Archive for the ‘Crime Prevention’ Category

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.

Louisa, a kindergarten teacher in a magnet school in New England, is today’s guest contributor.  I know from our conversations and correspondences that Louisa feels strongly about the politics of education and how it effects what happens in the classroom. We’ve talked about some of the things she’d like to say in this forum, and she has promised to explore those issues in the future, but what Louisa writes about today could never have entered our imagination during those discussions. She wrote “A Kindergarten Teacher Rethinks Her Job” when she got home on Monday, her first day in the classroom after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is a short but powerful piece.

In the Wake of Sandy Hook a Kindergarten Teacher Rethinks Her Job

I am a kindergarten teacher. I have been working in early childhood environments for thirty years. My unofficial job description covers a wide variety of responsibilities. They range from writing curriculum and teaching reading (more about that another time) to helping children when they have bathroom accidents. I assess kids thoroughly (more about this another time). I spend weekends writing report cards (like teachers everywhere) and meet and talk with parents frequently. I jump through bureaucratic hoops.

I keep an eye out for families that don’t have coats or money for Christmas presents, and my school, to its credit, finds a way to come through for families going through hard times. I sing and laugh with kids. I teach cooperative games. Math, social studies and science. I help kids get their coats on, and I teach them how to tie their shoes. I teach them how to plant things and how to observe the world carefully. I teach them to stand up for themselves and how to solve conflicts.

There is, however, an essential part of my job that I have not performed. The terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown have shown me this. What I now see that is a part of my job is to be an active advocate for gun control and for a viable mental health system in our country.  It is so clear to me that the children who died in Sandy Hook could have easily been my students (and I’m sure every other teacher in the country feels this).  Other people have said it better than I can, Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg among them: Our country needs to change. Allowing our small children to be murdered is intolerable. (And why did we stand so long for anybody being murdered?)

Monday morning I didn’t cry the way I feared I would as school started. Instead it was a lovely day because we were all alive and just living together, singing, dancing, reading, eating, pooping in our pants. So let’s do this thing. Let’s free ourselves from a scourge. Sign the petitions, march in the streets, call our representatives, the White House. By making our children safer, we can make a world that is worth growing up into.

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.

Often when I give a talk I’m asked if I know what happened to any of the young people I knew and write about. I always feel badly and a little guilty at this point in my presentation because I have to confess that much too often when a kid left jail I lost track of him or her.

It wasn’t from a lack of trying. Like  all of the staff –teachers and social workers– in the jailhouse program where I taught, I made efforts to stay in touch with the students. And the students themselves seemed determined to maintain the relationships they had developed with all of us, since those relationships frequently were the healthiest ones they had ever had. But once “out in the world,” as my students would say, a world that had not changed while they had–same friends on the same streets waiting for you, same unemployment, same fractured families, same violent neighborhoods–it didn’t take long for them to get reabsorbed into that world and disappear, until that is the next time they were arrested and showed up in my classroom. Or until we heard that one of them had been shot dead in the street.

What happens to young offenders once they leave prison goes pretty much undocumented. That’s way a recent study by Northwestern University which followed for a period of 5 years (1993 to 1998) young people formerly incarcerated is an important window into a world not many Americans know, or seem to care about. It confirms the fate what many of us have known or suspected for a long time. Here’s just a sample:

Based on the study’s data, more than 80 percent of juveniles who enter the criminal justice system early in life have at some point belonged to a gang. Seventy percent of men and 40 percent of women have used a firearm. The average age of first gun use is 14. At any given time, 20 percent are incarcerated.

Unemployment is rampant: 71 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women are without jobs as adults. Of the 1,829 youths originally enrolled in the study, 119 have died, most of them violently — a death rate three to five times as high as the one for Cook County men in the same age group over all and four times as high as the one for women. In all, 130 have been shot, shot at, stabbed or otherwise violently attacked. As a group, they show high rates of post-traumatic stress, depression and other psychiatric disorders.

The study paints a bleak picture of the lives of these young people. But it’s a picture that must be looked at squarely before we can make significant changes to our broken criminal justice system.

Once again Solitary Watch has posted another very powerful and disturbing piece, this one about an aging and dying population in prison.

Although I more frequently write about the fate of young offenders locked up in our nation’s jail, I was deeply moved by the article and wanted to call attention to it. Lately I’ve been more and more aware that the fate of all the children and young people that the criminal justice system consigns to living behind bars will, if changes are not made in how we treat juvenile offenders, lead to the same fate facing the men and women talked about in this article, “The Other Death Sentence.”

In my own experience teaching in a county prison I would see old men–stooped, hollowed out  by disease and hard living, some shuffling along barely able to walk, some using aluminum walkers–and wonder, “What did you do to get yourself in here?” My incredulity was often shared by others. I’d overhear correctional officers and other inmates greeting these old men respectfully as “papi,” or “pops,” commenting to them that they should be home with their grandchildren. There was never any contempt in those remarks,  just real sadness and pity at these men’s lives.  Even the kids I taught would talk about how they needed to get their lives together so they didn’t end up like those “old timers.”

So as Americans insist on  “tough” criminal laws and harsher sentences as a solution to our crime problems,  our prisons will continue to fill up with men and women, growing old, getting sick and dying. Even if one isn’t moved by humanitarian concerns for this population, the economic ramifications should be bleak enough to make us all stop and reexamine the best way to prevent crime.

It’s good to see that juvenile and family court judges have spoken out about the “Scared Straight” approach to juvenile justice. They raise the same issue that so many of us have expressed: are kids really deterred from crime by the controlled, choreographed exposure to jail culture? Check out the judges’ statement.

I’ve worked with “slow” learners all of my 26 years as a teacher. But nothing matches the lack of understanding, insight and plain common sense that many of our politicians and their constituents show when it comes to the treatment of ex-offenders, people who by the law of the land have served their time, paid their dues, made amends, learned their lesson, been punished—whatever language matches your view of justice.

I’m thinking about ex-offenders and voting rights. In many states men and women who have been incarcerated are denied one of the basic rights of any democracy: to help select who will govern your daily life. Meanwhile, ex-offenders are expected to stay out of jail, rebuild their lives, and become productive members of the community even though they can’t fully be a part of that community.

I’m not too sure how many people see the irony in that logic. The kids I taught for ten years in the county jail did. Most of them had been labeled “slow,” and yes, most of them probably weren’t able to articulate what irony is (then again, I’m not too sure how many other Americans could either.) Still, these kids knew it when they saw it.

Anyone who has been locked up hears plenty about respect for society, for the law, for other people and their property, and so they should since that respect is essential for civil communities and nations. But at the same time inmates and ex-offenders are not afforded that same respect when it comes to jobs, housing and voting rights. Or as my students would put it, “What goes ‘round, in this case, definitely doesn’t come ‘round.”

The ACLU reports that many states continue to deny voting rights to ex-offenders and that that denial can extend anywhere from the length of time the person has been incarcerated up to a lifetime in ten states. While Virginia’s new leader, Governor McDonnell, intents not only to continue the process already in place of allowing former inmates to apply for a restoration of their voting rights but to actually streamline it, Iowa is about to take a step backward. Newly elected Governor Branstad declared during the gubernatorial race that he would rescind his predecessor’s 2005 executive order restoring voting rights to ex-offenders. He seems set to follow through on that regressive and oppressive promise despite the urgent call from over 20 civil rights groups to reconsider.

Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but whenever I hear stories like Iowa’s governor rescinding voting rights, I can’t help thinking, “What lesson are we trying to teach?”

Most offenders have been disenfranchised all their lives. They’ve never felt a part of any society. Many come from backgrounds of deprivation, living in neighborhoods devastated by poverty, violence, addiction and disease, neighborhoods abandoned by the larger community. The schools they attended, or in so many cases were kicked out of or fled from on their own, weren’t much better. And not coincidently the majority of locked up men and women are people of color.

The way they are treated during incarceration as well as when they are released only reinforces the lessons they’ve had drummed into them since childhood—that they are outcasts, outsiders, and eventually outlaws. A basic concept in all human relations is that the way we treat people is the way they’ll act. When my jailhouse students and I discussed this idea in a communications lesson they summed it up crudely but cogently, “Treat people like shit and they’ll act like shit.”

And so we’re back to the slow learners. Too often people are puzzled and angered at the high rate of recidivism among young offenders.  “Why can’t these kids just learn their lesson and stay out of jail?” But I’m not too sure who’s the slow learner here. It looks to me as though those repeat offenders may have learned the lesson we’re teaching all too well. Perhaps it’s our policymakers, and ultimately we the voters, who are the slow learners as we continue to fail to recognize the damaging effects the criminal justice system has on all its citizens. A small but significant step in correcting our national ignorance would be to restore voting rights to ex-offenders and so restore a small portion of the respect and dignity they’ve been denied.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

Here are two excellent sites that give concrete rebuttals to the whole “Scared Straight” approach to preventing kids from getting involved in crime. The idea of scaring kids out of trouble has popped up again because of the series on A&E. As I mentioned in a previous post on “Scared Straight,”  instead of teaching young people to stay away from crime it actually may increase they’re attraction to it. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice addresses this issue in a report that shows some of the data that has been collected on the program’s effectiveness. Likewise, the Coalition in an article entitled “Beyond ‘Scared Straight’ “ presents a counter approach to this “cowboy” “rough and tumble” technique of crime prevention .