Class Update: Humor as a Tool

Introduction 

What a week! I've been so swamped with work and school that I'm all scatterbrained. How about a quick personal update to start?

Personal Update

Right now I am in a bit of a transition regarding my collegiate career. I've grown a bit discontented with the pace of my Ohio University studies. This is the nature of the beast when dealing with correspondence studies.

So, I am enrolling in the Organizational Communications Certificate program from Upper Iowa University (a regionally accredited institution) and possibly Louisiana State University's Certificate in Liberal Studies program.

The idea concerning my studies is that all external programs (i.e. certificate programs) will fold into my Ohio University degree. So, I can take 3 courses at a time from all three institutions. This is a total of 9 courses at any given time. Though, I might just make it an even 10. By following this plan I'll be able to speed up my studies considerably and take a few courses from each school that aren't offered by the others.

Projects

Besides school, I'm working on a few new projects which I hope to share with you. The first is the Writing and Publishing e-course conversion. That's right! I'm working on bringing the class, which I teach to students here at FCI-Petersburg, to all of you. The idea is that not only will you be able to take the course, but you could even print it off and mail it to a loved-one in prison. Also, discussions are underway regarding institutional licensing. This would allow me to offer the course to prisons worldwide for their use with incarcerated students.

The History of Correctional Education is coming along nicely. The research is slow-going, but fulfilling. I can't wait to share it with you. I'm also dabbling with a piece I've tentatively titled Addicted to Approval. This is about de-programming ourselves and could potentially culminate in a complete book. We’ll see.

Also, I'm contemplating making PrisonEducation.com more dynamic with audio and video. This is something which I'm seriously considering. I would make a phone call to Randy Radic – my very good friend who posts these blogs - and he would record the call and post it. If my vision comes to fruition, the audio posts would consist of weekly 15-minute topical discussions or something like it. I’m also considering the utilization of Skype or video messaging for other prison education experts to either engage in recorded roundtable discussions or even present mini-seminars. Please let me know your thoughts on all of this.

Last, I've been working very hard on the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. I finished doing the layout of the November/December issue the other day and am now working on returning correspondence. I have very high hopes for EBBN and am extremely excited by its initial reception. In the near future I will be posting a few testimonials from EBBN readers.

Writing and Publishing Class

This week was week three of Writing and Publishing. The focus was upon article writing and submissions. At first glance, I thought this week was going to be slow because most of my students dream of being authors, not journalists, as I do. I suppose that I should try to keep more of an open mind.

Class started off a bit jumbled. Since I had just left an hour long meeting, and before that a kickball game of all things, I was a bit hassled. So, it took me a few minutes to hit my stride. Once I did, everything moved along well and student participation followed.

The beauty of article and short story writing is that they lend themselves to nonfiction and fiction book writing. By stating this very clearly - and repeatedly - my students invested their attention. They "bought-in" to the discussion. Before long we were discussing the proper way to format writing on the page, how to make electronic and postal submissions, how and when to use a query letter and a cover letter, and even the ethics and professionalism of simultaneous submissions.

One of the high points for this class - as is always the case in week three - was the discussion of prisoner publications. Let's face it. Incarcerated students aren't always the most academically developed group of students. So, recommending that they submit to the Wall Street Journal or Esquire Magazine would be setting them up for failure. Instead, I pushed them toward Cell Door Magazine, the Corcoran Sun, the Prison Journal, and even Education Behind Bars Newsletter. The focus was upon researching these publications, submitting to these publications, and growing as a writer through successfully publishing work with these smaller prisoner publications.

By now you're probably wondering what is so humorous about all of this. Well, throughout the discussion I continued to present and talk about some of the submissions that I've received for EBBN, along with writings from past students. I tried to use this as a learning experience; something to cement the knowledge.

For example, I once had a student who thought that an incarcerated writer had to threaten editors so that they would know "who they were dealing with" and know that stealing their article would be a bad idea. Hmmm. Or the time I received a letter from a guy in Chicago. As I told them, I don't know if he killed those three people on the train or not. I also didn't know if the jury convicted him because they were afraid for their safety or not. What I did know was that I did not want to associate with him. The moral: don’t threaten editors and publishers.

Another even odder example had to do with a guy here at FCI-Petersburg. He cornered me before class one day and tried to convince me to write about how the Bureau of Prisons allegedly harmed him physically; he was in a wheelchair, after all. After shoving all of this paperwork into my arms he unsheathed a catheter from his bag and shook it at me. Now, I believe it was a new one, but since this was my first confrontation with a flailing catheter, I just didn't know what to do. So, shaking catheters at editors is another "no-no."

Another important point was about what I would and would not help my students with. The "Not List" included adult material (whether essay, poetry, how to, or fiction), anything having to do with building devices of destruction, or anything else that creeps-me-out. Trust me, it was funny.

As class came to a close, we did a crash course on press releases and the various distribution services. We also covered pitch letters and how they are handled. The students seemed really interested in both of these.

And as classes should be, a lively discussion ensued until we heard "Recall" on the intercom, our signal to head back to our housing units. Though we might have been journalism students for those two hours, reality is often cold and unsympathetic: the loud housing units were there to greet us upon our return.

Conclusion

Looking back upon this class I see a few methodological high notes. The first is that I told my students why they needed to know this information and managed to engage them with this knowledge. This is what set the foundation for the rest of the class period.

Second, by injecting humor the mood was lightened and action was introduced (i.e. smiles and laughs). This allowed for a friendly learning environment of the best kind: one in which the students didn't even know that they were learning. This equates to reading a terrific book in which as the last page swings upon its axis one is left feeling not only energized, but also sad because it’s over.

Last, the class was very practical. Notice that I didn't equate the information being taught with the final examination. Rather, I equated it with their publication credits and careers. Since the material was presented in such a way as to be important to their lives, they retained it.

 Author’s Note

If anyone would be interested in either submitting blogs or participating in an audio or video chat to be posted to this Prison Education Blog, please email me at ChrisZoukis@Gmail.com. This would be a great opportunity to be seen and heard, and extend the dialogue on the need for correctional education.