Prison Education: 3 Ways to Engage With Your Prisoner-Students

In my classroom, I have found that by modifying my teaching methodology I can increase my student engagement levels. I know that some of this is common sense, but it bears stating because of how simple, yet effective, it all is. I hope you can find ways to employ these three methods of increasing student engagement levels. They might just make the difference between a student becoming inspired or not.

1. Instructor Location

When I first started teaching, I found that I preferred to sit behind my desk and just lecture. For me, this provided a sense of security and informality. But what it afforded me in comfort it took away in effectiveness and engagement.

As I've grown as a prison educator I have found that I'm more comfortable in my classroom. It's no longer a classroom, but My Classroom. With this realization came a basic change in my teaching structure and methodology, a change that transported me from being nervous and fearful to innovative and engaging.

One of the primary external signs of my growth as an educator has been the omission of my chair. I found that by relinquishing the chair – removing my crutch – I was able to improve my students' attention. So, instead of remaining in my seat, I put the chair away and roamed. I found that by moving from one side of the room to another I was able to be more entertaining and hence engaging. In my classroom, I prefer to stand in the front of the room and migrate from one side of the room to the other, but you can go wherever you desire. The point is to move the focus of attention with you as you go.

By varying your location and not always being stuck in the same old place, you will become more informal and friendly, yet still maintain an informative and engaging learning environment.

2. Visual Aids

I don't know about your prison, but in mine there just aren't funds for fancy posters, DVDs, computers, TVs, or other visual aids. Though, there usually is funding for plain black dry erase markers, and, if we’re lucky enough, a new one at the beginning of each new class. With this in mind, the black dry erase marker becomes your primary visual aid tool. At a comparable cost of almost nothing, any Education Department can be persuaded to purchase a box or two each quarter.

Each class I attempt to find several critical discussion points or keywords. It's these points or words that I'll transcribe on the board. For example, in my last class post, I noted writing methods of building an author platform on the far left, publicity versus advertising in the middle, and social media on the far right. Through the mere act of providing these visual aids, I was able to better engage with my students. Several even took notes. The cost in time and materials: several minutes and several cents for the ink used. The benefit: potentially vast in the form of student engagement and concepts conveyed.

It should be noted that your visual aids don't need to be sexy or flashy (e.g. social media, blogging, websites, money, etc.). Any aid is better than none. So if you're teaching English to Spanish-speaking students, you could provide a conversion chart where you list Spanish words with their English equivalents next to them. Or, if mathematics is your subject, a simple graph or pie chart could make all the difference. Even a basic science class could utilize the dry erase board to show the cycle of precipitation, evaporation, and so forth.

Remember, visual aids aren't used solely to convey the information. That's your function as an educator. They're used to enforce the information being conveyed, to make it more desirable and easier to grasp. They are the salt and pepper on the fries that bring the flavorful smile to the one partaking of them, not the potatoes themselves.

3. Relevance

One tactic that I've found instrumental in engaging with my students is showing them why they want to pay attention. This could be as basic as passing the GED and being done with classes or it could be as intriguing as making money. I've found the latter to be a big motivator. So perhaps that old poster on who makes how much money and what level of education they have should be brought out or printed off and posted?

Last week, when we covered the author platform, I focused the discussion on selling more books and interesting a publisher. This seemed to do the trick. At first they were more focused on the here-and-now of writing, but when I showed them that they needed a decent platform to even interest a publisher their tune changed.

The same kind of topical selling can be utilized in any classroom. Stop thinking of your prisoner-students as just students or prisoners. Think of them as customers who you are trying to sell a product. The product is the information you're attempting to convey to them. By utilizing this form of visualization and motivation, you will find yourself looking for ways to connect the information to your students. For example, today’s lesson is not about grammar and syntax, instead it's about personal presentation, landing the job, and providing for your family. While yes, this is a stretch, without much effort you can find connections within your subject that will make your students want to learn about the lesson at hand.