Class Update (4-29-2011)

This week's class was preceded by a whirlwind. I found myself swamped with project after project. I juggled two Ohio University courses, the Education Behind Bars Newsletter project (http://www.christopherzoukis.com/ebbn/), a volleyball game, a press release, and a letter that is going to be mailed out to promote this blog. On top of all of this, I have been working away at several inches of newspapers and a foot or so of magazines and journals. Yes, I did measure the height in God’s feet and inches. To protect my own sanity I won't even touch on the number of books that I'm currently reading. Suffice to say, several per each of my three courses plus several for my class.

In a way, the amount of work that I'm dealing with is a bit surreal. I say this because I enjoy having a lot of work to do. It gives my life purpose. But for the first time in my life I have more work to do than can be done. So, it's very much a game of catch-up. I guess that in a few months or years I'll look back and see that it was all worth it. Maybe one day…

This whole discussion of work brings up a disappointing conversation that I had this week. I place a very high value on hard work and on the merit of a college education. This is the reason I spend so much time on each lesson in my college courses. I just can't stand to do a bad job on anything that matters so much. The reason I bring this up is because I have a friend who is attending a school via correspondence that is based in California (I won't say the name of the institution out of defamation concerns). For a long time I had thought highly of the institution. I actually considered attending the school instead of Ohio University a few years back. Now I'm glad I didn't.

My friend and I were comparing our courses as we were stuck waiting to sign in for work. He was lamenting that for the history course he was about to finish he had to read 25-pages of text per each of the four lessons in the course. He was also groaning about the 750-word paper per lesson. At this, I was shocked. Twenty-five pages, that's all?! I explained that in my English course I had to read 78 pages in the textbook, and another 92 in the supplemental book, write a 1,000 word essay, answer several other questions that amounted to an additional 1,500 to 2,000 words, and this was only for one of my 10 lessons! At this he was shocked. He even made the statement that he was worried about the open-book final that he was about to take because he "really didn't learn anything" from taking the course. What a sad statement!

When I heard this, I was sad for my friend and angered at the school. Granted that the school isn't regionally accredited, but no school should allow a student to complete a course in 3 weeks, require less than 2,500 words in total essays for a correspondence course, and even allow an open-book final exam (no midterm exam mind you). I suppose that teaching methods are different at different institutions, but when a student can call a college course "easy" and "quick" or when they can finish a course and feel as if they haven’t learned anything, something is clearly wrong. I only wish that my friend hadn't already paid the school so much money. Unfortunately, this school charges by the semester, not the course, so the money is already gone. Also unfortunate is that I'm not sure if I have the heart to break his mistake to him. Perhaps I will mention something about it when it comes for him to pay next semester's tuition. After hearing this I find that I'm glad that Ohio University's courses are challenging. If not, then what is the point in taking them?

Moving on, come Friday I found myself slightly excited and slightly bored. The excited part is usual for Fridays. Standing in front of a class and imparting my thoughts gives me a sort of thrill. It's like I'm the sole actor of a one man show. Or better yet, the main actor of an improv-skit, where each of my students functions as a prop, which is thrown at me. Ok, enough figurative talk.

The bored part is the part that worries me. I like to go from new project to new project. I suppose that I'm Americanized. Sort of reminds me of the new Best Buy program where you can turn in your outdated appliance for the newest one. Or in my case, the one that's two months old for two days old.

The bored aspect really does worry me. I don't mean that my class is boring, far from it. They sure do keep me on my toes. But the act of doing the same thing week in and week out is a troublesome aspect for me to deal with. As I say this I can see my mom saying, "We know!"

Clearly the answer is to do something to spice up the experience. This is something I've been giving some serious thought. After a period of brainstorming I came up with an idea. The idea was a shift in my perspective. Instead of looking at my class as a static activity, I'd look at it as a progressive one. For example, there still are areas that I can improve upon. One such area is in the handouts that I give my students. So, one of my upcoming projects to be done over the next several weeks is to not only create handouts for every week, but to make the whole presentation and delivery more modular. This means a separate folder for each week, separate handouts, and even separate notes. All of this should fill the goal of spicing the class up. My interest is certainly piqued.

As Friday rolled around I was still swamped. By the time I headed over to the Education Department, I had spent around 7 hours in study. Several of those hours were spent diligently typing away. This is something that actually drives people crazy. Since my unit only has three computers, which have a 30 minute time limit per session, and a 30 minute wait in between sessions, people tend to get upset with me. It's not an in-your-face kind of agitation, but they get aggravated when they have to wait and they get jealous that they can't email as much as I do because of the costs. My usual retort is that I'm working on college work or work for my class, but they don't seem to care. It regularly appears that a good few of them would rather I not teach my class or take college courses if it would cause me to be on the computer less. It appears to be a have/have not thing. The problem is not so much the amount of time, but that if they can't utilize something because of the cost then they don't want anyone to do so. College is the same way to them.

By the time I was ready to head over to the library, an announcement was made over the intercom. This announcement stated that the Library would be closed for the night. This greatly concerned me because of my class. I grabbed my bag and set off. Upon arriving I found the door locked, but could see workers stripping and waxing the floor in the library section of the Education Department.  I waited. I could have knocked on the door to ask if the ACE (Adult Continuing Education) classes would still be held, but opted to wait for Mr. Hannigan, the Home Inspection instructor, to appear. My reasoning was that I didn't want to get inside and have nothing to do but wait for Mr. Hannigan to show up. SoI ended up waiting for a while. Turns out his unit is now last to be released for chow, a new development.

After waiting for 30 minutes, I noticed that the staff member inside the Education Department had the door open and was speaking with one of the GED tutors. I took this as my cue to go on in. The problems started almost immediately. After I entered my classroom and completed all necessary preparations, it was only 6 p.m.  So I decided to spice things up by writing extensive notes on the dry erase board, a visual aid for my students. But I didn't have a dry erase marker because Mr. Batton wasn't there yet. It should be noted that I do not have the option to purchase such an item, so I have to rely on Mr. Batton to deliver my marker because he is in charge of passing the dry erase markers out to the various instructors. So I asked one of the GED tutors and he loaned me a bright green marker. After I used it, it became clear to me that no one, me included, would be able to read what I wrote. I returned the marker to the man and asked the staff member for one.

After receiving the new marker, a black one this time, I went back to my classroom. However, this marker was so dry it was actually cleaning the remnants of old markings off of the board. So I returned it and she found me a new one to use. Now I was cooking with gasoline! This one worked well. Not only did I fill up the main board, but I filled up all three. What an exciting life I have. I was entertained by using more than one dry erase board. This is actually a good thing because a dull prison experience is one that lends itself to reading and college courses. Back at Polk (in North Carolina), my life was filled with violence and the threat of violence. Obtaining an education there was not an option. Long story short, in prison, boring is good.

As 7 p.m. neared, I had several people in my classroom: two students, along with Mr. Hannigan, and Mr. Batton, the prisoner ACE coordinator. We joked around and discussed the newsletter as I finished making my notes on the boards. This is actually one of my favorite times. I like being able to unwind a bit with others on the same wavelength as myself. Only in the Education Department can one find a group of guys focused on bettering themselves. Plus, we get to throw ideas back and forth for the Education Behind Bars Newsletter (http://www.christopherzoukis.com/ebbn/). It's a great sounding board to have.

At 7 p.m. the move was called. I sensed the appearance of shadowy obstacles. This was because of the Education Department being partially closed. I just knew that something would go wrong. And was I right! The education staff member didn't hear that the move was called. So she didn't unlock the door until the move was almost over. This caused a number of people to show up and leave when they saw that the door was locked. Luckily for me, this only happened to three of my students. Two of which were fine in that they had never missed a class. Unfortunately, the third student racked up his third unexcused absence. That is certainly a bummer. Hopefully he will come and see me to see if anything can be done. I say this because I don't know if he just blew off the class or if it was an honest mistake. Usually when it's an honest mistake the student will seek me out. If he does, I will see what I can do.

The only other pre-class hiccup had to do with one of my students. He had already missed too many classes. So he was supposed to be kicked out. But he showed up anyway. After a discussion in which he rather forcefully declared that he was still in the class, I just let it go. After all, I'm a fellow prisoner. It's not my job to enforce the rules unless it has to do with my grading criteria (e.g. attendance records, final exam score, making sure that no one cheats, etc.). For that matter, it's not a smart or safe idea for me to act the role of the enforcer. I did what I felt was right to do. I marked him present but left the highlighted "No" in the "Pass" column of my roster and grade form. Better to leave this with the staff member in charge of ACE classes than to get myself into a tight spot.

A note about roles is needed here. As a prison educator, it is important to know what your responsibilities are and what they are not. For example, in your facility you may be charged with being the enforcer, the person who issues incident reports for violations of rule or policy. If you are, I wish you the best. I do not envy your job. But if you're not charged with being an enforcer, then don't appoint yourself to the job. It's certainly best to leave the enforcing to those whose job it is to do so. This way you don't have to be the bad guy. You can just teach.

Luckily class went without much of a hitch. This was a marked difference from last week when I had interruption after interruption. This week I had planned to cover writing skills, scams, and the various people one can pay in the literary realm. We started with writing skills. For this discussion I utilized my college English textbook and explained the proper way to plan and draft. This discussion was focused on how to select a good subject to write about, how to evaluate the person's audience, how to define one's purpose in the particular piece, and how to bring all three together in a style and format appropriate for the assignment. The students appeared to really find this discussion interesting. I actually think that I will focus an entire class on this for my next group.

The second area of discussion was focused on scams. While I found this area to be of interest, I don't think it was a huge hit with the students. Instead of spending a ton of time on this area I just focused on the high points. These being how an anthology scam works, several companies that are known to not pay their authors for books sold or who have huge hidden fees, and the nefarious agents/supposed agents who charge a reading fee.

As I've shown here, if you are charged with teaching an elective class, a class that's not rigid as regards curriculum, then feel free to modify the curriculum on the go. This doesn't mean that you should, or can for that matter, deviate from your lesson plan, but that you should provide more detail and attention in the areas your students are interested, and the areas that they need to know about. After all, the goal is to be as engaging as possible. We are not supposed to bore people to death. We are educators! Our purpose is to make learning fun so that our students will want to learn and will retain what we teach.

The third planned area of discussion focused on literary services. In this discussion we covered the services and costs of editors, proofreaders, indexers, typists, consultants, researchers, press release services, direct marketing, and much more. I made an important point of noting the plusses and minuses of each. I always attempt to provide a well-balanced discussion by presenting several sides of any issue. This way the students can come to their own conclusions, educated conclusions at that. I also made it clear that all of these are add-on services, services they do not have to pay for because they don't necessarily need them. The general consensus among the students was people charge way too much for a prisoner to afford, certainly a true statement.

This brings up another point. Since the demographic we teach is typically in the lower socioeconomic echelons, we need to be careful of the suggestions we make. This is because they might not be able to do what we recommend. They literally might not have the $9 to buy a book we think they need to have. So temper your discussions to what they can do and can do now. For example, it doesn't do my students any good to share tips on how to facilitate a book signing. This is because they are in prison and will be so for the foreseeable future. Instead, I cover how they can entice reporters to interview them or even interview one another and submit the interview to a publication. Just keep in mind the limitations of your demographic.

As the 8 p.m. move was called, I was yet again disappointed in the two people choosing to leave. This is something that I permit, but that I dislike. This goes back to my role-conflict between prisoner and instructor. I did what I always do when the slackers leave. I reviewed the final with all that remained, 8 in total. Yet again, I was tremendously impressed with my students. On almost every single question someone had the correct answer. This is a far cry from the pre-test. Clearly these men have been paying attention and studying. They even knew the vocabulary terms!

As the "recall" was announced, we piled out of the classroom as we always do. I was tired and had a scratchy throat from talking for such a long time. At the same time, a peaceful feeling permeated me. I'm always tired, yet at peace after class. I suppose the class fulfills some kind of hidden need of mine. This is something to note for the times when the going gets tough.

Looking back at this week's class, I see yet more progress. I see a group of men who – in the beginning – didn’t impress me from an academic standpoint, but now do. I see a group of men who were given a challenge and rose to the occasion. I also see a 66.66% success rate based upon attendance. Though, if you take out my extra guy this falls to 64.7%. Regardless, to have 10 guys continue to show up not only this late in the course, but to do so under unfavorable conditions (the locked door and the previous closure announcement) is a success in itself. Plus, the average rate of completion for an ACE class is below 50%. I'm certainly beating the odds. I for one can't wait to see the final completion percentage and the results of the final and the exit survey.

In closing, I implore you to discover ‘fun’ in everything you do in your class. As educators we need to engage with our students. This means making a connection that will hopefully last as long as our students are in our class. This means that we need to change things up. We need to move around. We need to vary the tone and volume of our voices to avoid monotony. And on a final note, don't forget one of the most important players in the classroom – yourself. You are the teacher and you are there – rain or shine, healthy or sick. So take care of yourself. If something isn't working for you, change it. If a stressor continues to present itself, banish it with any means at your disposal. And always remember, we are not just teaching a class of prisoners.  We are making a difference. We are not just helping Student Adam understand the math or English or science problem, we are helping him get out of prison and stay out. And with a little luck, that might just make society as a whole a better place for us all.