Prison Education: Class Update (6-27-2011)

Well, this week has certainly been an interesting one. Class caught me a bit off guard. Since I just don't have room in my cell to hold all of my class materials I store my writing-related books and class materials in the Education Department. If you remember correctly, the Bureau of Prisons has a rule that prisoners are only allowed to possess 5 books at a time. Storing my excess books enables me to have all of the books that I need and not get in trouble for being over the limit, but it makes preparing for class a challenge since I don't always have access.

As usual, I showed up to my classroom around 5:30 p.m. Once there I was greeted by a number of my students. Usually I like to use this time for private tutorials and to prep for class. But that was not meant to be. What happened is a man missed the first two classes because he didn't know that the class had started. In reality, this wasn't entirely his fault because of their being a snafu with the call-out (appointment) system. So after he spoke with the staff member in charge of ACE courses, he was allowed to attend the class.

This created the problem of me having to catch him up to speed on what was covered in the first two weeks. This entailed making copies of the first week's packet (we didn't have one for the second week because of the copying mix-up for week two). I was simultaneously consulting with my other students, preparing for class, and briefing the uninformed student. So things were a tad bit rough and hectic, not the way I prefer to start a class.

To add to this, one of my guys went back to court. The guys in his housing unit said that he will be back by next class. And yet another student was there from 6:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m., but somehow became confused and thought that class was already over. He didn't realize that class was from 7:00 until 8:30. Err. The sad part is that I actually believe him, probably not a good thing. Thus, class got off to a rocky start.

This week's class was on the basics of writing. We focused primarily on planning and drafting, but also touched upon revising and designing. All in all I think the students had a good time. As part of my teaching philosophy, I see all the different aspects of writing as contributing to the whole. For example, knowing how to write an article can help with a nonfiction book and being able to craft eloquent fictional prose will help with writing a nonfiction article. With this in mind, this class was about touching on the basics, not teaching everything there is to know, something that can't be done in 1.5 hours.

My teaching methodology parallels my teaching philosophy. Instead of seeing each class as completely separate and modular, I see each class as building upon the next. Hence, week one prepares the students for weeks two through eight. And week two builds up to week three and week three on to week four. Long story short, this enables the students to learn at their own pace. It allows for a gradual, healthy rate of growth and doesn't preclude a student just because they happen to miss a class for some reason. Though, the notes help with missed classes because they go into more detail on the subject at hand than I could ever hope to do so.

I really made an effort to engage with the students this week. I really wanted to make this fun for them so they would want to learn the materials at hand. So I did what I could to motivate them. For example, when reviewing how to list, cluster, and create a scratch outline, I sought their input. Two of the guys in my classroom are big volleyball buffs. They play the sport here recreationally and one of them even referees it. So when asking for a topic they proffered volleyball.

Full disclosure: I'm not a fan of volleyball. I played last season--on a rather bad team at that--but did give it a shot. And you know what? I didn't like it at all. I used to say that I went out there for our games just to make sure that I still hated volleyball. With this background, I decided to use humor to convey the importance of planning. Engagement...right?!

As we went through each exercise I made sure to write on the board, incorporating visual aids, using them to the point of overemphasis. For example, instead of just the word "court," I wrote next to it "sand, dirt, mud, rocks, concrete." And for "net" I included, "evil nylon thing that bites you if pushed into it." Todd is the name of the student who was the referee for volleyball. So I decided to throw the name "Todd" in wherever I could. For example, when speaking about the "mean people," I would utilize Todd's name. All of this was in a joking manner of course.

A quick note is needed here regarding humor. Not everyone will connect with it the same way. Likewise, you need to be careful about how you employ it. I know Todd well from Ultimate Frisbee, so I knew that my jokes wouldn't bother or offend him. This provided me with a bit of an advantage in terms of gauging my student's reaction. Even with this additional information, I still didn't make any jokes at his expense. For example, jokes about his looks, the way he talks, his general demeanor, and educational level were all off limits. But jokes about the topic of volleyball were fine (e.g. events, location, etc.).

Back to the lesson, the humorous aspect of all of this really connected with them.  This, in turn, enhanced student engagement. I was able to create a friendly learning environment where everyone was not only happy to be there, but was laughing along with me. Several students even came up to me and told me that it was a very informative and entertaining class. I liken this to Ultimate Frisbee. Yes, I could go out and run several miles a week. But that wouldn't be any fun for me. Instead, I can play Ultimate Frisbee, get the same workout, but have a good time at it too. This is what the goal of learning should be, providing a situation where gaining knowledge is enjoyable.

It should be noted that there was no way I was going to be able to give them a full lesson on how to plan, draft, revise, and design in under two hours. Anyone can see that. This is where my planning came into play. Remember the weekly student notes that I crafted? This week they were 11 pages long. They covered all four steps of the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, and designing) in much more detail than I could have ever hoped to in the allotted time. They also covered how to give an honest assessment of the student's ability. In other words, which markets they should submit to. Last, they even included a "Grammar School" section that showed a few revision techniques and basic English grammar rules.

The point of bringing up these notes is to show that the classroom is not the only place your students might learn. They can still work on the lesson at hand in their cell or housing unit long after you go home to sleep. For this purpose, notes were the answer. For you, perhaps the answer is a textbook or workbook. The point is to find ways to connect with your students, to engage them, to cause them to continue learning even outside of class.

On the textbooks topic, I have some great news and some very depressing news. The good news is that Mr. Batton surprised me yesterday with a number of textbooks. Several weeks ago I had inquired into donating textbooks for my class to use (The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creative Writing (2nd Edition) and the Writer's Market Guide to Getting Published). Initially, my idea was not warmly received.  Rather, it was cautiously received. For some reason they were more interested in buying the books than me donating them. This was fine with me, but I just wanted the end result to be that my class had good textbooks. To tell you the truth, I didn't see them bothering to buy them. So it was a very pleasant surprise to see that the FCI-Petersburg Education Department had taken the initiative to purchase these books. My students will certainly benefit because of it. They will each be issued one of these books to keep for the remainder of the class.

The depressing news comes from another department here at FCI-Petersburg. In addition to these textbooks, I had gone ahead and decided to start building up a writing section in the library. Before today, I had donated probably 5 books on writing and planned to donate many more as I finished reading them. With the news of these textbooks, I went ahead and purchased 5 copies of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creative Writing (2nd Edition), 5 copies of the Beginning Writer's Handbook, and 5 copies of the Writer's Market Guide to Getting Published. The idea was that I could donate these 15 books so that people who have already taken my class, and those who are not in the class, would be able to utilize the same high-quality reference materials as my current students.

 Well, a box of these books came in from Amazon yesterday. Unfortunately, the prison mail room rejected this donation. Since I can't just have the book shipped directly to the Education Department, I have to have them mailed to me 5 at a time (as per Bureau of Prison's rules). This is what I was doing. But the instructions must have become muddled in translation to Amazon. So the mail room rejected these donated books. I will have to ask Amazon to reship the books, but in boxes of 5, what I thought I conveyed the first time.

I am pleased to report that I see marked improvement in myself and my students. This last class, I saw my students enjoying learning. I saw myself enjoying teaching, regardless of how frazzled I was going into it. And the realization of how much I enjoy teaching really hit me. I can't wait for more classes like this one. A few more like it, and I might just have to take up teaching permanently.

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Prison Education: The Qualms of the Prisoner-Student

Most of the time I attempt to stay away from speaking of my conditions of confinement. I do so because I just don't find talking about them to be productive. But, for once, I'd just like to vent a little. I think that I need to do so. Plus, by doing so, you can see another facet of the prisoner-student's life, a life probably not spoken about anywhere else on the internet. My complaint today has to do with the FCI-Petersburg mail room.

The mail room and I do not see eye to eye. By federal law, they are supposed to alert the recipient (me) and the sender as to any and every rejection of correspondence and the reason why. One of my more common reasons for rejections is the 16 ounce rule. The rule states that if an envelope or box weighs more than 16 ounces and isn't clearly identifiable as books from a publisher, the prison mail room automatically rejects the parcel. Hence, a rejection form should be issued (at least theoretically). This all goes back to due process and every American citizen being allowed to appeal any deprivation of liberty or property by the government.

However, according to the FCI-Petersburg mail room, they don't reject packages that are over 16 ounces. They just leave them at the post office. To me, this is a dereliction of duty, but to them not so much. Hence, the packages are returned to sender. Sometimes they will say "Rejected", "Return to Sender", or simply nothing. I'm sure you can see where my disagreement is. But the real problem comes when they reject my college textbooks and don't bother to notify anyone.

On several occasions the FCI-Petersburg prison mailroom has rejected college and religious textbooks and has failed to notify me. Then, almost universally, the school will assume that I've been moved or something, and won't bother to notify me of the rejection. I will sit around for several months waiting for a course and textbook that will not come until I ask the school to resend the materials the exact same way that they did before. Then, the next time or perhaps after the parcel has been rejected a few times, the mail room will look at their package authorization forms and realize that they shouldn't have been rejecting the parcel and just give it to me. All of this can be a huge headache and wreak havoc on a course's time limit.

Well, that's it. I just wanted to get this out there so that I feel as if my voice is being heard by those who care. I've tried addressing this issue via speaking with FCI-Petersburg's' mail room to no avail. I've also filed a few grievances on the issue at hand. Yet, the Warden, Bureau of Prison's Regional Office, and Bureau of Prison's Central Office all agree that the mail room is allowed to just leave mail addressed to prisoners at the post office. They say that it is ok by policy.

Perhaps you can understand where my disagreement lies. Regardless, the practice continues.