My most heartening teaching moment this fall came from working in the State Correctional Institute in Pittsburgh. My co-teacher, Mike Bennett, and I led a class on characterization and scene setting.
We laid out the glossy heads of rock stars and soldiers, teen girls and amputees, and asked the men to pick one character to write about. The first takers in the all-male class tried to pick out the most masculine figures—“I gotta go with the boxer”—but I was happy to see a couple of guys grab pictures of women, a hippie girl in a poppy field, a serious intern at a sewing machine.
Mike and I also grabbed our pens and creased our notebooks. We decided early on we wanted to write with our students. (It beats staring, bored, at them while they work.) Before writing, though, we had a short conversation about how to bring a character to life just by asking questions. What is your character wearing? Is their head shaved? What do you think they do for a living? Emphasis on conversation. Mike and I, and our other co-teacher Sarah Shotland—absent this class—never lectured to the men. For one, discussion is much more productive than authoritarian teaching, but, for two, our students are already pros.
We have a class full of amazing writers. One student, Malakki, serving life, just wrote his own op-ed piece proving with efficient data, biting commentary, and personal narrative why he should be considered for parole. Others describe the prison atmosphere, cells, the grounds with enough sensory detail to put Capote to shame. Sometimes, as far as teaching goes, it’s just about giving names to techniques students already use—controlling metaphor, refrain, point of view.
When I mentioned defying stereotypes, throwing out the notion that you want your characters to be strange, the guys perked up. A couple of them seemed to genuinely be hearing something new. It was a moment of improv for me. I just knew I wanted to address stereotypes. Prison does have a culture that encourages strict boundaries and labels. But I didn’t really know what I was going to say about it. The idea partly came from our program director, Sheryl St. Germain’s, line, “Revise into strangeness.” Strangeness seemed the best way to describe how you want to surprise the reader with characters who defy expectations: a physicist dog-walker. And when the men did write, and share, they kept mentioning the word “strange” before reading their pieces aloud. Hearing this gave me joy.
The moment was so refreshing because I often struggle with explaining concepts clearly enough so others understand what’s in my head. Shoot, sometimes I have to break it down to my own self. Forget le mot juste for writing. Teachers struggle to find the right word all the time. But it was obvious that day that Mike and the guys and I connected as a group. It was obvious they were having fun with the prompt. Thinking of that day gets me through the not-so-smooth graduate program days. When I was in undergrad, my professors told us one of the greatest moments is when the bulb over a student’s head lights up during class. I too can say I’ve experienced this with a student in a classroom, and they were right: it’s wonderful.