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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
“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.
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!”
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—
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
to his first shave.”
Manny turns back to the metal mirror,
slides the razor across his skin