Reflecting on Research, or Why I Miss Reflecting through Research

I’ve been thinking about my time at the jail a lot recently. I don’t know if it’s because I’m working with a new group of students – more of who are young, black men, a population overrepresented in our jails and prisons – or if it’s because I’m flashing back to that space from some tweets I’ve seen about mental illness in prison. Either way, I’m wondering what to do with that research I poured my heart into last year. I can’t believe it’s been almost an entire year since I wracked my brain day in and day out to revise, edit, write, synthesize, apply, and repeat.

Perhaps I’m reflecting on research because I miss it. I miss how it forced me to perceive my actions from a different perspective. I miss how it challenged me to act. I miss how it made me feel uncomfortable, but in a way that I considered productive.

As an observant educator who has a capacity to overthink, I believe I do this to a certain extent everyday, but not in the thorough, ritualized way that ethnography compelled me to do.

Random research thoughts brought to you by an exhausted adult educator on a Friday night.

Two Years Teaching & Think You “Got This”? Nope.

The New York Times published an article on high teacher turnover and how some charter schools are encouraging it. While the entire article was a bit oft-putting, a couple of quotes made me furrow my brow deeper.

“We have this highly motivated, highly driven work force who are now wondering, ‘O.K., I’ve got this, what’s the next thing?’ ” said Jennifer Hines, senior vice president of people and programs at YES Prep.

 

“I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing,” he (a 24 year old teacher) said, “and always moving onto something bigger and better.”

Teaching is no longer “it”. Being a classroom teacher is just a stepping stone to what? Why, the “bigger and better,” of course! [To be fair, if I was “on the clock” until 9 pm everyday, I’d be thinking of moving on to “something bigger and better,” too.]

There seems to be a lack of respect for the profession from those who are actually in it! If you feel like you’ve “got this” as a teacher after a couple years, you haven’t been reflecting enough. Teaching is learning – the work never stops. Perhaps you “got it” with that group of students, but what about the next class you encounter? Every student is different – you never “just get it.” You get better yes, but “got it”? Nope. The arrogance that exudes from that quote bothers me. They very well have intended different meanings with their statements, but it comes off to me – someone who thinks of teaching as never ending learning process – as crude.

Look, ambition isn’t totally bad. But when ambition keeps you from gaining the experiences necessary to put students first…I don’t know. Can you at least wait until you’re thirty? Y’all making me feel old! 

A rant for my mom: Romney makes it personal, (aka the difference between grateful & entitled)

So, I don’t usually blog about personal issues, and it’s been a long while since I’ve even written for this blog. Yet, the words of Romney’s address to donors will continue to irk me like cracking knuckles until I write it out. I’ve always been suspicious that Romney has never actually gotten to know anyone that he so easily denigrates, or if he has, he just pities them or considers them castaways in our society. It hurts me deeply to hear him say these things because I’ve watched my mother struggle with poverty (a word heard so little in this campaign). The only way she is able to have her own small apartment and eat is because of public assistance. Due to a series of medical problems, she is unable to work. She is on her third appeal to obtain social security disability benefits. For those who think people are gaming the system, I say look at my mother’s case. She is so burdened with bureaucracy that it’s taken what seems like years for her to get a hearing for her appeals. (I also wonder how much worse she’d be if she didn’t have the literacy and numeracy skills that help her navigate the public assistance system.) She’ll sometimes detail to me how much she goes through to get the help she needs. Maybe it’s just her series of affairs, or the state she lives in, but it seems a lot harder to get public assistance than some make it out to be. This is absurd when someone actually needs it. 
 
She doesn’t want to be on assistance the rest of her life. She wants to lose weight (one reason she has health problems, but also right now she can’t exercise without the help of special, low resistance machines because of her horrible arthritis and chronic pain), and knows a program/center that has helped her in the past, but she can’t afford it. She can’t afford preventative care and more expensive procedures that may relieve her pain, so she’s left with cheaper, temporary fixes prescribed to her instead. She is waiting for her disability benefits so she can get the medical help she needs IN ORDER TO GET OFF THE BENEFITS. Romney does not seem to comprehend this possibility.
 
She is not lazy, she is not lacking in personal responsibility, and she damned well doesn’t feel “entitled” to riches, just basic human rights like shelter, food, and health care (!). I’m the eldest of four kids and try to help from several states away as a graduate student whose only expendable income is from student loans. My other siblings (two who are also in college, and one just recently graduated) are all pitching in when we can, but it’s not enough.  She hates borrowing money from us and the government, but is also so grateful – NOT entitled. She even promises to pay us kids back when she gets her disability money, and will have to pay back the state for the help she’s received while awaiting her hearing. 
 
Her hard work, humor in the face of adversity, integrity, and honesty (she worked three jobs at times after my dad and her divorced), is what I admire most about her and it pangs me to hear Romney deny her humanity and hard work through such spiteful and condescending language. Why does he assume that we feel entitled rather than feel grateful? That is what angers me the most, and makes me realize he’s never really listened to someone who has been helped by our government or who has been poor. It’s baffling for me to hear Romney mention entitlement when all campaign I’ve been asking myself why Romney acts like he’s entitled to the presidency.
 
– Rant over –

A Different Tower of Babel

My media, literacy, and culture class was recently asked to listen to Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel acceptance lecture. [If you have 33 minutes to spare, I highly recommend you listen. Both the audio & transcript are available here: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/morrison-lecture.html.]
This was my first experience with Toni Morrison, and it was an emotional one. I used to read more poetry, and hearing Morrison’s poetic storytelling reminded me of what I have been missing. I hurt a little. Overall, it reminded me of the many joyful and oppressive personas language can embody. I found myself nearly transcribing the entire lecture while listening for the first time – so many brilliant images and word choices – as well as so much relative to the teaching and learning of language for those in the criminal justice system.
Morrison’s story begins with an old blind woman being approached and asked by some children: “Is the bird we have in our hands living or dead?” The old woman replies, “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.” Morrison goes on to use the bird as a metaphor for the dying and living language that surrounds us.
Those who are incarcerated seem, more often than not, to experience the dying language…
Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago. 
Morrison even uses language of oppression and criminal justice in this description of dominant language. This is the “official language” many who participate in under-funded schools, as well as, prison education systems deal with. They deal with language purposefully used against them. The word “felon” is attached to their being – it literally can define a range of actions, but to those who are ignorant it only means “unemployable”, “dangerous”, “stupid”, “not worthy of our democracy”. The way Morrison discusses the violent use of language as a way to uphold singular view of people and ideas was amazing.
 The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. 
Yet, there is hope to revive this dead language, for there is agency and there is a living language found in those who demand change, and those who tell stories. If we peel back the dead layer of language, we see there are thriving languages waiting to breath and be heard. This is the beauty of language if we as educators and as speakers and listeners let it happen. For when you listen or see the language of someone who’s first identity is “felon” or “inmate”, you are changed, they are changed. Identities shift from felon to writer to teacher. Your ignorance is diminished and their voice is placed as equal to yours. Morrison reminds us that there is yearning to learn in everyone, no matter their youthfulness, their supposed naïveté or hardness. I think of the children, after hearing the old woman’s words, demanding that their curious voices be heard, that they be given an education suitable to their lives and needs.
Is there no speech,” they ask her, “no words you can give us that helps us break through your dossier of failures? Through the education you have just given us that is no education at all because we are paying close attention to what you have done as well as to what you have said? To the barrier you have erected between generosity and wisdom? 
(The children ask for warmth and understanding and actions to live by, not distant adult lectures and riddles.)
I think of Morrison’s wonderful recasting of the story of Babel:
Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.
Whose language is being upheld as “heaven” and how can we change language learning so that multiple voices – including those who are incarcerated – are valued and thus make “heaven as life” possible?
 
Most importantly, that hope does not lie only with the student, but with the teacher and student dialogue. Morrison’s wise old woman masterfully incites agency, curiosity, and humility from the children. The children demand knowledge, respect, and shared responsibility – they demand a teacher to fight for the students’ right to language, their right to learn and to dialogue as equals. This is what I hope can be implemented in schools and classrooms found in areas where language is being employed violently – the criminal justice system, as well as, urban and rural schools that focus on the test, not the brilliance of the living language found everywhere but in the test prep. Through a dialogue of mutual respect, storytelling, curiosity, language, and the learning of language, can thrive.

Finally, she says, I trust you now. I trust you…because you have truly caught it. How lovely it is this thing we have done together.

The Danger of a Single Story, Education, & Inmates

A couple months ago, I watched, and was moved by, Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story”, and had been meaning to write about it. Coincidentally, the first assignment for my Literacy, Culture, and New Media class was to respond to the video. Here it be!

I was excited to see that watching this video was our first assignment. It’s apropos to the course’s theme of technology that I first stumbled across this video from a twitter feed I follow a few months back. I was struck by Chimamanda Adichie’s powerful message that encapsulates many of my thoughts on power, education, literacy identities, and how they all intertwine. I could write a lot on her talk, but I want to touch on two themes I think about a lot in regards to education: multiple literacies/identities that we and our students possess, and power’s relation to literacy and language.

I believe an educator must consider the multiple literacies and identities that a student brings to a learning environment and how those literacies will interact with the dominant discourse found in the learning environment. Adichie’s early literary experiences included British and American novels. Like Adichie, many students may find what they read clashes with what they experience every day, causing them to feel as though their stories aren’t worth mentioning. Instead, the dominant discourse in power should be looked at critically. By acknowledging and integrating students’ identities into literacy instruction, we empower them to discover, as well as teach others, the many stories that make up their lives. I think educators need to remember that literacy is imbued with social experience, cultural connections, and power, and thus work harder to provide access to a diversity of texts and open space for multiple literacies and discourses to emerge.

Too often, those in power co-opt the story of the less powerful, as Adichie points out when describing the single “catastrophic” story of Africans who were “unable to speak for themselves”. It reminded me of a tale told by the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In a talk at the University of California–Santa Barbara, Thiong’o speaks of the man who finds his hut overtaken by a lion. Soon, the lion is the one telling the story of this man’s hut. He replaces the man as the storyteller because people want to hear this lion’s language – it seems more rational, less emotional, and credible (Thiong’o jokes that the lion “has even footnotes sometimes”). [You can watch him telling the brief story here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxyigzfSyBY#t=26m09s ] We see the danger of the single story throughout history – “Orientalism” is another prime example – when a story is perpetuated by outside perspectives placing their cultural knowledge and backgrounds onto the people and places they encounter, silencing the voices of those people and places. It is a danger that needs to be acknowledged as we educate and learn from students. What perspectives do they bring? How do our perspectives interact with their perspectives? How can we help students think critically about the stories they take in, as well as seek multiple perspectives to a story to make it more complete – even if they seem contradictory?

Her thoughts on power and storytelling are important when considering the voices lost or stifled in our classrooms and in our American society, as well. If you do not have power, you are not privileged in having multiple stories, she purports. While she mentions that she knew many stories of America because of America’s power, I thought, who within America suffers from a single story? Before I started my full time job in Bloomington, I worked part time as a teacher’s assistant in the GED program at the Monroe County Jail. While there I heard the voices of inmates who are virtually silenced by the media storytellers. They had stories beyond the stories of their crimes, identities in addition to the label of “criminal”. Since then I have been interested in educational opportunities within prisons and juvenile correctional facilities, having focused much of my research on ways educators can recognize and empower prisoners and their multiple identities. Her talk related with an inmate’s plea in the movie Shakespeare Behind Bars, a documentary on a prison drama group that performs The Tempest. He yearns to be able to write a different story of himself, to be seen as someone other than a criminal, and through literature and the safe space provided by the drama group, he is able to express another story.

Lastly, Adichie states: “[t]he consequence of a single story…is it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.” I think about this a lot as I read of the multiple experiences within prisons and juvenile correctional facilities. By providing a space for student voices to be heard and recognized, “stories can be used to empower and to humanize”

Educating those outside the prison gates

As I finished my research last semester (it’s never really over though, is it?), I knew how much more work I had to do in order to fight the forces brewing against rehabilitation and meaningful criminal justice reform. The systemic injustice can’t simply be overthrown by educating on the inside – all of us need to work harder as advocates and educating those on the outside.

Shakespeare Behind Bars PosterMovies like “Shakespeare Behind Bars” – a documentary featuring the inmates of Luther Luckett correctional facility in Kentucky – provides a prism of nuance not usually afforded the incarcerated. Viewers witness transformation, regret, and redemption – all within the context of literature, collaboration, and learning. All these men want is to be known for something other than what put them in prison.

“This American Life” devoted an entire episode to the same topic of inmates performing Shakespeare. The episode, titled “Act V”, digs into the prisoners’ work on the fifth act of Hamlet. The intelligence and life experiences that inform the performers’ analysis and performance of the characters is astute and memorable. Their thoughts are worth sharing with those on the outside the prison gates, and we all should be listening.

During her lively talk on mass incarceration with Dr. Cornel West at a conference last spring, Michelle Alexander stated “what’s needed now is a lot of consciousness raising and public education…”. She later states that we need nothing short of  a revolution to change the system.

Without further ado, here are the last parts of my research paper, including the conclusion, which I hope provides some context to this and previous blog posts. By simply publishing this paper on this site, I’ve had the opportunity to reexamine my research and thoughts on Freire, education, and prison. It’s motivated me to continue working toward a more equitable criminal justice educational system. I look forward to more reflection and writing and thank anyone who’s taken the time to read.

Educating Those on the Outside

“I wish the findings throughout this course [Convict Criminology] could be used to help make a stand and statement to the rest of the world about how bad the criminal justice system really is. Because those of us on the inside have voices that could prove very valuable, and we need to be heard.”—28-year-old female prisoner (Richards et al., 2008, p.134)

It is also evident through the writings of prison educators that they have not only educated their students, but have been educated by them. Freire would have applauded their efforts to fight alongside the prisoners/oppressed rather than simply fight for them. There must be a level of trust though, claims Freire. “A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions n their favor without that trust” (p.60). In order to fulfill a commitment to Freirian ideals of education, the teacher must be open to trusting and learning from the student, again sharing power and becoming partners in learning.

Richards et al. (2008) and Vasudevan et al. (2010) allow the voices of those caught up in the correctional system to educate those who may have little to no contact or context of what is happening the system. Richards and his colleagues begin with those who will be working within the system, providing them with a perspective that they may not have received – that of the inmate. The course is taken by both sociology and criminal justice students and their inmate counterparts. As mentioned above, their required reading is a collection of scholarly articles called Convict Criminology, many of which are written by ex-inmates who are now using their past experiences to inform the debate of mass incarceration and the conditions found within the institution. The following quotes from students indicates that the course is succeeding in illustrating the nuances of the criminal justice system and those entangled within it:

“The course reminded me not to be so quick to judge and that there are a multitude of ways a person can end up behind bars”— University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh student


“It gave prisoners a voice and humanized them in a way that I have never encountered.” –University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh student

The Insight Project informs the general public of its work through a series of performances of the play in a New York City theater (Vasudevan et al., 2010). Those working with the students daily began to see the youth “as actors and engaged participants” (p.62), and the performances allowed students to share that with a broader audience. Here students not only get to demonstrate their new identities as actors and writers, but they share their work with an audience that may know little about where the students came from. Every performance ends with student actors and writers fielding questions from the audience. This places the students in the role of teacher, the audience learning from the Insight Project participants’ experiences.

The Insight Project, as well as numerous other programs that the students cited throughout this paper participated in, offered opportunities for student agency in learning. Freire’s philosophy that cites literacy learning as a tool for liberation and agency could be seen amid these programs as well as educators sought to open classrooms for dialogue, connect curriculum to students, and learn with and from their students.

Conclusion

I recognize that this paper, while dreary at first, ends up with perhaps too rosy of a perspective – speaking of mutual respect, learning, and shared power within a diverse institution stricken with injustices. Of course it’s not as simple as changing educational philosophies and pedagogies, and there are many factors outside of the classroom that affect what takes place inside it. I hope that I communicated that these suggestions are simply a potential step toward a more rehabilitative and humane institution.

During her lively talk on mass incarceration with Dr. Cornel West, Michelle Alexander stated “what’s needed now is a lot of consciousness raising and public education…”(Chang, 2011). One way of raising others’ consciousnesses is to inform them of different perspectives, including those who are incarcerated. As noted above, several ex-inmates, as well as their teachers, have begun the difficult work of informing others about the injustices of the criminal justice system, attempting to whittle away the stigma that is associated with the incarcerated identity. Yet, these examples also show that this information hasn’t been disseminated only by those in power, but by those who are oppressed, through a partnership of mutual respect between inmates and educators. Freire (2010) states: “the correct method lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientizacao” (p.65). In other words, educators merely create with students an environment for students to achieve consciousness and liberation, not teach them consciousness and liberation.

So even though ex-convicts face numerous barriers, a loss of rights upon release, discrimination, and “institutions of education and justice are often characterized as sites of oppression, there are hopeful and generative possibilities for imaginative education within the institutional walls” (Vasudevan et al., 2010, p.64). The programs and student voices discussed above demonstrate these possibilities.

As states including Indiana consider reforms to save money, let’s hope they also consider the intentions behind cost cutting by further shifting their philosophy to a rehabilitative stance that values education as a means to empower inmates, not merely prevent them from reentering the state’s increasingly expensive correctional facilities.

Voices Missing in the Discussion on Prison Education

I started my research project last spring in order to uncover the voices of prisoners experiencing educational opportunities in prison. Of course, there were voices missing from the research. Who doesn’t participate in educational programs? And why aren’t they participating – whether it’s their own choice or not? Most articles I read focus on those already in classes, thus a huge population of inmates are not getting their say. In order to understand how we can better tailor educational programs to the greater population of prisoners, the literature must expand to include non-participants views of education and educational programs and how they may benefit from them.

Many articles I found come from those teaching college level students, so there is a lack of voices coming from students at lower literacy levels. This is especially important considering the large number of inmates who are not high school graduates, and thus are not able to take college courses. When working at the county jail, this was a huge concern for me. There were students who couldn’t read above a fifth grade level. What support were they receiving in a GED preparation class? Not much. There was little time for one-on-one tutoring and no one available that was well-trained in adult basic literacy. Classes were structured on workbook activities. As I attempted to work on larger, differentiated group lessons, it was a struggle. They were used to hiding their inabilities through individual work. I wish I could have spent more time breaking down that fear of failure. Is this one of the reasons people drop out of prison education programs? What do those who do not succeed in prison education programs think about the classes they attend? What would “success” mean to a lower literacy level student? I worked with a man who simply wanted to be able to read the letters he received from his children. What sort of support does he want/need? These are just a few of the questions that should be asked when discussing the relevance and success of prison education programs.



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