Men’s Class: Change, Lists and “a-pə-ˈlā-ch ə”

Before I start- I had the opportunity to sit in on the women’s class with Jen and Hayley. If you haven’t read the previous entry Jailhouse Food: Whip! I invite you to do so right now.


This is my first semester teaching at the Allegheny County Jail. I’m lucky enough to have experience speaking to and learning from inmates at The Appalachian Prison Book Project. I’m lucky enough to know that there is nothing to be afraid of… besides that typical teacher worry of being an ineffective teacher. I am lucky enough to spend my semester at the Allegheny County Jail co-teaching with Sarah Shotland. Finally, I am extremely lucky and thankful to be a part of the Words Without Walls team this year.

We’ve decided to choose the theme “change” for the men’s class. As Maya Angelou says, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Change doesn’t have to be positive or negative, it doesn’t have to go in any direction, change doesn’t have to look a certain way, but no matter what it constantly happens. Change is something we can all relate to; it’s something that moves a story forward.

We started by reading the syllabus, passing out supplies, saying the “FILL YOUR NOTEBOOK” spiel, and then went on with introductions. Ben was working on his electrical engineer degree before this. Joe wants to do stand up comedy when he’s out. Travis corrected my “short a” pronunciation of Appalachia (correct: a-pə-ˈlā-ch ə/ a-pə-ˈlāsh ə). I’ve made a point to “fix” my banjo-mouth accent since I was a little kid, and I’m floored when someone points out survivor southern dialect words. So much change already, right?

We continued with Sarah’s writing exercise, “lists.” Write a list about:

Smells that remind you of home
Foods you miss
Things that are green
Things you can’t get enough of
Ways you’ve changed
Things you only see at ACJ
People to whom you’ve said “I love you”
It’s always strange to me when I realize and re-realize how much I have in common with people I didn’t know existed days before. I had eerily common likes with everyone in the room. Sarah and I talked with these dudes like old friends. They were not afraid to share on the first day. It was awesome.

We began reading and discussing an excerpt from Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night In Suck City. The men discussed how it sounded, how it was a degeneration, how it sounded like alcoholism on the daily basis — a cycle that keeps rotating.

An hour and a half before class was supposed to close, the jail went on lock-down. No poetry, fiction or computer time for this class. I’ve been a bad-luck charm so far, but I can’t wait to have a full class and have these guys start getting their change written down and worked out.

-Jonny Blevins, Teacher