Class Update: Fostering a Healthy Learning Environment

What an exciting - and anxiety provoking - first class. As those of you that follow this blog know, I teach a class entitled "Writing and Publishing" at FCI-Petersburg, a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia. This is an 8-week course which is taught to a group of twenty students. This last class was the first class for my third group of students.

Of the 38 students to sign up for this quarter's class, 20 made it into the class. After all, my classroom will only hold 20 students. Of the 20 on call-out (the prison's appointment system) 19 showed up. The one who didn't show was transferred recently. So, one of the 18 alternates will be in the class for next week.

Class started rather slow this week. I suppose that my students felt the same fist-day jitters as I did. We started by covering some of the basics of Adult Continuing Education courses. These included general policies and procedures. I also discussed what was expected of each student and even gave an overview of the course.

After these discussions, I passed out the pre-tests and other course documents. At this point I was confronted with a very annoying event which occurs with each new class: dead time. This is the time when I'm waiting - quietly - for the students to finish with their 20-question pre-tests.

After around 20 minutes, only 3 students were still working on their pre-tests. As usual, I'll have a few educationally challenged students in each class. With these I find it important to be patient and not call attention to their shortcomings. After all, we are trying to each these men. Aren't we?!

After collecting all of the pre-tests, I asked if there were any questions. Naturally, I still had around an hour to fill and not much to cover since this was the introductory class. So, I explained who I was and what qualified me to teach the course. I do this with each class so that they feel as if they should be paying attention. I guess this is a respect thing. When they look at me they see a 25-year-old guy who is younger than most of them. Hence, I find it important for them to feel as if they are being instructed and cared for by someone deserving of respect. As I rattle off my accomplishments their eyes light up. They are amazed, not at what I’ve done, but by the fact that I did it from behind bars. This appears to give them hope.

I'm also very careful to make the students feel welcome and appreciated. I do so by telling them that I care about their projects and want to help them however I can. I offer my time outside of class and my skills with any editorial need. By assisting those who really want to learn, the learning then becomes that much more important to both them and me. As anyone who has spent time as an educator knows, teaching for the teacher is not just about imparting knowledge, but growing and fulfilling an internal need.

 

This shyness continued on my students’ part until around 8 p.m. I suppose that they were not yet sure about the class and their fellow peers. In a way it had the feeling of elementary school, when the boys would line up on one side of the playground and the girls on the other. Unlike back then, they came around in a rather impressive manner.

To instigate participation I asked the class a series of questions which everyone would be able to answer. These included asking for a show of hands for those who had taken other Adult Continuing Education courses, how many liked the other courses, how many were interested in writing fiction, and how many were interested in writing non-fiction. Shortly after these prompts, several more active students appeared with hands raised.

I like to use the first class as an introduction to the course and a question and answer session. I answered questions regarding e-books (always a hot topic), self-publishing as opposed to traditional publishing, and even the specifics of the Bureau of Prisons' policy on publication and earning money from literary efforts. All in all, I felt that they had a good time and came to understand that I'm not just some strange guy with tattoos on his hands (red stars, if you're wondering), but someone who is passionate about education and English/writing in particular.

During this period I also shared the existence of the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. The students were very interested in this topic. Several asked for information on the publication. So, I wrote the mailing address on the board for them in case they decided to subscribe. It’s free, after all.

Of all the topics covered, the author platform seemed to be of the most interest. Incarcerated students are very interested in areas where they can take control of their work/education We spent a good 15 minutes on what kind of promotional activities they could participate in from behind bars.

As class wound down hands were still raised and students were still in their seats. This really is an ironic aspect of teaching prisoners. Since they are mentally and emotionally abused/repressed throughout the day, they are so eager to soak up any iota of information that assists them with their goals. It's as if they would listen to anything - attentively at that - if just someone would speak to them as people and care what they think. Yes, I know this is an odd statement coming from an instructor like myself - being a prisoner and all- but, it's true! Just don't tell anyone in here. After all, we prisoners must be rough and tough.

Looking back upon this class I see progress in myself. I remember my first class and the feeling of being chased by the materials. Now, I rather constantly feel as if I am chasing the materials, trying to squeeze them into the limited class time. It's a good feeling and makes me look forward to next week's class.