Upon arriving in the Education Department at 6 p.m., I was met by Bill Batton, the head prisoner in charge of ACE (Adult Continuing Education) courses. He had a box of supplies for me. This box contained 20 pencils, 20 paper folders containing my pre-test and a few sheets of paper, a piece of cloth to erase the dry erase board, a dry erase marker, and my finalized class prospectus for me to sign off on. Mr. Batton also showed me to my classroom; a small classroom with a number of mismatched desks and plastic chairs. Ahh. So, this is where I was to teach.
Once in the classroom, I rearranged the desks and chairs so that my desk was by the door; a good place in the classroom for everyone to look. I took a cursory count of chairs to see if I had enough. My suspicions were correct in that I had to go borrow an additional two chairs from the classroom next door. I then went about placing packets that I had created into each folder. These would be passed out to the students. These packets contained the ACE class rules, their vocabulary list, and a few other packets; one of which contained sell-sheets for books written by prisoners and published by Midnight Express Books (www.midnightexpressbooks.com); a subsidy press that works with prisoner-writers.
At around 6:20 p.m,. a man walked into the classroom. After some idle chit-cha,t he explained to me that he actually wasn’t on the roster for my class, but that he really wanted to be in the class. I explained to him that he wouldn’t receive credit from the prison system for doing so, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to learn. What a delight to behold even before the class had started! So, I told him that if I had any no-shows that I would be fine with him sitting in on the class. He specifically wanted to learn how to write and publish e-books. So, I spent the 40 minutes prior to the start of class answering his questions about what exactly an e-book is and how one goes about publishing one. By the time 7 p.m. rolled around, the loudspeaker announced “Activities Move, Activities Move.” This is something unique to prisons that should be noted.
The prison keeps the interior doors and gates locked at all times except during “moves.” When a “move” is announced the prisoners are allowed to move from one part of the prison to another. These are executed usually on the hour and last for 10 minutes. My class starts at 7 p.m. So, my students come over on the 7 p.m. move.
As I sat waiting, faces that I had seen before passed my desk and took their seats. Part of creating this course was that I had to be available for three days earlier in the month. I had to sit at a desk in the library and allow people to sign up for my course. All-in-all, 38 people signed up. But this classroom only holds 18, so that is the number of persons that were supposed to show. Sadly, only 16 of the 18 showed. But then I had the extra guy. So, my number was at a healthy 17.
As each person passed my desk, my anxiety flared. I worried that I was not prepared. I worried that I’d draw a blank. I worried that I didn’t know the materials well enough. I worried about how to introduce myself. But what bothered me the most was the few who reached onto my desk and took pencils as they passed. I had planned on passing them out after class had started. However, I suppressed my frustration. I allowed those who took the pencils to hand on to them. I just wouldn’t hand them more when I passed the rest out. Certainly an anxiety producing experience. Certainly an educational experience. From that point on I would not leave anything out accessible to all.
It was just after 7:00 p.m., the students were seated, time for class to begin. Instead, I was frantically attempting to get everything in order. Since so much had not been issued to me prior to this evening, I had a lot to do before class started. For example, I had to write everyone’s name, prisoner number, and the housing unit in which they live on my individualized student progress charts, where I mark attendance and grades and such. Needless to say, I didn’t finish the task in the allotted few minutes. As I worked furiously to get everything in order, my 17 students stared at me. This was certainly unnerving because I was worried that I was boring them or that I wasn’t doing a good job. What made this even worse was that this was my first time teaching a class…ever. I silently prayed that this anxious feeling would leave me after a few classes.
At 7:10 p.m. the loudspeaker announced “Move Closed. All inmates clear the compound.” It was at this point that I closed the door to my classroom and looked to my students. The first official action that I took as the instructor was to pass out the folders and pencils that the Education Department had issued to me. I made sure to not pass out additional pencils to those who had previously taken pencils off of my desk. After I had done so I brought out my surprise for the class. Weeks prior to the start of the class I had purchased copies of the “Handbook for Writers in Prison” from the PEN American Center (www.pen.org/prisonwriting). This is a great book that explains the different kinds of writing and offers exercises and suggestions for engaging in each kind of writing. So, I passed out a copy of this handbook to each of my students for them to keep. This way, even if they learned nothing from me, they would have something to take with them that would surely help them in their literary pursuits. After all, I could only teach them so much in 8 weeks and they would only retain so much of what I would teach.
At this point I asked my students to please take the pre-test that I had enclosed in their folders. This was my first speed-bump. One of the students made a comment that didn’t sit well with me. He said, “Why the hell are you testin’ us when you ain’t taught us nuthin’.” This certainly put me off guard. After all, the concept of a pre-test was clear to me…and others, too, I thought. But clearly this man didn’t get it. So, I explained to him that this was not a test that would be scored, but a test that would show me how much everyone knew. This way I could measure what they learned throughout the class. I also explained that the essay/short answer questions at the end of the pre-test would help me customize the class for them since these questions asked what they were interested in. With a grumble he, and everyone else, took their pre-test. By the time it looked like everyone was done with their pre-tests, I still wasn’t done with their individualized student progress charts. So, I made a mental note to finish that after class.
Going into this — teaching a class to prisoners — I decided early on that I wouldn’t treat anyone as a prisoner. That I’d treat them as college students. So, I started the class by explaining who I was and why I was qualified to teach a class on writing and publishing. I thought it important that they know that I was a qualified instructor, who actually did what he taught. I think that I did a good job at this. No one complained, but I was worried that I came off as boastful. Though, after the class I spoke with one of the students and he informed me that I hadn’t been vain in voicing my accomplishments.
From the very beginning, I wanted each student to understand that everyone could be a writer. I did so by illustrating my own educational history; not an incredibly impressive one to start with. But I also showed how I had built upon my educational history to make something of myself. I worked hard at being supportive. I explained my early follies as a writer, and showed them that after several years of hard work I am now an accepted professional in the social justice and prison education arena. To me, it was important that they understand they could do this, too. All it would take is some hard work. Whether they were educated or uneducated was not the issue. The issue was willingness to try.
After outlining my qualifications, I explained what the course would cover. Everything went off without a hitch. I looked over my prospectus and explained to them what we’d be doing on a week-by-week basis. I also explained how homework would be handled, and what their choices were. Since there was no educational base-line, I decided to allow a lot of variety in the selection of homework. I wanted them to choose the assignments that interested them. So, I informed them that they were to turn in either three 15-line poems, two 500-word articles or essays, one 1,000-word short story, or one 1,000-word article or essay. My goal was to get them to write outside of class, to actually practice what the class teaches. As I explained to them: the way you become a better writer is to write. With this philosophy in mind, I feel that the homework assignments were about right.
Most of the remainder of the class time was filled by a question-and-answer session. They had questions and I had answers. They asked about copyrights, how much money a freelancer makes, how much Playboy pays per piece of writing, about my focus on prison education, about screen writing, and any number of other topics. This was a general relaxed forum that I felt went rather well. While I was a bit nervous the whole time, I felt that everyone, myself included, benefited from the discussion.
Just before the class ended, I did a reading. I had selected three paragraphs from the PEN America Journal. I read an excerpt from Helen Phillips’ “The Disappearing Bride and Other Short Stories.” A piece that I greatly enjoy. In the excerpt, Phillips manages to merge both prose and poetry into paragraph form.
After I read the excerpt, one of my students chimed in that he thought what I had just read was “confused garbage that didn’t make any sense.” This bothered me greatly. I felt that he had insulted both Ms. Phillips and me. But as I now reflect upon his comment, I see that everyone has a different literary palate. Even my own comments in response to his show this. My goal of reading the piece was to show that there is no single correct way to write, that everyone has a “voice” or “style.” I suppose the same can be said of reading, too. Although, comments like this do tend to unnerve someone who spent a quantity of time choosing what readings to present.
At 8:20 p.m., the guard came into the room and told me that it was time to clean up and close up. So, I reiterated the homework requirement and told my students that they could go. As each student passed me on the way to the door I handed him a pen, explaining that I prefer to write with one. Each student was very enthusiastic about this.
The passing out of pens and handbooks was deliberate. My goal was to provide a tangible incentive to do well in the class. Simply stated, I wanted the students to not only have what they needed to be writers, but to have a reminder of the class. My goal in all of this was to get my students interested. Not just interested in earning a certificate, but interested in the next class. We’ll see if this incentive-based model actually works or not.
After leaving for the nigh,t I sat at my desk and graded all 17 of the pre-tests. The top score was 84% and the bottom 4%. The average score was 49.23%, while the most common score was 56%. For a pre-test, I wasn’t disappointed. After all, the goal of a pre-test is to see what the student knows prior to being taught the subject matter.
The essay questions, though, were where the real meat of the pre-test was. The first essay/short answer question received the most humorous responses. The question was, “Can you read and write?” I felt it prudent to ask because there is no particular base-line for ACE classes, just that one must have a GED. Some of the responses were great! The gentleman who achieved 84%, the top score, stated, “Obviously, or I couldn’t answer this question.” The gentleman with the second highest score noted, “On a good day I can do both.” And in thought-provoking fashion, the gentleman who scored 4%, the lowest score, stated, “Yes I can read and write quite well.”
The other three essay questions had to do with what the students hoped to learn from the course, special areas of interest, and if they had published anything before. The answers to the first two were varied. The students noted that they were interested in agents, the writing process, how to connect with publishers, the merits of social networking and blogging, and one gentleman even wanted to learn about how to publish popular culture essays (religion and politics in particular). To add to this diversity, one of my students noted that he had published “about 40 scientific articles.” This was from the top scorer. The only other person to have been previously published noted that several of his editorials had been published in his home town newspaper.
After reading these answers, my opinion has changed. I went into this class hoping to educate the few good apples in the class. I went into this class thinking that I would have to contend with at least a few self-professed literary geniuses. But I was wrong. While it was difficult to quantitatively ascertain the intellect in the classroom, because most of the students were quiet and didn’t ask questions, their intelligence shouted at me from their answers to the essay questions. Well, all but one. One student refused to answer the essay questions. Regardless, my hope has been renewed and I am excited to see my students again next week — in the FCI-Petersburg Education Department.
Author’s Note: I would like to make a special note of thanks to several people who facilitated this class. Randall Radic (www.facebook.com/doctorradic), the author of “A Priest in Hell,” “The Sound of Meat,” and “Gone To Hell,” for his expert advice and guidance in designing and delivering this course to my students. He was instrumental in both the planning and execution of the course.
Barbara Carole (Barbaracarole.com), the author of “Twelve Stones,” for her inspired comments about teaching prisoners. It is to her that I owe the inspiration for this course.
Janice Chamberlin (www.lockedupwithsucces.com), the author of “Locked Up With Success,” for not only writing a tremendous book that deals specifically with educating prisoners, but for the assistance she has provided in the form of motivational and technical support (e.g. her blog and the various free forms she offers for use in educating prisoners).
Laura Winzeler (Laurawinzelerdesigns.blogspot.com), the owner/operator of Laura Winzeler Designs, for her tremendous help with research and the procurement of much needed materials.
Jonathan Dozier-Ezell (www.pen.org/prisonwriting), the Program Coordinator of the PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Awards, for his help in obtaining copies of the “Handbook for Writers in Prison.”
Bill Batton, the prisoner ACE coordinator at FCI-Petersburg. Bill was instrumental in preparing me to teach this course, getting the course approved, obtaining a number of course materials, and in facilitating discussion with the staff of the FCI-Petersburg Education Department.