Teaching Inside: On Greatness and Gratitude
I need to acknowledge a couple of things, first. I teach both men and women, however the majority of my reflections/posts are about the men I teach. As a woman of color in this field, I need to be sure that I am giving equal airtime to the women I teach because 1) within the context of incarcerated learners as a vulnerable population, women are an even more vulnerable subset of that population and 2) they need to get their props! The challenge is that I teach them once a week, whereas I see the guys twice a week, but I need to make more of a deliberate effort to provide a more balanced picture of my experiences inside.
The second thing I need to acknowledge is that the students in my class teach me so much that I often — legitimately, like I am not being dramatic here — forget that I am teaching them. I walk into the classroom with lesson plans in mind and, for some of the more “content/discipline” heavy courses, traditional instruction occurs. But even within those classes, my students are amazing. Some of them have been with Second Chance since Fall 2016, our first semester. And some just joined us in Spring 2017 and plan to stay with us until they are released. No matter how long they have been with us, they bring 100% to class every time and I continue to be thankful for the opportunity to be in their space.
Last night, the Psychology and Af-Am Lit courses met. We were joined by the homeskillet, Kaiya Letherer, and it’s always a joy to have her in class. Kaiya has taught with College Unbound for 3 years and is so committed to prison education; the guys appreciate her sincerity, vulnerability, and dedication to the work.
In Psychology, we began discussions about Abnormal Psychology and I asked the guys to read a handout I provided that outlined DSM axes, mental health problem classifications, and gave other general guidelines for mental health assessment and diagnoses. If you’ve kept up with this section of the blogosphere, you’ll also know that there are two gentlemen in my class who are incarcerated for crimes committed while experiencing a mental health episode, so these conversations need to be crafted sensitively, objectively, and informatively — maybe moreso than usual.
My expectation, walking into class last night, was to have them read the handout, discuss it as a group (I’ve got 5 guys), consult their notes from the summer (and those from the spring if they took my Intro to Psych course), and then read and critique/analyze some case studies that I also provided from them. They would look at the case studies in groups and I was going to be certain to split up the guys with the closest experiences to mental health struggles so that each group/pairing had that genuine, self-reflective voice.
They had other ideas. As usual LOL!
We spent basically the entire class time talking about how the guidelines, as they were laid out, were so restrictive as to be ineffective. And when I say “we,” I am actually disingenuously trying to insert myself into the conversation. The guys essentially talked among themselves — without too many tangents (I mean, there’s always one in every classroom LOL) — about the legitimacy and expected reasonable use of the DSM. They critiqued the absence of a discussion of the importance of one’s environment when thinking about mental health challenges, and they also critiqued what they felt was an overemphasis on the biological model of psychology that, in their opinion, reduced people simply to their genetics (again, ignoring environmental factors).
I remember the first psychology class, back in January, and so much of class time was spent with guys asking what I wanted them to know/learn/understand. I spent the semester focusing on critique of models, of sources, of methodology; I told them to question everything, including me (because I am not infallible), because questioning and getting to the bottom of data, conclusions, and assertions is helpful in every aspect of life. Last night, it was like seeing the seed you planted finally sprout. And I don’t mean that in some, like, “I grew you and made you” sort of arrogant way; I mean it in the “Look at you stepping into your greatness” sort of way. Because of what I do, I am fortunate enough to see people stepping into their greatness on a regular basis.
Props to Kaiya for giving me that phrase as a reminder: stepping into your greatness.
After psychology, some of the guys stayed around to chat (there is a half hour between the end of psychology and the beginning of Af-Am Lit). One of the dorms has been experiencing some unrest and, quite simply, some of the guys needed a space to speak freely and honestly. That’s another thing I value; as an outsider coming into the correctional space, I have an uphill battle to gain the trust of the students I work with. I knew that going in and would expect nothing less. It seems that I have gained that trust and sometimes guys will ask my advice on particular issues; I like to provide an analysis of choices and potential outcomes and say, hey, you have to make your own decision but take what we’ve learned in class about considering all sources, all data, and make the decision that ultimately is right for you. Within the context of this conversation, two students (one from psychology and one from Af-Am Lit) disagreed on a particular strategy for handling rule breaking in the dorm. One felt public addressing was appropriate; the other disagreed. They, through calm, measured, and reasonable discussion ultimately settled on a point on which they COULD agree and I was like YALL BETTA DO THAT!
One of the students in this disagreement, who was also in my psychology class in the spring, also made a statement that meant a lot to me. He said that before taking the classes offered by Second Chance, he had never considered going to college after he got out. But now, now that he has awakened his “student brain,” he is looking at programs at community colleges as he hopes to be released very soon. He said that he now feels confident that he could be in a “regular” college classroom and succeed.
Yall. I cannot even.
I was all grinning on the inside because THAT IS BASICALLY EVERY SINGLE REASON I DO WHAT I DO! Like, I want people to see the freedom that education can provide. Clearly reading books or learning about psychology is not unlocking the doors that clang shut, but no one can take your education from you….ever. Even in prison, where everything that makes you you is stripped and taken away, your education — the things you know and that you’ve learned — can never belong to anyone else. And there was something freeing about that notion to this student. And it’s basically all I’ve ever wanted for them :)
Once my Af-Am Lit guys filtered in, I was a little tired (my 40th birthday was the day before and I MIGHT have indulged in some spirited beverages in copious amounts LOL) but was ready for class and had a nice activity planned. I had created a little worksheet to get their thoughts going. On this sheet, I listed the books they had read and then…welp. Let me just show yall the sheet LOL. No need to explain because, the interwebz.
***Sidenote: Yes, that is 5 books in 6 weeks. Yes, the guys have basically read most of the Af-Am Lit canon over a summer session.**
What I wanted to do, like I said, was just get their minds going in the direction of extracting important themes, synthesizing content, and thinking and looking across authors and topics. Then we would (there were 4 guys) have a group conversation. Somewhere in the middle of the guys getting their thoughts on paper I decided to have each guy pick an author and talk about each of the topics from the author’s point of view. After each guy provided his thoughts, the other guys provided theirs as well and, as you also know if you’ve followed this blog, things would surely get lively.
The activity went VERY well, with guys making explicit text references, asking critical questions about the points authors were trying to make, and engaging with each other in a way that really didn’t even need me. And it’s a weird feeling, sometimes, as the teacher who doesn’t need to be there because the class can carry the conversation without you. You are at both times tremendously proud but maybe also a little sad because you want to be part of the conversation, too, but you don’t want to interrupt the flow! I’m still figuring out how NOT to be a student in the classes I teach LOL but it’s a long process. And it’s a process I embrace going through. I am not in the space to have students rely on me; I’m in the space to encourage students to rely on themselves and each other.
Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, Kaiya and I were talking about some of the things important to the work we do. We explained that the importance of correctional educator training is a focus for us because we have seen, first hand, how untrained educators can do more harm than good in the long run — and even sometimes in the short run. We are explicitly against approaching this work from a deficit model, where some teachers come to the correctional classroom thinking incarcerated learners are no good, that they can’t learn, and that they aren’t worth educating; some of our students have been in classes with these kinds of teachers and those kinds of experiences have been impactful for them, and obviously in a negative way.
The guys said, though, that their time in Af-Am Lit has been transformative — their word, not mine. One student, in particular, who is a little older and provides a calm, measured leadership in class, said that his entire outlook has changed. He said he is thankful for being able to KEEP the books we’ve read because he wants to go back and reread them. “Doc, just by coming here, teaching us, and teaching us THIS about OUR people, I’m just so thankful. I am grateful to you for that. You are a Godsend.”
I was basically no more good after that. Seriously.
It’s easy to read about the bigger prison education programs that make the news and understand that teaching inside is kind of “trendy” now. Full disclosure, I came to this work after reading about the Bard debate team crushing Harvard. There is absolute legitimacy in the need to see these kinds of programs and understand the work they’re doing; it is inspiring and motivating for so many. But smaller programs, like mine, or Chemeketa’s College Inside out in Oregon, get less visibility and, as a result, the narrative is incomplete.
This video is a must watch for anyone doing this work. The narrative out now tends to focus on how surprised people are that brilliant minds are behind bars; it is part of the rhetoric used to get donations, recruit instructors to programs, etc. It can also be dangerous. Mr. Slater talks about the implicit bias in the “Wow” factor and how it can, and does, impact folks who enter the correctional classroom. Programs like Second Chance (yes, I know, shameless self-promotion LOL) focus not only on getting people TO teach, but making sure they understand HOW to do it and why the WAY that they do it is equally as important to students. We need to actively check our biases, interrogate our assumptions and presumptions, and we need to understand that we are there not to build, but to encourage.
The other day I got in a disagreement over language. Someone implied that education humanizes people. It is literally not possible for me to disagree more with that statement. Literally. It is not possible. Education humanizes no one — we are all already human. And, specifically, within correctional facility walls, we needn’t enter a classroom thinking that we are affording students any level of humanity with which they did not already enter the classroom. What correctional educators (should) do, however, is understand — at their core and in their spirits — that teaching is a subversive activity (thanks, Postman & Weingartner). And one does not engage in subversion to humanize; one does so to provide avenues to freedom.
And last night, I saw some of my students take flight. Morrison’s Solomon would have been proud :)