Class Update (5-6-2011)

Well, this week's class was certainly crystalline. I say so because we clearly didn't have it. At 5:30 p.m. I logged off from typing up my revised curriculum and set off towards the Education Department. My arrival was greeted by a crowd of people waiting to go inside. It should be noted that this is atypical because the Education Department is supposed to be open from the time the first housing unit is called to go to chow, around 5 p.m.

After waiting around for 20 minutes or so, one of the GED tutors set off to the lieutenant's office to ask if the Education Department was going to open tonight, but was stopped on the way there. He was stopped because he was "in an unauthorized area,” an area where the lieutenant's office is located. So, instead of allowing him to continue to the office, another 20 feet further, he was directed to walk all the way around the center of the prison, a 7-minute walk, to approach the office from the opposite side, a side that also took him through an "out of bounds" area. Long story short, because of a confused guard he was discouraged from finding the answer we all sought.

After waiting another 10 minutes, a guard walked over and informed us that the Education Department would be closed for the evening. I'm going to state this bluntly because being coy here would not impress upon you the truth (coyness and sarcasm don’t translate well on paper). Someone didn't bother to show up to work. Period. Therefore the 50 or so students who were scheduled to attend class, along with the instructors and the GED tutors were turned away.

Since there was no class, I will have to withhold the portion of the blog about what happened in class. Luckily, I have a few topics that are outside of the spectrum of class time that I would like to address. The first topic is a meeting that occurred yesterday. Well, to be honest, the meeting was to be on Wednesday, but it was cancelled at the last minute – without notice, of course. So it was carried over to yesterday.

This meeting was attended by all of the ACE instructors, the staff member over ACE courses (I don't use her name because I haven't asked her permission to do so, more on this later), and the prisoner ACE coordinator Bill Batton. This meeting was to inform us of several changes to the ACE program and to open dialogue about future classes.

A number of interesting conclusions came out of this meeting. The first was that the Basic Math ACE course and the Home Inspection ACE course were being "dissolved." The guys who teach the Basic Math course were in the room and I know them so I felt bad for them. Mr. Hannigan, the instructor of the Home Inspection course was not in the room because he was busy tutoring the GED students. So he was informed later on. As those of you who regularly read this blog already know, Mr. Hannigan was turning over the Home Inspection reigns to someone else. That is now not the case.

The part of this discussion that probably bothered me the most was that the Basic Math guys were informed of this in front of all the other ACE instructors. That must have been difficult for them to hear. I know my stress level certainly ratcheted up a few notches, knowing that classes were being "dissolved." The saving grace of the situation was that they could reformat their class to make it more interesting and appealing to the prison population. After all, let's be honest. A class with a title of Basic Math is bound to cause spontaneous yawns. Their class had a very low attendance rate and a low completion rate to boot.

This point was really pushed by the staff member. She imparted upon us that she wanted interesting courses taught by passionate teachers. She wanted to create a "buzz" around the compound. In this I really agreed with her. I agree that we need to spice up the ACE offerings. We need to make them sexier to appeal to the prison population. One primary example of this is the reformatting of the Restaurant Ownership course into a Pawn Shop course. Upon hearing of this change there was audible approval in the room. Likewise, she informed the Basic Math guys that they should reformat and rename to something like Starting a Business or Business Math. The point was to make the courses more appealing to the prison's population. Perception is reality after all.

Another point she emphasized was completion rates and how to come by them. She emphasized the instructor's passion in keeping people in the classroom. Her thoughts were that if the instructor is passionate about the material, then the students will stick around. Vice versa they would leave even if they were slightly interested but the instructor boring. Not to blow my own horn too much, but she did mention my class in this discussion. She was explaining that she didn't want to see the same old classes offered quarter in and quarter out. She said the classes that occupy the smaller rooms were going to be the ones that would be switched out from time to time. As she said this I became concerned because I don't want to give up my class. But right as I was going into negative self-talk mode she said this would not be the case for classes like Writing and Publishing because I have just as high a completion percentage as those occupying the larger classrooms. So, for another quarter I am safe.

I really appreciated the loyalty she showed her instructors. She explained that since we in the room were already teaching for her that we would have the first option to teach again. This certainly pleased me. It showed me that she appreciated the work we do and respected us for it. She told us about the offerings at other institutions. This actually surprised me because it indicated she had prepared for this meeting, something not all that common when dealing with members of the prison staff. The big point here is she went out of her way to improve the offerings at the prison. For this, she earned my respect. She said that at other institutions they offer a book club, a legal research course, and even a movie critique course. She mentioned several other courses, but these are the ones that stuck out to me. Of these three, the legal research class is probably going to be taught by Bill Batton. That is actually something I might sign-up for.

As for the movie critique course, I already knew about that, too. The reason is because I am the one who purchased the books for the instructor. Since you are reading a blog that is written by a federal prisoner you can probably guess that I have the funds required to support such a website and to pay for the outrageous computer time (a charge of $0.05 per minute) that it takes to email my blog posts to my friend, who places them on my website. Long story short, I am blessed with tremendous family support, both emotional and financial. So when something like the movie critique course comes up and Mr. Batton asks me if I could get someone to send in a print-off from online on how to critique a movie, I go the full nine yards and ask another friend of mine, Laura Winzeler, to order a book or two on the subject for the instructor. After all, who wants to attend a course in which the instructor has only read a packet on the topic at hand?

The same is true of my course. While ACE courses are free to teach, they can require funds depending on what the instructor wants to do. For example, I have found the Handbook for Writers in Prison by the PEN American Center (http://www.pen.org/prisonwriting/) to be indispensable. If an individual prisoner was to write to the PEN American Center, they would receive a copy for free, but if you're teaching a class and need 18 handbooks each quarter, then you must pay the $5 fee per book. This comes out to $90 per course. But that's not all. I also realize that to someone making only $5.95 a month (what I make) or even $5.25 a month (the minimum rate), a pen that costs $0.55 can be a big purchase decision. So, I also provide each of my students with one black Bic pen. This runs me $9.90 for 18 pens. Thus, my class costs me $99.90 per each group of students. When you take into account the time spent on the computer on class related work ($0.05 a minute), the copies I make for the class ($0.13 per copy) that are outside the scope of what the Education Department will copy or that are a rush job I don't have time to submit to be copied, and the professional development that I go through (e.g. internet research, books, magazines, folders, etc.) the true cost comes out.

Now that we've covered my personal costs, please allow me to recount a new component that was presented. This is the component of internal funding. Evidently, ACE courses do have some priority in funding. This is to say that funding could be available if the proper circumstances and conditions converged. The focus of this discussion was on new textbooks or supplies for a proposed Art Appreciation course. It should be noted that I inquired if black Bic pens or pads of lined paper would qualify as supplies. To this the answer was "no." I was going to ask about the Handbook for Writers in Prison, but there are two issues with this question: One, I'm sure that the Education Department would not want to buy 18 books ($90) each quarter, something I feel passionate about because each student really should have their own copy to keep. Two, we really aren't supposed to buy anything for our students. So I didn’t want to draw attention to this. After all, a "no" answer could jeopardize my purchasing of the books.

As the meeting moved along four other topics worthy of note were broached. The first has to do with the new GED Fast-Track program. This is a new program that will assist persons in the existing GED programs to earn their GEDs faster via more class time. This is something I fully support and think should take precedent over ACE courses. The reason for this is because a prisoner who chooses to participate in additional class time in order to earn a GED should always receive it. After all, a GED prepares someone to progress to higher levels of education and employment (though not much in the employment realm) by issuing a nationally recognized diploma, whereas the completion of an ACE course only affords the prisoner-student the knowledge of the course and a Bureau of Prison's issued certificate. Plus, I would have the prisoner-student be able to read, write, and add, rather than know how to submit their work to a publication. Though, if they can't do the prior, then the latter is a joke anyway. The reason this discussion even warrants note is because the GED Fast-Track program will be occupying the larger classroom five days a week. This means that the larger ACE class will become 5 to 8 seats smaller, not a huge deal in the scheme of things.

The second topic worthy of note has to do with the day my class is held. Currently, my class is held on Friday nights from 7:00 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. Additionally, I like to make myself available from 5:30-6:00 p.m. until the start of class. So this is a several hour commitment. This commitment will be the same no matter when my class is held. The issue revolves around two factors: One, I play in a Frisbee football/ultimate Frisbee league that has games on Fridays. Two, the institution plays a movie on Friday nights. Because of these two issues, I requested a change. After a discussion, my class was moved to Monday nights.

The third area of note is the date of the new ACE course sign-ups. We were informed that sign-ups will be held the first week of June. The staff member also informed us that new classes would start the second or third week of June. All of this is very exciting because I have big plans for my next group.

Outside of this meeting I have been going back-and-fourth on an issue of great importance. This is the issue of making this blog known to my prison's Education Department, in particular the staff member over ACE courses. This is unfamiliar territory. On one hand, I can see the tremendous benefit and potential of such a blog. I can see the potential partnership forged in the common mission of providing an education to prisoners. But, if she took a dim view of it, then it could jeopardize my teaching position. The issue isn't so much of approval, because I am allowed to publish my writings, but an issue of acceptance. I guess I get hung up on its potential benefit to others. The reason I blog about being a prison educator is because I want to assist other prison educators and inform the public about the great need for education behind bars. It is because of the potential benefits of this blog that I stay in the gray chasm of shadows between being allowed to publish my writing and seeking official approval or support for my work here. After all, on a whim my class could be taken away and that would greatly endanger my growth as an educator and this blog itself. The potential consequences are what keep me from making my voice and platform known.

Now that I think of it, I do have a tremendous resource in those who read this blog. After all, you are prison educators. What do you think? How do you feel I should handle this? Heck, there might even be a Federal Bureau of Prison's educator reading this. If there is, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Regardless, I can be contacted at chriszoukis@gmail.com or I can be reached via postal mail. Go to my Contact page for all of my contact information. Please drop me a line and let me know your thought on this matter. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

The final area to report on is the change in my curriculum. Now that I've made it almost through my first class – all that is left is preparation for the final exam and final exam itself – I have a much better idea of what it takes to teach a class in prison and to do so successfully. This means that the goal is no longer to just fill the time or make it through each class, but to really examine the ways in which I can convey the information in my mind to my students. This involves a major rewrite of my curriculum and materials. This is yet another major project to take on.

The first stage in this overhaul is the homework component. If you remember, my grand homework plans involving Cell Door Magazine didn't exactly work out. The problems were that it was taking up too much class time, and I didn't have definite grading criteria. There was too much gray area. To rectify this issue, I have come up with a happy compromise.

For my next class, each week's homework will be based upon a reading in the Handbook for Writers in Prison, and 20 questions to verify that the student did in fact read the assigned pages. To tell you the truth, when I started the brainstorming process of how to improve this course, I actually didn't realize what a tremendous resource the Handbook for Writers in Prison was. But after reading through it again and writing out week one's revised homework assignment, it really did become clear to me. Now I see the class can have two distinct components, creating the whole that I desire. These components are in-class and homework. The whole that I desire is students who are better prepared to put their thoughts on paper, while at the same time knowing how to share those thoughts with others by means of publication.

This brings up a few questions. Perhaps the time of thinking of prisoner-students as sub-par is over and done? Perhaps it's time to view the prisoner-student as an academic, someone to be guided by traditional academic standards with homework and classwork? I say this because my students at first appeared to think of themselves as sub-par or just prisoners. They were frustrated with the idea of any tests, and any homework. But now, they appear to be rising to the challenge. They appear to enjoy the quizzes and want to take the final exam. I guess only time will tell. The final exam will certainly gauge my own teaching abilities.  Much of my self-image as an educator is contained in the final exam, the test of my abilities.

The second component to be overhauled is the in-class portion. For this, I have grand plans. After I finish crafting the homework assignments, I will get to work on the in-class packets. My goal is to provide a separate packet for each week. These packets will include an overview of the topics to be covered, a written explanation of all major topics, and practical information for engaging in each (e.g. a course bibliography, a list of reputable self-publishers/vanity publishers, various fee-based services and proper rates, a number of articles on each topic, etc.). The goal of these packets is to both reinforce what I'm teaching and to improve student engagement. As always, I'll refine the packets as time goes along.

The third and final area to be overhauled is my teaching. Since I now know the areas that interest my students the most, I will be able to focus on those areas. I also need to revamp my notes and make a schedule of notes to be written on the board. This way I can have the whole class on paper so all of the guesswork will be removed. Part of this revamp will be a modification in the structure of topics to be covered each week. The first time around, I grouped the topics to be covered based upon the kind of work to be done (e.g. query letters, book proposals, and novel synopses were all together). This time around I will still do this up to a point, but the class will start with the writing aspect and gradually progress to the submitting aspect during each class. After all, the horse does come before the cart, doesn't it? I feel that the students should learn the basics before progressing to the more advanced topics. In other words, writing before publishing.

Last week I spoke of adding some pizzazz to my class, of making it dynamic and progressive. This week I feel as if I'm really on a roll. I even went to the commissary and bought 8 clear-plastic document folders. This way I can have a separate folder for each week. I guess the appearance of my materials even matters.  After all, dress for success, right?! I certainly don't show up to class in a sweat shirt and a T-shirt. I show up ready to teach in khaki pants and a shirt with a collar, the best I can do – prison haute' couture.

Looking back on this week, no class and all, I find that I'm rather pleased with how things have been going. For a few days there I was having a rough go of it, but I now feel as if the tide has turned. I feel as if I am chasing the material again, not being chased by it. I feel as if I have stepped out of my self-conscious shell and into my prison-expert suit. But to tell you the truth, the icing on the cake came this evening around 8:00 p.m. One of my students, upon hearing that I am doing a total revamp of the materials, asked me if he could take the course again. My response? "Of course you can. I'd love to have you in my class again!"