Selling Information in a Correctional Education Setting

This week was week seven of Writing and Publishing. This week’s focus was upon preparing for the final examination.

What I've found in my career as a correctional educator is that you must sell the student on the idea behind the information you want them to memorize. I say this because incarcerated students are very willing to just do their time in the classroom, fail a test, and repeat the process. This can be seen in countless GED programs inside prisons.

The sad aspect of teaching in a prison is that students are so used to failure and being subjugated that they can’t wrap their heads around the idea of succeeding. Failure is expected.  And most prisoners become self-fulfilling prophecies. 

So, at this moment, we are salesmen and saleswomen. What I do is stand up, actively engage my students by group discussion, and explain why they need to know the information at hand. In week seven – a fairly boring week considering that we're just reviewing past materials – I do what I can. I ask a question which is on the final, call on a raised hand, and when the correct answer is given, speak about the question.

By relating the information to something important to your students and placing it in the context of the discussion, your students will pay attention and retain the information. For example, one of the True/False questions on the Writing and Publishing final examination is: "Prisoner-writers are allowed to publish under a byline .”

On its face this could very well be a boring question with a boring history. But when I liken this to my students' interests, the question comes alive. In this example, I explain how until 2009 the Federal Bureau of Prisons didn't allow prisoners to publish under a byline (where their name is on the published work). The BOP's reasoning was that a prisoner could become a "Big Wheel," a person the prisoners would follow and the guards would be afraid of disciplining.

A story such as this is inherently interesting to the incarcerated because it shows how inmates were able to not only gain a privilege, but win a battle against the guards. Now, I'm not saying this to cause strife, but as an example of progress; true reform, which was needed and has allowed persons such as me to become a successful writer from behind bars, actually occurred.

This is what I did throughout the class. I would ask the question, receive the correct answer, and explain the background. Even dull questions such as "A query letter should be one single-spaced page"  (True/False) can become interesting. This is because if the student wants to publish an article in a major publication or if they want to obtain a book deal, they need to be aware of the standard length and format of a query letter.

As the class proceeded, I was very pleased with my students' responses. It was clear from how many they answered correctly, that not only had I done a good job teaching them, but that they had been paying attention. I suppose that this is how I can gauge my own teaching abilities. Though, the real test will come next Monday with the final examination.

As correctional educators we have to deal with a wide range of students. Some of these might be older or younger than us, taller or shorter, darker or lighter, educated or uneducated. We work in the most diverse classroom imaginable. In my own career, I have taught students who were Ph.D. holders and those who didn't even have a GED – in the same classroom. This really is something. But not only is it an odd conundrum, it's a statement of our skills as educators and our compassion as people.

I'll leave you with a final though. I know that at times you feel like you are unappreciated. I know that it's insulting to see all of these budget cuts and blatant statements (direct or symbolic) of disregard. But don't let them get to you. You are providing a much needed service. You are standing up and doing what is right. You are where others should be, but aren’t. So, if no one else tells you "Thank You" for doing what you do, please allow me to do so.

Thank you for doing what you do. You bring light to the darkness and hope to the weary. You provide something which almost no one else bothers to do. You provide a path out of this toxic existence; a path to a brighter tomorrow.