Teaching Inside: Intellectual Inquiry in the Prison Classroom

Author’s Note: This photo is not of my students.

I’ve been in education for all of my professional life. Since finishing undergrad, I’ve found myself in somebody’s school but primarily as the dreaded “administrator,” far enough removed from the classroom to make me miss the joys of watching students learn, explore, and ultimately find themselves. Now, teaching inside, I have found what I believe is my true calling. I have been sharing snippets of this journey on other social media outlets; my friends encouraged me to explore sharing the stories on a broader platform, so here I am.

I guess these stories will come pretty rapidly, since I’m copying and pasting from about a year ago; hopefully they’ll be inspiring to someone. They will include student work (relevant info redacted, of course, but credit most certainly given to the authors), my reflections, and “notable quotables” from specific classes/workshops.

And, maybe, they’ll inspire someone out there, someone missing the spark of intellectual curiosity, to join the legion of those of us who teach behind barbed wire.

September 1, 2016:

In our English workshop, students read the Prologue to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”. It is a challenging text full of symbolism and imagery and many in the group were unfamiliar with it. However, the reflective essays that the students wrote were full of insight and understanding, illustrating nuanced comprehension of the work. Here is one response to the question, “What is the protagonist’s name and why is his name appropriate?”

“We, after only reading the prologue, don’t know his name. He refers to himself as the invisible man and so must we. Is he black? Is he white? Is he educated or illiterate? Surely he is poor, right? He lives in a hole in a Harlem building and is completely so nondescript that he is invisible. But, how can someone so seemingly ordinary be so insightful?”**

**This student was released not long after submitting this piece.

Here, from a different student, is a response to the question “How do you interpret Ellison’s use of light vs. dark imagery?”

“I suppose it is fitting that an invisible man struggling to be seen would be in a battle with the light and power company. This struggle is not only a struggle to be seen, it’s a struggle to be alive. I feel the power company represents the so-called ‘powers that be’. To our invisible man, the white man has a monopoly on power and prestige. The white man has the privilege to live in the light and, in turn, actually live with the living. The black man is left to live in the dark — he is left to die. In this passage I interpret the difference between light and dark to literally be the difference between life and death.”

These two reflections were, literally, the first things I read from my students that fall. It’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since!