Archive for the 'Education' Category

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:]
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: ] 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.


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.

Teachers as partners in prison education

I believe that teachers are partners in learning alongside their students, rather than dispensers of knowledge to their students. I’m very concerned with the uneven power relations that can occur between student and teacher. You’re most likely aware that this is part of my educational theory based upon my admiration of Paulo Freire who despised “banking” education. The next section of my paper discusses research and theory demonstrating that mutual respect between student inmates and teachers is an important factor in student trust and learning potential. This seems common sense to many, but consider the prison environment where inmates’ rights are stunted and their humanity often stripped from them: an educator who interacts with them as though they are an equal can lead to educational and emotional breakthroughs for student inmates.

(Again, you can refer to my last post for a link to the google doc that contains all references made in this post. Thanks!)

Teachers as Partners

Allday (2006) sought to discover inmates’ perceptions on teacher effectiveness through a survey of 371 inmates in South Carolina. Through a series of statistical analysis, survey results showed that students felt that teachers who showed a “desire for student success” and “care” for the student, were ones they felt they “learned the most” from (p.741). While the survey questions students about K-12 teachers [though only 20% of the respondents had completed high school (Allday, 2006, p.731)], the results can be helpful in showing what factors are seen as important not only to those at-risk of entering prison, but those in prison education programs.

Freire is relevant here as well, for his insistence on student agency in literacy learning is important in that it shifts power from the teacher to the student, calling for educators to be “partners of the students” (Freire, 2010, p.75).  Terry (2003) describes the educator experience that led to his reevaluation of education and identity. “[H]er hands-on teaching style was extremely beneficial…” (p. 109) Teachers “treated us like human begins, as equals…in class, at least temporarily, we got a reprieve from the prison oppression” (p.102-3) This sentiment was also communicated in the inmate’s letter to the college (quoted extensively above) when she thanked him for being “warm and human and kind…who likes learning from me” (Maker, 2004, p.111).

Students in Rose and Voss’s (2003) college program not only asked teachers to “treat inmates as if they are real people instead of crash dummies” (p.147), but to be rigorous. One student asks for “no sympathy…no compromise in standards! Accommodate only those with a desire to learn” (p.146). Another student said the best teaching style within a correctional facility is one that is “very firm…To be constructive without criticism….maintain consistency” (p.147), while another student states that “teaching at a correctional facility requires a teacher to be fexable [sic] taking into account the restrictions that are demanded” (p.147). This diversity of traits described by student inmates reflects the diversity of expectations correctional educators find in their classroom.

Tewksbury & Stengel (2006) state near the end of their article on inmate student perceptions of prison education: “most importantly, inmates understood the connection between success in the academic programs and success after release” (p.23). But is success in academics enough? What will success mean for each student involved in educational programs? Will success in the Insight Project program translate to successful employment upon release from the criminal justice system? Is gainful employment what constitutes success for a participant in the Insight Project? I think that these are important questions when considering all the programs described above. Therefore, as mentioned above, we must consider not only the type of educational programs being administered, but also additional factors that can affect a prisoner’s reentry into society. Visher & Travis (2003) provide a helpful framework when considering these factors, some of which have been touched on throughout this paper. First, they suggest examining four dimensions of the transition from prison to community: individual characteristics; family relationships; community contexts; and state policies. In addition, they advise that those interested in studying reentry consider four phases of the inmate’s life: pre-prison circumstances; in-prison circumstances; immediate post-prison experiences; and post-release integration experiences.

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:

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.

Freire: A Framework for Empowered Learning in Prisons

The next section of my paper explores Freirian philosophy of education in the prison classroom. I’m still investigating Freire and the use of “liberation education” in an environment so devoid of freedom. There are many questions that arise, a few include: what if an inmate isn’t motivated to learn?  What about those students who have no interest in education? One of the most troubling issues that is impossible to address in the paper is the lack of voices from those who do not participate in prison education programs. At times I fear that the paper gets too positive – too sentimental for the possibilities posed by the prisoners who found value in education. What about the negative stories?

What I’ve read of Freire so far (which, I admit is not enough!), there is a focus on basic literacy. While there is a population in prison who are illiterate (larger than the illiterate general population), how do you implement Freirian ideals outside of basic literacy skills? In addition, what if students are expecting a traditional, teacher-led classroom? Should we push them past that state of mind if what they want is the traditional classroom? I know some of these words are loaded (“traditional” and “literacy” and “education”), and I hope that throughout my writing you’ve come to see a bit of what these words mean to me.

Here’s a brief description: “Traditional” relates to the formal schooling model that many of us have been exposed to – teacher-run classroom, some rote learning, unnecessary doses of direct instruction. “Literacy” is all-encompassing – I have a very broad notion of literacy that goes beyond reading and writing text and includes reading and producing visual cues and human behavior – we are constantly making meaning (and expanding on that meaning) through our interpretations of others’ actions, words, etc. And “education” – well, it’s what takes place inside and outside the classroom. I think “learning” is “education”. Whether we’re learning how to interact with the next-door neighbors or how to do long division – we are experiencing education.


Freire: A Framework for Empowered Learning

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. – Paulo Freire, 2010, p.72

Freire believes literacy is a critical tool of liberation for the oppressed to gain agency. Freire (2001) states: “[T]o acquire literacy is more than to psychologically and mechanically dominate reading and writing techniques. It is to dominate these techniques in terms of consciousness; to understand what one reads and to write what one understands; it is to communicate graphically” (p.622). His overall philosophy, seeing literacy as a tool for liberation, condemns rote learning and teacher-centered classrooms – classrooms in part to blame for higher dropout rates and increased prison populations (Winn & Behizadeh, 2011).  It encourages a culture of inquiry and critical thinking that asserts “an attitude of creation and re-creation, a self-transformation producing a stance of intervention in one’s context” (p.622). Freire (2001) wants students to “achieve critical consciousness so that they can teach themselves to read and write” (p. 627).

Winn and Behizadeh (2011) also note the importance of the Freirian idea of critical reading and writing skills as tools for transformation when discussing the disproportionate number of minority students who are in special education, suspended, or expelled (p.149).

Muth (2008) notes another tenet of Freire: the use of “problem-posing to engage learners in dialogue” (p.272). These conversations produce themes generated by the students and then used as the basis of literacy learning. Freire found success using culturally relative generative words and themes when working with adult basic literacy students in Brazil, (2001). “Generative themes are transformative, because literacy learners

…are aware of themselves and thus of the world [and]…exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom. As they separate themselves from the world…as they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, people overcome the situations which limit them. (Freire, 2002, p.99)” (Muth, 2008, p.272).

This concept of the dialectic as a means to transform the learner and the world around them is clearly illustrated by this female college student inmate’s letter to the president of the college who provided courses in prison:

College is making me realize that I can no longer blame my ignorance or lack of opportunity if after my release I should again stumble and fall and return to prison. My college education has destroyed the perceptions that I had lived by for so long. I always wanted to think that the things I did, the actions I took, were not my fault. They were the fault of society, of those who hated me because of my race, color, gender. The truth is now I have to see myself and acknowledge myself as an educated human being who is responsible for her own actions…For the first time in my life, I am actively dialoging with myself to find out who I truly am. I like sharing this with you, you who are an intellectual but who are also warm and human and kind and who seemed to like talking to me, who likes learning from me, that’s what you said after we had talked for awhile. (Maker, 2004, p.110-11)

While listening to the final draft essays of his class of incarcerated women, Shafer (2001) saw Freire’s idea that “freedom is acquired through conquest, not by gift. It is the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion, (Freire, 1991, p.31)” (p.80).Through the process of writing drafts and collaborating with other woman inmates, Shafer’s students presented “a true sense of control, introspection, freedom, and human understanding” (p.80).

For such transformations to take place, a classroom environment must be conducive to such dialogue, as well as utilize students’ self-generated literacies, and include teachers who seek partnerships with students rather than power over them. These themes are illustrated through the analysis of student inmates’ voices below.

(Next: Classroom Environment: Open for Reconstruction of Identity)

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