Class Update (4-22-2011)

Boy do I have a ton to share with you today! Life has been very hectic, but very productive, too. To start, preparation for this week’s class was very easy. This is because the class was based on how to build one's platform and on the various self-publishing/vanity publishing companies that can be used by prisoners. I have extensive knowledge in both these areas, as I'm always endeavoring to expand my platform, and because once upon a time I thought Education Behind Bars was going to be self-published. Thus, I researched the subject thoroughly. Now I know that it will be traditionally published, which explains the current negotiations with McFarland and Company.

Before anything else, please allow me to alert you as to a major change in this blog. The address is currently www.christopherzoukis.com/prison-writing-an-instructors/. This will be changing on 4-28-2011. Come Thursday, the 28th, the address will be www.christopherzoukis.com/prison-education-blog/. The reason for the change is the scope of the blog is being extended. All of these changes will be discussed in this blog. But for now, prepare to change the address in your favorite’s folder, if I am to be so lucky, and come Thursday go to www.christopherzoukis.com/prison-education-blog/ for future blog posts.

Before we get into the class, please allow me to explain the formatting change that will be taking place within this blog. To date, this blog has been primarily focused on my class. While the class is important and will continue to be described, as new projects present themselves I foresee this blog being much more than one prison educator's thoughts. It can be a center for news on prison education. It can be a forum in which other experts in the field of prison education may bring their unique, and valued, voices to the discussion, benefitting all of us.

The formatting change will involve additional postings. Currently, I post once a week. Usually this post goes up on Monday because it takes me a day or two to put down the few thousand words that my blogs usually entail. This will continue. But more will be added to the mix. For example, I am in discussions with Janice Chamberlin, the author of Locked Up With Success (www.lockedupwithsuccess.com), about being a guest blogger. It looks as if she may blog at least once and possibly on a more regular basis. I'm also in discussions with Dr. Jon Marc Taylor, the author of the Prisoner's Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs, about guest blogging.

Other formatting changes will include additional updates outside of the regular "Class Updates." Additional updates will include postings of any articles on prison education authored by myself that are published. This way you will have editor-verified quality reading material. I am also starting a new project titled Education Behind Bars Newsletter (EBBN). This is a free 12-page (6 double-sided pages) bi-monthly newsletter that focuses on prison education and rehabilitation. I will be posting this either to the blog directly or possibly on another page of my site.

Other additions include me blogging on my proposed "Correspondence Course Seminar," my efforts to publish my book, promotional efforts I find myself working on, and various other topics. I might even include postings that focus on prison life from the enlightened prisoner's perspective. For now, I'm not sure in what direction all of this will take the blog. But what I do know is it will become more dynamic, authoritative, and hopefully entertaining. After all, words are just words until they impart an important truth or possibly uplift an otherwise dreary day.

Do note that I will be attempting to categorize the postings by title. This way if you find a certain series of blogs to be dull then you will be able to skip over them. Likewise, if you find a particular series you particularly like, you can make sure to not miss any. I will be categorizing the blogs with such titles as "Class Update," "EBBN Update," “Article Post," "Guest Blog," "A Day in My Life,” and so forth. I will attempt to systematize the titles so you will be able to easily identify what each one is.

With this formatting change comes a question. What are your druthers? Since this blog is just as much about myself as it is about you, I would love to receive feedback on the proposed changes. On the one hand, if there is something that you particularly like, please let me know. On the other hand, if you don't like something, please let me know. Also, if there is something you would like me to cover, please don't hesitate to ask. This way I can attempt to provide you with what you enjoy. You can let me know your thoughts at chriszoukis@gmail.com.

With this push to make the blog more dynamic, comes the push to make the blog more popular. I am currently in the middle of a promotional campaign to do just that. For example, in the coming weeks a letter that I have drafted is being mailed out to just shy of 500 recipients in the prison education/prison advocacy realm. My hope with this letter is to drum up more support and to possibly interest others to get involved in the blog. I am also preparing to issue my first press release about the blog's existence. With a little luck, the service that I'm going to use will alert the mainstream media not only to the blog's existence, but to the vital need for prison education. Naturally, I am not so far gone in cloud-cuckoo-land as to think that a single press release will do much of anything, but it has the potential to do something, however small it might be. You can go to my "Media" page to view the release and other documents for the media.

Before we begin discussing the class, please allow me to voice an idea. The idea of guest bloggers came to me the other week as I was looking at the number of regular visitors to the blog. Upon seeing that I have regular readers, I realized that this could be an untapped source of expertise. The very people reading this blog might be prison education experts in their own right. Or, perhaps they could be prisoner advocates. Perhaps they have something to say that would further the dialogue on prison education or prisoner's rights. This is YOU that I'm talking about. So let me know! If you work with a group that supports prison education, rehabilitation, or just prisoner's rights, please let me know. Perhaps you could be a guest blogger. Perhaps there is someone in your organization who would be perfect for this blog.

The last week has shown me people want to get involved. People have good ideas that could help hundreds if not thousands of prisoners. Too often people think their idea isn't any good or would never work. Or perhaps they just don't have the skills or logistics needed to enact such an idea. Well, I'm here to tell you that I want to hear about it. If you have an idea or a project that could help prisoners, please let me know. I'd gladly volunteer my time and I know plenty of others, even others with doctorate degrees, who would, too. As all of us prison educators know, the plight of educating prisoners is not touted on CNN, CNBC, or Fox News. It is shared amongst prisoners, their families, their friends, and the organizations that support them. So, let your voice be heard. Perhaps I could even provide a platform for you to voice your opinions or ideas?

Now to the class. As usual, I went over to the Education Department early. I was held up with a few emails, so I arrived around 6 p.m. Once there I met up with Christopher Hannigan, the home inspection instructor, and went to our usual pre-class hangout, his classroom. There I shared this week's news, a few articles that I had done the last week, the letter that I'm going to be sending to the prison education organizations, and the proposed press release. This is our usual pre-class procedure.

While in the classroom a man came in to see Mr. Hannigan. This was one of Mr. Hannigan's GED students. This man expressed how grateful he was for Mr. Hannigan’s help. The gratitude this man expressed was touching. Here there was a 50-some year-old man thanking a man in his early 30s for teaching him. The man said that he never would have passed his GED, if it wasn't for his tutor. What a concept, that all of us, regardless of age, have something of importance to impart to one another. The idea rings true on so many levels. This goes back to a section in my book that is titled Prisoner-Students/Prisoner-Teachers. The concept here is that even someone who is in prison for life or decades could still contribute as a positive member to society via becoming an educator.

The topic that dominated our discussion was the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. The EBBN appears to have created quite a stir of interest. Now, with prison regulations being what they are, this is a touchy subject, but I have attempted to stay on the right side of this whole project. This means that I will not accept a submission in person and I will not "circulate a manuscript," something frowned upon by the administration. However, since I am the "Writing and Publishing" instructor I feel as if some extra room is given to me. The way this would have to work is a person would submit to Midnight Express Books, the company that is handling the logistics for me. Then, Midnight Express Books will look to me for editorial oversight as to what is published and what isn't. As with most things from prison, some degree of separation is needed. Although when it comes to philanthropic efforts, it appears as if some leeway room is provided.

We spent some time discussing the project and what it could be and what it could do. I think for the people involved, or at least consulted, there is a deep sense of necessity and potential. On the necessity side, there just isn't anything out there like it. Prisoners need a source of educational news and opportunities. They want to read about good correspondence programs or about study skills. It would certainly benefit them to read an article by an actual prison educator.  The perspective alone would open their minds. Plus, by making it free there is no income line. This won't be the kind of thing where they have to spend all of the meager change they earn working for the various prison systems.

On the potential side, I see multitudes that could not only benefit from such a project, but who actively would seek an education from it. I see this project catching on like a wildfire. I see EBBN in prisons across the country, and I see its readers enrolling in, and graduating from, GED programs, career programs, college programs, and more. As for sustainability, I generally believe that a good deed or a good work will prevail on merit alone. This isn't to say that common sense isn't needed, but projects that help people tend to be self-perpetuating or self-propelling. So with my oversight and the council that I keep on this project, I see the project sustaining itself. If, however, it proves to be a pipe dream, I can count on philanthropists to fund the initiative. After all, that is what has made the first two issues of EBBN possible, a very generous donation by two persons who are dedicated to prison education. Hopefully, after the first issue of EBBN debuts in June, I will be able to interest a few advertisers to help sustain the project.

Sorry about the tangent. This is something that has been on my mind fairly constantly over the last few weeks. While we were discussing EBBN, my trusted friend, Bill Batton, the prisoner ACE coordinator, showed up. He sat with us for a while and chatted about the various projects that I'm working on. One exciting aspect he noted was the renewal of my class for another quarter. This discussion was framed in the context of, if I wanted to continue the class, and if so, what day of the week would I prefer. I gladly informed him that I'd love to continue teaching, something afforded me by my long waiting list, and that I would like to switch my day from Friday to either Tuesday or Wednesday. The reason for this change is because I would prefer to have my Friday nights open to watch the movie. The institution screens movies on Friday nights. I also needed to change the day of my class because I am involved in an Ultimate Frisbee/Frisbee Football league, and its games are on Friday nights. More on the Frisbee league in a few weeks. For now, you can just picture Frisbee as played by a bunch of heavily tattooed guys. Oh, yeah, and a few broken bones and such. I'm not kidding! Last year I slammed my shoulder on the ground and injured my rotator cuff. To this day, I can't throw a baseball or softball.

While we were discussing the renewal of my class, there was a discussion about Mr. Hannigan's class. Mr. Hannigan spoke, in hushed tones, of not continuing his class … of turning the reigns over to someone better qualified: Bryan "Country" Ewing. This confused me, since I thought that he liked what he was doing. But his comments to me later on told the truth. He said that he was getting burned out. I suppose that after being a GED tutor all day long, five days a week, and then teaching a class that requires an extra few hours of prep time, that burnout would probably be the result. I hope that he manages to find more energy or excitement and continues his class. But if not, Country will. No matter what, he’ll still be working 5 days a week as a GED tutor. So he's not going completely off the farm.

Burnout is something I feel should be touched upon. Even I, at times, get tired of the work that I do. Even I, at times, don't want to continue on with something. A prime example was the reviewing and revising of my students’ homework. It just killed me! I found that I was spending so much time on homework that I wasn't paying enough attention to what really matters – the class. So I had to make a change to keep the class fun for me. I made the homework optional. They could do it, if they wanted to become a better writer, but I didn't have to kill myself to get them to become one. So in your class, I implore you to remove the aspects that you don't like. Remove the parts that aren't fun or that bog you down. Surely there is another, better way to come to the same result. After all, as prison educators, people who are paid low wages – or nothing at all!, we must keep the meaning and perspective in front of us at all times. We must not allow ourselves to lose sight of the goal and the work we do. Otherwise, we risk failure and burnout.

As 6:35 p.m. rolled around, I asked Bill for my dry erase marker so I could prepare for class. Unfortunately, Bill had forgotten it. But since Bill has done such a great job with everything else, we will have to forgive him. Heck, the guy is in the education department several hours a day, plus at least one hour each night for assistance with ACE classes. You're forgiven Bill! Mr. Hannigan gave me an extra maker that he had, one that he uses for his GED tutoring. With marker in hand, I made my way down to my classroom. There I pulled all of the chairs off of the desks and placed them on the floor. I also rearranged the two desks that perpetually block the primary dry erase board, and rotated my desk so I could sit facing my class.

As I was getting the room in order and unpacking my class materials, several of my students filed into the classroom and settled down. Two of which caught my attention. One of them was the one who had lied about the three graduate degrees (from last week's blog). He was at it again. He was busy telling another student about his novel. Funny that he didn't mention it on the pre-test where it asked, "Have you ever published anything? If so, what and where?" I suppose it makes him feel more important. More on this guy later.

By the time the move was called, it was only 6:40-6:45 p.m. Since the move was closed and the door  locked, I decided to start class early. For some reason my students didn't seem to want to get started. I say this because several of them were talking, and loudly at that. Do note that after several years of this constant din of noise I have not gotten used to it, but to hate it with a passion. Every time a basketball game comes on, I can already anticipate my hearing loss. It really is that bad! Last week one of the idiots decided to stand on top of the trash can and jump up and down to protest a decision, slamming down on the lid time and time again. Finally, there was poetic justice. As he came down he landed off-center and the trash can went sideways. I haven't laughed that loud in quite some time! Suffice it to say, I have turned into a grumpy old man when it comes to loud noises. Suppose five years in this environment will do that to you.

In order to quiet my students down and get started, I called the roll. At first roll I had a total of 7 students, a paltry sum which included the fabricator (the one who is not on my roll). After roll I went to the board to write down this week's title, but lo-and-behold my marker was dead. Class was off to a good start. As I explained to the class what would be covered, there was an interruption. The education staff member had appeared to take the official roll. It should be noted that they don't always show up. So I keep my own roll, along with grades and such. This way I can keep the class accountable even if there isn't a guard/education staff member to do so.

After the official roll, I got back to teaching. Another student entered the room. Turns out that he was in the library, and didn't realize class was going to start 10-minutes early because of the early move. I told him to let the staff member know so he wouldn't be marked absent. After he came back, I paused yet again and gave him a quick crash course in what we had been discussing. Then I tried to get back to the lesson at hand. It wasn’t to be. Twice, I had to stop to tell late arrivals, who were in the library, that they had to let the staff know so they wouldn't be marked absent. I also had to stop to give them a quick crash course in what we had already covered. It wasn’t until 7:20 p.m. that – finally – we were able to work uninterrupted.

Before I start in on the lesson, please allow me to sidestep and discuss attendance for a minute. My class started out with a total of 17 students, along with 1 off-the-books student (the fabricator). One man didn't bother to show at all, another made it only one week, and two more had been kicked out for lack of attendance. This means that I currently have a total of 12 eligible students plus my extra. I have a waiting list of 20+ and still have to go through another sign-up session in May. This is a resounding success for it being week 5. I say this because by now it is the norm for only half of the students to be left. Most sign up and then don't show up. So, I am pleased with my numbers. The reason I mention this is because prior to class, when I was in Mr. Hannigan's room, I noticed that he really didn't have many students left, less than myself. Regardless, I'd continue to teach even if I only had one student left. Although I'd probably do it on the recreation yard, not the classroom.

This week’s discussion focused on the author platform and the various self-publishing/vanity press companies. We started with the author platform. Since I attempt to be very practical in my teaching, I explained what my students could do from inside prison to build their platform. I pulled out a copy of my website, and that of a friend to demonstrate the difference between a static website and a dynamic one. I also explained who they could pay to create one for themselves and how much it would cost them. I also made a point of stressing the fact that their families and friends could do this for them for free.

I also passed around a copy of the Corcoran Sun (where I am the Associate Editor), The Update: Federal Criminal and Immigration Law (where I am a staff writer), and the State & Federal Criminal Law Review (where I am a staff writer). I told them about the EBBN to show them they didn't need to rely on anyone else, that they could create their own product if they so desired. We covered a number of other potential platform opportunities that can be done from prison. As I've found, visual aids go far. So I made sure to circulate a copy of my printed-off website, that of my friends, and the various newsletters. The goal being to get them started today.

The other half of the class dealt with self-publishing/vanity presses. I explained to them there are a number of good reasons to use a vanity press, and there are a number of bad reasons that people use them, too. We discussed the various good reasons to use a vanity press (e.g. professional speaker, niche nonfiction with a built in audience/platform, personal reasons, etc.) and the various bad reasons (e.g. poor quality work, no audience, not well developed, etc.). Throughout the discussion, I tried to focus on the practical aspects of what they could do. I passed around information packets from various vanity presses, and I explained what was involved.

One of the areas we discussed was that of getting one's work into a digital format. Since most of my students don't have the money required to use the email service (a 5 cent per minute charge), I explained that they would need to either type the work on a typewriter, that is if they could afford the initial $30 investment in supplies, or that they would need to get someone on the outside to do so. This discussion revolved around convincing a family member or friend to do so, and around who they could pay to do so.

One company that I featured in my discussion was Midnight Express Books (http://midnightexpressbooks.com). I explained to them that for a fee Midnight Express Books would type their work for them (at $3 a page) if it was handwritten or scan it (at $1 per page) if they had already typed it. At this the fabricator became visibly upset. Now I wouldn't say he lashed out at me, but he was upset with the situation. He felt he shouldn't have to pay someone or that a company shouldn't be able to charge a prisoner for a service. I tried to explain to him that people who provide a valued service should be compensated for their time and efforts. He didn't see it that way. He perceived the situation as an injustice against himself. I suppose there will always be those who refuse to see logic.

We ended the vanity press discussion with the companies that I liked. I mentioned CreateSpace, Outskirts Press, Vantage Press, and Lulu. I covered the basic initial investment costs (around $400) and the add-on features such as a decent cover, proper editing, and marketing. I think that while everyone was interested, they were also disappointed by the fact that most of them could not afford to pay the costs involved. This was a tough discussion to have, but a needed one. After all, they needed to know the truth. I also felt that they learned an important point from this discussion. The point was this: they should first seek a traditional publisher, something that I view as the ultimate goal.

As class wound down, we talked about the final exam. I have to say that I was impressed. Since this is the first class I have ever taught, I have never really witnessed the learning process from the outside. It was astounding! I saw grown men who had never exceled, most of them, that is, at formal education answer the questions correctly. They knew how long a query letter is supposed to be, what kind of book a synopsis is used for, and what kind of book a book proposal is used for. They even knew how long a copyright lasts (70 years after the copyright owner's death) and that facts aren't copyrightable. They could even name a few vanity presses and traditional presses. Clearly, my teaching is working! This was certainly a revelatory moment for me in my teaching career.

Before the very first class took place, I worried whether I could convey the material. After I finished creating the 60-question final, I was worried about anyone passing it. But now, after 5 weeks of teaching, I am confident that I have made a difference. I am confident the students who stick with the class will pass the final. I suppose the word "confident" is what sums up the whole situation.

As the recall move was called, I packed up my materials, pushed all of the chairs under their desks, rearranged the desks as I found them, and returned the dead dry erase marker to Mr. Hannigan. As we walked out of the Education Department, he filled me in on the aforementioned reasons for his departure as an ACE instructor. While a disappointment, I could somewhat understand the feeling of burnout he expressed.

Looking back on this class, I can see tremendous progress was made and realized. I was glad to see the look in my student's eyes as they realized they did in fact know the answers. They could do this, formal education, that is. I guess that all of us were a bit surprised by what actually occurred. I leave you with one word that adequately describes what all of us in the class are feeling: hope! With my students’ newfound, or maybe newly realized, academic abilities, all of us are feeling hopeful about the future.

Author's Note:  follow me on Twitter:  czoukis