It takes a lot of work, but once lesson plans and assessments are developed, I merely hang on to them. As I have mentioned, I can use them at other times, because six or eight months later, I have almost entirely new students.
I have no choice but to honor diversity and to individualize instruction. It is an understatement to say I have vast diversity in my classroom. I teach twelve months out of the year, but the students flow in and out on a weekly basis. Several students leave, and several enter each month. There are set standards of what needs to be mastered, but each student is on an individual plan and on an individual schedule.
I have had students who never finished first grade and some who nearly finished high school. Some grew up in foster care, some were molested, some were wealthy and on drugs. The ages range from 18 to 75. I once had a student who was blind. Many have learning disabilities, and a great number suffer from mental illness. I even experienced a man having a stroke during class. So, it is definitely a challenge to meet all their needs.
Once their readiness levels are established, we develop a plan for each student. Contrary to common belief, we do have a curriculum; we don’t just randomly choose what to do each day. Good recordkeeping is a must, as are frequent individual meetings to assess progress. I spend much time speaking with each individual student, learning his likes and dislikes, his background. Then, whether I am instructing an individual or a group, I can frequently go back to something they are already familiar with, and relate it to the new information being presented. I can refer to a man’s carpentry job, his teenage daughter, his basketball skills, his knowledge of motorcycles, or his love of cooking. One of my lowest level readers loved anything related to speed; muscle cars, hydraulic roller coasters, things like that. Together, we planned reading and math lessons with his interests in mind.
I make a conscious effort to tell them what I am doing and to teach them to do the same thing for themselves. For example, I guide them in relating percentages and fractions to money. Everyone understands money. When they see the relationship between cents and percents, they understand the similarities among fractions, decimals, and percents almost immediately. Most of the guys have never made the connection between fractions, percents, and the names of our coins. I can practically watch the light bulb go on when a man realizes that a twenty five cent coin is called a “quarter” because it is one-fourth, or a quarter of a dollar. They grin as they then comment, “Oh, so three quarters makes seventy five cents. I never realized that. That’s SO easy!” This makes them feel successful and encourages them to further pursue learning math.
I have tried to promote a positive environment, showing my students success they didn’t believe was possible for them. A large share of my challenge is getting a student to believe he can learn. Once he realizes that, great things begin to happen.
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