Let’s talk a little bit about collecting information and data. We all have been made to do it more often in recent years. I enjoy it and have always done it. Data offers a way for me to see changes that need to be made, and where I can improve. When we stop looking for ways to improve, that’s when we get stale, when students start losing interest, and learning is not happening like it should. So try to stay very fresh.
I don’t keep statistics in order to be a boring person who’s a numbers freak. Rather, I actively analyze those numbers. Obviously, I have to collect them for the administration, but I also like to use them for my own improvement.
For example, one July I tested approximately 50 students. I was looking for grade level ability. It was also an achievement test to see who had improved. If I had asked the students or other teachers what would be the lowest scores, most would have hypothesized math. To my surprise, over 70% of them were either deficient or not improving in language!
So, I used this data to determine most, if not all, of the men needed extra help in language arts. Even the highest level students were below sixth grade. I was shocked! My challenge was to figure out a way to improve the language ability of this many men with a wide range of grade levels. In this case, it was grades one through six. I looked further through the results and saw even the most intelligent men simply did not know basic grammar rules.
How could I continue to use individual educational plans, and still help so many different levels with their language?
I began developing plans which would incorporate many academic and interest levels. The goal was simple. I would provide at least one lesson each day as a small or large group activity. I made a list of necessary concepts centering on grammar, punctuation, and writing.
I advised the men of my plan, and they seemed anxious to participate. They even gave me ideas on how I could pull together as many of our limited resources as possible. Sometimes we worked in pairs or teams, sometimes as a whole class. Those who were low level readers or writers would work with those who were stronger. New students arrived almost weekly, which meant we also had to think about a circular approach; each new lesson was either an introduction for some or a review for others.
I provided several practice worksheets for each lesson, and they were able to choose those that were the most comfortable for them. They worked on some in class and took some to the dorms over the weekends. We found lessons on our computers and in various levels of texts for each concept. They practiced writing on the overhead projector, on large sheets of paper, and on the chalkboard.
This was a unique experience for them, even though it was archaic by most standards. But they loved to help each other. They enjoyed writing their sentences and paragraphs on the board. We had contests for the most creative and the funniest. Prizes had to be make-believe or verbal, since you can’t bring such things into the prison. We had a little awards ceremony, honoring the “Sentence Structure Specialist”, the “Grammar Guru”, and the “Prince of Punctuation”.
Three months later, when I re-administered the tests in October, I measured quite a bit of success. We had set the goal for everybody to improve by six months, but an average of a two-year improvement was what we actually obtained. That was quite reasonable, because some of the students are able to learn quickly; they just were never exposed to the material. That was a big growth in just three months. I was very pleased, as were they. They knew how much they had grown and were as happy as clams.
Janice M. Chamberlin, a licensed prison educator in Indiana, is the author of Locked Up With Success. In her book, Ms. Chamberlin shares stories not only of the challenges she has faced, but also the triumphs she has seen in the prison classroom setting. She has successfully developed a system that can unlock potential even in the highest risk students. The full paperback or digital version can be purchased at