Class Update (4-15-2011)

Well, for once I am able to report that this week's class didn't start on last Saturday. Surprisingly, none of my students found my hiding spot. I was working all week on school work. But, if they had I would’ve given them the time and attention they needed. I was actually pleased to see them utilizing my "open house" hours from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays before class. But we'll get to that in a minute. First, I’d like to mention a very special thank you. Then, a new project, and the preparation for class.

Throughout the creation of this course I have found support from all sides...well, from most sides. Perhaps I should say that I have found support from everyone with the exception of a few select prisoners who seem to hate the idea of education. Regardless, I have found tremendous support. This is evident in my blog postings becoming more and more confident, and even more fulfilling for me to write. The reason I bring the concept, and reality, of support up is because of someone who did something for me without ever telling me. Someone helped me and didn't even feel the need to alert me as to the assistance that she was providing me – a perfect example of selfless giving.

In the light of sensitivity and confidentiality, I will not use her full name, but only refer to her a la her relationship to Bill Batton, the prisoner ACE Coordinator. This person is Bill's wife. I receive what are called "Google Alerts" and "Twitter Alerts." Whenever a new listing containing my keywords (e.g. Zoukis, Christopher Zoukis, etc.) appears, I am emailed. The same is true of my Twitter Alerts, but the email is triggered by someone "tweeting" my keywords. This week Bill's wife tweeted about this blog twice. What a treat! Not once but twice! So thank you Bill's wife. I really do appreciate it.

Naturally, I appreciate her tweeting about this blog because it validates the work that I'm doing. But there is more to it than just that. By her tweeting about my blog she is drawing attention to the issue at hand. The issue of educating prisoners. This is an issue that I am very passionate about and an issue that needs more attention drawn to it. So if anyone feels as passionate about prison education, and the work this blog is promoting as I do, then please do the same. Please tweet about it, post links on your Facebook or Myspace page, tell a friend, send an email, or do what you can to help. Heck, even if this blog isn't exactly your cup of tea, you could do the same for the PEN American Center's Prison Writing Program (www.pen.org/prisonwriting). They are a great advocacy group. Or you could do the same for Janice Chamberlin (www.lockedupwithsuccess.com), the author of Locked Up With Success. The point is that if we as a people or group, those who advocate for education behind bars, want to make a difference then we need to all do what we can to promote it. For me, this means teaching behind bars. For you, it could be as simple as a tweet, an email, or a phone call. The point is to do something.

Moving on, I do have some exciting news. On Monday of this week I had a meeting with the College Coordinator of FCI-Petersburg. During this discussion I proposed facilitating a "Correspondence Course Seminar." This would be a seminar which would last an hour-and-a-half and be held monthly. Almost immediately, the Coordinator said yes. I would almost go to the extent of saying that it was a resounding yes. The only catch being that I would need to draft a proposal so the prison administration has something on file. The Coordinator explained that she would be out of the office until May, so that I needed to have the proposal ready to submit at the beginning of May.

Over the last week I have researched the policy on courses and such. I even came to find out that there are very specific aspects that must be included in a class proposal for the Education Department. While I had submitted a proposal for "Writing and Publishing," I found that there was a lot more to learn. As a matter of fact, being a perfectionist, I went back and revised the "Writing and Publishing" proposal too. After researching existing educational policy, I crafted my proposal. But as with other writing projects, I'm allowing it to cool off so I can review it with a fresh perspective prior to submission. I also have to wait until I have completed the handbook for the seminar, so I can include exactly what it is and what it contains.

The handbook that I'm creating is probably an important point to cover. In a prison setting, you can't expect your students to be able to furnish themselves with anything. This means that if you tell them of a great book, that's probably as far as it will go. This is because they either lack the funds to order such a book or because they lack the outside assistance to execute the purchase. So with the "Correspondence Course Seminar" I am crafting a handbook to pass out to all of my prisoner-participants free of charge.

This handbook is actually a series of summarized excerpts from my book, Education Behind Bars, but it is more practical. For example, it will include assistance on how to select the level of study that is right for the individual prisoner-student, how to ascertain the quality of an educational institution, the reason why prison education is in their best interest, and recommendations of actual schools (with contact information) at each level of study. The reason for all of this information is because I want my students to understand why education is important for them (skills and reduction in recidivism). I want them to be able to select the level of study that is right for them. I want them to verify the quality of the school they decide to go to, and I want them to have the school's information right in front of them. This way they have everything that they will need to proceed in obtaining an education via correspondence.

The final point to note here is that this doesn't have to be an expensive addition to an in-prison educational program. The reason for this is that you can lean on the Education Department to provide you with copies. But you do need to be considerate. For example, this handbook would be around 70 double-spaced pages. While double-spaced pages are clean and easy to read, they waste a lot of paper and therefore resources. So I am making this single-spaced and possibly double-sided. This way instead of requiring 70 pages per student (at 50 students this would be 3500 pages), the handbook would require 35 single-sided pages per student (at 50 students this would be 1750 pages) or 18 double-sided pages per student (at 50 students this would be 900 pages). The real numbers become evident when one realizes that this is going to be a monthly seminar. So you would have to multiply these numbers by 12 to obtain the yearly total.

This week's class' focus was on Agents and miscellaneous topics of concern. The way I envisioned this was that I saw the students being very interested in agents, and only slightly interested in grammar and the miscellaneous topics. So I prepared for questions on agents. To do so, I went into the storage room in the Education Department, where I store my class materials, and retrieved one of my books – the 2011 Guide to Literary Agents (Writers Digest). I then spent several hours on Thursday and Friday rereading the editorial portion of the 2011 Guide to Literary Agents. I also paid special attention to the sections on copyrights, because prisoners seem to be overly interested in this area. All said and done, I probably spent 5 hours preparing. This wasn't a huge time commitment, but it was substantial.

As Friday rolled around, I followed my Friday routine, which went like this:  a final look over my notes and materials, and ensuring that everything I needed was packed in my bag, checking to make sure that I had extra pens and paper, and quickly eating some junk food on my way out the door. I know, I know,  I’m a very health-conscious guy!

As I arrived at the Education Department, I noted that there weren't many people there. The lack of activity was due to the fact that it was “chow” time. Most of the prisoners were eating dinner. While I waited, I sat at one of the law library computers and did some research. I had promised a friend that I would research a personal property issue for him and let him know what I found. I spent about 30 minutes doing so. Just as I was finishing my research, Christopher Hannigan, the home inspection instructor, appeared.

As usual, we left the library and entered his classroom. As I've noted before, this is where I prefer to prepare for class. I passed him my latest article to peruse, as I usually do. This time around it was on the new Pew Center for the State's study on recidivism. But just as he was getting into it, one of my students, the man who is not on my roster, appeared at the door and reminded me that I had agreed to meet with him before class to go over a few of his writing projects. So I had to tear myself away from my normal, and much valued pre-class routine to aid my student.

Down the hall I went to my classroom. To my surprise, at only 6:20 p.m., I found not one, but three of my students waiting for class to start, each working diligently on one project or another. What a treat! Students, who not only show up to class, but show up early. Before assisting my student, I decided to get the room in order for class. This way we wouldn't be interrupted in our work. After rearranging my desk and moving a table another foot away from the board, I was ready.

As I sat down with my student, he first showed me an email that he had printed off. It turns out that he had added one of the prisoner publications that I had passed out last week to his email list – Prisonworld Magazine. He had also emailed them and informed them that he had heard about them through my class. Because of his email, they had inquired into who his instructor was, and he wanted to ask me if he could use my name. This was the reason for showing me the email. Naturally, I said yes. Actually, I even emailed them myself to explain what my course is about and to introduce myself.

One aspect should be noted here. In reading my student's email, I became concerned. The reason for this is because it appeared as if the man had lied in a rather grandiose manner in this email. He noted holding three master's degrees and one bachelor's degree. He also noted that he was a published author of a book and that he had ghostwritten a number of projects, both articles and other materials. All of this was greatly worrisome because I knew the man had never published a book. I also knew he was not a ghostwriter. In fact, he first learned about the concept of a ghostwriting in my class. He did not have advanced degrees, much less three! I suppose in moments like this one has to realize their place. I am just a humble instructor of writing. I am not the man's father or his therapist or boss. So it is not me who should correct him. But it is bothersome nonetheless.

As I went over the man's work I found myself a bit lost. He had a notebook which contained a number of essays (both regular and poetic). The sheer number was impressive. As I began to read a few sample paragraphs, I realized that this was a bit over my head. Turns out this man was writing about the oppression of the black man by the white devil. All of you might not know this, but I am a 25-year-old white guy. I'm not incredibly political and I try to stay away from topics that could cause offense. This isn't to say that I won't stand up for what is right, but I won't deliberately put myself in a situation where I have to defend myself, especially in a prison setting. So I gave the most general advice I could and attempted to move on.

The advice I provided this man was topical. It had to do with getting his work typed and saved on a computer. My advice also dealt with how to submit it while he was still in prison, a way to build his platform. I guess that in hindsight my advice was watered down because of the subject matter and the fact that he was lying to others. But I feel that it was good advice. Needless to say, I was not going to go out of my way to help someone who appeared to be attempting to scam Prisonworld Magazine. But one is left to wonder why one would do such a thing. To me, the email alone indicated the man's level of academic attainment. The simple way of judging this is that if a person claims to have a graduate degree, particularly one in writing or communications, and I can find errors, then something is off. I can only hope that others possess this talent or skill too. I feel sorry for the student. If he was to ever get work this way, he would never be able to produce at the level expected of him.

A side note is needed here. I think that as prison educators we have an obligation to be honest and trustworthy in all that we do. It is our job to help our prisoner-students get back on track, to prepare for a brighter tomorrow. I also think that we need to draw a line at a certain point. For me, this point is somewhere between teaching and the student's personal actions. I do not feel that my student made the right decision by lying to a publication, but I also don't think that it is my place to even bring it up. To do so could cause hostility in both the classroom and in my interactions with this particular student. The fact that I'm even voicing this concern and situation in my blog is because the man does not have access to the internet or anyone who could provide him with a copy of it. My advice to other prison-educators is to find your comfort zone and stay there. We are educators, not moral compasses and not the police. I suppose that we have to allow our students to dig their own graves, if they choose to do so. But on the other hand, we are to support our students in all that is right and to celebrate their successes as joyfully and supportively as we can. Thus, we are approving parents, congratulating our children at the "A" that they have received, yet at the same time, we are like a distant cousin who has the ability to turn away because it is not our place to correct or chastise.

After around 20 minutes with my student, I heard a knock at the door. As those of you who regularly read this blog probably can guess, it was Bill Batton, the trusty prisoner ACE coordinator. Usually I see Bill prior to class, but today I didn't. I suppose that he was caught up in a prior engagement. I opened the door and Bill had my dry erase marker in hand. Really, what more could a person ask for. I was just wondering where Bill was with my marker and he appeared. Every Education Department should have a Bill.

I used this as an opportunity to break away from my tutorial session, a much needed escape. Out into the hallway I went, and down about halfway towards Mr. Hannigan's classroom. There in the hallway Mr. Batton, Mr. Hannigan, and myself engaged in an interesting discussion regarding the law and politics. I do have a legal background from earning a Diploma in Paralegal Studies and an Advanced Certificate in Criminal Law. Like most discussions of this sort it involved much speculation and conjecture, but was entertaining nonetheless, something I greatly needed to unwind prior to class.

We also discussed the procedural aspects of my "Correspondence Course Seminar." I had previously explained to Bill that I would like to incorporate him somehow in the seminar. At first I was thinking of expanding the seminar to include all of the educational opportunities available to prisoners, both in-prison and correspondence. But this just seemed like too much. After all, I was already pushing my bounds by expanding the seminar from a "College Correspondence Course Seminar" to a seminar that includes all level of correspondence courses. So we agreed to hold off for the time being, believing it would be better to attempt to do something like this once the seminar was established and appreciated.

By this time I only had a few minutes until class so I excused myself and started the arduous task of writing on the dry erase board, in legible handwriting, the various parts and kinds of novel synopses. I also did the same for book proposals. As the move was called my students filed in and almost immediately they had paper and pens out and were copying down what I had on the board. To me this was a pivotal moment in my teaching experience because it showed me how much some of my students really wanted to be there. I knew that the class was helpful - to some - but I didn't know how important it was to so many.

As class started I checked attendance, with my newly created class roster, a much easier to use roster than my previous one, and witnessed the marvel of students taking notes. It was at this point that I made my first big diversion from my previous teaching philosophy. Going into this class, I had created a number of notes, 40 or so pages of them, to keep me on track and to allow me to fall back upon if needed. Well, today I didn't use them. I used the 2011 Guide to Literary Agents (Writers Digest). My thought here was that while my notes are good, that a book with short editorial chapters would help me to structure the discussions in a shorter format. Since time is always such a constraint, I felt that it was worth a try. And it worked.

Since I had re-read everything previously, I was ready. I placed yellow sticky notes on the pages I wanted to cover and went from there. As we discussed why having an agent was a good idea, I was able to guide my lecture from the subsection headings, but use my personal experience and understanding as the filler. The same was true of why having an agent was a bad idea and any other number of topics. In an hour-and-a-half I managed to cover over 100 pages of book text and another 20 pages of notes. Clearly my idea was a success!

The only time that I really had to divert from the lecture was when referring to the board or when reading from my own book proposal to show actual examples. After all, this was the week to go much more in-depth into the book proposal and the novel synopsis. We literally covered everything section by section and format by format. The whole time I saw pencils flying, trying to keep up with the discussion.

The only other topic we covered in class at any length was that of copyrights. For some odd reason prisoners are very concerned with how a copyright works. Perhaps this is because they really have nothing left, that they avidly grasp whatever still remains. Regardless of the reason, the discussion went well. By utilizing the chapter on copyrights in the 2011 Guide to Literary Agents (Writers Digest) I was able to focus the lecture/discussion on the several most important topics, the subsection headings in the book. It should be noted that while I did read each subsection prior to class, I didn't do so in class. That would have taken much too much time. Instead, I used the various headings as a guide or road map and used my own understanding of each section/subsection as the filler/discussion material.

For the last part of class we covered the final exam. This is an area that does require some explanation. I first started the discussion by explaining my experience with an ACE class that I had taken. The class covered money management. I explained that in this class the pre-test and the post-test were the same test. I attempted to show them my disgust with such a concept, a concept riddled with sub-par teaching. While some of the students agreed with me, others were still put off by my explanation of the final.

One of those put off was the guy from the first class that had gotten upset with me over the pre-test. I didn't really notice him until he said something along the lines of "this is crap." Upon hearing that, I looked at him and realized that he had been giving me a mean look the entire class. The reason this stuck out to me was because he had not bothered to come back to class for two weeks. He showed up for week 1 and week 4. Needless to say, I don't think that the guy will pass the class. This is not to say that he can't, but that since he had not bothered to come to class to hear the answers that the odds were stacked against him.

When I told my students that they should be studying their pre-tests because they contained 25 of the final exam questions one of my students spoke up. This man had missed week 2, the week I had passed back their corrected pre-tests. He asked me about the pre-test. After a short discussion it dawned on me that he couldn't study it because I had not passed it back to him. I quickly rectified my mistake. The guy who thought that the length of the final exam was "crap" didn't bother to ask for his, too. So I didn't even think about it at the time. This is something that I will have to rectify next week.

As I told them, the final consists of three primary components:  49 multiple-choice/true-false questions, 10 vocabulary matching questions, and one extra credit question. Upon hearing the 60-question total, there were audible groans or expressions of astonishment. After all, I am not one to just slide. I think that if a person is to sit in a class for 8-weeks that they are going to learn something and learn it well. So I explained how each section was going to work and I also explained the various fail-safe features that I had built in.

There are three primary fail-safe features built into the final exam. Feature one is the extra credit question. Question number 60 asks the student to list up to 10 ways to build their author platform. For this question, all the student has to do is list up to 10 ways to build their platform. For each correct answer they receive one point on the final, slightly less than the weight of each question on the final.

Feature two is the curve. If people are to fail the class, then I will allow a grading curve. For this I will raise the top-scorer's grade to 100% and raise everyone else's grade the same number of points it took to raise the top-scorer's grade to 100%. My philosophy here is that if at least one person doesn't make 100% that I didn't do a good enough job of teaching. Therefore the students shouldn't be penalized for my lack of teaching skill.

Feature three is the post-examination survey. Attached to each student's exam is a survey that asks questions such as their age, level of academic attainment, and a number of questions about the course. The reason for including this is to allow me to create a statistical analysis of the class, to improve the class, to justify the class' continuation, and to perhaps develop the class in another direction. For completion of this post-examination survey I told them that if they fail I will award them up to 5 extra points in order to possibly bring them up to passing.

The final topic covered by the class was the final itself. Since the final is so challenging, at least when compared to other ACE classes, I've decided to read my students portions of it as a class exercise. This way, not only have I taught them the materials, but they are hearing exactly how it is conveyed in the final exam. Do note that I'm not allowing them to look at the actual final. My reasoning here is that the final is a tool. The goal of the final is not to test them, but to make sure that they have retained what they need to know for a career as a writer. So as we went over parts of the final, I explained each question to them. For example, when discussing the different ways to build one's platform, I explained how to do so, different methods that they could use even while in prison, and the reasons for doing so. When discussing the question on if it is ethical to pay an agent a "reading fee," we were able to discuss what to do if an agent does ask for money and how agents are supposed to make money – by making you money. The primary goal here was to educate the students to the real world answers that the questions convey.

By the time we really started discussing the final, the "recall" move was called, the move that is called around 8:30 p.m., and signifies the time for all prisoners to return to their housing units. I quickly packed up, put the room back in order, and headed out into the hall. There I met up with Mr. Hannigan. We have made it a habit to head out of the Education Department after our classes and to discuss how the classes went. As usual, both of our classes went fine.

Looking back upon this week's class, I see yet more improvement. I feel as if I am getting better at conveying information (teaching), and I feel that I'm gaining more authority in my classroom, which augments my confidence. Those of you who know me know confidence has always been a slight issue for me, especially when in front of a group of people. But I am now starting to feel better about this whole teaching gig. I'm starting to feel as if this is the right place for me and the right activity for me to do for some time. I guess that we'll just have to see where the winds of change push me in the days, weeks, months, and years from now. As for now, I can't wait for next week's class.