Beyond the Steel Door

I feel that this project has opened a whole new world to my students. This has shown them that there is a whole other way of living out there. — David Billikopf

Imagine a high school classroom where no pen or pencil is unaccounted for. The Internet is banned. No documents can be saved, and most assignments are handwritten. Students often leave or transfer abruptly. Books are of little interest, and when given access to iPads, students use apps to bully each other. These are some of the challenges David Billikopf faces. For the last ten years, he has been teaching at a juvenile corrections facility in Virginia.

His students are, on average, 16–19 years old. Many grew up in poverty. Many struggled in school before their arrests, and have special education needs. They are all too familiar with courts, judges, and lawyers. Many have been involved in gang activity, both in and out of prison.

They love social media, but for many who have been locked up for years, their knowledge of it is out-of-date. Their use of the Internet is limited to state-administered exams. But David himself is active on Twitter, and writes a blog about his experiences. He regularly participates in education chats online, where he is able to connect with other teachers to share resources and advice.

In late November, Terje Pedersen, a teacher from Bergen, Norway, contacted David about conducting a joint project. He hoped to open up a dialogue between the students in which they could bridge two worlds that seemed, on the surface, to be vastly different.

Terje teaches English to 14–15 years olds at a progressive school where teachers are addressed by their first names. His students will likely go to college, like their parents did. They are well-traveled, and many have lived abroad. They love Instagram, Harry Potter, and Kanye West. Most of them do not know anyone who has been to prison.

David was eager to make the project work, but knew he would face certain challenges. First of all, the students could not type any questions themselves. Furthermore, he could not disclose the names of his students or give out any identifying information.

Still, he moved forward, asking his students to use pencil and paper, and then transcribing their questions. He began to send out the questions one by one, over Twitter. He and Terje had come up with the hashtag #norwask for the conversation. Then, Terje sent him a link to Padlet.

Terje’s students had filled a padlet with tons of specific questions about life on the inside. How’s the food? What do you wear? What do you do over the holidays? What are you in there for? Has prison changed you?

After receiving the questions from Norway, David’s students started writing. And writing and writing. Some told their whole stories. Their notes to Norway became letters about their pasts, about broken families and unreliable friends. They told of their hopes for the future, and were eager to know more about the world they hoped to rejoin, one that went beyond the facility they were currently living in, and the neighborhoods that had gotten them into trouble.

They asked about crime in Norway — were there gangs? What was the justice system like over there? Were they easy or hard on young criminals? Did people do drugs and carry guns?

But they also wanted to know about the Northern Lights, about animals that are native to Norway, what music the students listened to, and what they looked like. They wondered what it would be like to live in a place where higher education was free.

David could not keep up with the transcribing, and asked another teacher to help. “My students really appreciated having a voice. They were able to tell their feelings, opinions, and stories to an audience who really listened to them,” he said.

“They also liked learning about Norwegian culture, especially how they treat juvenile crime differently. Some of my students have written what they liked about this project…They were interested in how students lived in Norway and how different their lives are. Every period my students ask if there are new comments or questions. This has been the highlight of the school year for many of them.”

After the first round of Q+A, David’s students wrote poems to share with their new friends. The poems varied in tone and showed a complex range of emotions.

One example:

As the days go by and by,
 And the next seems longer than before,
 As I lay on the bunk and cry,
 While behind this steel door,
 Thinking about my past,
 And how it all led me here,
 Wishing I had another chance to stay
 With my family for holiday cheers
 Taking it one step at a time,
 I know I will make it,
 To be free again
 Let’s find out where I take it.

Terje said that he and his students were “blown away” and “so impressed” by the poetry. Terje’s class wrote responses to the poems on Padlet, and some even created art projects to express their feelings about what they read.

Both teachers are thrilled with the success of #norwask, and while the conversation is ongoing, they are eager to participate in another joint venture soon.

“I am encouraging other teachers to use similar projects in their subject areas,” David wrote. “I have been offering to help them organize their projects and help them find someone to collaborate with. Some are interested, but they haven’t started yet. I do hope it will spread! It is a great way for our students to have authentic learning experiences.”

You can follow along the #norwask conversation on Twitter.

Start your own joint project on Padlet today.

Originally published at on January 27, 2016.