Today was the first of 7 poetry sessions with a group of incarcerated young men.
It wasn’t as bad as my first classroom speaking experience 15 years ago when I had to swallow back tears after something a kid said to me and the teacher let slide. (Truly, I wanted to run from the room in tears.)
It wasn’t as good as some of my other class visits, like a mother/daughter bookclub where the girls WANTED to be there, WANTED to meet me, WANTED to do what I came to do. It was about what I expected which was probably fine for them, was fine according to the teacher, but considering the very high standards I set for myself, I graded it a C.
I brought in colored portfolios for them to keep their work in. They thought that was cool, especially when I said they could decorate them, within the rules of the hall. I’m bringing the portfolios back and forth so I can comment on them but at the end of the session, they can keep them. A couple of them were very excited about that.
Right now there are 9 of them but the group is fluid so it will be constantly changing. There are some troublemakers. (I know, they all are, but some are trying and some just want to stir things up.) I expected a couple of these so I am not surprised.
One speaks little English. He couldn’t, wouldn’t do anything. Wouldn’t try. I don’t know how much English he really knows but he used his lack of it as an excuse, no matter the options we came up with. Another only wants to write about sex and drugs. Everything is a joke. He has no respect for anyone in the class. I expected someone like him too. He is the type to try to keep in bounds, (He only wanted to write about being a cocaine addict.) He is also the type who, if touched, will write something outstandingly real. Two sitting next to each other tried everything I asked and one even read out loud. One worked non-stop but didn’t want to share. One kept his head down the whole time and did nothing. One wrote, mostly stuff that made no sense, but he wrote. Another was a boy who tried very hard the whole time. He even smiled while he worked. He is probably going to be my star.Then there was Mr. Tough Guy. He didn’t write much but he was very good at participating verbally.
Note – I am writing all this before I read their work that I brought home.
I started with a little background on me. Funniest part of the day was when I told them I was 50. They were shocked. 50 was supposedly to be a little old lady in their minds. I read some poems from my book, Hugging the Rock. I asked them some questions but only one of them garnered a response. We moved to some writing exercises, brainstormed some words on the board, and wrote some simple acrostic poems about their name and some words that described them. A painful process for most of them. A painful process for me. We also did an exercise where I took in lines from a poem that had been cut apart and let them put back together then I read the original. At the end of the session I let them vote on what they wanted for art tools – markers or colored pencils. I thought they’d choose markers but they chose pencils. Now to find them some good bargains on pencils, erasers and paper.
After the fact analysis. 90 minutes is way, way too long. I knew it was going to be tough. The teacher told me after the session today that they are used to getting a break every half an hour. I’ll do that next session which should help. I had originally thought to keep art apart from the writing because I wanted to keep their focus. Now I think I am going to art at the end of each session, an hour of writing to a half an hour of art. It will be the reward for participating. The cut up poem was a good idea in theory but I think I needed a different poem, shorter even. This one was 12 lines but I think half of that would be enough, more than enough, for them.
Biggest challenge – figuring out how to make an emotional connection with them.
Hardest things for me, facilitating conversation. How to fix that? I have no idea. Next hardest thing – making a cohesive session rather than jumping all over the place. How do teachers in the classroom do that?
Next hardest thing – remembering all the stuff I want to talk about. Not being able to pull things out of my head when I need them.
Internal problem I’m struggling with – the idea of teaching poetry. Teaching writing feels comfortable to me but this is supposed to be all about poetry and for some reason that is causing, as my grandmother used to say, a hitch in my giddyup.
Next visit is Wednesday. Hope I figure out some new tricks by then.
Many moons ago I taught horticulture at a state correctional center. I had a co-ed class of medium security prisoners. The women were much scarier then the men–enough so that the men stayed on their own side of the room.
I found that keeping what I planned on doing simple allowed for more flexablity. Sometimes things that had happened in the center before I got there made doing anything, except talking, impossible.
To me the idea of combining words and colors is great. Can you bring music to play? Lyrics may be poetry they can relate to–even the boys who aren’t good with English may know the words to songs.
I can believe it with the women being scarier than the men, though I might be able to get them to relate to me a bit more easily.
And you’re right, of course, about the need to be flexible. I’ve worked with alternative schools before and it is always the same thing. A fight or lockdown could totally change the lesson plan.
I need to ask about music. Thanks.
I am planning a sensory day tomorrow so yes, words and colors and more!
Susan, I can see how you wouldn’t rate this super high, but I think your awareness of what is going on is amazing, and that it will help you to build some kind of relationship as you continue teaching. It’s a very hard, special thing you’re doing. Patience, Grasshopper. 🙂
I am forcing myself to be aware so I can learn and grow.
But patience? That’s a tough order!
As for cohesion, it’s tough with that kind of time chunk. I would aim for having an objective or specific educational goal for each class that kind of ties it all together. It sounds like you’re doing a great job, though. I can’t imagine taking this on! I’m sure it will be wonderfully valuable for a lot of these kids, and some of them may even realize it. 🙂
Thanks. I am hoping that by adding art at the end of each session it will be more manageable. Of course the art is a bribe – if they cooperate, more art. 🙂
You’re doing a wonderful thing, Susan. You may not realize it, but at some level you’re getting through to these boys.
Have you talked to Jo Knowles for pointers? She used to do the Glass House Project.
Thank you. Good reminder to talk to Jo. Though as I recall she worked with women which, as difficult as it was in that situation, I think I persnally would find much easier. There’s something about teen boys. lol
I’m a little crazed this week, but I plan to email you soon so we can chat about this. I’m very familiar with the setting you’re working in and the one thing I’ll tell you now is you never know the impact you’ll make. Being consistent, encouraging, requiring respect and showing how it’s given, showing – through poetry – that it’s okay to dream, that’s a lot to offer.
Thanks Kim. I know this is an area you know well. Let me know if you’re available to chat on the phone if that’s easier.
Susan, I give you an A for this.
I really enjoyed reading every aspect about the class and it sounds like you have some great ideas for next time.
I think given the freedom to write about anything … even if it is drugs, sex, whatever… is such a gift in that setting.
Thank you for teaching the class!
Thank you, whomever you are. 🙂
It sounds to me just about right on track. Seriously. They are being touched and you may never know the ripple effect. In terms of cohesion…. I often think of a governing word or theme that I can keep bouncing back to and letting it echo throughout the session…
Good idea, Liz, to pick a word/theme. I really want to work in more about character building as that seems to be the focus in many things that they do there. I’ll go do some of my own brainstorming and see how I can apply it.
I think you are being a bit hard on yourself (I’ve never said that to you before). Sounds like you did a great job. For your non-English speaker, you may want to try “literal translation”, where you take a piece of prose or fiction in another language (his could be English) and you phonetically change it into your own language. Quick example: “C’est la vie” is translated to “Say lovee.” The idea is to take the phrases out of the translation and use them to spark inspiration for something else.
Thanks for the support and the suggestion!