Summer Communities

It was only after our six-week-long summer semester that I really stopped to think about what our classes accomplished in such a short period of time.  We were lucky to have a lot of experienced poets, and a few students who had taken the class previously.  But a good portion of our students were first time writers, and many of them had no clue what the class would even be until they arrived on the first (or second, or third) week of class.  

In only six weeks we submitted to a literary journal, wrote collective stories, read and discussed dozens of poems and short stories, and even created our own chapbook.  Then, we gathered as a group to share our writing at the final reading.

We had funny lull between the last week of class and the reading, because all of us teachers were enrolled in an intensive 10-day writing residency at Chatham's Eden Hall campus.  In those ten days we as teachers had a chance to reflect, both individually and collectively, on how our classes went.  That's when we began to realize that our summer program at ACJ was really a writing residency of its own, and given the variety of skill level and experience from our group, we couldn't say enough about what they accomplished.  

We returned to the final reading to watch our students reaffirm our conclusions.  Almost every student stood up in that microphone and shared a piece they had written.  They spoke with the same pride and enthusiasm that fueled their hard work throughout the summer.  It was so rewarding to see my students transform their shy reluctance into a genuine eagerness to celebrate their writing.

Some of my students were released during the semester.  Others are sure they'll be sent elsewhere by the fall.  But many of them were excited to start up again in the fall, and I must say I couldn't be more enthusiastic in preparation for my second year teaching.  I'm looking forward to sharing my reflections, here, and to writing more about teaching at ACJ in creative work.

We've got lots of exciting things in the works for Words Without Walls tenth year of service!

Mike Bennett, Words Without Walls Teacher

The Magic Word

 For the first few weeks of our Friday Men’s class, Mike and I struggled to engage our students. While many were interested in writing and sharing their work, we had trouble getting discussion focused and cutting down on side chatter. Frustrations around what had happened in the jail that week often percolated through the class, derailing discussions. Each week, we tried to bring in readings that would inspire the class—with mixed results. And then, we discovered the magic word: volunteer.

It came up as the guys asked us some logistical questions. We said, we don’t work for the jail,
we’re just student volunteers. The attitude in the room shifted. “You guys aren’t getting paid?”
one of the students asked. Many seemed surprised to learn we were here not because someone
was paying us to be, but because we wanted to be. More importantly, we weren’t a direct part of the system they were frustrated with. “What do you guys get out this then?” one of the students asked.

What do we get out of going to teach in an environment like the jail each week? And, the
question I get asked so often when I tell friends and family about the program—what do the
inmates get out of it?

I’m sure that it varies for each one of us who decides to participate in Words without Walls. If
nothing else, it’s teaching experience, a valuable thing to have on our resumes. For me, I enrolled at Chatham at the end of two years of AmeriCorps service. I didn’t want to lose my connection to community work, so when I saw that I could teach creative writing in jail, I said “sign me up!”

Of course, what we got in our class was something much different and much more than I
anticipated. On the first day, some of the guys rapped what they’d written during freewriting exercises. Over the course of our six weeks together, one student shared his memoir with me. One of the shier, quieter students wrote about the experience of being locked in his cell during count.

Each student brought something different to the class, and on the day we owned up to being unpaid, we really got to see the men at their best. It is these moments that draw me and other teachers to this program, moments when we forget where we are and focus on genuine human connection through the written word.

What the inmates get out of it is sometimes harder to see. It comes back to the belief that writing is worthwhile in its own right—it’s a chance to express themselves, to be heard. A chance to better their skills as writers in a space where they’re seen as people, not prisoners. And maybe, just maybe, that certificate of completion will add something worthwhile when their case goes before a judge.

Amanda Kay Oaks, Words Without Walls Teacher

Worlds Apart: Conflicts and Resolutions in Maps

The worlds that materialize from the swift pens and swifter minds of the students in the women’s creative writing class reach beyond the walls of Allegheny County Jail. This summer semester, the class’s theme was ‘maps.’ In one exercise, we provided copies of a map of fictional Winesburg, Ohio. We asked students who might live in the town, what they might do there, in which buildings they lived and worked. In the time I took to create a single family on my worksheet, our students had each named every resident, knew how they were related, what their jobs were, what kind of pets they had, and had created conflicts and resolutions for their characters to face.

Also included in the semester was a challenge to map their cells and write about how they are able to make a uniform space their own. These essays will now be submitted to a map-themed literary journal for consideration. But just the fact that they wrote essays isn’t what has blown me away. It’s the caliber of writing, the scope of creativity, and the honesty with which they write that has captured my admiration.

One student played with formatting, breaking her essay into sections based on each cell she resided in. Another took a prompt to discuss what the cell will look like in the future as an opportunity to explore a Pittsburgh in which aliens reside. The essays depict monotony, conversations with inanimate objects, longing, and even links between the cells and the country at large.

No student’s work is the same. Each paper reflects the personality of the student who wrote it, each voice as distinct on the page as in the classroom. A stereotype exists of what people in jail look like, what they act like. In the classroom, our students are able to be just that: students. In some ways, they are indistinguishable from students in any other classroom. Each student has their own strengths, their own interests. I have seen very few weaknesses. Over the course of the short summer semester, I have witnessed growth in curiosity, ability, and, perhaps most importantly, confidence. They should be proud of the work they have created. I know that I am proud of them.

Melanie DeStefano, Words Without Walls Teacher

Imaginary Places

               This summer I co-teach the women’s class at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). This is my first term teaching the women. I’m usually with the men on Thursday or Friday. My students have a keen interest in creating fictional worlds. Melanie, my co-teacher, and I gave the students a map of Winesburg, OH, an artist’s rendering of a made-up town from Sherwood Anderson’s short story cycle of the same name. We asked the students to tell us what’s happening beyond what they see on the map. Who lives in the houses? Who shops in the hardware stores? The students surpassed the exercise. They made up characters with ear-catching names like Canaan and Lil’ Canaan, connected the characters back stories to create elaborate family trees. Cousin Nina is fighting with Cousin Tina. One student described the physicality of her character: “She has a temper, and she’s 400 lbs.” In short, all of them had the seeds for fascinating short stories, or even novels, based on the characters they created.

               Before teaching the women’s class, other teachers had told me that the women were reserved and didn’t want to share much about themselves. And they didn’t want to write about themselves. I disagree. In writing, even when you aren’t overtly confessing or writing explicitly about your own life, who you are always finds its way to the page. For instance, in class, when I complimented a student for her descriptive 400 lb. character, she said, “Oh, that’s my daughter. My daughter is 400 lb., but she can dance and move it with the rest of ‘em.” Another student, Alicia, told me her characters were named after her actual family members. The women are putting themselves into the work. They are pulling from their own lives to create rich scenes and poetic lines. I know that, with me, every one of my poems may not be overt stories from my own life, but when I write about spirituality, it is my experiences and opinions that shape the work. As a person with a conflicted relationship with organized religion, I have a very different take than someone who has fit neatly into the Baptist church for their entire life. I’m looking forward to this week. The homework: draw a map of your cell and write about it. I’m interested to see what the women share, what they tell about the pain, laughs, boredom, and fear they’ve felt in this one small room. I’m excited as well to sit down, shut up, and listen.

--Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher

First Day at ACJ

It was Thursday at four in the afternoon and our first class at Allegheny County Jail. Mike and I sat waiting in our classroom. The inmates couldn’t be sent down until count had cleared, so we sat and twiddled our thumbs as an hour of class time slipped away. I paced and rubbed my hands together quickly. We had six classes, three hours each. Eighteen hours to impart something on these men. Now, already, one of those precious hours was gone.

Finally, they started to trickle in, coming down as their different pods were called. All of them shook my hand and introduced themselves. I could feel sweat bead at the base of my neck, this was one of my first experiences in charge of a classroom. Luckily, Mike was there with me. We worked well together, picking up where another left off or didn’t adequately respond, ending awkward silences. Despite my consternation, we got to do all our preliminary activities, explored a poem and an essay related to place, wrote, shared stories and talked about living in Pittsburgh.

What struck me most was how engaged all our students were. Every single one of them participated in discussion, read something aloud and/or asked questions. They all wanted to be there, they all wanted to learn. The quieter men intrigued me. David, covered in tattoos, who shared a beautiful memory of his mother but mostly remained silent and thoughtful. Damian, who stroked his beard next to me and asked intelligent, thoughtful questions. Brian, who came up to me at the end of class and said: “I never knew my perspective could change so much in so little time.” What Brian said was so wonderful to hear and so important to writing. Perspective. Learning about a new point of view or trying to take on a new perspective to make your writing better. Putting your own situation in perspective. Exploring what the future could hold.

Hopefully, I can help my students explore new perspectives. They’re already helping me.

-Elia Hohauser-Thatcher, Words Without Walls Teacher