Posts Tagged ‘Education’

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?

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Maybeth Zeman’s Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time demonstrates, through a series of heartwarming yet heartbreaking stories, what anyone who has worked with juvenile offenders knows: that the thousands of minors locked up in US prisons—at least 10,000 such kids held in adult correctional facilities on any given night—are just children.

The media makes it easy for Americans to ignore this obvious fact with its visual clips cycling through the Nightly News mill showing teenagers of color, usually in hoodies, being let away in cuffs to a police cruiser or a young African American boy in an orange jump suit and shackles shuffling into court. Too few people see the half-truths behind those images. But Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian won’t let you turn your back on what juvenile justice really means in this country or on the vulnerability of these young people’s lives.

Zeman doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings, though. She gives backbone and bite to these boys’ stories by effortlessly weaving into her narrative research about such crucial topics as the psychological and neurological development of children, the devastating effects of poverty and racism on personality development, the high rates of juvenile recidivism. These studies challenge the reader to examine the laws governing how youth are handled in the legal system and the impact of prison culture on young offenders once they disappear behind the walls and razor wires into a world where the retribution trumps rehabilitation.

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian would be an important book if it just stopped there. But it doesn’t. There’s another tale to tell. Although Zeman is a transitional counselor for a prison high school program, she is also a trained librarian. When she realizes that there isn’t a lending library for her students she does what any librarian would do. She gets a book cart and loads it up with all sorts of fiction and nonfiction including comic books.

There are no pretentions to her library on wheels. She is delightfully unconcerned with Core Curriculum, mandated standards, “the canon” of literature. A firm believer in the power of story and books to open up people’s lives, especially the lives of locked up kids whose worlds are limited and narrow, Zeman sets out to peddle her wares—adventure and mystery; heroes, superheroes and villains; customs and people from other cultures. As she writes, “The great thing about reading books is that they change where we are, and how we are, for a few minutes or even a few hours every day.” And that momentary relief for a locked up kid can often be a life saver in the chaos of jail.

I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries and know the sound that a book cart makes with its squeaky wheels. As Zeman describes pushing her cart through the prison hallways from classroom to classroom I could easily imagine that squeak calling kids out of the harsh reality of prison into the safe world of words and graphics like the pull of a Good Humor truck’s bell.

And those orange clad boys are just as hungry for something to read as they might be for a “King Cone” or a “Candy Center Crunch.” The reader can’t help but laugh, and be moved by their eagerness, asking for a particular book or comic, barely able to cover up their disappointment if the “Green Lantern” comic they’ve been waiting for hasn’t come back yet. They keep track like the old fashion librarian of what’s out, what’s in, overdue, or lost. There’s a poignancy to these boys and their books as though they themselves know what they missed as children and are now trying to make up for lost time and innocence.

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time opens up to the reader—like the books that Zeman peddles to her students—a stark and punishing world that so few people know about, yet a world that is created and maintained in each of our names as citizens of this country. But she is a gentle alchemist. She mixes the harsh realities of prison life with just enough facts and a good bit of heart as she walks us through the same dark places into which so many of our children are sent every day.

Most teachers are curious about what school is like for a student. Meet a kindergarten tyke encountering the classroom for the first time; a middle schooler trying to balance body chemistry, a developing mind and new ways of learning; a high school teenager looking beyond the classroom into the world and most teachers want to hear how he or she is experiencing one of the most important parts of their lives.

So when I saw my 11 year old niece recently I asked her how school was going. I was prepared for the standard kid response—“fine.” What I wasn’t prepared for was the sudden sound of defeat in her answer.

Kim’s a pretty bouncy young girl. Just before I asked my question she had given me a tour of her newly decorated room. No more pink princess motif. Now it was retro 60s décor—lava lamp, peace symbol shades, shiny bead curtain across the closet door. She proudly twirled a baton as she announced, “I’m on the cheerleader squad.” She showed me her laptop, her school books, the age old array of glittery pens.

“So, how’s school, fifth grade this year, right?” I asked. Kim’s face fell, all the bounce—and light—went out of her. “I’m not an A student,” she whispered and looked down at the floor. If you knew Kim, her evident shame and embarrassment would surprise you as much as it did me. It took a lot to extinguish her usual enthusiasm about life, including school.

I couldn’t let that stand. “Yeah, well that’s just grades. What about the rest of it? Do you like your school? How about your teacher?” It didn’t take much to turn the light back on. She loved her teacher, the school, the interesting projects they had been doing.

“It’s that damn Common Core Curriculum,” her mother told me after Kim went off to play. “It’s killing her. It’s killing a lot of the other kids too. She’s working hard and I’m getting her extra help but she’s so down on herself.” We talked about the frustration she and other parents were having with the new imposed standards, standards that baffled them. I told her that they weren’t the only ones angry and mystified about what was happening in their children’s schools. Many teachers shared the same frustration with the curriculum changes imposed on schools by Federal standards, including the lack of implementation funds and clear direction on how to make it all work—and not hurt kids in the process.

I left that family gathering not feeling very exuberant myself. As much as I could sympathize with Kim’s mother and the other parents, I was haunted, disturbed and saddened by that young girl’s answer, “I’m not an A student.”
It was painful enough to see the shame on Kim’s face. But when I thought about it further I realized that her experience wasn’t an isolated one. Kids across the country are faced with that same sense of personal failure. They know the stakes are high these days. They learn in an environment that aims to “Race to the Top.” They live at a time when education pundits claim that “data is the great equalizer,” and schools, instead of having “walls of fame” celebrating student achievement in all walks of life, now have “data walls” displaying each student’s rank based on test performance. Today’s kids know that their personal academic performance affects not only themselves but also their teachers, their principals and ultimately the fate of their schools. What other generation has grown up with that kind of pressure, that kind of fear?

A growing of number of parents and school districts are raising objections to the Common Core curriculum. Some parents are actively resisting high stakes testing, refusing to have their children participate in standardized tests. In response to these “opt out” decisions some districts have taken punitive measures and penalized the students for their parents’ actions by denying them the right to participate in team sports and after school activities; while others have implemented “sit and stare” policies in which the students not taking the test must sit in the testing room and do nothing for hours.

While parents and school boards fight these battles at the local, state and Federal levels, I’m afraid that we are losing kids by the day. Kids are giving up, are being made to feel like failures because they can’t jump through the shape-shifting hoops of the latest educational reform. If we don’t do something soon we are allowing the love of learning with which children are born and which will flourish with proper nurturing to be trampled as America races to the top—of what?

Originally posted on Huffington Post

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

 

This isn’t about teachers being afraid that they’ll be knifed in class, or have their cars stolen in the bad neighborhoods where they teach. Nor are they worried that a disruptive student will threaten them, or that a disturbed gunman will invade their school. It’s not about being berated by an angry parent, or accused of being unfair—or something far worse—by a student.

It’s a different kind of fear. I only began to understand this fear after I started the series “Teachers in Their Own Words” that I’ve been running here on “Kids in The System.”

I follow the education reform debate closely. Over time I realized that most of the voices raised in this debate were those of people who had nothing to do with the classroom. The obvious question was, “What do politicians, business executives, clergy, academic researchers know about teaching?” The people who would know best—teachers—were rarely heard. Yet the ones I knew and came in contact with were eager to talk about what they did. It was a decidedly different conversation from the ones the pundits and critics were having. Yes, most teachers lamented mandated testing, the loss of classroom autonomy and a one-size-fits-all curriculum shaped by test results. But most were happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do, given the day).

So I decided to invite teachers from a variety of 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.

Over the nine months that the series ran, I learned a lot. About what it was like teaching high school on a New Mexico reservation. About the challenges of teaching young offenders either still in prison or in a release program.  The Monday after the Sandy Hook shootings, a kindergarten teacher shared the joy she felt talking and singing and having an ordinary day with her very much alive little people.  Another teacher wrote about the difficulties of teaching English Language Learners and the burden that Common Core put on her and her students. I heard about the importance of community college as a stepping stone to success for new citizens, older learners and younger students making their way. One teacher told readers why she planned on spending a weekend in Washington DC for an “Occupy Education” event, while another explored the weaknesses of the Common Core curriculum and its far-reaching impact. There was the poignant “resignation letter” from a young teacher who had “had enough,” deciding to leave public education for a private school because she felt disloyal to all she believed teaching should be. And then there was the teacher who felt that the only way she could stay in education was to leave it, immersing herself in a student self-directed learning program.

In approaching teachers to write for the series I was surprised how many at first hesitated. It wasn’t because they were too busy or didn’t have anything to say. Some had even written drafts and then gotten cold feet about going public. None of the articles were vindictive or critical of their school administrations. None were personal attacks or a fault finding feast. If anything the pieces were warmhearted, funny, and insightful. What criticism there was was directed toward our national education policy and its harmful effect on students.  Still, in the end, a few teachers backed out altogether while others asked that their full name not be used or that their schools’ location be purposely vague.

And there’s the fear. Teachers were worried that somehow they would get in trouble with their school administrators. From what many teachers report there’s a strong message being given to teaching staffs: Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t ask questions. Don’t bring up the inconvenient truth, say, of a school policy implemented to meet a national mandate that contradicts current research or best practices.  In such an atmosphere of distrust, powerlessness, and alienation from what should be a culture of collegiality and collaboration what choices do teachers have but to hunker down and try to survive? After all, these days, teacher evaluations have become just as high stakes as student testing.

According to a MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, teacher satisfaction has slipped from 65% in 2008 to only 39% in 2012. Perhaps this fear of speaking out is contributing to that dissatisfaction. The sample of teachers that I encountered may seem small and therefore inconclusive. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that teachers from different schools and different parts of the country felt this fear, this need for caution. But it’s enough to make me wonder what is going on in our schools when teachers are afraid to engage in sincere democratic discourse, a process that we have always valued and that we teach our students is an essential ingredient of a healthy country.

Originally posted on Huffington Post