Prison Education: Class Update (7-11-2011)

Prison Education: Class Update (7-11-2011)

You know, it’s a funny thing about education: the teacher is always excited to get back to work, yet the students are often more hesitant. Hey, I get it. I’ve been on both sides of the issue, both sides of the desk. These days, I don’t see an English paper as an exciting prospect, but I do see it as a necessary activity. I suppose that this is just one of those odd quirks about education. But to tell you the truth, as long as I continue to feel this way about teaching my class, I think that my life will be that much better. It’s as if I love to go to work. What a blessing, indeed! Actually, the other day the prison surprised me with a $20 bonus on my $5.25 monthly pay check. Turns out they are now paying me $10 per class that I teach. Hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Several things came up this week – both in class and out – that I’d like to share with you. First, I received the graded results of my first assignment for the new English course that I’m taking through Ohio University. I was very pleased to see that I earned an “A”. As a matter of fact, I’m going to be posting this essay to the blog shortly. This way you will not only see my work, but also share in my story a bit. After all, the paper is about signing my plea bargain, a very emotional and troubling moment in my life.

The other good news is that I received a 98% on my latest math lesson from Ohio University. This means that I will be going into the midterm with a 97.425% average, a nice spot to be. Though, I do need to drill for the next several weeks to be where I want to be. Oh, how I dislike textbook math.

Besides my own school work, the support that this blog has received lately has been positively inspiring. Just yesterday I received a very nice letter from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners which was supportive of the blog. I also received a very supportive letter today from the Lewisburg Prison Project Thanks guys! Your comments and accolades really do keep me going.

To top this off, Missouri CURE ( profiled me in their quarterly newsletter Turning Point,  also profiled me in their newsletter, and Inmate Book Service was so kind as to send out emails for me about my new Education Behind Bars Newsletter. Plus, I received a number of pleasant emails from a number of people offering me their support. As a matter of fact, I received so many emails that there are just too many to list here. So, please allow me to offer a collective “Thank You!” to all who have contacted me. I do love to hear from you. It helps me feel connected.

Before I delve into this week’s class, two notes are needed. I’m proud to say that I am now the new owner of I’ve been after this domain name for some time and the opportunity to purchase it recently presented itself. So, in the coming weeks this blog will be transferred over there. This will be done in conjunction with a large push to professionalize the site and bring greater exposure to the prison education cause. Do note that when the blog moves, I will have a redirect put in place which will forward you there. This way you will be alerted as to the new address and have time to change your favorites folder and any links that you might have.

The other note is about the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. First, Education Behind Bars Newsletter will also be transferred over to But more importantly, the newsletter is almost ready to debut. The process has taken longer than anticipated, but it really looks great! In the last two weeks I expanded it from 12 pages (6 double-sided pages) to 16 pages (8 double-sided pages). This way there is room for the much needed content. I have also been working with my EBBN layout person, Linda Huddleston over at Midnight Express Books, to get the product to where it needs to be. When it comes out it will really be a blast. I think that it will be a terrific catalyst to change.

If you are not on my email list, please email me at [email protected] and request to be added. This way I can keep you abreast of new prison education developments. Do note that EBBN will be online at and in print for those who want a print copy. Again, email me with your mailing address or email address to be placed on the respective lists.

As for the class, as usual I arrived at the FCI-Petersburg Education Department at around 5:30 p.m. As luck would have it, my unit is now second to be released for chow, so I’m no longer rushed. Well, I’m no longer rushed until the next inspection and meal rotation cycle.

Upon arriving, I was met by several of my students and Mr. Bill Batton, the prisoner ACE coordinator. We entered my classroom and shortly thereafter Bill came in pushing his cart laden with books. This was something that I had forgotten, the passing out of my new textbooks. If you remember from two weeks ago, the Education Department had ordered two textbooks for me. These are The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creative Writing (2nd Edition) and the Writer’s Market Guide to Getting Published. They ordered 25 copies of each to pass out to my students. So, as each student entered the room they were handed two forms to fill out. Then, upon returning the forms to Bill, they were issued their textbooks.

The other textbook news of this week has to do with the PEN American Center’s Handbook for Writers in Prison. If you recall, I have had problems with receiving these books. I ordered them around 3 months ago, but for some reason I just got the first batch last week. Another 20 copies are still M.I.A., but at least now my students have the textbooks that I ordered for them so they can complete the homework assignments.

As the class filled up there was a palpable buzz of excitement. The students were very excited to have received brand new books of a high caliber. One student even voiced the concern of what would happen with the books at the end of the class, when they had to turn the books back in. To this I informed them of my donation of 5 copies of each textbook to the library. I also noted that I had donated a number of other good writing books to the library, too. Knowing that he would have access to the books quelled the student’s anxiety.

This week’s class focused on writing articles and short stories. The idea behind grouping these two together was that the same basic process was needed for both: research the market, write for the market, and submit to the market. The other bonus of housing both of these topics under one roof is to make the class all-encompassing. In this manner, regardless of the student’s primary interest – fiction or nonfiction – the discussion is for them. Hence total engagement, something every educator should strive for.

As with the last group I had, I have maintained my selection of prisoner publications. Last time around this was a huge hit. So I employed the same tactic this time around. Again, this really resonated with the students. After all, Esquire and Maxim magazine are fun to read, but they are not focused on topics which impact the prisoner’s daily life. The prisoner publications on the other hand do. And while they entertain, they also engage, being a visual aid of the topic at hand.

My primary goal in class has been to be as practical as possible. Therefore, I included a list of mailing addresses in this week’s class notes for all of the prisoner publications that I passed around. I even told the students which ones were free. As I spoke, they took careful notes. At this point – and at others – it has become clear that the economic status of my students is well below poverty. After all, for a grown man to not be able to spare $6 for a 1-year subscription is a rather telling sign, sad, but telling. I bring this up because you too should realize this in your classroom. Hence, look for ways to share resources, and always expect your students to be unable to do anything that requires funding. This comes with the territory of teaching in prison.

As the class progressed, I utilized the board as much as possible. I put up several diagrams and made a point of writing the steps in each process. For example, when researching a publication, the first step is to obtain a sample copy. Then, obtain the submission guidelines. And last, read over past issues – if possible – to gain a wider feel for, and understanding of, the publication. We went through each step like this. But instead of speaking theoretically, I pulled out different magazines and used them as examples. One aspect that really resonated was when I asked several students which specific magazine they were interested in. We then examined these. I did so to make the discussion as practical as possible for them.

During this discussion I diplomatically broached the topic of skill. I don’t think that anyone in the room – if they really examined the idea – perceived they were prepared to land in the glossies (e.g. Esquire, Time, Newsweek, Columbia Journalism Review, etc.). This is the kind of idea that people don’t want to entertain, but needs to be acknowledged. After all, you don’t want to set your students up for failure or embarrassment. So, instead of just saying it, we had a discussion about the prison demographic.

We established that prisoners are typically at the 5th to 7th-grade level in terms of reading (something that has been proven by numerous studies, which I’m not going to dig out right now). This greatly surprised many of the students. But it also made them look at themselves. I think the exchange broached the topic in a very tasteful and impersonal manner. It showed them the level at which they should write, if writing for a normal prisoner publication, and it imparted an important truth to them about their personal expectations. The message was conveyed without embarrassment or shame.

Before I close, three really funny things happened in class that I want to share with you. First, as usual, our token class clown spoke. Now, I don’t mean to make fun of him, but he’s a trip…and he doesn’t even mean to be. He has this very odd accent which makes it almost impossible for anyone to understand what he’s saying. He also talks about crazy, random things. For example, in this week’s class he blurted out something about his starship? Or something like that. To tell you the truth, he’s a source of relief for the class. Whenever he says anything, I don’t understand what he says. So, I cock my head to the side and give him an odd look. At this, the class laughs and I ask him to repeat what he said. Sometimes I can get it and sometimes I just have to shake my head and move along.

Second, as with last week’s class, I wrote Todd’s name on the board again. This was all in good humor. The concept being that the bad student gets their name on the board. But instead of being bad, Todd is one of the better students. It’s a little bit of comic relief, and everyone, including Todd, seems to find it funny.

The last humorous anecdote involved a discussion on dialect. I was trying to show that when researching a publication, one of the aspects to focus on is the dialogue/dialect used. More often than not, one of the students has an urban novel question, so I figured that I’d hit this one on the head. I decided to use the terminology of ‘junk.’ After all, this is a term that I’ve heard so many times that I don’t even know what to think about it anymore. It can be used as “pass that ‘junk’ over here,” or “that ‘junk’ is crazy,” or, even, “man, that’s ‘junk.’” Ok, I’m not good at it now and I wasn’t then. But it sure was a trip for my students to see. All of the white guys watched me and just shut their mouths. They could see that I was trying – and I was correct in what I was saying – but ethnic terminology is not a strong point of mine. Thank God that there are no cameras in prison, hence no YouTube moments.

As the 8:00 p.m. move was called, around 6 or 7 students left on the move. As I did with my last group, I took this time to prep for the exam. For the first time with this group, I quizzed them about questions on the final. I went out of my way to show them that they needed to know the answers, not only for the exam, but for professional writing’s sake too. After all, I’m not a fan of useless memorization. Though, I am a fan of memorizing facts that one needs to know for their profession. They did surprisingly well.

All and all, it was a great class. I can’t wait until next Monday to teach another installment of Writing and Publishing.