Before we get into the class, please allow me to share some sad news. Today I received a letter from Brigham Young University informing me that they have discontinued all correspondence courses in favor of online-only courses. This is a major blow to the realm of prison education. For a long time I have recommended BYU to my fellow prisoner-students who are short on funds, but still desire to learn at the college level. This is because Brigham Young University used to offer top-quality courses at a very reasonable rate. BYU’s program will be sorely missed. God willing, the other major institutions of higher education will keep the prisoner-student in mind when making course format decisions in the future.
With the death of a BYU education for prisoners, comes the hope of life. To me, when a journey of magnitude comes to an end, I look for the epic on the horizon. BYU facilitated education behind bars for thousands of prisoners. Now that they are gone, a new force must step up to the plate and offer a high quality education to the prison population. Or, if not a single institution, then a collective of like-minded people and organizations must take up the slack. There simply is a void that must be filled in order to facilitate change.
While I would not boast to be as effective as, say, Ohio University, where I personally go to school, I have taken up my pen. I have raised my voice. I have done what I can. I implore you to do the same. Just this evening, I could be found standing in front of a room full of prisoner-students preparing them for next week’s Writing and Publishing final examination.
I even had a student come up to me after class this evening, ask me to step into his cell, and explain that as he heard me teaching he wanted to step up and slap some sense into me. Puzzled, I asked, “Why?!” His answer, “You’re so passionate about educating prisoners. You shouldn’t be doing something like this. You should be doing something really important.” In response I explained that to me educating fellow prisoners is important. At this he just thanked me and I went on my way.
I don’t recount this experience to promote myself, but to promote the cause of prison education. This little episode demonstrates that prisoners aren’t necessarily crude beasts. Sure, there are some. But this experience shows that they can be very courteous, appreciative people. Yes, the prisoner-student who spoke with me was 6′ 2” tall. Yes, he was covered in tattoos and slightly scary. Yet yes, he was both a scholar and a gentleman.
One of the words that tend to come up when people speak with me regarding my teaching is the word “passionate.” This is something that I wear as a badge of honor. I try to be passionate in all that I do. I try to translate my passion for writing into my student’s passion for writing. I try to translate my passion for learning into my reader’s passion for learning. These parts are easy because I love writing and I love learning. But when writing this blog the task can become more challenging. It’s not that I’m not passionate about prison education, I most emphatically am! The problem is that I don’t receive much feedback on this blog. I am left wondering if my blogs are hitting the right notes or not. Well, this week I received several pieces of good news that really picked me up and validated the work I do here.
To start with, the number of visitors to this blog has skyrocketed. On the 10th, 91 people read the blog; our highest traffic day yet. Then we had a few days in the 50s and ended the week in the 80s. For a prison education blog that just achieved existence a few months ago these are great numbers. I couldn’t be more pleased.
The next bit of good news came from a comment and a letter that I received. This week Alice Stephenson of Cellpals posted a kind comment on the blog. At the time, when my friend forwarded it to me, I had no idea who Ms. Stephenson or Cellpals was, but now I certainly do. This is because Ms. Stephenson sent me a letter that I received today. In her letter she wished me luck with this blog and gave me some great news. The news is that she put a link to this blog on Cellpals’ homepage, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. I can’t tell you how much this means to me! Ms. Stephenson, to see you promote this blog for free is a testament to not only your character, but to those involved in the prison education movement. As further evidence of the character of those in the prison education movement, Prisonworld Magazine , too, contacted me via email to let me know that they appreciate the work that this blog is doing. Thank you both very much! I’d also like to thank Help from Beyond the Walls for placing a link to this blog on their Facebook page.
Before we get into this week’s work, please allow me to note the ways in which you, too, can help promote this blog and prison education as Cellpals and Prisonworld Magazine have. You can do the following:
Two, you can tweet about this blog or add links to this blog from your website or social media pages.
Three, you can tell a friend about this blog, email a friend or organization that might find it useful, or even forward my Letter to Friends of Prison Education to those who care about prison education and prisoner’s rights.
Last, you can email me at email@example.com and ask to be placed on my official prison education email list. This way you will receive news of exciting new prison education projects directly in your email inbox. You can also proffer new projects that you need manpower for or even my help on. I’m more than willing to mobilize myself and my network of prison education supporters for a good cause.
Ok, enough promotional talk! It’s now time to share with you the seemingly endless supply of projects that I find myself engulfed in. The major project of this week has been revising the classroom curriculum. As I come upon the end of my first group, I find there are areas of improvement to be had. These areas are primarily in the materials I issue each week. So to rectify this shortfall I am crafting weekly homework packets and weekly class notes. The homework packets are easy to do. All I have to do is read through the Handbook for Writers in Prison published by the Pen American Center and craft questions as I go along. Each week’s assignment will include 10 fill-in-the-blank questions and 10 true/false questions. The goal of these is not to be challenging, but to ensure completion of the reading assignment. The weekly class notes are a whole other beast.
For the class notes, I find I’m breaking out my books on writing for additional research. This is because my goal is to provide a detailed analysis of each primary topic discussed in class. This means that I am left to essentially memorialize each class in 10 to 15 pages of notes. I keep thinking that by the time I’m done with the notes I will have racked up around 80 to 120 pages of packets to pass out. Heck, I’m a writer, so that is what I do. Perhaps I’ll use it as the foundation for a book on being a prisoner-writer?! Maybe one day.
One note is needed here on the materials that I’ve crafted and will craft for my class. I am more than willing to give them away for free to all who are interested in them. I think that my class is a good idea for prisoner-writers at any security level. If you’re interested, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and note all that you would like. Within the next three weeks I’ll have the class proposal, student notes, homework assignments, roster and grades forms, week-by-week overview, answer keys, pre-test, and post-test ready for email. All of this is yours for the asking. Also note that as future classes evolve, I will be revising and improving upon all of the materials. So I can send you updates as they are made. I would also be open to any revision suggestions anyone has.
The rest of the week was filled with several small steps forward and several huge headaches. One small step was the receipt of the first set of designs from my graphic designer. To clarify, a friend of a friend is designing a personal logo for me. The logo will help me with branding. The logo is specifically for the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, and encompasses two different sizes of advertisements – a button-style advertisement and a banner-style advertisement. These advertisements will be utilized on Prison Legal News’ website and will link to this blog. These should go up probably in June or July. Since PLN’s site has so much traffic it should greatly assist this blog in terms of exposure.
One of the larger headaches this week has been the press release. I had too many hyperlinks in it. So after spending a few hours on it, I had to start over from scratch hyperlink-wise. That was a very aggravating experience. Then, after it was ready to go it came out that I had to call PRnewswire in order to verify who I am. This was a feat in itself as I couldn’t call the 800-number because the phones here won’t do so. They also won’t let me utilize a switchboard at an office. Long story short, everything is now taken care of and the press release should go out Monday. I’ll let you know how everything goes. Since the service that I’m using is one of the better ones, hopefully it will stir some interest in prison education on a national scale.
Besides all of this, I have three other projects in the mix. First, I have spent a tremendous amount of time on the handbook for my Correspondence Course Seminar. Right now it’s on the verge of being completed. It’s looking to be a 75 single-spaced page document. Essentially, it is a boiled down version of my book, a crash course in correspondence prison education. When I’m done with it, I will certainly use it for the seminar, but I also might provide it for free as a pdf file on this blog. I’ll need to weigh this action. On one hand this is the core of my book, so giving it away for free might not be a smart move. But on the other hand, I do strongly believe an education should be afforded to all regardless of ability to pay. So we’ll see what happens.
Second, I’ve been in contact with the guys over at Death Row Inmates. Michael Flinner wrote me two letters discussing potential collaboration opportunities. One of the more promising ones was me blogging on prison education for them. Though, I’m now having a rough go at getting them signed up on my email service. Hopefully everything will work out and I’ll be able to report next week that the cause of prison education has been furthered by me getting connected with his outside counterparts.
Finally, this week I have reviewed two pieces of writing from students in my class that just blew my socks off. Both were superb in vastly different ways. The first piece is from my top-scorer, presenting the beginning pages of his novel in progress. While slightly graphic, they certainly are page-turners. The other piece is from another of my students, who is certainly quirky. To tell you the truth, he looks homeless to me. But to him, it appears to be a style. He’s really quite a trip. He is so quirky that he wrote a very normal, yet fulfilling short story about an acorn. After discussions with both men I have received permission to post both pieces of writing to the blog. Since my class only has one more session to go, followed by a two-to-three week hiatus before my next group, I will probably post each of these during the hiatus. This way I can ensure fresh and continued content. Though, by then, Janice Chamberlin will have her guest blogs ready to go.
As this week progressed I found myself bombarded with questions from my students regarding the number of classes remaining. The issue was that since the first week’s class and the seventh week’s class had been delayed by one week my students were becoming irritated by the never-ending-ness of the class. I explained to each that the classroom hours hadn’t been expanded, but that the timeframe had. To some this wasn’t acceptable. I tried to explain that each week I, too, had waited outside of the Education Department, but when someone’s mind is made up logic doesn’t faze them. I didn’t even bother to explain that for each week of class I spend several hours preparing.
Several of the guys who spoke with me asked about cutting the class short by one week. Their reasoning did resound with me to a point. This was because we weren’t covering anything new for week seven, just preparation for the final. But after two of my students informed me that they’d be on visits, I made the decision to keep the class at eight weeks. My reasoning was that if someone wasn’t there to take the final, they would automatically fail the class.
As Friday rolled around I was ready to get to work. My housing unit was last for chow so I didn’t get released until around 5:30 p.m. At the point the door was unlocked I rushed over to the Education Department. Upon arriving I was greeted by a few of my students in the library area. I made my rounds, passing out some requested research materials on GED statistics and the new Pew Center on the States report on recidivism. At 6:00 p.m. I made my way down to my classroom.
Upon arriving at my classroom, I found an unexpected surprise. There were people in the room and only one was one of my students. After a chat with Mr. Bill Batton, the prisoner ACE (Adult Continuing Education) coordinator, I learned that the new GED Fast-Track program was using my classroom. So I was placed in another room, one with what seemed like fewer chairs.
After getting everything situated in the new room, I made my way down to Mr. Hannigan’s, the Home Inspection instructor, classroom. There I found not Mr. Hannigan, but Mr. Batton. So I relaxed with Mr. Batton for a while.
There we discussed the Education Behind Bars Newsletter. Throughout the generative process, Mr. Batton has been a good source of advice and direction. One of the concerns we discussed was the number of current submissions. The issue is that I really haven’t received many. This has been weighing on me a lot lately. Hopefully more will come soon. I need probably 7 more good articles before the first issue will be filled. The primary concern here is that my advertisements have not been published yet. This has forced me to be more inventive in ways to interest prison educators to contribute. We’ll see if this networking has worked or not in the coming weeks.
Before I move on, please allow me to direct a call for submissions directly to you. The Education Behind Bars Newsletter needs your help! I know that intelligent and dedicated prison educators are reading this blog. I implore you to go to the Education Behind Bars Newsletter, where you may read the guidelines. This would be a great cause to assist and a good platform opportunity. Do note that I’m also accepting reprints as long as they further the discussion on prison education. Naturally, you can forward submissions to me at Chriszoukis@gmail.com.
The other part of my discussion with Mr. Batton had to do with the Education Behind Bars Newsletter logo. At this point one of our friends, a man with a doctorate degree in marketing and design, came in and dissected the logo mock-ups. He certainly had a few good ideas. It was amazing to watch him draft a more refined logo from the current design on only a piece of paper. He made the existing logo come alive in a matter of minutes. I will have to send this to my friend who’s making the logo. Hopefully, she can incorporate it.
At 6:50 p.m., I made my way down to the classroom I was to teach in for the night. There I was greeted by several of my students. As the 7:00 p.m. move was called every student, with the exception of the two at visit, were present, 11 on my roster plus my extra guy. So going into the final I have an official attendance rate of 76.47% and an unofficial attendance rate (with my extra guy who hasn’t missed a single class) of 77.77%. When you consider that most ACE classes have a completion rate of less than 50%, the Home Inspection class looking to have a completion rate of less than 30%, you see how truly remarkable this is. When you realize this is the first class I have ever taught, you see why I am especially pleased.
After everyone was settled, I started by leveling with them. I told them that I had learned a lot from them and that because of their help, by attending and asking questions, the curriculum was being drastically revised. I further shared that the writing component and the homework component were being emphasized. I also discussed the extensive class notes. They all seemed very interested. So I offered them two opportunities: to enroll in the class again to enjoy full effect of the curriculum revisions and/or to meet with me in three weeks and I’d give them copies of whatever week’s packet of notes they wanted. My goal is to enhance their learning in whatever way possible.
The discussion that ensued after my comments was primarily focused on the writing components and the possibility of future classes. On the writing component side, they came across as overly zealous about my lack of intensive writing instruction. This shook me slightly. I explained that this issue had been rectified, but the fact that the next class would receive the instruction that they desired seemed to put them off. I just don’t think that they realized how time-consuming and impractical detailed writing instruction can be. Perhaps if I had them for 5 to 10 hours a week, then some ground could be covered. But in the time we had only so much could be done. My own writing classes take from 6 to 10 months and require a few hours of work a week. This is why I have adopted the directive approach where I tell them what to do become a better writer. For example, WRITE! After doing so, bring it to me and we can go over it. Sadly, very few have done so. To no surprise, those who have done so are the top performers and better educated in the class.
As for the possibility of future classes, they were enthusiastic. They wanted a more advanced class based solely on writing. This really resonated with me. I will have to wait until I receive all of their post-examination surveys to gauge the true interest of such a course, but I’m certainly open to an “Advanced Professional Writing” course. If the numbers are there, then I will see if I can teach two classes each quarter. After all, I’d prefer to keep “Writing and Publishing” constant. I’ll keep you posted as to any new developments on this possibility.
After discussing the revisions to the curriculum, we progressed on to the lesson. Going into this week’s class, I figured it was going to be a boring one. Great thing for the instructor to say, eh?! I guess it’s just hard to imagine a class that just goes down a list of questions as fun. But I had something up my sleeve, something to hold my student’s attention.
Sitting in front of the class I started pulling out bags containing 13 peppermints each. These I bought specifically for this purpose. By the time I opened the 5th and final bag I had their attention. I explained that I didn’t want this class to be boring, so we were going to play a game of sorts. The way it worked was if the student raised their hand and answered correctly when called upon, they earned a mint. If they answered incorrectly, the question would go to the next person I called on. If someone shouted out the answer, then no one received a mint for the question. This incentive-based ingredient really seemed to have them interested.
As we were moving along a problem appeared. The two students directly in front of me always raised their hands to answer each question. On one hand, this was a good thing. But on the other hand, it was terribly distracting and confusing. So I asked them to refrain from raising their hands until everyone else had answered for that particular cycle. Their response was, “We want more candy.” With this, they persisted in raising their hands. How annoying is it to deal with 40 and 50-year-old men who refuse to abide by simple rules?! In the future I will make a chart and check off each person as they answer a question correctly. This way I can ensure the class is as fair as possible.
Throughout this game I was both pleasantly surprised and concerned. I was surprised because at least one person knew the answer for almost every question. This showed that I was effectively conveying the information. The concerning part was one of my students. If you remember, two weeks ago when the week sixth class was held, I had a student appear who hadn’t been showing up. It was this guy who concerned me. The problem was that he was consistently wrong when I called upon him. Since he missed weeks two, three, and five this is no surprise. But it is worrisome because I don’t want to fail anyone.
On a side note, my records have him missing three classes by means of unexcused absences. After two unexcused absences, the person is supposed to be taken out of the class. So I’m not sure what is going to happen. Instead of just marking him ‘there’ on my roster for a week that he missed – the staff don’t always take role – I put an asterisk in the “Pass” column and directed the staff member in charge of ACE courses to read my comment. The comment was that by my count he had missed too many classes, but since he had been showing up consistently for the past few weeks I was inclined to give him a break. Long story short, this is not the place for me or anyone else who is in my situation, with an immediate supervisor, that is, to make a judgment call. That is just asking for trouble. My general rule of thumb is to pass along management issues to the management. This isn’t to discount myself, but to protect myself. The last thing I need is to have my integrity questioned. I recommend you do the same if you find yourself in a like situation.
After we finished preparing for the final I had a heart-to-heart with my students. I explained that no one should fail the final exam as long as they had paid attention in class. I also explained the several fail-safes. These being the one extra credit question which allows for up to 10 extra credit points if 10 correct answers are given, the post-examination survey that, if filled out, has the potential to raise one’s grade to passing, and the curve. As I explained, the curve comes into play, if the person with the top score doesn’t make 100%. In this event I would consider it my fault and I would raise everyone’s grade by the amount it takes to raise the top-scorer’s to 100%. After all, I try to be fair and moral in everything that I do.
With this the 8:00 p.m. move was called and we filed out. The reason we left early was because we didn’t need more than an hour to cover the final. So I didn’t see a need to push more class time on the students. Though, this does show that the final will take a little over an hour. Next week we’ll have to get started quickly. As we filed out, I walked with my top-scorer and discussed his novel and its possibilities. He had wanted to get a critique of the first chapter, so I critiqued it for him. It was also at this time that he granted me permission to post his first chapter to this blog, something that will be done in two or three weeks. How nice it is to work with someone who is willing to go the extra mile by not just talking about their book, but writing it, too!
Reflecting upon this week’s class I see yet more development in my ability as an educator. I see myself feeling more comfortable in front of my class and more authoritative, hence the introduction of a game as opposed to simple lecture. I also see the tremendous growth of several select students. While I can’t claim to be the sole conductor of this growth, I have to believe that I had a part, however small it might have been.
The truth that has become evident to me is that we, as prison educators, are not the reason for growth, but a conductor of it. We are the electricity that powers the lights and the AC in the classroom. Our passion for educating is what foots the bill for this power and our steadfast determination to impart knowledge is what makes the learning environment possible. But in the end, it is up to our students to jump the chasm of status quo to a better life. I guess that as the facilitators of knowledge and a better life we will not win all to the cause of a healthy, crime-free existence. But we will win some. I, for one, will continue in this arduous, yet fulfilling occupation for as long as I might be. And I know one thing for certain, with the thousands out there like myself, prison educators, that is, we will make a difference in millions upon millions of lives.
With this being said, I would like to note several prison educators and persons outside of prison known to further education behind bars. These are people who deserve special thanks for all they do, their selfless giving and their willingness to fight the good fight.
Bill Batton: Mr. Batton is the Prisoner ACE Coordinator of FCI-Petersburg. This means that he makes sure all ACE classes flow smoothly and he acts as the ACE instructor’s connection to the Education Department staff. Bill deserves to be raised up because of his tireless and selfless work. Every day of the week (and night), he can be found in the Education Department at work, troubleshooting any issue that might arise having to do with an ACE course. If it wasn’t for Bill, much would not be done and the prisoner-students of FCI-Petersburg would be the ones harmed. Thank you Bill for all that you do!
Liz Batton: Ms. Batton is Bill’s wife. I only recently had the privilege of meeting Liz, but she has made an impact upon me. Selflessly, she promoted this blog by alerting friends who would find it of use. Through her efforts, many bridges have been built. She can be followed on Twitter @Deltiger2000 or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/liz.batton. Thanks for being such a wonderful help Liz!
Barbara Carole: Ms. Carole is another dear friend of mine. Several years ago when I was writing Education Behind Bars, I found myself at an impasse. The problem was I had exhausted all of the research materials I possessed. Then, along came Barbara. For over two years she assisted me, researching prison education. She spent countless months tracking down leads I would send her and did so with a peaceful and happy demeanor, dare I say godly demeanor? After all of this, to both of us, Education Behind Bars changed from just some book to a tool to help thousands, if not millions. She truly understands the altruistic and ideological heart of the prison education movement. Thanks for everything Barbara! Don’t forget to buy her book, Twelve Stones: Notes on a Remarkable Journey. It’s a wonderful book that I highly recommend to all.
Janice Chamberlin: Ms. Chamberlin is a woman whose life work truly should be celebrated. Since 1973, she has been licensed as a teacher. For the past 14 years, she has been an Indiana State prison educator. She has also come to be a friend of mine through her book Locked Up With Success. In a recent email to me she noted, “I’m passionate about spreading the value of correctional education, and speaking the truth as to what is going on with the same.” She is truly a formidable expert on prison education and as such will be guest blogging this week on this blog. Thanks for your 14 years of meaningful and valued work!
FCI-Petersburg ACE Coordinator: While I won’t use her name because I don’t think it’s permitted, you have certainly inspired me to do better. Coming into the classroom for the first time to discuss ACE classes you made me feel welcome and appreciated. Over the last two months you have bridged my mental gap between prison educator (a staff member who educates) and prisoner-educator (a prisoner who educates). I suppose you’ve humanized and depolarized the issue for me. You have done so through hard work, dedication, and a passion to see the prisoner-students of FCI-Petersburg succeed. Thank you for facilitating such a wonderful educational and teaching environment for the ACE program!
FCI-Petersburg College Coordinator: You are another one that I won’t name because I don’t think that I’m allowed to. Before you came here to be the College Coordinator, a few months ago, I had a dreadful time with receiving my courses, signing up for new courses, and even simply contacting my school. Now, I no longer dread signing up for courses or going to you when I have a problem. You have been nothing but professional, open, friendly, and eager to facilitate an education for the prisoners of FCI-Petersburg. It is a pleasure to have you assist me in obtaining my college education. Thank you for the respect and care that you show all of us prisoner-students!
FCI-Petersburg Supervisor of Education: Again, I don’t think that I am allowed to use your name, but thank you for all that you do. I have only spoken with you a few times, but have been very impressed every time. Each time you have been professional and friendly. You have been eager to solve problems and quick to congratulate, when congratulations are in order. These are qualities the prisoner-student and prisoner-educator appreciate and are grateful for. Thank you for fostering an Education Department that facilitates growth and a passion for learning!
Dr. Jon Marc Taylor: Dr. Taylor is the author of the Prisoner’s Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the US and Canada. Over the past few decades Dr. Taylor has accomplished the unimaginable – earning an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and even a doctorate degree from behind bars. He is also a recipient of The Nation/I.F. Stone Student Journalism Award for his reporting on the restriction of pell grants from prisoners. From 1984, when he earned his Associate’s of Arts degree, to 2004, when he earned his Doctorate in Public Administration, to 2009, when I utilized his book to obtain my own college education, Dr. Taylor has not only been engaged in prison education, but he has helped thousands upon thousands of prisoners obtain an education from behind bars. On a personal level, through his published work he has not only brought me into the folds of the prison education realm, but has mentored me from afar, each article laying another foot of foundation to my passion as a prison educator. Dr. Taylor, thank you for all you’ve done! If only you knew how much you’ve truly done. You’ve been instrumental in my education and the education of thousands of others.
Laura Winzeler: Laura is my outside counterpart. She has also been instrumental in the preparation of not only my class, but my other educational endeavors. When I need 30 copies of the Handbook for Writers in Prison for my class, she is the person I email. When my prison’s mail room has rejected my English 151 course work or my Long Ridge Writers Group course work for the third time, she sorts it all out for me. And when a fellow prison educator needs the statistics on the GED tests or the number of federal halfway houses, I call upon Laura. To add to all of this, Laura is an amazingly talented artist who does all sorts of commissioned works. If you’re looking for something unique, and from a good person, Laura is the person for you. Thanks for everything Laura!
The Unnamed Prison Educator: Out there in the land of the US criminal justice system there are thousands of dedicated prison educators. These are the people who are in the trenches trying to make the world a better place one prisoner-student at a time. They perform a job that isn’t often recognized for its true value – the importance of lifting families out of poverty, lowering recidivism rates and corrections’ costs, and providing the hope of a brighter tomorrow for all who cross their paths. I still remember a prison educator from years ago who did something unlike anything I had seen before inside a prison. She showed me she cared about what happened to me. She made me feel wanted and encouraged me to seek a college education. This was back before I really got into the swing of things. While I don’t remember her name, she still has my gratitude. This is the same gratitude that should be directed to every prison educator who is driven by a passion for education. So, thank you unnamed prison educator! Keep up the great work and continue to change lives.