Classroom environment in prison: Open for reconstruction of identity

I love the Murtagh quote found at the beginning of this next section of my final paper. This part focuses on inmates’ and educators’ perspectives on how open and authentic classroom environments can lead to new possibilities for learning and growing in knowledge. Through dialogue – whether it be between fellow inmates, with a teacher, or with a text – student inmates can critically think through decisions, identities, and ideas. This section includes some quotes from student inmates that provide insight into the benefits of such a classroom environment.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to a google doc of the references found in these posts of my final paper: http://tinyurl.com/3k6mlan

Classroom Environment: Open for Reconstruction of Identity

While the means of expression vary – drama, writing, reading – the process is similar. Educators finding success with students who are incarcerated, or at risk of incarceration, are providing environments that allow for self-expression in a way that mainstream schooling may not.

Woven within many of the accounts and quotations from people who are incarcerated is the concept of identity and how that identity can be reevaluated within a classroom. Joseph Murtagh writes in his essay about teaching in prison:

“We can deny prisoners many things, liberty, society, citizenship, but short of execution the only thing we can’t deny a prisoner is the right to atone for his sins. If there’s one thing to be learned from teaching in a prison, it’s that this kind of atonement can and actually does happen, but that it doesn’t happen in the solitary darkness of a prison cell; it happens in the open space of a classroom, where in the company of his peers an  inmate can craft a story anew about himself that puts some distance on the old story, the story of the murderer, the dealer, the pervert, the thief.” (p.75).

Murtagh’s classroom, as well as the programs and educators below, present students with spaces to “craft a story anew” about him or herself.

The Insight Project, part of a New York City Alternative to Incarceration Program, includes students who are involved in the criminal justice system (Vasudevan, Stageman, Jay, Rodriguez, Fernandez, & Dattatreyan, 2010). Here students engage in storytelling, improvisation, and dramatic performances. Vasudevan et al. (2010) look to Maxine Greene’s (2000) notion that “expression through arts opens up spaces of possibility…to engage and nurture the work of the imagination and enact their “deliberative agency” in the ways in which they (re)write themselves (Dimitriadis & Weis, 2001)” (p.54).  As the improvisations turned to scripts and rehearsed lines, students began to critically view the characters they had created, considering multiple perspectives pushed by critical dialogue with their teacher. Thus, rehearsals “became spaces for the youth to re-imagine the script they would perform on stage, as well as spaces within which to rehearse and re-script their own life narratives” (p.62).  After performances, students engaged in talkbacks, where audience members would ask the students questions. The talkbacks provided another venue for reauthoring, allowing students “to portray themselves outside of the stereotypes and familiar expectations of posturing that followed them across contexts” (p.63).

In addition to providing open spaces for students to author themselves, the program takes the Freirian notion of generative themes mentioned above. Each script begins with the words created during student improvisation, thus plays are built upon the cultural knowledge and experiences of the students – not of the teachers.

The student’s letter mentioned above includes a section that also evaluates different identities and how those identities play out depending on context:

When I return to the old boulevards, the ratty tenements, the crackhead avenues, I will be in the same old places, but it will not be the same old me. I am concerned that when I return to the environment of my childhood, the desperate choices, the animalistic drive to survive, the bullshit, will take over. But the new me, the educated me, will know that is what will be happening. I am learning about myself as I write about myself, literally at this moment. (Maker, 2004, p.111)

Another woman inmate tackles her mental illness, how it is perceived in prison, and how education has reshaped this part of her identity:

Now when the women call me insane, I reply, “I may be insane, but I can help you with your essays.” Education keeps me motivated. It gives me a reason to stay alive. I’ve got my mental illness, my hallucinations, my low self-esteem, but I’ve also got my degree. I can write. I have something to say that people need to know. I am a writing tutor for the college program. I am a writer.” (Maker, 2004, p.112).

Here is an excerpt from another woman inmate, around 50 years old, using writing to discover her identity:

Why do I want to write? After twenty years of being incarcerated for killing an abusive husband, I don’t have much belief in the system but I do believe in myself, and it’s that part of me that I’m writing to. I need to learn about myself before I get out. (Shafer, 2001, p.76)

As the research considers ways to make classrooms environments open to the writing and shifting of identities, it will be valuable to learn about the identities that are being learned within the prison, but outside the classroom. Terry (2003) describes the difficulty he had learning to survive within an identity that didn’t go by the “convict code”. He describes how one learns how to survive in jail, only have to relearn how to survive in the outside world once released (p.106). Vaseduvan et al. (2010) also acknowledges the learned literacies and behaviors from the street that are also valued in the tough criminal justice system. These learned behaviors then end up in prison education classrooms, at times clashing with the language and identities of teachers and other students. Mikhal Bakhtin (1994) provides a basis for understanding that language (part of one’s identity) is constantly evolving through conversations with others and with ourselves. His notion of heteroglossia also pertains to the incarcerated as they struggle against a dominant discourse of which they are not a part. By making students aware of the dominant discourse in a way that highlights this struggle, rather than asks them to assimilate to the discourse, students may come away with new meaning.

Furthermore, throughout the literature many inmates speak of having difficult or poor experiences in schools that leave them with little faith in the benefits of schooling in particular, and education, in general. One researcher, Keith Sullivan, has named this concept “educational trauma” (2004), and defines it as “a general sense of incapacity caused by years of poor educational experiences and failure” (p.387). Sullivan goes on to purport that these years of trauma result in “low self-esteem and frustration” that manifests itself in misbehavior and a resentment of authority and school which are then incorrectly “regarded as symptoms of failure” by the school (p.388). This concept easily relates to the school to prison pipeline mentioned above.

Muth (2008) discusses an article that points to how this trauma may affect future attempts of learning. Even if the pedagogy differs from the schooling that had traumatized them in the past because they may in fact be more comfortable with that type of curriculum: “it appeared that the students had internalized years of failure in school, and without the confidence in themselves as thinkers they were very open to the safe routine of workbooks” (Boudin, 1993, p.216 cited in Muth, 2008, p.265). Muth’s (2008) interviews revealed that student inmates saw the classroom as a place where their identity should be repressed – not an open place where students can construct their own learning.  Vasudevan et al. (2010) also mentioned the troubled school pasts of some students and how “arts programs have the potential to recast problematic labels such as “academic deficiencies” through the lenses of dignity, self worth, and confidence (Leard & Lashua, 2006” (p.55). Whether it be a curriculum grounded in the arts or in science, prison education programs should consider a curriculum that connects with the student inmates.

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