are the most hopeful.  They haven’t yet been beaten down by those never ending loops of bad choices and circumstances and I’d like them to believe that they don’t have to be.  Others are so calloused and at this point rather indifferent towards their own lives, that you know they’ll never get out of the system and that soon enough, when they are old enough to be tried as adults, they will just continue on to become “career criminals.”

The bottom line is that I will most likely never see any of these boys again.  I will miss the ones who are often combative and the ones who take the confidence-boosting exercises I give them and put them in their pockets to look at later.

I will miss Emmanuel who volunteered to read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and came up with his own rather astounding analysis.  His pudgy face with his dimples and mile-wide smile is wallpapered on the inside of my brain.  At 16, he was the youngest student I taught and without question, the most articulate.  Before the program closed a staff member told me that he was left by his family who high-tailed it to Florida and left him in Massachusetts when he was 8-years-old. If anyone thinks that’s a scar that will disappear you just need to have heard him say, out loud in a group, that not one person on the outside has his back.  Not one.

I will miss the most hardened young man, Josh, the one who looked at me suspiciously when he first met me but was the first to thank me for everything I had done for him when I saw him for the last time.  During our first group together he told me that he smashed his phone on the ground when it froze in the middle of a game he was playing.  By the end of that first hour together, I made him laugh at the absurdity of the act.  I never knew, until the program had closed, that he is a heroin addict that drives him to have a needle in each arm at the same time.

I will miss the young man with the first name of a classic literary character, a boarding school student from a very affluent neighborhood.  We talked about books and movies.  His alcoholism has destroyed his life.

I will miss seeing Ricardo, a light-skinned Latino with the rather unlikely combination of braces and tattoos, sprawled on a chair all smiles and light.  I know the community he comes from, the poorest in the state, and his gang membership and all that comes with it is what has led to a long string of fairly serious charges.  I know that he has watched his friends get shot, incarcerated and killed.  I know that he is terrified of going back there.  He has told staff that he never thought he’d make it to his 18th birthday which is just a few weeks away. When an informal conversation occurred in class about superheroes and that inevitable question, “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” He said, “I would want to go back to my neighborhood and be proud.  I want to bring happiness to the streets.  I want to protect my little sister.  I’d want to be a superhero.   I’d call myself ‘Glory Boy.’”

At the end of my last group I gave each boy a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” which is a lot less hokey than it sounds.  We had ended each group up until then with each kid reading five sound bytes of advice.  They understood what that final gesture meant, that I’d be with them wherever they landed, that I was dedicated to their success.  I wasn’t allowed to hug them when I said goodbye, but my handshakes were long and warm, and my tears told them that I would never, ever forget them.

“Good night you princes of Maine,
you kings of New England.”

John Irving, Cider House Rules

He was a big man, a presence to be reckoned with on any football team. Dressed in a pressed shirt and colorful tie, he spread his arms out and gestured around the room. “I’m a new teacher here. How do I do this?” he asked.

I knew what “this” was—a room with only a few windows, thick-paned and laced with heavy gauge wire, designed to keep what’s in, in; a locked industrial metal door; the squawk of walkie-talkies in the hallways. It was a classroom much like the one in the county jail where I taught high school students for ten years. But this classroom was in the Judge Connelly Center Education Program in the Greater Boston area, a residential adolescent treatment program for adjudicated young offenders, kids who had been in and out of the child welfare and justice systems, some for much of their young lives. I was there to talk with teachers and support staff about my own experiences working in incarcerated education.

I could have answered by talking about curriculum and the importance of choosing materials that were culturally relevant. As an English teacher I was always looking for readings with characters and situations that the young guys I taught could identify with. I could have explained how I pushed them to go beyond cultural relevance and to begin to develop the critical skills they needed to tackle state mandated tests.

Or I could have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of Common Core, the limitations and short sightedness of “teaching to the test,” or the damage that so many of our current educational reforms were doing to at-risk students.

But I sensed that that wasn’t what he was asking. He was going for something more important, more basic. He was posing the question that daily confronts every teacher who works with hard to reach students.  “How do I not give up, not lose faith in what I’m doing? How do I do this?”

His question stopped me in my tracks. And in that pause I knew the only answer I could give him.

“Don’t take it personally.”

Too simple for that very complex organism, the classroom? Perhaps, but it’s what has kept me teaching at-risk kids for over 25 years.

As any teacher knows, a classroom is a crowded place. It is not only made up of individual students, but each in turn brings with her or him a host of others—family members, care providers, neighbors, friends and enemies, even the family pet along with the heroes and villains, real and imagined, that make up the world of social media and pop culture surrounding  the student. All are factors in learning, all are contributors to that day’s lesson, all are influences, good or bad, on a learner’s success—and in turn, on a teacher’s success. Teachers recognize these factors. Most education pundits don’t.

Too often the influences that shape at-risk kids’ lives are negative, and consequently can shape teacher-student interactions negatively if we let them. In my own experience teaching in both a community alternative school and in a county prison, I learned to see (perhaps not as quickly as I should have) that there were multiple layers of experience between me and my students. Many of them had lived through years of neglect and abandonment by family, school, neighborhood and church. They had survived physical and sexual abuse, the loss of family and friends to AIDS, alcohol and drug addiction, gun violence, or just plain despair. Success wasn’t in their vocabulary, only anger, belligerence, mistrust, and disinterest. It’s a vocabulary that teachers, by their nature, don’t share.

Yet success with disenfranchised students comes only when we can translate that sullen, snarly, challenging indifference to us and to what we have to offer into what it is really saying: I can’t do this. I’m scared. I won’t try because I’ll only fail. I don’t believe that you care about me.

With the increased demands placed on teachers these days it is too easy to misinterpret a student’s oppositional behavior and get pulled into a confrontation, or worse yet to write him or her off as not worth the effort. The times when I’ve done that I could almost see the smug look of dark satisfaction on a kid’s face, a look that says, “Gottcha, teach! See, you’re just like all the rest.”

Certainly teachers can’t accept open disrespect or class disruption. But how many situations could have been prevented from escalating if a teacher “didn’t take it personally.” We all have our own personalities, and so our own ways of intervening in those sticky circumstances. Humor. Ignoring. A simple shift of focus. In my jailhouse classroom I sometimes was able to diffuse a potential face-off by first recognizing and then commenting to a student that he seemed to having a bad day. That simple gesture helped dampen the fuse of the power struggle I could feel myself getting pulled into.

Of course our best efforts don’t always work, but not taking it personally—including our own inevitable failures—does. This outlook on the teaching life helps us acknowledge all the forces that shape our students, our classrooms, and ourselves, and allows us the resilience to come back the next day ready to try again.

Originally appeared on Esteem Journal

 

Although teachers spend their days surrounded by people— albeit little, and younger people—it’s still an isolating job. For many of us in the classroom, the vitality and the support to do our jobs comes from colleagues. Ideas exchanged, “problem students” talked over, “try this” suggestions for lessons are what keep teachers professional, motivated and, frankly, human. In the latest contribution to the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series, “The Coffee Crisis: Do Teachers Have to Feel Alone?” which originally appeared in Education Week, Hillary Greene writes in what at first appears to be a lighthearted way about the isolation and lack of collegiality that is taking over our schools.  What is missing, she writes, is not just free, decent coffee in the staff room but the space, time and freedom to share with each other. The current standardized curriculum leaves little room for children to be creative and to learn the art of community. This limited, locked-step model holds true for teachers as well, leading people like Hillary to worry, “that I’m losing my voice.” Hillary, who has taught middle school for three years in independent, public, and public charter settings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, need not worry. As you’ll see, her voice is strong, courageous, and wise.

The Coffee Crisis: Do Teachers Have to Feel Alone?

Everybody knows that a good house party, no matter how enticing the dining room, ends up in the kitchen. Surrounded by the comfort of food and drink, we relax and bond. We say things we wouldn’t say in the dining room.

Yet, in this nation that “runs on Dunkin’,” some schools appear to be cutting back on staff-room provisions as a budgetary precaution. So while Google generously—and shrewdly—provides copious amounts of first-class nourishment to its employees, teachers often can’t get a free cup of coffee.

And while a cut like this may seem relatively insignificant, I’m convinced it harms teaching and learning.

Without coffee to induce them to linger in the staff room, teachers have lost their kitchen space. And gone are the conversations that used to occur there, where the most productive (and completely unscheduled) meetings would often occur. Somehow, encounters in front of vending machines tucked in some tiny, darkened room do not produce the same effect.

But this isn’t really about coffee. This is about teacher voice and collaboration.

An Isolating Profession

I decided to become a teacher four years ago, due to some combination of a desire to have an impact on others and indecision about what else to do. Also involved on some level were the collapse of the economy and an interest in heeding President Obama’s call for top students to pursue public service and teaching.

I learned to teach middle school humanities in an alternative-licensure program at an independent school in Cambridge, Mass. Around the seminar table, we soon-to-be teachers grappled with questions of equal access to great education while we swapped tales from teaching that day. Between classes and after school, the teachers’ staff room provided not only free coffee, but also free peanut butter and crackers, so people congregated. In that cozy space, I practiced an important aspect of teaching: bonding with colleagues. Another teacher’s “Patrick” sounded like “James” in my class, so we talked and shared experiences. We all laughed together when a stressed teacher ran in to get a coffee and exclaimed, “I have to remember I’m not running the Pentagon!”

I stepped into my first teaching job filled to the brim with ideas about teaching and learning. But I completely underestimated all it takes to be an effective teacher (and how infrequently bathroom breaks occur). Making matters worse, my school offered none of the opportunities for collaboration and informal conversation among teachers that I had experienced in my training program. I tried to figure out my next social studies unit during 30-second conversations in the copy room. A 20-minute conversation with a social worker seemed like a rare treat. I spent most hours at my computer, drowning alone.

Still hopeful, I stepped into my second dream job this past fall at a first-year public charter school, but it has proven to be no different. I find myself reflecting relentlessly: Does public school teaching really have to be this isolating?

Losing My Voice

The greatest disappointment for me as a teacher has been how little intellectual exchange there is among educators. On the way to a staff meeting, I still catch myself running through my dream agenda: First, we’ll reflect on the prevalence of ADHD and the implications for us, after which we’ll all step back and think about whether more—not fewer—music classes could improve our math scores and students’ experiences. Then we’ll think about the rapidly growing use of iPads in the classroom and what that might mean for instruction. Instead, in reality, I quietly enter the meeting room, sip my tea, and chime in when I must because perhaps my professional opinion matters on where recycling bins could be stored or maybe the department head just got to my students on her list of numbers—that is, students—not meeting assessment proficiency.

At these get-togethers, the party never moves out of the dining room.

I have occasionally worked up the nerve to ask kitchen questions in the dining room, but the results have not been good. During an IEP meeting, I brought up the issue of racial identity for a struggling African-American boy in a predominantly white, affluent school. For that, I was called a “loose cannon.” At another meeting, I divulged that I felt more like a proctor than a literature teacher due to the frequency of assessments. For that, I was made to feel as though I misunderstood the whole purpose of assessment. I have questioned many aspects of the way my school operates, and I have stated my views more directly as my experience as a teacher has grown. For that, I have been urged to be more “politically correct.”

It’s hard not to feel that I’m losing my voice. Or perhaps I’m saving it for something else.

We frequently hear the statistic that nearly half of teachers leave teaching within five years. I’m inclined to believe that politically incorrect loose cannons leave schools at a higher rate. Yet this is precisely the type of person you want teaching because he or she can inspire children to find their own voices.

Teachers are getting the message: Quiet down and behave. We need you, but we don’t value you.

If we want our public schools to create the next generation of thoughtful, engaged Americans, we need to support the people whose job it is to make an impact, and we need to work especially hard to retain the types of teachers who question the status quo and speak up even at the risk of being politically incorrect.

We could start by giving teachers free coffee—and how about decent coffee?—so that the party can move back to the kitchen. Otherwise, doors will close and the great ideas in education will be spoken separately and silently in lonely classrooms.

 

It’s hard reading about the lockstep curriculum set out by Common Core with its emphasis on “informational readings,” and seeing all the hoops students and teachers have to jump through to meet its standards. Quite frankly, it makes me sad.

“Why sad?” you might wonder. Frustrated, maybe, or for that matter, mad. But sad?  Usually when the topic is education reform frustrated and mad come easily to me. But this is different. I’m a romantic (as I think many English teachers are) and I see literature—poetry, drama, fiction—and its power to change people’s lives as the heart of an English teacher’s job.

But the designers of Common Core don’t see it that way. They assert that students have been raised on an easy-read curriculum and because of this they are unable to analyze complex reports, studies and government documents. The administration’s solution is to have informational texts make up 50 percent of elementary school readings and 70 percent of 12th grade readings by 2014. Unfortunately, the burden of this solution will fall mostly on English teachers, leaving them little time to teach real literature.  Instead they will somehow have to figure out ways to get kids interested in such texts as “Fed Views” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) or “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental Energy, and Transportation Management” published by the General Services Administration.

So yes, it makes me sad to see the education of the heart —the real core of any worthwhile English curriculum—gutted for the sake of global competition, and to see teachers once again take the hit for “dummied down” education.

But I feel saddest for the kids who must struggle their way through this type of literal—not literary—education, especially those kids for whom school is already a difficult and alienating place.

I’ve worked with those students in both alternative high schools and a county prison, young men and women who have already had the heart taken out of their lives by poverty, racism, abandonment and neglect. They have very little interest in school because the traditional school setting has had very little interest in them. And now this latest roadblock makes success even harder to attain: a reading curriculum that has less to do with real life, their real life, and more to do with corporate America.

As an English teacher it’s never easy to get disaffected kids to pick up a book and read. I was constantly justifying my choices, answering the question every literature teacher (and author) is confronted with in one way or another, “What’s this got to do with me?”  But once we got past those hurdles and students gave a particular reading a chance, I have seen books—novels, plays, poetry, biography, memoir—save at-risk kids’ lives, if only for the time that they are reading them.

I’m pretty certain that one of the Federalist Papers, a Common Core selection, wouldn’t have kept fifteen-year-old Warren out of trouble on the cell block and coming to my jailhouse classroom. But Manchild in the Promised Land did. As Warren put it, “I’ve never ever read a whole book before,” but once he got his hands on Claude Brown’s memoir that changed. Slowly, he got lost in a book that not only reflected Warren’s own troubled life but also did something else—showed him a young man much like himself deciding that life on the streets was no life at all. That book helped keep Warren out of trouble and coming to school long after he’d read the last page.

The way poetry did for ‘Nor. A seventeen-year-old single mom who worked the 3-11 shift at Sears, ‘Nor never missed a day of school because of the poets she read in class like Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Rilke, Luis Rodriguez, and her favorite, the enigmatic Emily Dickinson. She didn’t always understand what she read but those words helped her survive life in the projects where too often words had nothing to do with poetry.

And it’s hard to imagine that George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language would have had Tanya, a real cut-up with a long suspension record from her home school, jumping off the school bus and running towards me yelling, “Mr. C., Mr. C, I finished 1984! I can’t believe what they did to Winston!”

Given the way this country is going, haunted by one tragedy after another, maybe it’s time to re-examine what we want our true Common Core to be. Maybe it’s time to worry more about the heart of America, and about all America’s children and less about the bankrolls of corporate America. Let’s design a reading curriculum that keeps kids connected to their schools, to their communities and to their best selves.

Originally appeared on Huffington Post

 

We all want schools to be welcoming places. What better way for students to learn than when they feel comfortable and safe. But schools have become less welcoming as education gets more mired in the mandates of Common Core curriculum and high stakes testing. The pressure is on for everyone–students, teachers, administrators, even parents–to meet these requirements or risk severe consequences (such as being labeled a “failing school.”) Although schools, especially in the higher grades, in one way or another have always had a culture of competition and conformity, things seem worse these days. Catherine Gobron, today’s contributor, knows all about young people’s reactions to that culture. She is the program director for North Star,  a center of “self-directed learning for teens.” I love their slogan, “Learning is natural. School is optional.” It says it all. Just because a kid stops going to school doesn’t mean that she or he isn’t interested in learning, isn’t curious about the world. As Catherine explains in her piece, teens say “no” to school for a variety of reasons. Many are just looking for a few adults who have the courage to listen to them and to guide them wherever their interests take them. Catherine is one of those adults and North Star is one of those places. You can read more of Catherine’s writings on Huffington Post.

“Learning is Natural. School is Optional”

I left high school when I was 17. My GPA was 3.9, but I was failing due to excessive absences. I had friends who were content and thriving, but I hated to be there. I felt constrained, disrespected, and uninvolved. My discontent was a negative experience for everyone who had to deal with me.

I eventually found my way to a diploma and college degrees and decided on a career in teaching. I wanted to be the teacher I didn’t have, the one who would see me through my anger and believe in me despite my negative relationship to school. But one semester into my standard track Masters in Education program and I was exhausted by frustrations similar to those that drove me from school as a student so many years earlier. Rubrics, standards, testing…these suffocated me as a youth, and as it turned out, I still felt that way as an adult.

I changed programs to Creative Arts in Learning and set about finding ways to serve students outside of  traditional school.

I now direct a program where teens who are unhappy in school are supported to leave school to pursue self-directed learning. We tell teens that not thriving in school is not indicative of anything. It’s just a bad match. There are other routes to happy and successful futures, and we support each of our students to pursue his or her unique path.

Every day is an adventure in our strange, new universe, and every day something beautiful happens. Kindnesses occur between students who would not have spoken to each other in school. Students re-imagine themselves as artists, or readers, or public speakers in ways that seemed unthinkable before.

Two years ago Jacqueline arrived fresh from school, shut down and incredibly small for such a tall young woman. She had various mental health diagnoses and was taking several prescription medications. Our environment is safe, welcoming, and accepting, and Jacqueline spent the first six months alone in our comfortable library, reading, sitting, thinking. At some point she became interested in dancing and confident enough to join a community dance class. Some time after she began comfortably spending social time in the noisy common room downstairs. She also stopped taking and stopped needing her medications. By the end of the year, Jacqueline identified herself as a dancer and at 17 she moved on to a dance program at a local community college, where she is now thriving.

A few years ago we gained a student who was a passionate activist, concerned about human rights. School was dominating his time and schedule, and keeping him from what he already knew was his life’s work. The stability of our program helped convince his parents that he could and would continue his education outside of school. He did. He also began writing for various publications and working on several committees with adults on human rights issues. He has been accepted to prestigious universities, but is currently choosing to live in a city away from home, interning for an established human rights organization. Our program helped set him free and allowed him to focus on his life’s work.

My job is not easy, of course.  But nine years in, it still feels like a gift.

A parent of one of the teens in our program once said to me, “It’s like he is a little sapling that was crushed by a boulder. Now that boulder has been removed, and slowly he is looking up again at the sun.”

I seem to have become the teacher I didn’t have after all. What a joy it is to remove boulders from little saplings.

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

I’ve written in the past about what I call “teachers in tough places”—men and women who spend their days teaching in the inner city, psych units, prisons and detention centers; schools that are often ill equipped, understaffed, and in some cases, dangerous. For those folks, teaching is a daily challenge. Today’s contributor, Joan Edwards-Acuna knows about challenge. She teaches high school students serving time in a New York adult county jail. Others in this series have written about the difficulties (and rewards) they’ve encountered working in a similar environment. But Joan’s challenge is compounded by the fact that most of her students are English Language Learners (ELL). According to the Center for American Progress, in the decade between 1997-98 and 2008-09, the number of ELLs in public schools has increased by more than 50%. Unfortunately studies also indicate that ELLs have the highest dropout rate among ethnic groups. With the Common Core curriculum in place the stakes are even higher for these students as well as for their teachers. What is refreshing and inspiring about Joan’s piece is how she not only doesn’t lament the difficulty of her job (some of her locked up students aren’t even literate in their native language), she outright welcomes it as an opportunity to, as she writes, “step up her game.” And as you’ll see, she not only steps up, she strides to success, bringing her students along with her as they all “race to the top.”

“Stepping Up My Game”

The year 2000 marked a turning point in my career as a high school ESL/ English teacher. Not only had I been downsized to half time, but the only opportunity to maintain a full time position was a transfer to an alternative program for incarcerated youth at the local adult county jail. The twenty first century had brought an onerous dilemma—or so I thought at the time. I soon discovered it had delivered a new opportunity to hone my skills and to reevaluate my teaching style. This transition forced me to step up my game.

English Language Learners (ELLs) who become incarcerated, experience unique challenges that no other students I serve encounter. They are usually “students with interrupted formal education” (SIFE), a term established by some state education departments to define immigrant students who face certain academic limitations.

My students did not stop going to school by choice, but by design. They were forced by economic hardship to interrupt what is considered routine to support not just themselves, but an entire family. They have risked their lives at great expense, to set foot on US soil to earn money the hard way—washing dishes, waiting tables, cooking, mowing lawns, painting and building houses—not just to feed the extended family south of the border, but also to pay off a debt. As a result in almost thirteen years, I have met few who are matriculated students, en route to a high school diploma.

Teaching in incarcerated education demands a kind of resilience and flexibility that only those of us in the trenches can appreciate. The “revolving door” phenomenon derails the best lesson plans. To have any real impact in the classroom requires an awareness of the emotional backlash of incarceration on adolescents. However, working with ELL’s forces a particular discernment. Despite their predicament, these students hold the teacher in high esteem, are respectful and conscientious, usually demonstrating an eagerness to master English as a second language (ESL).

As class rosters change with daily additions and deletions, my most immediate challenge is to create a community of learners in a classroom where students feel safe to take risks. English is a confusing language after all, with many exceptions to the rules, but getting to know their unique interests and abilities is a bridge to acculturation. I never penalize students for using native language, especially for the purpose of clarification. As students with interrupted education, literacy or a lack thereof, is a huge deficit that can not be ignored.

I remember well Jose, a nineteen year old from South America who was not literate even in Spanish. He had dropped out of school at an early age out of sheer frustration. I discovered he was dyslexic, but he had never been diagnosed. He saw no point in attending classes. It wasn’t until he revealed his love of horses that we had a breakthrough. I tapped into this passion, even though I had to adapt a bilingual approach to most of the assignments he completed.

I teach in a program flush with resources – a smart board in every classroom, access to desktops, laptops, the most up to date software, even the traditional standards such as picture dictionaries, flashcards and manipulatives are abundant.

I feel fortunate to have these supports in place; however, these tools are not what I use to measure how effective I am or what forced me to raise the bar for myself. Rather it’s recognizing the discrepancy between the formal diagnostic assessment and an authentic evaluation of students’ literacy skills. It’s meeting the challenge of creating a language-rich environment, and planning lessons that adapt to different learning styles and reading levels.  Differentiated teaching/learning becomes second nature in incarcerated education if you want to survive. It’s about maintaining consistency in an environment in which change is the only constant. Ultimately, it’s being able to encourage students to want to tell their stories because in my opinion, they need to be told. They are amazing stories of courage, determination and perseverance that all students, regardless of their background, can appreciate.

Measuring gain at this level of literacy is very tangible, sometimes even remarkable because it’s not just about improved reading and math scores. It’s also about a new found confidence or self-worth demonstrated in a more relaxed affect, or the desire to borrow a book from my mobile library—the “unquantifiables” that peep through the gloom of the status of court cases, depression and/or a lack of familial support.

As exhausting and demanding as the experience continues to be, the rewards of teaching literacy to incarcerated adolescents have made me a better teacher. The possibility to impact change in my students far outweighs the challenges of meeting state mandates and token administrative support.

Recently I ran into a former student who had struggled to master English in class. He proudly introduced his family without hesitation and shared that he had remained gainfully employed. By some standards, this may not represent success, but for him, I knew this feat symbolized a hard fought battle. I encourage teachers to continue to see the glass half full. Your advocacy and passion won’t go unnoticed by the people who matter most – your students.

 

 

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

The teachers who have shared their experiences have taught in a variety of school settings: One at a reservation school, another in a community based program for ex-offenders and the last, in a magnet school’s kindergarten. Continuing the series Lauren Norton Carson contributes two pieces about her teaching in juvenile detention. In Boys and Books in Juvenile Lockup: It’s Magic she writes about the struggle of bringing together two seemingly contradictory forces—locked up teenagers and books. As she puts it, “Getting a teenage boy to read a book takes determination. Getting a teenage boy in lockup to read a book takes alchemy.” But that’s exactly what she does in this funny and warm narrative, and what she has done for the past 11 years teaching in juvenile corrections settings near Boston. When people ask her how she’s managed to teach so long in such  challenging settings she says, “Working with these boys is the most rewarding work I’ve done in all of my 25 years of teaching, and the most important.”  Paraphrasing Mark Twain, Lauren also says about her students, “They give me a great deal of trouble, and I enjoy it very much.” From that you get a feeling for the kind of spirit—a pioneer spirit, actually—that Lauren brings to her work and her classroom. In a second piece, a poem simply titled Reflection, Lauren poignantly describes a young man’s first shave—regrettably “celebrated” behind bars. What I love about this poem is that moment when “teacher” becomes “parent”. It’s a moment that many of us teachers have experienced, a moment, I suspect, that very few “education reformers” have ever had.

Boys and Books in Juvenile Lockup: It’s Magic!

I teach literacy skills to boys in juvenile corrections settings. They range in age from thirteen to eighteen and have usually skipped, dropped out of, or been expelled from school. For them, school “sucks” and so does reading. They’re not thrilled to be in my class, considering they’ve lost their freedom and are forced to go to school—where they have to read a book.

“Yo, Miss!” says Pete*, a thirteen-year-old who can’t seem to stop twitching in front of the bookcase. “I’m not reading no book!”

But sustained silent reading is a requirement of the school day, and even Perpetual Motion Pete has to comply. I pull Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key from the shelf.

“You might like this one, Pete. It’s about a kid who’s got wicked ADHD and gets in trouble all the time. His parents are whacked, too, and his grandmother’s worse than he is. It’s really funny. Joey’s a good kid and doesn’t mean to cause trouble. So he tries medication and all kinds of crazy things happen.”

I pause for a minute. I turn to put the book back on the shelf.

“Wait,” Pete mumbles. “Let me see.”

I hand the book to him and start walking away, then throw a few well-aimed words over my shoulder.

“Oh, yeah. And the guy who wrote that book, Jack Gantos, did time when he was 19. He went to jail for smuggling dope, but after he got out he became a children’s book writer. He even wrote a book about his jail time.” I turn around and resume walking.

Pete’s hooked. “He did? Where’s that one?”

I go back and pull out Gantos’s autobiographical Hole in My Life, knowing the text is too difficult for Pete to read independently. He reads at a fourth-grade level. But Pete knows a mug shot when he sees one and compares young Gantos on that book cover to the photo of dapper adult-author Gantos on Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.

“We’re going to read Hole in My Life later in class, so why don’t you try Joey Pigza now?” I say. I don’t tell him that there are two other books in the Joey Pigza series, each one as funny and poignant as the first. I’ll play that card later.

A pinch of mystery here, a dash of drama there, feigned indifference sprinkled in. Stir well and wait.  Pete nods and walks off, reading the book jacket as he goes.

I spend a lot of time buying and reading young adult and mid-grade books, trying to land such winning titles. When I found the fifteen-book Bluford High series, I knew I’d hit the juvenile detention jackpot. Written by Anne Schraff, Paul Langan, and various authors, the series is set in a contemporary California high school.

The characters are teenagers who flow in and out of one another’s stories: Ben and his no-good stepfather; Martin, who seeks revenge for his brother’s death; Darrell, who’s bullied; and Tyray, the bully.

My students relate readily to the teen characters’ conflicts of peer pressure, faltering parents, falling in love. Some also relate to the occasional violence and abuse. So they devour the Bluford High books. I even had to buy a second copy of each book because they started stealing them from one another.

But for some kids, even these high-interest novels are too difficult to read. So I hook them up to the CD player with headphones, an audiobook, and the text to go with it.  Some fight me at first, as Mario does when I try to entice him to listen to an abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo.

“Who cares about some dude named Crisco? I don’t want to listen to that!”

Mario spends the first day trying to switch from the audiobook to the radio while I’m not looking. But by the next afternoon, the count’s story of betrayal and revenge wins out. Mario forgets about the radio.

Then there are the boys who really surprise me, who go beyond the standard urban teen fiction to books I never think they’ll enjoy. There’s Shaquille, who at 6’3” almost mirrors his NBA namesake in size. He reads the unabridged Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales and declares them more “official” than the watered-down Disney versions.

Or tiny, eighteen-year-old Savhon, a gangbanger who’s never read any book before—in his native Khmer or in English. Savhon picks up a Danielle Steel novel that someone donated and is entranced. Six months and many yard sales later, I’ve brought him ten Steel novels, and he’s read every one.

“I didn’t know things could work out good for people,” he says. “They get happy. I like that.”

Harry Potter, the Twilight series, Lemony Snicket, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—these teenage boys wouldn’t touch such books “on the out.” Here, in the safety and security of a supportive, small-group environment, they do.

But unlike the enchanted Sorting Hat at Hogwarts, the books don’t just find the boys and declare themselves a match. They need a little assistance, which is where I come in.  Helping the boys improve their reading skills is my job. Yet that’s not why I peddle books, why I do the mixing and matching to find just the right one for each boy, no matter how unwilling he is. I do it because I love to read—to be transported from my world into the heart and fabric of another.

And it’s magic. Nothing gives me greater joy than to see a boy—especially one of these boys—lost in a book. Because I know that’s where he’ll find himself, maybe for the first time ever.

* All the boys’ names have been changed in this piece. 

Boys and Books in Juvenile Lockup: It’s Magic! originally appeared in Talking Writing, an online publication.

Reflection

“Yo, Miss!  Come here!”

His voice echoes down the cinder-block hallway,

bouncing off metal doors that clank shut

as others click open,

powered by an invisible electric hand.

“I’m shavin’!”

He’s shaving.

A fourteen-year-old whose coffee–dark skin

overshadows the few hairs clamoring to be cut.

A wiry boy in uniform greens standing at a hallway sink,

face lathered thick with prison-issue cream,

razor in hand.

A guard stands next to him, alert and uninterested.

“I’m shavin’,” he says again when I round the corner into view,

his voice high with excitement.

“It’s my first time!”

I wince,

a teacher-mother-mentor cringe.

He is a boy.

He is a gangbanger

who cut the skin of another with a blade so long

it pierced the kid’s heart—

another boy

who had no chance to shave off

the few seconds it would have taken to dodge death.

I see my own boy at fourteen

and the downy hairs that clung like amber milk

to his upper lip

and the ceremony we made of it all–

the water, the blade, the cream.

“Hurry up,” the officer says,

shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“Back to your cell in five.  Head count.”

My eyes fill up and I blink hard.

“Manny,” I say,

ignoring the guard ignoring me,

“I’m going to stand right here.

Because every boy should have a

witness

to his first shave.”

Manny turns back to the metal mirror,

slides the razor across his skin

and smiles.

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

Continuing this series Gayle Saks-Rodriguez writes about her experiences teaching incarcerated women and men of all ages. I first came across Gayle’s writings on OpenSalon.com, an interactive platform established by Salon.com, as well as on her own blog, “My Life in the Middle Ages.” Her pieces are honest, insightful, warm and gently humorous, and she’s not afraid to take on difficult topics as you’ll see from “Hide and Seek.” Too often teachers are portrayed as “money-grubbers,” interested only in maintaining their “cushy jobs” under the protection of tenure. Gayle belies that myth: In order to become a teacher—and a teacher in a very difficult and demanding environment—she gave up a comfortable, well paid career because, as she writes, “I know now that this is the work I was meant to do.” Gayle has embraced her work as a teacher of society’s throwaways with such enthusiasm and caring that I asked her to share some of her experiences helping students regain their footing in a world that seems to have little room for them.

Hide and Seek: When Locked up Students Misplace Their Inner Child

Two years ago I fell into what I call my “happy place”—a volunteer teacher position working with newly incarcerated women in a Northeast prison.  The experience has made me abandon an 18-year succession of nicely compensated jobs in non-profit fundraising.  I know now that this is the work I was meant to do.

When I first started working with the women in a weekly workshop, I devised a curriculum that I called “sensory memoir writing.”  As part of the course I asked my students about their dreams. After all, we all have a dream, the ultimate end-point, our “eyes on the prize” of something.  It should go without saying that at no point in a person’s life is prison the “pot at the end of the rainbow.”  Yet that wasn’t the case with these women. In trying to get them to uncover the dreams they once had, I led them through an exercise that I hoped would “uncrush” their spirit in the process.

One student remembered her love of figure skating and how becoming an instructor of kids was something she always wanted to do.  She was able to re-live the freedom of spinning around on the ice and how freeing that was for her.  A beautiful 20-year old Latina talked about becoming a professional guitar player, a skill she picked up as a teenager as a way to bring her closer to a checked-out father.  While another woman, white, in her 40s, hardened by years of heavy drug abuse, said she lost her dreams at 10 when her mother shot her up with heroin for the first time.

Then three months ago I scored a part-time job with a community based non-profit teaching life and transitional skills to males at various stages of reentry after serving prison stints from 2 years to 26 years. Their ages range from 15-65+.  I customize my curriculum to the skills my student’s need, everything from basic hygiene for a very low-functioning small group of youth offenders to parenting and anger management for a pretty hard core group of felons who feel they have learned everything they need to know. I teach interviewing skills and resume writing to a group of older students who find themselves in the worst Catch-22 of their lives, desperately WANTING to turn their lives around but finding that no one will hire them with the types of offenses that are easily uncovered.

The youngest group is made up of those in the juvenile justice system. They are too young to be committed as adults, but have a history of crimes under their belts that often doesn’t bode well for a better future.  I rarely know the details of what they’ve done, but they often volunteer little snippets of their learned behaviors.  These young men speak, sometimes sadly, sometimes with indifference, of their incarcerated parents and siblings, the very adults who were supposed to be their “teachers” but who left them behind, because they were driven by their own addictions and demons.

As I do with the women, I use a similar ice-breaking exercise with each of these groups, asking questions that encourage self-reflection.  My students have to think about and answer prompts such as “I am happiest when___________” or “When I am alone I_______________”. The last prompt on a list of 25 is “My child within is________”

I have compared the answers of all the groups I teach—female and male—to this last prompt.  They have said things like, “My child within is playing video games,” “is at Six Flags,” “is happy,” “curious.”  Every once in a while there will be women who have grown up together and one will help the other to remember their common upbringing, hanging out at the other’s home after school, backing up the other’s assertion  of how cool her mother was.

The older men have said things like, “still there,” “strong,” “determined.” While the youngest group, the under 21-year olds, often describe their “child within” as happy.  They seem to have some support on the outside, still grin ear-to-ear when they talk about “my moms,” their “baby mamas,” or their grandparents.   They have often discussed their happiest childhood memories, most involving family trips that include a stay in a hotel, room service and swimming pools.  Oftentimes, the implication is that those memories will remain firmly planted in the past, one-offs, not to be repeated any time soon.

After a recent class I read the answers to the questionnaire of a seemingly detached Latino young man whose head had been on the desk the entire time, not participating or sharing his answers with the small group.   When I read the answer to the last question my heart seized a bit: “My child within is gone.”

So many of these men and women—young and old—have had their dreams stomped on.  Last week I asked a 17-yr old what his dream is.  He answered without hesitation, “My dream is to have a dream.”  Time and time again I’ve heard from students that they firmly believe that dreams never come true, even when what they had visualized themselves becoming in the past is as simple as being a dog walker or hair stylist.  Their paths have been road-blocked by bad choices and absentee role models.   If we—teachers, families, neighbors—can’t show them the way, show them the steps that CAN be taken to help them get to a realistic end-point, then we all have failed.