Lesson Learned

          I am 96% positive that the first thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a ninja. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I fell into a teaching phase. Sitting my stuffed animals down in orderly rows to learn math. Giving my parents spelling tests. But that phase ended, too, and as I entered my teenage years, my goals became jumbled.

         I had vague notions of doing something that might impact someone else’s life. I was aware that, within society, there were marginalized populations. I was aware not everyone had an army of plushes growing up, or parents who could sit and play games. But I was also a natural writer. As a kid, I would read over the shoulders of typing journalists in my father’s office and point out spelling and grammar errors. I was accused of plagiarism by a teacher, the first time, in sixth grade, because I wrote at an advanced level.

         I eventually decided on social work. Looked at and applied only to colleges with a strong social work program. And then, on my first day of college, abruptly switched to professional writing.

      Flash forward nine years. I am looking at MFA programs. A message is scratching itself into the back of my skull. It’s not the time you have. It’s what you choose to do with it. I run alphabetically through a list of programs, rule out by location, length (not too long, not too short), language requirement. Look for programs with community outreach.

            Pittsburgh. Not somewhere I thought I might want to be, but what the heck. Click.

                  Words Without Walls.

         Apply. Get in. Get excited. Get nervous. Almost decide not to volunteer. I’m not a teacher. My friends are teachers—they take classes and look like teachers and have some presence of authority. Volunteer anyway. It’s why you applied.

         Flash forward again. September 2017. It is my second semester teaching at Allegheny County Jail, and we’ve just finished day one with the Friday morning men’s class. We introduced poetry; they wrote haikus, limericks, and nonets. Several shared their work. We compiled a list of words we associate with poetry. We dissected poetry examples.

         But they were quiet. Reserved. There were lulls in conversation that never would have happened in the women’s class I taught over the summer. A pit in my stomach was growing. I was failing them. They weren’t interested.

         “I thought that went really great,” Mike says as he gathers up leftover paperwork, pens, folders. He goes on to describe the men as engaged, and says how impressed he was that every single student produced work during writing time.

            I was so busy comparing the class to my previous class, I didn’t even realize that for this class, what I had just witnessed was, if not a breakthrough, an improvement.

             Each class is unique. Start each new semester with a fresh outlook. Add that to my growing list of teaching lessons learned.

             Last week, in response to a poem, they asked us the causes of the Vietnam War. As discussion ensued and broadened, I also scribbled down notes to look up how U.S. territories work, and exactly who Mussolini was, anyway. I have vague answers to all of these, but part of being a teacher is also admitting what you don’t know.

            Week by week, our students teach me as much as I hope they learn from us. We have taught them about poetry and prose, the links between music and poetry, about choosing words carefully, about finding inspiration in art.

            What have they given me? Direction. The knowledge that this is something I can do. That this is what I want to do. To work with populations overlooked by most of society. To hear their voice; to help them find the voice they already have.

            I may not always feel like a teacher. Sometimes I’m a listener, or mediator, or student. But that’s part of teaching, too. My students taught me that.

           Lesson learned.

Melanie DeStefano, Words Without Walls Teacher

Books on the Shelves

Some weeks I assist Alex Friedman with the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) library. There was no library until Alex, education director Jack Pischke, and other Chatham alums worked with jail administrators to make it happen. The library is a medium-sized store room at the back of an adult classroom in the education area. The door remains locked unless Alex or I grab Jack’s keys, an old-timey set on a big metal loop—the kind Andy Griffith carried.

As for the books on the actual shelves, they are all donations from libraries, Chatham alums, current Chatham students, and eager cults looking to drop off their book-length pamphlets. There, of course, are rules for what materials we can bring into the jail. No hardbacks. No books with excessive pencil notes in the margins. Nothing spiral-bound. But we’ve acquired a wild assortment: vampire romance novels, baroque romance novels, Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton, werewolf romance novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald…

Most Mondays, Alex, two other library-science grad students, and I organize shelves. We’ve acquired enough books at this point to give books away to inmates on every floor of the jail. And that’s what we do each month. Alex and I pack clear Rubbermaid bins full of paperbacks, stack them on a hand truck, and deliver them to male and female pods on each floor. I wish people on the outside could see the glint in inmates’ eyes when we deliver books. It is a glint I have rarely seen even in grad students’ eyes. At some pods, the guys pace around the doors when they see us coming. “What y’all got in there?” “Got any James Patterson?” “Can I look through the bin first?” We dropped off books at one women’s pod. Alex and I were surprised they already had a bookshelf, a bookshelf filled with Bibles. The women asked, “Could you please take some Bibles down, so we can put other books on the shelves?”

According to BegintoRead.com, over 70 percent of prison inmates can’t read above a fourth-grade level. Many inmates in jail and prison are at an educational disadvantage, but these women and men crave books. Many want to use their time locked up to improve themselves. They read biographies, graphic novels, literary fiction, “urban” fiction. They are voracious for knowledge because knowledge is power. That is not just a cliché. Inmates need words because words help them prepare for court. Words help them self-advocate as they grind through the gears of the justice system. Words help them write letters to a loved one. As grad students, we have so many books to read, we often take it for granted. We complain, “How am I going to get through this stack of books?” We don’t think of the woman or man in jail who just wants a good mystery to take their mind off a life sentence, and a book is nowhere in sight. It is a privilege to know how to read, to have ready access to books, to have the freedom to read whatever you choose.

—Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher

Women's Voices, Women Writers

I’ve found myself in a unique experience this semester at Allegheny County Jail. I’m a man teaching a class of only women by myself. But I’m glad for it. It’s given me a chance to work on my approach to teaching and look introspectively at my own identity. My class is titled Writing as Empowerment: Women’s Voices for Women Writers. We’re only reading published pieces written by women and I try to let them dictate the conversation as much as possible. I do as much as I can to be in the background, to let their voices to come forward.

They’re happy to dictate and discuss. Our first class, focused on poems about home, still stands out to me. It was an intense class and my students were already willing to share so much of themselves and their work. However, I still worried about being overly authoritative. I felt like a huge looming presence in the room.

When we got to reading for the day, my students couldn’t stop talking about “Living in Sin” by Adrienne Rich. They were looking deeply into the relationships in the piece. In the latter half of the poem, a milkman appears and my students were trying to puzzle out what his presence meant. One student, bright but quiet, piped up suddenly:

“I think she’s screwing the milkman!”

And without hesitation, we all burst into laughter. In that moment, I felt the illusion of my authority fall away. My students started to speak and act differently; for the first time the room felt comfortable. Since then, I’ve noticed a huge shift in the classroom. Through that shared experience of crude humor, my students are more willing to offer up opinions and ask for things.

Their asking has been a huge delight this semester. They are so hungry for knowledge and challenges. One student requested pictures of poisonous flowers so she could write a poem about an ex-lover. Another student wanted to learn about epigraphs in poems. Still another is in the process of writing an Ars Poetica. It’s important to note that none of these are classroom assignments, these are all tasks they have undertaken themselves.

These women are also incredibly generous listeners. They encourage one another to read aloud and then clap or snap after every reading. They encourage me to write and read with them. My classroom has become a place of intense generosity, rigor and safety. This is all because of my excellent students.

-Elia Hohauser-Thatcher, Words Without Walls Teacher

A Dream, Deferred

“What happens to a dream, deferred?”

 That’s the question Langston Hughes poses in “Harlem,” the poem we read and emulated today in the Monday juvenile class.  But before we discussed Hughes, or Harlem, or dreams, we jumped right into sharing.  I’d say 7 out of the 16 kids sang at least a hook or a verse, all of it memorized.   Some of the melodies were really catchy, too, and went perfectly with the hooks.

One of our students is leaving tomorrow, and he led off sharing.  There is such mixed emotion with arrival and departure, in this place.  Going anywhere else, whether it’s upstate or home, means a much less stressful environment, but it also tends to be much harsher.  It was so nice to be able to say goodbye to him.  I still have the hook from his performance from last year in my head sometimes, it was that good.

After sharing, we talked about dreams (real dreams), goals, and their intersections.  This lead into close reading “Harlem,” and how he utilizes the five senses.

I created a fill in the blank poem and the kids jumped right into making their own comparisons: “Does it smell moldy like wet paper?”  “Does it float around like a plastic water bottle.”  I asked them to memorize their poems for next week. I’m really excited to see what they come up with! 

I found a really cool teaching source in pedagogy that paired hip-hop songs with poetry called Hip-Hop Poetry and The Classics For The Classroom.  My favorite was so far is a worksheet for “Harlem” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.” We didn’t have time to look at both in a week, so I think we’ll listen to Biggie next week, and write to the prompt: “It was all a dream…”

To be honest, when this class goes well, it makes my whole week brighter.  These kids are so talented and I am honored that they even listen to my advice about hooks and rhymes (and anything, really).  I think I should probably read up some more on songwriting, in general, because these kids are going to run circles around me.

Thanks for reading. 

Mike Bennett, Words Without Walls Teacher






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