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