Class Update (4-8-2011)

Like most of my classes, this week's class started last Saturday. As I noted in last week's blog post, I had scheduled an 11:30 a.m. meeting with my top scorer in the library to discuss his various literary projects. Upon arriving in the library, I set up at an empty table and spread out my materials so I could keep others away. This way I would have room to work with my student. I waited until 12:15 p.m. I was tired of waiting. Actually, I had been fine waiting up until the "move,” when the interior gates are unlocked and movement is allowed around the prison for a period of 10 minutes. But I didn't want to be stuck in the library with nothing to do for an hour, so I packed my materials into my bag and left. As I walked out the door and down the walkway, I ran into my student.

When he saw me, he asked if we were still going to meet. I managed to stifle my annoyance at having been waiting for 45 minutes and agreed. Then our first problem reared its ugly head. As we walked into the library we found that all of the tables and chairs were taken. So I did what I always do when there is a class-related issue: I found Bill Batton, the prisoner ACE (Adult Continuing Education) Coordinator. My question for Mr. Batton was simple: Can I use one of the classrooms to tutor one of my students? Spoken like the real Bill, he said, "Yes...but we need final approval from the guard." Bill and I spoke with the guard and arranged to use an empty classroom for an hour. At this point, I went down the hall with my student; a man at least 30 years my senior.

Unfortunatel,y we discovered that all of the classrooms were being used by other people. More than likely, most of these individuals had not sought permission. Nevertheless, we selected a classroom with only one man sitting in it. Upon arriving in the classroom, we set up in the opposite corner from the man. Almost immediately the guy was upset. He first told us, in quite a grumpy voice, I might add, that the classrooms were for ACE courses. In an attempt to be diplomatic, I explained that not only did we have permission to be in there, something he surely didn't have, but that I was in fact an instructor who was doing a tutorial session with a student.

In deference to the grump, a man who looked to be in his 40s, my student and I attempted to be considerate by speaking in library voices. Amazingly, this was not enough for the man. He rudely expressed to us that he was in this classroom first, a room with 20 or so desks and that we were bothering him. So, taking the higher road, something extremely rare inside a prison, we exited the classroom and looked for a new location. Luckily, I managed to find one of the GED tutors I knew, and he gave us permission to work in the room in which he was tutoring.

Once in the new classroom, we unpacked our materials and got to work. Then my student gave me details about his history. I was surprised, to say the least. It turns out that the man possessed a doctorate degree in Wildlife Biology. He explained to me that he had worked for a number of years as a forest manager and explained some of the statistical forecasting of future recreational activities that he did as part of his employment. It appears as if the forest manager's job, or one of them, is to predict what persons will do for recreation in years to come and to better prepare the forest for such recreation. I was certainly fascinated not only by what his job used to be, but by his level of academic attainment. This is not something people think about when thinking of prisons. I suppose that people from all walks of life find themselves here.

Do note that I find it imperative to not ask personal questions of my students. For example, I would never ask them what they are in prison for, anything about their family or anything else that could make them feel uncomfortable. There are a number of reasons for this, including:

a) I want to foster a comfortable learning environment. 

b) I don't want to put my students in a position where they have to divulge something that could get  them into trouble if overheard (e.g. their charges if they happen to be rough).

c) I don't want to know something that could make me biased.

d) I don't want to put any of my students in a position where they feel that they have to lie.

After this discussion we came to the topic of writing. I launched into a discussion on researching and how to document the research. As I was motoring along, he opened a folder and pulled out character sketches, a novel timeline, a detailed plot description, and the first 10 pages of his novel. Needless to say, I was impressed. He certainly was ready to get to work. Instead of sitting there and attempting to decipher his rough handwriting (FULL DISCLOSURE: Mine's bad too), I had him explain the story to me. Boy was it a trip! His novel was based upon his time in prison. He even based some of his characters off of people I have seen.

As he explained it, his main character, a guy named "E.T.," was in prison. To add flavor to this, his character's name was something like Eliot Thomas, but since he looked like E.T., with the long neck and all, and since his initials were E.T., that became his name. While in prison he met up with "Crispy," a main character who suffered from severe burns and the two of them rode the fulcrum of insanity that is prison life. To top this off, he even includes characters based off of the medical staff, too. If memory serves me correct, one of the sub-plots was that the doctor, a thinly-veiled character for one of the doctors at FCI-Petersburg, was seeking her revenge upon a number of the prisoners for perceived wrongs. Suffice it to say that this book would be categorized as noir-satire-horror-drama. A whole new genre!

The other half of our discussion was actually focused upon me. From the beginning of teaching my class, I've made it clear that while I'm an experienced writer, I'm not an experienced teacher. So I've asked a few of the people in my class who appear to have a higher level of education to critique my teaching from time to time. This was one of those times.

My top scorer prefaced his recommendations with a short example. He explained that when he went to do his oral argument/defense of his doctoral dissertation that his advisor had given him a good piece of advice that could work for me too. The advice was that he was the expert in the room while he gave his oral argument. That no one else in the room knew more about wildlife biology and that the real test was in conveying the information, not in knowing it, because that was a given. With this being said, he had four main suggestions for improving my teaching/delivery:

1-I need to reiterate materials three times: provide an overview of what is to be covered, go into detail of the material, and recap/summarize what I told them at the end of the class.

2-I need to be more interactive. His suggestions here being to craft more hand-outs, bring in actual examples of material being discussed, and to move around the room by writing on the board, thus being more engaging;

3-I needed to either pass out the course syllabus or write a week-by-week summary on the board. While I had already given an overview of the materials in week 1, I did decide to write out a week-by-week outline on the board as a visual aid.

4-His final suggestion was one that I decided to take it with a grain of salt. He explained the possibility of people being in the class not for the information, but to look good for the prison administration. This is referred to as "programming" and is expected of the prison population. For these he recommended I just allow them to not participate, to just sit and be quiet. In this instance I partially conceded on the graded weight of the homework, but I was adamant that if someone didn't pass the final that they would not pass the class. This way it was up to each individual student to pass or not.

As our time came to a close, I was both inspired and intrigued. I was inspired to improve the quality of my course by creating more packets and other hand-outs. I was intrigued that a course such as mine could inspire someone to go to the lengths that this man had in just three short weeks. I suppose that at times, we, being the persons involved, can't appreciate the value of what we're doing because of how close and real it is. The adage that we can't see the forest for all of the trees appears to especially true in this circumstance.

Throughout the rest of the week I did what I could to prepare for class. I started by compiling a number of prisoner publications. In all, I managed to collect 16 different prisoner publications and 2 glossies – Esquire and Vanity Fair. I also dug through my publication folder and found the submission guidelines for Prison Legal News. To top all of this off, I also made copies of my query letter for my book Education Behind Bars. I now had real world examples to share with my students.

As Friday evening came around, I made my way over to the Education Department. This time around, the trove of idiots was not there to greet me. I took this as a good omen. I suppose that it's always a good omen when roving thugs aren't at your office building or home. Go figure! Upon arriving in the Education Department, I made my way to my classroom but found the janitor waxing the floor. So I set up in the library, making myself available to my students for two hours prior to class.

After an hour of tutoring with one of my students, I made my way into Christopher Hannigan's classroom, the home inspection instructor, and relaxed. It is here with Mr. Hannigan and Mr. Batton that I prefer to prepare for class. I do so for a number of reasons, though the primary reason is camaraderie. This is possible because all three of us instruct classes; all three of us have to deal with some of the same issues and situations from our students. I stayed until around 6:30 p.m. While I was there, they critiqued last week's blog and to my surprise even had a print-off of the first week's blog. Imagine that, even inside a prison, prisoners can have blogs printed off and mailed to them so that they can read them. What a trip! Perhaps this is another form of globalization?

While in Mr. Hannigan's classroom, we had a good laugh about the gentleman who shook the catheter at me. Funny enough, they actually knew who it was. We chuckled about this for a minute until we saw the guy wheeling by us going toward my classroom. To be honest, I just didn't have it in me to sit with the guy for an hour and explain to him why I don't write articles about other prisoners. That and I don't like to deal with hostile people.  And prisoners tend to become hostile when they are told "no." It's a long and confusing story, but I'll give you the short version here. In prison people can pretend to be whatever and whoever they want to be; a lot of lies get passed around. So to take someone at their word and risk publishing something that contains lies is to allow one to be blindsided by a defamation or inconsistency issue. That, plus I prefer not to write anti-prison administration articles. The reason for this is that if one is overtly critical of the prison administration or even their own boss in a private work environment, then nothing but problems can come of it. The logic is clear to me.

As 6:30 p.m. rolled around, I made my way to my classroom. Upon arriving, I found three of my students diligently working on their homework. I quietly began to set up the classroom. After I had my classroom in order, I did something that I had not done before. I wrote on the board. I know, it's amazing to think that an instructor could not write on the board for one week, much less two. But since this is the first time I've ever taught anything, I hadn't hit my stride yet. This week's class, though, would be different. I started by writing a week-by-week outline on the board so my students would know what is going to be covered each week. The hope being that they wouldn't be asking questions about material that would be covered in the future.

As 7 p.m. rolled around, the rest of my students filed in. Well, the rest with three exceptions. One of which was the guy with the bad reputation. To tell you the truth, this was helpful because he tended to get us off track with repetitive questions that were off-topic or with arguments with what I had to say. Thus the feel in the room was rather relaxed. I started off with the critique that I had received over the weekend. I explained that this was the first class that I had ever taught and the first time that this class had ever been held. My point was that there would be glitches and that modifications would need to be made. The first modification was that while there would still be a homework assignment, I would not be grading them. I explained that if anyone wanted to do the homework and have me help them revise it, I would be more than willing to do so. But I would not be checking up on them. In hindsight, I think that this was the correct answer. After all, with only 1 1/2 hours to teach, I didn't want to be wasting 20 minutes on homework and attendance.

After explaining about the homework modification, I explained that I was going to be switching things up. I explained that I wanted this class to be interactive. That I hated boring classes and I suspected that everyone else did so too. I told them that my goal was to be interactive and engaging. With that in mind, we moved on to my first in-class modification.

I first passed out my query letter for Education Behind Bars. I reminded them that they had asked me to bring in copies of a query letter, but that because of copyright laws I couldn't just copy a query letter out of the 2011 Writer's Market. This meshed well with how I try to make everything that I do a real world example of the writing profession. The first in-class task we engaged in was the reading of my query letter. After I read each paragraph, I explained what was contained in it and why. Do note that I didn't ask anyone to read anything out loud. The reason for this was because I was worried that there could be a few in the class who couldn't read well and I didn't want to embarrass them. After we finished examining the query letter, the students seemed to be really engaged. Some had even made notes on the query letter as we went along. So far it appeared as if my class modifications where a hit.

After the query letter, I passed out the 16 prisoner publications, 2 glossies, and the submission guidelines for Prison Legal News. This was also a big hit. I explained to them that these were the places for them to cut their teeth. As we discussed these publications, I explained how much each paid, if any, and how to do research based upon the guidelines. I approached this from two angles. One: How to write for each publication by looking at what the publication publishes. And two: How to use the published articles as research for their own articles. This too seemed to go over well.

Then I really hit my stride. I used the dry-erase board to outline the writing process. As I covered each topic, I wrote the keyword on the board as a visual aid. For example, my first term was "Research." When discussing research, I explained that they should look at all that is out there prior to writing a book on a particular topic. This way they could see what has been done, what worked and what didn't, and how to improve upon it. I also gave pointers on how to procure inexpensive books, and how to find books on their proposed topic. Other subjects discussed were, "Outlining," "Writing," "Revising/Rewriting," "Submitting," etc.

After a discussion on how each of these steps works, we got into the nitty-gritty of book proposals and novel synopses.  I wrote the important points or topical keywords on the board. I think that I did a good job on explaining each, but I think that I could have gone into greater detail. This is something I plan on doing for future classes. It should also be noted that I passed around a copy of my book proposal so they could see what a real book proposal looks like. As I've found out, it's one thing to talk about a certain topic, but another thing to actually do it. My hope was that having a tangible example of a proposal would provide them with a template to follow and improve upon.

A side note is needed here. One aspect of teaching in a new situation or in a situation where time is limited is that everything doesn't need to be covered in one sitting. For example, after the class I realized that I was probably too topical when it came to the book proposal and novel synopsis. I now realize this. As a result, I've built into the curriculum days for "Miscellaneous Topics of Concern" (MTC). My reasoning goes like this: I may have been unclear or neglected to mention pertinent information the first time around. MTC provides me with a chance to rectify my oversight. I highly recommend that anyone who is planning to teach in such a setting do the same. After all, some aspects that seem obvious to the instructor will not be for the students. Which means extra time will be needed for improvisation. The moral of the story is to plan for the things that can’t be planned. This way all your bases are covered.

It was around this time that I shared my good news. The good news was that both Education Behind Bars, my prison education reference book, and Practice Electra, my novel, had received attention from publishers. I shared that McFarland and Company had expressed interest in my reference book. I also explained that they wanted some revisions, but that they were certainly interested in publishing my book. I used this as a real world learning point too. I explained how McFarland and Company wanted me to break my book into two books; one for policy makers and the other for individual prisoners. This led to a discussion on how the publisher is always right; as opposed to the author. After all, the publisher is the customer in this situation. This discussion also led to an explanation of how non-fiction books can be sold on the proposal alone, not the finished manuscript. This is something that I'm attempting to do now that Education Behind Bars is being broken into two books.

Then, we discussed my other good news. The news being that my novel, Practice Electra, is being reviewed by the acquisitions editor over at Sunbury Press. I explained how this came about, through networking and a friend, and how the novel synopsis works. I also made a special effort to explain that fiction is sold on a finished product basis, not a proposal.

As the class went on, I forced myself to stay out of my seat. I also forced myself to use the board, not just reading from my notes. This was something that I wasn't doing that good of a job of during the first two weeks of class. As I stood there explaining how book writing and publishing works something interesting happened. My students appeared to be riveted. They were into the discussion and were not asking very many questions. Yet when they did ask questions, the questions were pointed and on topic. It appeared to me as if everything was "clicking" because I was doing a good job of staying on topic and properly conveying the needed information. This is a feeling that I will relish and strive for in future classes.

I went into teaching this class with the idea that I would be providing a general overview of the publishing realm from the prisoner's perspective. But now that I've taught a few classes, I see how truly wrong I was. My students don't want an overview. Rather, they want a microscopic analysis of everything, something that can't be done within the time limits. However, some of this can be implemented. For example, next week I plan on spending about half of the class explaining in detail what is contained in a book proposal and in a novel synopsis. This will include a section by section overview of what is standard and how they can modify my sample to better portray their product. The goal here is that they will leave the class prepared to at least start a book proposal or a novel synopsis. Do note that I reiterated the caveat that they need to purchase a good book on how to write a book proposal or a novel synopsis, that they couldn't possibly learn everything that they need to know in just an hour or two.

Not long ago, I read a book by Brian Judd. While I forget the name of the book, it was about how to sell more books. In his book, he explained how the sales cycles of both fiction and nonfiction work. In its simplified version, fiction books sell very fast, when they do sell at all, and stop selling very fast. Their sales life is fierce but short. While nonfiction on the other hand, sells slowly when they do sell at all, but for a prolonged period of time. To put it another way, a novel is more of a thrill ride, while a reference book is a cross-country road trip. With this in mind, I explained these concepts to my students. They seemed very interested. To tell you the truth, they always seem very interested when the topic of money is broached. The reason I bring it up here is because of the very simplistic visual aid that I was able to provide. I wrote on the board a diagram of both a fiction and nonfiction book's lifespan/sales cycle. While just two single lines with a few definable chasms, it really resonated with them. They seemed to connect with them. This in itself appears to mesh well with my previous observations of my students being very interested in the practical elements of book writing and publishing. This is something that I will remember for future classes. I also implore you to note these observations. Perhaps that could help you with your own students or for a class that you're in the process of planning.

As I reflect upon this week's class, I see tremendous improvement in the realms of enjoyment and delivery. My students genuinely appeared to enjoy the class more. I believe this is because of the improvement in my delivery of the materials. Clearly the conveyance of information is not based wholly upon the information itself or the expertise of the instructor. The manner in which the information is shared with students is vital. To my students, seeing a book proposal was better than being told about it. They needed a concrete example rather than an abstract analysis. Likewise my students grasped the concept of researching a particular publication by actually looking at a publication. By holding up a copy of Vanity Fair, I was able to show not only the types of articles that Vanity Fair publishes, but what has made the cut. What is the best of the best and what should be strived for or emulated when submitting to that market.

Lest I pigeonhole myself or this discussion to publishing, let it be noted that these concepts can be integrated into whatever curriculum one might be instructing. For example, don't tell your students about mosaic art or how to create a piece of it. Bring in plates to break and glue to affix. Don't tell your student how they should pitch to an employer, make them the employer and pitch your skills and resume to them. I guess the message of this week is rather simple. It is to do, not say. To show, not tell. To be, not think. And to share, not pontificate.

As for me, I can only hope that this upward trajectory continues, not only for next week or this particular class, but for all future classes to come.