Teaching Inside

Now that I am teaching in prisons four days a week, it is difficult to note all the notable quotables in real time. But I try to collect them so that when I get the chance, I can share them. That goes marginally well LOL but today is one of the good days :). Enjoy the installment! It’s a long one because I’ve had a lot of classes LOL


The guys were given an error-filled essay to edit. Initially they were hesitant, unsure of their editing capacity. I then said “I wrote it,” and the speed with which red pens emerged from WHAT SEEMED LIKE THE AIR was astonishing! LOL

Student A: I am reading this TWO TIMES because I am going to find EVERYthing!

Me: Then you may want to read it 3 times.

Student A: You are correct. Done!

*random overheard chatter in their groups*

Student B: We can’t just say it’s wrong. We have to know the reason WHY!

…and then later….

Student B: If you do that, you change the whole structure and meaning of the sentence.

Now, a little background on Student B. A few weeks ago during a class where it was a slight “Come to Jesus” class about doing the work, Student B adamantly declared that he didn’t “feel like” doing the work required to revise and improve. I told him, as plainly as ya’ll know I’m capable, then don’t be in a writing seminar. You’re wasting your time AND mine. The next week he came in, work completed, saying “I’m really gonna apply myself, Doc, I really wanna do better.”


So, I managed to get Sae McCloud to rock a “Foundations in Chemistry” type class. Obviously no labs, but tons of theory, background, etc. This is our most popular class for the summer; the guys seem to be impressed not only by her knowledge of all things science, but her capacity to break complex theories down to the barest of bones.

Yesterday, she had a mini “arts and crafts” in-class project where the guys had to tape together their own periodic tables and color in some important element groupings. The guys in her class are from two of the dorms in the facility: a veterans dorm and what is called the “Second Chance” dorm. We will call them Dorm A (vets) and Dorm B (Second Chance).

When it came time to color, the most wonderfully magical of things happened. All of Dorm B finished their coloring by the time she had finished speaking. Coloring all outside the lines, hasty markings, boxes not really filled in, etc.

Every, single solitary Dorm A guy outlined the entire section to color and methodically drew perfectly vertical (or horizontal lol) highlighter lines, evenly spaced with not nary a line boundary crossed. 15 minutes after the activity was actually over, the last vet handed over his highlighter LOL


I am bringing the guys, slowly and methodically, through Du Bois and Booker T. We began last week by reading their respective chapters from “The Negro Problem” and, this week, we are discussing the entirety of “The Souls of Black Folk” because I don’t want them to be like those people who read the first 3 pages of “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” (the first chapter of “Souls”) 20 years ago and who think double-consciousness and The Veil are the sole takeaways of profound genius. I want them to see and understand both the greatness and the contradictions of Du Bois, of Booker T. — of any author or social critic.

Except Morrison. She is off limits. No criticisms allowed LOL

Anyway, so last week I forced the guys to choose who they MOST leaned toward — even if it was only a 51/49 split. The debate that ensued was EPIC and invigorating and wonderful, with the guys challenging each other in thoughtful ways.

Well, last night was the first night of “Du Bois Only” (Booker T.’s week is next week) and I’ve got some ADAMANT Booker T. fans/supporters. And when I say adamant, I mean, like, spit on Du Bois’s grave type support LOL I jest, I jest, but they are really serious in their support. So, bringing them through Du Bois was going to be a challenge, and guiding them to the recognition of many of his valid points would be a herculean task.

One particularly vocal man had actually started reading ahead (he finished Du Bois and then started Washington’s “Up From Slavery” BECAUSE I AM STUPID AND GAVE IT TO THEM EARLY BECAUSE I LIKE HANDING OUT BOOKS thanks to Katrina N. Bailey) and had all these places in “Up” where he would, what he called, “double bullet” the profound insights. All kinds of double bullets were in “Up”.

There were none in “Souls”.

This guy had NO TIME WHATSOEVER for Du Boisian elitism and his language of the Talented Tenth and the exceptional among us will elevate the race. But then he read the following:

“To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his ignorance, — not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet. Nor was his burden all poverty and ignorance. The red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of corruption from white adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home.”

I looked over, as the room had fallen so silent that you could hear a pin drop. There was a weight in this passage that affected not only my Black students, but my White student as well. I looked over to my Booker T. supporter, with a smile:

Me: Is that worth a double bullet, my friend?

Student: Yeah. Yeah, it is.


Tuesday, the women had begun putting their projects into concrete, realistic terms through the creation of a startup budget. I gave them markers to each write their budgets on the board. Five women approached and started writing, erasing, rearranging, etc.

When we circled back together as a group, we went around — museum tour/curator style — looking at each budget and asking questions. I had only planned for the activity to take, total, 30 minutes.

It took an hour.

These women realized, through their own work and the work of their classmates, that the big dreams they had for their projects might have needed a bit of scaling and scaffolding to get to greatness :)

“You probably need to budget more for rental space, especially if you want an office in a major metropolitan area.”

“Why are you paying that much for a website?”

“You probably will not be able to pay 10 social workers $120,000 a year in your first year.”

…and my personal favorite….

One woman had not written a salary for herself. Her classmates were borderline furious LOL like, they yelled at her for real!

“You need to pay yourself!”

She said, “OK, well, I’ll make the same as the counselors,” and she did so begrudgingly, but also knowing that her classmates were right.

“NO! Girl, you gotta eat too! And you’re going to be out promoting your business and raising money. Nope. You need more. Just give me the marker!”

There are so many times where I just wish people could see what I am able to see in these students. The energy, the desire to learn and be better, the desire for the world to see them as more than an inmate. It is equal parts exhilaratingly fulfilling and profoundly soul crushing because I also know that society won’t give some of my students a chance when they’re released and I may see them back again.

But I hope and I do my best, every time I step through doors that lock, to let them know that they are worth investing in.

Erin Corbett·
5 min
2 cards

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