At our Words Without Walls teacher orientation in December we made a list of the things we can or can’t control in our classroom. We discussed how little we could control about our students’ environment outside of the classroom, particularly in the jail.
Each pod has its own set of rules, its own corrections officers, its own cast of characters, and our students come from several different pods. As teachers, it’s hard to anticipate or even imagine what they are coming from. The only thing we can try to control is the environment of the classroom, and the way we respond to our students individually.
I’m heading into my fifth term teaching the juvenile class, and each semester I am more comfortable teaching, more aware of the classroom dynamic, and more trusted by the students. This semester, my goal is to pay more attention to the less vocal members of the class. It’s something written in every book of pedagogy: that sometimes (or often) the students seeking the least attention are the ones who need it most.
On the first class one of my students—I’ll call him S—didn’t want to read the poem I brought in for class, Tyehimba Jess’ “Freedom.” When he saw the word “Freedom,” he pushed the paper away on his desk and crossed his arms. S is a really smart kid. He doesn’t speak often, but when he does, it’s to say something he feels strongly about.
“Why you have us reading about freedom when we’re in jail?” He said.
Last year I might have just continued the class. I understand their frustration about being in here. I can’t do anything about it, and I really don’t want to open up a conversation about their case, because it’s a topic I’m not qualified or even permitted to address. But this wasn’t about his case.
“Just give this poem one chance, S.” I said, hoping he might at least read along. “I think you might find it really complicates what freedom means, you might actually like it.
He hesitantly pulled the paper back and read along. He circled a few sentences. Then he looked up said, “Some of this I can relate to.”
I gave a follow up prompt to write a poem about freedom, starting with the phrase “Freedom is…”
S looked determined. When the guards called them to go back to the pod, he stood up and said, “I’m going to write some real shit about this.” Then he shook my hand and walked out the door.
Mike Bennett, Words Without Walls Teacher