Prison Education: Class Update (6-20-2011)

Class started out rough this week. It wasn't that the students were rough, they were great – all 17 of them. Rather, the Education Department dropped the ball. They failed to issue me the copies for this week's class. So I went in blind. Instead of covering the basics of writing as I had planned, I opted to cover the author platform: how to become visible to your target readership. I landed upon this topic because it is a very important one for any professional writer. Plus, I'm currently in the middle of reading several books on the topic ("The Facebook Era" and "Twitter Power 2.0").

I think that the students were a bit disappointed with the topic that I chose. They seemed like they really wanted to have a solid writing day. Heck, I wanted to give it to them. But without the packets I felt that I would be remiss by only giving them half of what I had. I also didn't want to load them up with tons and tons of homework for the following week. So the author platform it was.

This is probably a good time to express how much I like my new classroom. It's actually set up like a real classroom, with two dry erase-boards side-by-side at the front of the room. This does wonders for writing space. On one side of the board I was able to mark down activities that they could engage in from inside here in order to build their platforms. On the other side of the board I was able to mark down a few different social media sites with their estimated user numbers. And I was even able to utilize the center area for a discussion on the differences between advertising and publicity. As I've found before, visual aids, although hard to come by, are paramount in engaging with the students. They need to see something in order to grasp it. Plus, visual aids assist with keeping them interested in the discussion.

I found it important to take this discussion from both a traditional standpoint (e.g. blogs, articles, books, etc.) and a new age standpoint (e.g. social media and websites) because as prison authors they will have to be creative in order to do what those on the outside find so easy. After all, it takes creativity to be able to blog from prison. This blog is touched by no less than 3 people before it reaches you (myself, Randy Radic (my friend), and my IT guy). Plus, I have to comply with the 30-minute email time limits. What an annoyance that is. This means that I can email for 30 minutes, then I have to log off for 30 minutes in order to email again. Err.

We covered what they can do in order to build up their platform from behind bars. After all, there is no point in discussing what they can do when they get out. Many still have years or decades to go. So we need to be in the here and now. I think that my students were a bit disappointed because of all of the hurdles that they would have to jump, but the idea that really stuck was that they could engage in writing work around the prison. I suggested that they could approach the Recreation Department or the Chapel and see if they need a writer for their existing newsletters or if they could create one for each department or even create their own. This seemed to appeal to them. I think the reason for this is because it is more down to earth. They could see themselves successfully writing for a newsletter inside the prison or creating their own, rather than submitting their work to some publication outside of prison for possible acceptance.

I also spent some time emphasizing the drive and imagination that they will need. I showed how the Education Behind Newsletter  was just an idea one day, but that with some hard work I was able to craft my very own publication. This not only seemed to inspire them, but got them interested in writing for EBBN. All in all I felt that the class was very positive and promoted healthy work and growth. What an odd set of ideas to come out of a prison: healthy work and growth! Prison education at work.

As 7:45 p.m. rolled around, I asked my students to pull out a sheet of paper and to write down what their current platform consisted of. Since I imagined that most didn't have one, I allowed them to write what they could reasonably do. This made them push themselves to look for ideas to implement in the here and now. They didn't seem to want to do this, probably because of the lack of concrete current components, but I feel that it was a good exercise nonetheless. After 15 minutes, some tried to pass their platform proposals back to me. At this I declined. I told them that they needed to bring these back to their housing units and to work on it some more. I explained that these sheets were not some immobile thing, that they were dynamic and should be used as a roadmap to author platform success. This resonated with them, that they could be in charge of something and be productive even from inside here.

By 8:00 p.m. I saw that several students were becoming restless. They wanted to leave. So, I allowed those who wanted to leave to do so. From 8:00 to 8:25 p.m., I gave a crash course in the basics of writing. I was able to cover planning and some drafting in this short period of time. Since I only had around 12 left in the classroom, I decided to make the presentation very interactive. For example, I used the board to make a cluster, a method of planning. To do so I solicited ideas from the group. I showed them how we could even come up with a plot this way. We used various people in the class to play different parts.

For example, the crime was murder, the criminal was my friend Bill (a student), the detective was another student named Donald, and we were even able to come up with a very odd motive: "To cleanse the world." While a silly example, it was very engaging and everyone interjected their own flair. This exercise showed them how useful clustering and other planning techniques could be.

We utilized the same open discussion format to do a quick scratch outline, descriptive outline, and even a discovery draft. Since this is what they wanted to do from the start, they were very interested and some even took notes. All and all, the class ended on a very high note. Everyone appeared excited for the following week when we would cover what we were supposed to cover this week: the basics of writing (planning, drafting, revising, and designing).

After the class was over several students brought me pieces of writing that they wanted critiqued. I took these writings with me back to my housing unit so I could spend some quiet time focusing on them. As everyone piled out of the classroom, two of my students, friends who I play ultimate frisbee with, held back. They wanted to borrow a few books out of my giant bag of writing books. Since I associate with them outside of class on a regular basis, I allowed them to borrow the books. After all, what teacher would say no to a student who wanted to read an additional text or two? Though, I do have to be careful because prisoners are known to borrow things and never return them, even to their friends. I actually lent my only dictionary and thesaurus to someone a few years ago. I forgot who I lent it to so I went around and asked everyone that I hang out with and might have lent it to. Not all that surprisingly no one had it. Long story short: don't lend anything out unless you emphatically trust the person. Luckily I didn't lend out my college texts. Those would have been expensive to replace.

I spent a few hours reading the work that my students gave me to critique. I was very surprised with some of it and very troubled by others. The troubling aspect was the level of grammar apparent in some of the writing. While I am glad to see them trying, some of the pieces were filled with blatant mistakes of a 5th to 7th grade level. One such piece started by saying something along the lines of "Me and Bobafet were walking." To tell you the truth, I don't remember what the sentence was, but I do remember that it started with the word "me" and utilized some character from Star Wars. Perhaps I'm being too hard here, but parts of it were almost painful. I had to put it down and come back to it. I guess the English major in me just cringed and couldn't bear to go on that evening.

On the other hand, several of the pieces were remarkable. One piece in particular flowed so well that I was sad when it ended. The first two pages begged to be read, and certainly had me invested in reading on. This was not only because of the story, which was great I might add, but because of the tremendous use of vocabulary. I felt as if I was reading light literary fiction. But light literary fiction with a flair of expectancy. I was able to speak with this man briefly regarding the potential posting of these few pages to the blog. He appeared open to the idea. Hopefully in the next few days I'll have permission to do just that.

On a more personal note, after waiting several months for McFarland and Company to get back to me regarding "Education Behind Bars", I have decided to do a rewrite of the material. They had mentioned that the length of the book was too long for the academic market. So I already knew that I had to break the book into two. But since they have not responded to my emails in several weeks, I will have to assume that they are not interested. In response to this disappointment I am renewing my efforts to craft a viable book, a book that will help thousands upon thousands obtain an education from behind bars.

The plan is to break Education Behind Bars into two books, one for policy makers, prison administrators, and prison educators and the other for prisoners. The one for policy makers will be titled "College for Convicts?" and the one for prisoners will be titled "Education Behind Bars". I will keep you abreast of any new developments. Naturally, if you know of any publishers which are looking to publish a book like either of these, please email me at I'd gratefully pursue any leads.

On a final note, the Education Department granted approval of my Correspondence Course Seminar, the monthly seminar which informs the population of FCI-Petersburg as to what correspondence education is, how to engage in it, and what opportunities are available to them. On Wednesday I will know the exact dates and times. I'll keep you posted of new developments in future blogs.

Author's Note: Janice Chamberlin's book, "Locked Up With Success", is now available as an e-book for both the Kindle and the Nook. Go to Locked Up With Success or Amazon for more.