Class Update: Enhanced Learning In A Smaller Setting

Introduction

It will never cease to amaze me how seemingly insignificant events can have truly profound effects in a correctional education setting. This week’s installment of ‘Writing and Publishing’ really drove this point home to me.

This week class didn't start so much at 7 p.m. -- as it is supposed to -- but at 6:30 p.m. This was due to the increasingly erratic calling of institutional movements by whoever was working in the control center of FCI-Petersburg. It seemed like they called all of the hourly movements (ten-minute periods when inmates are allowed to move from location to location. This is supposed to be done on the hour) 10 or 15 minutes early. Or, in the case of the 7 p.m. move, 30 minutes early.

Once the move was closed (the doors were locked again), it was only 6:40 p.m., 20 minutes prior to when my students were supposed to come to class. Not all that surprisingly, several didn't make it to class. I later learned that one of the misdirected students went to the lieutenant's office and requested permission to go to class. Sadly, his request was denied.

Class

The focus of this week’s class was fictional book writing, submission, and agents. Yes, this is a lot to cover in one class, but we're only allowed to teach for 8 weeks. In the past, we had 12-weeks, which is the duration around which the class curriculum was designed. So, we jumped right in.

From the start of class I could tell that class would be a breeze. I say this because of the feeling in the less crowded classroom. As I systematically progressed through my class outline the students chipped in with comments, and a casual discussion ensued. I think I speak for all involved when I say that class was pleasantly un-crowded and friendly, a vast departure from last week’s blunder.

As the fiction discussion progressed, I was able to step outside of the procedures of writing fiction and into the theory of it. By ‘theory’ I mean the global aspects of plot progression, character understanding, and psychological implications to the reader when considering our protagonists and antagonists, and the various potential impacts on the reader (customer) because of how the writer allows the story to unfold and conclude. It was nice to step out of the roadmap method of instruction (lecture based upon steps) and into the Socratic method of instruction (casual discussion which focuses upon higher-level concepts, not the basics) .

Final Examination Preparation

As 8 p.m. rolled around I decided that we had covered the topics well enough to move on. After all, the notes for this class -- notes which I spent months writing -- were just shy of 20 pages. (NOTE: The total package of ‘Writing and Publishing’ class notes equals around 90 pages. These are the packets which I pass out to the students each week for them to read outside of class.) So, we started looking toward the final examination.

The final examination is always an area of stress for incarcerated students, for a number of reasons. My personal opinion is that most incarcerated students probably didn't succeed in traditional education. This follows the line of thought -- and my personal observation – that many incarcerated students are deficient in social skills. Regardless, questioning looks greeted me when I mentioned the final examination.

To quell my students' fears I presented an anecdote from a past class. I told them that I actually had to change the final because my students had scored too high on it with the bonus questions. So I had removed the bonus questions and re-worded a few confusing questions.

After calming their fears, I explained that the final examination consisted of 50 multiple-choice questions; 20 of which were the same as those contained in the pre-test which I had graded, corrected, and returned. Hence, they already had a terrific study aid.

For the remainder of the class we quizzed. I would ask a question from the final and call on raised hands for the correct answer. When one student would answer incorrectly, another would supply the correct answer. As we did this I made sure to explain each answer and show why it was important for them to know the answer. By doing so, I feel that the information will have a better chance of being retained. After all, "because I said so" or "because it is on the final" are not very motivating reasons to retain certain information.

Conclusion

I had a very good time teaching this week. While I would have preferred for the institutional move to have been called on time, the informal class was a breath of fresh air. The smaller classroom allowed both my students and me to relax.

Looking back upon the various methodologies which I employed, I feel as if I did a good job. Throughout the class I managed to be engaging, practical, and even informal, but in a good way. I also empathized with my students regarding their fear of testing and did what I could to quell it. I think this will make a difference when it comes time to administer the final examination.

A Transformational Transformation - The Real Conclusion

For a brief moment in time -- as is usual with the good classes -- we were no longer inmates or prisoners. We weren't incarcerated students or prisoner students. We weren't engaged in correctional education, prison education, or inmate education. We were something else, something greater.

As I stood teaching I was not focused upon my prison ID card in my pocket or the fact that rows of barbed wire and razor wire surrounded the building (well, on the perimeter.). I simply relished the moment. At that moment we were real people, who respected each other and who were engaged in the experience of learning. We simply forgot that we were in prison for a brief juncture of time.

I think in that moment I was truly happy.