Posts Tagged ‘Incarcerated 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.

“Teachers in Their Own Words” is a forum for teachers, not “education reformers,” to talk about schools, students and what really happens in a classroom. Despite the title of her piece, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher,” I’m happy to add Anna Feldman’s voice to the series. As you’ll see, Anna, who is a facilitator for a creative writing workshop, is very much a teacher despite the difference in nomenclature. She has all the best qualities of a real teacher: she fosters openness and trust among her learners; gives each of them the freedom to create and explore; is interested in what her students learn, not as a testable commodity but as way to explore the world and themselves. And she does this all in a very challenging environment—a Department of Youth Services detention center for girls. Just as working in a facility like that is complicated, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher” is a complicated piece. Anna’s essay raises a variety of issues—the role of teacher, the stumbling blocks to learning, the impact of outside influences on a young person’s ability to learn. Yet she does it with a good bit of humor (most teachers will chuckle at her description of giving assignment directions to her learners), honesty and humility.

Anna has worked with Voices from Inside since 2010 and is editor of Women Writing in Jail: An Anthology (Voices from Inside & Levellers Press, 2011). A Wells College graduate in creative writing and psychology, Anna is passionate about at-risk youth advocacy, the arts, and animals. Her dream job would probably combine all three. She would like to thank Pauline Bassett, her co-facilitator, for all of her help and support.

Confessions of a Non-Teacher

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

Voices from Inside, a Florence-based volunteer organization that provides writing workshops to incarcerated women using the Amherst Writers and Artists Method of workshop facilitation (AWA),  has recently expanded to a Department of Youth Services facility for teenage girls. One of the first tenets of the method is that the workshop is never a class; there are no grades, no critique, no negativity. Internal editors present in every other aspect of life are not invited.

A writer, as we say in AWA, is someone who writes.

On the surface, it sounds like it would be so much easier than a class. So much more comfortable, so much more…free. That’s part of what I’ve always loved about this method when I’ve worked with incarcerated women in the past. Without the pretenses of grades, competition, or judgment, participants have often surprised me – and, more important, themselves – with their expression and their vulnerability. Women who are barely literate write hauntingly beautiful prose; women who think they’re going to hate the workshop end up being the most active.

So, when I was asked if I wanted to co-facilitate a workshop at the DYS site, I barely thought before saying yes. At-risk youth is one of my favorite populations to work with, partly because it’s humbling to watch them find their strengths and come into their own, and partly because, at 26, I feel like I get them in so many ways. While I haven’t had the same struggles many of them have had, there’s an unspoken understanding between us wherein they can see that I’m more similar to them than many of their teachers and clinicians. I look like them. I speak their language. I come to each workshop in jeans, a fun shirt, and funky jewelry; when they converse about their celebrity crushes and movies they like, I know what they’re talking about. And, in that understanding, I take that implicit trust they place in me and guard it as safely as I possibly can.

When I hand out prompts, this is usually the conversation that ensues:

Me: They call these “story starters,” but they’re just ideas. You can do anything with them. Use one of them, use all of them, use none of them. Remember, prompts are always optional.

Girl: Do we have to use these?

Me (cheerfully): No, you can use them if you want, but if you don’t like them, you can write something else.

Second girl: Can it be a poem?

Co-facilitator (cheerfully): Sure. Anything you want to write.

Third girl: What do we do with these?

Staff member (exasperatedly): You write a poem or a story about any of these lines. If you don’t want to use them, write about something else.

After about four weeks of this, it was hard not to wonder what we were doing wrong. While there was no question that most, if not all, of these girls struggled academically, they were also smart and literate—the writing they had produced thus far spoke to that. It didn’t seem likely that they would flat-out forget from week to week, either.

What was it, then? Were the prompts too complicated? Did I talk too fast? Were the girls not paying attention to us? Did they simply not care?

It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my co-facilitator about something unrelated (or so I thought at the time) that it began to dawn on me.

Another tenet of the AWA method is that when we comment on each other’s work, we focus only on the positive aspects of the writing—what struck us, what we remembered most vividly, what we particularly enjoyed and why. The women in the jail workshops tended to do well with this, but halfway through the session, the girls still had trouble. Sometimes they’d respond with an “I like it!” but wouldn’t be able to follow up if we tried to press for more details, and most didn’t say anything.

“What is that?” I asked my co-facilitator on our drive home one evening. “Why do they have so much trouble giving comments? Are they just really eager to get to their turn?”

“Probably,” she acknowledged. “They’re probably also not used to being asked what they think.”

That was about when the proverbial light bulb turned on above my head.

The girls’ facility is very different from the jails I’d been to in the past. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve interacted with a corrections officer at the jail; here, staff are everywhere. They sit in with us during our workshop (not writing, mind you) and bark at anyone who speaks out of turn. Where we would politely ask a girl to participate, a supervisor turns it into an order. More often than not, they respond to girls’ questions with exasperation. They keep a keen eye on the clock and herd us out the moment it’s to leave.

There’s a rule for everything. (Whether or not it’s going to be enforced on any given day is a different question, but that could be a topic for whole other entry.)

The workshop had all the potential in the world to be freeing, but the girls had no idea what to do with the freedom we were bringing them.

I don’t have any kind of plan or formula for how to address this; for the most part, I don’t have any more information than I did a few weeks ago, nor do I have the authority to make—or suggest—changes to how things are done at the facility.

What I can do, though, is be conscientious, and really, that may be the most important thing. How easily we forget that some of the most mundane things in our lives are uncharted territory (and, therefore, probably scary) for others. Just as someone would feel self-conscious and daunted walking into a party full of people they don’t know, so too would someone who has never been unconditionally complimented or told her opinions truly mattered, when all of a sudden she’s being showered with praise and asked repeatedly what she thinks by people who really want to know. Just recognizing that allows me to be present in each workshop with a perspective I hadn’t had before.

I can provide them with a space where vulnerability is safe; where being wrong is okay. (In AWA workshops, there really is no “wrong,” but if, for instance, a girl slipped and mentioned something she didn’t like about someone’s writing, we wouldn’t respond with anger or hostility. We would simply remind her why it’s important to focus on the positive and encourage her to try again.)

With the trust the girls have given me, I can encourage them out of their comfort zones, and I can come out of mine around them, too. My co-facilitator recently mentioned that I sing, which of course prompted the girls to ask me to sing for them. I was nervous, but I sang a verse of “Blackbird.” They didn’t care that I wasn’t warmed up or that my voice shook a little at the beginning. I had done something that scared me and come out of it perfectly fine on the other side. I gave them my trust and they handled it with care and grace – just as I handle theirs.

I can be myself and encourage them to do the same. I can remember what it’s like to be sixteen and know that sometimes who said what at dinner is the most important topic in the room. We’ve all been there.

And though I’m neither a teacher nor conducting a class, I can acknowledge them when they use literary devices in their writing. (“That’s personification!” I excitedly explained to a girl one week in response to how she’d described a wall.) The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t have to be dry and tedious.

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

I think we’ve all managed to learn something anyway. And I think we’re all feeling a little freer for the process.

Statewide test day and Damian was psyched. He didn’t sleep much the night before from worrying. Still, he was there on time, ready to go. Now he sat hunched over his desk, head down, lips moving as he read, his pen carefully inching across the paper.

He was like any other kid in his grade taking the mandated English exam. The only difference was that he was locked up in an adult county jail in Westchester, NY where I taught high school for ten years, and he was reading—and barely writing—on a 4th grade level, which was up from the 2nd grade level he came in with.

Damian was a tall, thin 17 year old with a bushed-out Afro who had been in and out of juvenile placements since childhood—foster care; group homes; detention centers; jails. As a result, he had as many gaps in his education as he had in his mouth from missing teeth, most prominently his front two. The list of his educational diagnoses was almost as long as his rap sheet. Mentally Retarded. Learning disabled. Behavioral disorder. ADD/HD. Oppositional personality. Yet as badly as he’d done in school, a part of him always valued education.

Over the months I had him in class, something clicked for Damian. He never missed a day. He worked hard, asked for homework—and did it. His progress was daily. Soon, his reading rose from that humiliating 2nd grade level to 3rd to 4th grade. The kid was on the move. But something else was happening. When Damian first came to class, he never looked anyone in the face and hid what he called his “baby work.” Now he was more self-confident. He was proud of his improvement and suddenly saw himself as a learner.

Then the mandated end-of-year state tests came round.

When I was told that Damian had to take the English exam I was as uncomprehending as he must have felt sometimes trying to decipher a page of print.

“It’s got to be a mistake,” I said to our on-site test administrator. “The kid’s reading on a 4th grade level. Maybe on paper he’s an 11th grader, but he doesn’t have the credits or the skills for the 11th grade.”

“It’s not a mistake,” she explained. “He’s enrolled in high school. Technically, he’s 11th grade; so he has to take the test.”

Then she tried to soften the regulation by explaining the reasoning behind it: a student was required to take the test and fail it in order to be eligible for remediation classes. I didn’t bother to interpret back to her what I heard: Damian had to fail a test we all knew he would fail in order to prove that he would fail it so he could get “remediation.” Kids, especially kids like Damian, don’t think like educational pundits. It was easy to imagine the damage this latest failure would do to his burgeoning self-confidence as a learner.

Unfortunately, he’d already been told that he was scheduled to take the exam before I talked to him. When I suggested that he might not feel ready to take the test, that it was okay if he didn’t show up, he could take it another time, he looked at me as though I was every white teacher he’d ever had who’d told him that he’d never succeed so why bother. After that I knew he’d be there on test day.

The Comprehensive English exam is two days, a total of 6 hours. Damian was there both days, for every minute of those 6 hours, doing the best he could. It was painful to watch.

I wish Damian was the only example of such mandated failure. But there are lots of Damians in classrooms across the country in places as diverse as jails, psych hospitals, rehabs, juvenile detention centers, special ed classes who find themselves in similar situations. Now that Obama’s educational reforms are continuing where Bush’s left off with their reliance on standardized test results as the prime measure of educational success, I’m afraid that there will be many more kids, and teachers, facing similar struggles.

I am not recommending social promotion. Nor am I suggesting “feel good” education. I wouldn’t insult kids like Damian. Students should be held to rigorous academic standards. However, teachers—and there are many of who are fiercely dedicated to this hard-to-reach population—should be allowed some flexibility to evaluate their students’ readiness and plan accordingly. That local flexibility can’t happen under the present reform blueprint. And given all that is at stake—money, autonomy, prestige, reputations—superintendents, principals, and supervisors will adhere, perhaps reluctantly, to these lock-step standards rather than advocate for the needs of these vulnerable kids and their teachers in their districts.

Certainly gains have been made nationwide. But all of us—teachers, parents and school administrators—should share, on a local and national level, the concern many civil rights groups such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition have recently expressed: that the very students these reforms were meant to keep in school—poor, disaffected, disenfranchised, minority kids—will continue to be left out and left behind.

Originally posted on Huffington Post