By Christopher Zoukis
“Who is the Republican front runner?”
“The Vice President?”
“Head of State?”
“Secretary of the Treasury?”
All of the above questions should easily be answered. Yet, my students can’t answer them. I’d imagine that most undergraduates would be able to, but why not incarcerated GED students? Did I even know these answers when I was in high school? If not, why?
The other day I was reading the New York Times and I found that I wasn’t truly reading it. I was scanning it and only reading a few select articles. The same I found was true of my alleged reading of USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. As I reflected upon this trend of mine to just scan and select, I tried to remember an article of real importance. While I could come up with a few, these were restricted and specialized; certainly not readings of general knowledge. I thought, if this was true of me, it must be true of others, too.
Thus, I took myself to task for my failure to properly educate myself about current events. (All of a sudden my 9th grade Current Events class made sense…there was a purpose to reading all of those newspapers after all.) I pledged to read my newspapers through and through. Well, not necessarily cover to cover (e.g., the Sports section of USA Today might not be necessary), but certainly Section A of each.
Within a short period of time my eyes started to open. The little island which I call FCI Petersburg no longer seemed so remote. All of a sudden there were other islands (or topics) such as Israel, Vladimir Putin, Google, 7-Eleven’s Slurpee Lite, Bahrain, Romney, and even a strange new concept called tweeting. Even more important than the islands were the bridges. These islands started to interact and even affect each other (think Twitter and the Arab Spring). The seemingly distinct topics became an interconnected mesh or web. All of a sudden I found that I wasn’t simply informing myself — or justifying the cost of a New York Times subscription — but engaging in a critical analysis and acculturation exercise. I was beginning to understand the world around me.
As is true of this eye opening event in my own life — I’m only 26, so please pardon my ignorance — this is also applicable to that of most people; incarcerated students in particular since they are already so isolated. If incarcerated students see themselves as on an island, connections can’t be made or facilitated. And without connections, ignorance and a closed mind ensue. These are detrimental factors to any person; the disenfranchised particularly so. This is exactly what formal education attempts to rectify.
With this encroaching ignorance in mind — an ignorance enhanced by steel gates and gun towers and all they represent — it is up to us as correctional educators to do what we can to protect our students. We already do this by exposing them to the tools we have available to us: books and questions. But there is still more to be done. A 20-year-old social studies text isn’t going to do the trick. Neither is an iron fist. Our goal isn’t to force our students to do anything, but to sell the idea of education to them; to convince them. And once they are convinced, we must facilitate the transfer of knowledge.
If we were to bring newspapers into our classrooms and to convince our students to read them — and enjoy them — this habit and skill would carry on outside of the classroom. Hence, they would leave our classrooms with a true life skill which would enrich their lives and prepare them for success in a world in which the chow rotation doesn’t count as current events.
My suggestions for implementation are simple, effective, and relatively inexpensive:
~Whenever feasible, allow students to read a newspaper instead of an outdated textbook. Have them write a synopsis or short reflective essay based upon an article which particularly interested them. This will provide work completion and enhance critical analysis and reading comprehension skills.
~Some newspapers have condensed editions available which are emailed directly to subscribers. The New York Times has a particularly useful 12-page version. This could be printed off and copied each day for classroom usage.
~Newspapers often offer educational discounts. Or, if there is no budget at all for extras, speak with your local public library. The head librarian would probably be thrilled to save the day old papers for you to bring to your students the following day.
~Allow students to elect to spend 30 to 45 minutes each day reading the newspaper — or the condensed electronic version — as a reward for good behavior and attendance. Even better, allow students to take copies of a digital condensed edition with them back to their housing units. If enough students engage in this kind of reading, open up some class time for group discussion. This will motivate the hold-outs to read and will enhance critical thinking skills.
~Always be innovative. Remember, you are an educator, not some kind of custodian or keeper of the keys. Your mission is to inspire. Do it enthusiastically and with passion. By doing so, your passion will become your student’s passion.