"Those Who See Language"
[Friday, July 10, 2009]
"I hate to ask this, but I need
a favor," Everett said, sidling
into Professor Burr's office.
"I'm listening," said Professor Burr.
"Is there any way you can fit me in
as a full-time employee?" Everett said.
"I know it takes a minimum of four classes,
and the guys aren't enthusiastic about
reading, but I'm kind of desperate here."
"I thought things were going well for you,"
said Professor Burr. "What happened?"
"We just had another kid, so that's
one thing," said Everett. "The second
is that my other school is not good.
Contract negotiations are ... well ...
I'd rather just work for you."
"There isn't enough demand yet
for a fourth class in English at
the same time," said Professor Burr.
"However, it's four activities, not
four classes. If you can come up
with something else, I'm interested."
"Like what?" Everett said. "I'm already
doing Introduction to Latino Literature,
Black Literature Is Beautiful, and
Composition I: Foundations."
"Well, I just managed to convince
the Community College Association
to accept diligent students after
their release," said Professor Burr.
"I want to expand the program so
more people can take advantage
of it. What would support that?"
Everett thought for a minute, tapping
his chin. "The root problem is that
most inmates either can't read, can
barely read, or actively hate reading.
We need to fix that," he said. "What
do you think about a Book Club?
Those who see language regularly
will learn to use it better themselves."
"That could work," said Professor Burr.
"Put the weight of decisions on them, and
show how to vote on books as a group."
Then he rocked a hand in the air. "How
would you account for the wings? They
have very different restrictions."
"That's the easy part," Everett said.
"We can hold meetings in person
for inmates in the privileged and
standard wings. The ones in
the private wing can participate
through forums or video chat."
"Thus incentivizing the move up;
I like that," said Professor Burr. "It's
their decision how to act, if they
want access to more activities."
"What about the books?"
Everett asked. "We'll need
more than one of each title."
"Okay, I can tap the budget for
three book club kits, each with
ten copies of the featured book
plus discussion questions and
some other supporting materials.
That buys you time to find more,"
said Professor Burr. "Ebooks
can be shared easily too."
"Great," said Everett. "I
will get started on a list of
possible books to read."
He knew how to bait a hook.
* * *
“… the truest writers are those who see language not as a linguistic process but as a living element….”
-- Derek Walcott (St. Lucian poet and playwright).
Getting into college is harder both during and after prison. These barriers need to be removed in order to lower recidivism. Obviously, if civilized society and employment opportunities are closed to former offenders, they have no other recourse but to break the law again, so keeping them out requires making space for them and ensuring they have the resources to succeed.
Most prison inmates are functionally illiterate, and many are completely illiterate. Those who can read rarely do so beyond third grade level. These shortcomings follow racial lines, showing that people of color suffer educational neglect that funnels them into prison. Furthermore, schools often teach children to hate reading, especially children who are less than brilliant at it. Local-American prisons exacerbate these problems by banning or just not stocking books, a direct connection to laws that banned slaves from reading.
Book clubs encourage reading and give many benefits. There are short and long guidelines for starting one.
Book clubs need sets of the same book for members to read. Here are some reading lists recommended for book clubs. These young adult books have discussion guides. A diverse reading list benefits ethnic audiences. Scholastic offers classroom sets of some books. Some booksellers offer class sets via discounts at 10 and 20 books. These ideas for building a classroom library also work for book clubs. Libraries may offer book club kits with a set of books and discussion guide. In T-America, most bookstores sell those, and in fact will make kits of newly arrived bestsellers.
Discussion guides prompt people to talk about books. You can use generic questions sorted by types of book. Some websites offer online questions. Study guides such as Cliff's Notes or Grade Saver also help.
You can also make your own discussion guide for any book. First lay out the major aspects of character, setting, plot, theme, plus things unique to this book. Make 2-3 questions per category and you've got enough for most purposes. If you're working with a big group and want to minimize duplication, either add more questions per category or pull in other categories such as tone or author. Look at my books and you can see the supporting materials I wrote for each, including discussion questions.
In T-Nebraska Penitentiary, the inmates live in different wings based on behavior. New inmates customarily go in the standard wing, from which they can work their way up to the privileged wing by earning points for prosocial behavior and desired activities. Inmates who misbehave can lose privileges, or in serious cases, get moved to the private wing. The idea is to stairstep inmates back into society, so each wing has a level of privileges based on how much self-control its residents have shown. The private wing is the most restricted, and it costs a lot of points to do things like visit the social room. They can pay to attend some activities, but usually can't belong to clubs unless those have an online version. The standard wing has average restrictions, and access to most places and activities is cheaper. They often belong to clubs, because it's easy for them to meet in person. The privileged wing has the most freedom, as inmates close to release are expected to behave decently. Many activities are free -- but these inmates no longer earn points for some things the others do, and have to work at a higher level to get any. They get access to some options that aren't available to the other wings. This system gives inmates immediate, concrete rewards for meeting social expectations.