The following was written by Shari Randall for the “Writers Who Kill” blog.
By Shari Randall
The Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program was created in 1991 by UMass-Dartmouth professor Robert Waxler and his friend, Bob Kane, a judge. Kane was fed up with a “turnstile” justice system that saw the same people commit the same crimes as soon as they walked out the jail door. Waxler was determined to test his belief in the power of literature to reach places inside the minds and hearts of offenders where real change could take place. New studies support Waxler’s hypothesis, showing that among other things, reading helps develop empathy, and that increased empathy can lead to changes in behavior.
The following post is a followup to a 2010 blog found here, focusing on the efforts and success of the Speakout! adult literacy program.
By Vani Kannan
Those of us who have facilitated with the Colorado State University Community Literacy Center have seen the excitement when the Speakout! journals are published. It’s gratifying to pass them out to the workshop participants so they can see the fruits of their labor in print. However, we may not see what happens to the journals after they’re published. We know that they circulate around Fort Collins, the state, country, and indeed, the globe (CLC Director Tobi Jacobi brought journals with her to a conference in Prague this past year). But how are they being pedagogically employed in community literacy work?
Before I came to CSU, I volunteered as an adult literacy tutor at a public library in Brooklyn, NY. The students I worked with gravitated towards community literacy publications, particularly those that showcased the voices of language-learning writers. Students checked out the books from the library after our Saturday classes and brought them home to read during the week. They often came to class on Saturday having finished an entire collection of writing, and looking for something new.
Unfortunately, we ran out of such books quickly. It’s hard to find publications specifically tailored to adult literacy students—particularly language-learners and first-time writers. Students at the library responded well to texts with content that was relevant to their lives (e.g., essays on work and family), but written at an accessible reading level. The small grassroots press that had put out the collections we used at the library had gone out of business years earlier. Because of this, the library literacy center coordinators had to look to South African and Canadian publishers. (Of course, this meant that students learning English in the U.S. were learning from texts with non-U.S. spelling conventions!)
Adult literacy publishing is not a lucrative field, which is why it hasn’t taken off in the U.S. This is part of why the CLC’s work in publishing a grassroots journal is so important. As a facilitator in Brooklyn, I saw firsthand how vital it is for adult literacy students to recognize themselves in their readings. The adult voices in community literacy publications resonated and thus excited students about the act of reading. This excitement led them to read consistently at home, which improved their literacy levels tremendously in between our weekly classes.
When a friend started volunteering at a local literacy program in Philadelphia earlier this year, she called me and described her student—a woman who reads at a fourth-grade level and wants to try writing poetry for the first time. Unfortunately, the community literacy space where the volunteers and students meet does not have any texts available at all—let alone adult-specific texts—due to the fact that they operate out of a shared space where they cannot store materials. I sent her a copy of a recent Speakout! journal. She reports that her student was excited by the publication and took it home to read on her own the very same day. No doubt her literacy skills will benefit from reading the work of CLC workshop participants.
Vani Kannan is working on her MA in Rhetoric and Composition at Colorado State University. She volunteers with CSU’s Speakout! program and has been involved in community literacy work since 2008.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Set in Russia during the late 1800s during an economic and social crisis, Crime and Punishment examines the importance of morality in a climate where the law’s influences have faded. Raskolnikov, the protagonist, commits a horrific crime in the hopes of proving, to himself, his country’s laws are not applicable in a moral sense. After his heinous crime, Raskolnikov searches for redemption, which he eventually finds in Sonya, a young prostitute, who he confides in. It is a dark tale, but one with a powerful message: a man or woman cannot simply do whatever they wish without consequences. It is not a story without redemption, however. Even as Raskolnikov suffers, he finds eventual peace in confession and imprisonment.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
On the surface, it may seem merely a cruel tale. However, Heart of Darkness flourishes in its understanding of man’s many faults while exploring the horrors that accompany leadership. Marlow begins an excursion in an African jungle where he is greeted by a cast of characters who have abandoned civility in favor of survival-based methods of living. Marlow must confront Kurtz, a man who manages a dock in the jungle and inexplicably governs the nearby tribe with a ruthless, Machiavellian style of leadership. While potentially problematic due to several racist themes, Heart of Darkness unabashedly delves into the horrific nature of a man’s will to survive in the harshest physical and emotional conditions, and leaves the reader with an unnerving question: What, precisely, would you have done in the heart of darkness?
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The most recently written novel on this list, The Road is nevertheless a captivating bridge between literature and the human condition. Set in the increasingly popular post-apocalyptic wasteland of the United States, the story follows the trials of the man and the boy, archetypal representations of a protective father and his meek, naive son. A unique study of the individual, where the man is realized as a survivor first and foremost, the man holds onto ideals of the world before, but does not utilize them. Unbeknownst to himself, the man has abandoned his country’s laws and has reverted to a more primal state. After realizing his change, the man, and the reader, try to cope with a lawless reality and an existence where the individual is truly responsible for his or her own actions.
By Wendy Robertson
Recent government proposals to build large super-prisons, involving the closure of smaller local prisons like Northallerton, have chilled my heart. We all have opinions about prisons, depending on whether our views are about justice, rehabilitation, revenge, or restitution. For some people, prisons can seem hidden, secret places. But others have more personal experiences with them that may involve working in prison or having an acquaintance, friend or family member serving time inside.
Some people here in the North East will be in this position – having a sister, mother, daughter or niece serving a sentence behind bars. I know this because, over several years, for two days a week, I was Writer in Residence at HMP Low Newton just outside Durham City.
Inside this prison, I worked with women from County Durham, as well as women from all other parts of the country. Generally, they were ordinary people, women you might see any day in Bishop Auckland’s Newgate Street or Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre.
In fact, I was once walking down Newgate Street when a young woman wheeling a baby in a buggy with her mother by her side swerved to a stop, saying, ‘Hi Wendy!’ She turned to her mother, saying ‘This is her I was telling you about from Low Newton – The Writing Woman.’
When I started being a ‘Writing Woman’, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But what happened to me in prison was the most life-enhancing, the most life changing experience. Afterwards, I was a different person, a different writer.
My job was to help these women of all ages to find their voice through private, written words on the page. In my time at HMP Low Newton we published two substantial collected editions of women’s writing – editions that traveled the length of the country. We wrote poems, prose fragments, short stories, plays. We had two open-to-the-public performances inside the prison, of the women’s work. We ran a parallel Litfest Inside at the time of the Durham Litfest. One woman had her story broadcast on the BBC. We had our own Orange Prize Project… and so on.
We had lots of purposeful fun and rueful laughter. The women learned that ‘writing down’ was making sense of things. Writing down can give order to what might be a chaotic life. In those small workshops, we all learned a lot about ourselves. Some stories, well-formed and written down, stayed in the woman’s possession and – by their own decision – never saw the light of day because the content was too raw.
These positive experiences were only possible because of my collaboration with teacher and Head of Learning and Skills, Avril Joy, (now a published writer herself), and the compassionate support of the then governor Mike Kirby, to whom my new novel Paulie’s Web is dedicated.
Paulie’s Web is a novel, not a documentary account. But its true nature was inspired by hundreds and hundreds of days working shoulder to shoulder with a whole range of women who defied the reductive stereotype one finds in some fiction and dramas – even in some documentaries where the researchers clearly find the story they’re already looking for.
My novel is not a case study. It is a work of fiction that tells a special truth in distilling the tragedies, comedies and ironies of five women’s lives, not just behind bars, but out in society. These women meet each other in the white van on their way to their first prison. In addition to Paulie – rebel, ex teacher and emerging writer – there is Queenie, the old bag lady who sees giants and angels, Maritza who has disguised her life-long pain with an ultra-conventional life, and serious drug addict, Lilah, who has been the apple of her mother’s eye. Then there is the tragic Christine – the one with the real scars, inside and out.
In Paulie’s Web, there is the light and shade that I found in prison. Likewise there is the laughter, comradeship and tears. There is the bullying and night-time fear. There is the learning and self–revelation.
The stories of these five women merge as Paulie – free now after six years – goes looking for the women she first met in the white prison van. The truth of their lives unravels as, one by one, she finds them and what they have made of their lives ‘on the out’.
On the surface, this novel might seem to be a straightforward read. But as you read, you might recognize, as I did, that there, but for the grace of God, go your mother, your daughter, your sister or your friend, who have fallen seriously foul of normal expectations of how a woman should be, what a woman should do.
The women I met and worked with took responsibility for what they had done and served their time. In their writing, they looked inside themselves, made some sense of their experience and looked to the future. If Paulie’s Web expresses a fraction of this truth and alters to any degree the public perception of women who end up in prison, then Paulie has done her job, and the novel will fulfil my hope that fiction will reach places where stereotyped facts will never reach.
After relishing and surviving academic life, Wendy Robertson became a full time writer twenty years ago. She has written twenty novels – including the recently released “Paulie’s Web” - both historical and contemporary, many short stories and continues to write occasional articles on issues close to her heart. She was writer in residence at HMP Low Newton, encouraging a wide range of women to raise their self esteem and realize their potential through original writing. She lives among the rolling hills of South Durham, in a Victorian house that has played a role in more than one of her novels. Her blog can be found here.
By Selena Marimba
For aspiring writers, the type of writing that receives a significant amount of attention is creative writing. The most obvious reason is that creativity is an art, not a science, so people who are naturally creative stand a better chance at being successful creative writers than those who think mechanically. Be aware that there’s a format and approach to any writing, but the genius is not in the approach but in the idea created. Follow these easy tips to achieve your goal of being a fantastic creative writer.
It’s said that good writers are good readers. When creative writers are being exposed to another writer’s creativity and seeing how those stories translate, they’re able to learn techniques and develop skills. Expose yourself to a variety of ideas by reading all genres and all types of stories. This includes fiction, non-fiction, and even poetry. The goal here is to expose yourself to as many different ideas as possible so you can find something you may not have thought of previously.
Scribble and Jot
Write down (or record) your thoughts and ideas in a written or audio journal to go back and review later. When you get into this habit, you’ll find that there are things that don’t make sense when you first write them down but will fit together later when you are connecting the dots.
Become A Wordsmith
A wordsmith is simply someone who knows how to use words, either in speaking or writing, though generally the context is writing. For any writer, but especially for a creative writer, the goal is to use the right words in the right order, something that is a matter of both style and personal creativity. This is one dimension of writing that cannot be taught because it is intuitive. But keep in mind that there is a discipline to using your intuition since not all good ideas translate into successful writing.
Be Creatively Honest
Everyone has witnessed a bad TV episode, movie, or theatrical play. While it’s true that sometimes the acting may be terrible, the lines that they read originate from someone who wrote them. If you have a creative idea but it’s a bad one, be honest with yourself and simply reject it and move on. Over time you’ll learn the difference between good and bad creative ideas and then be able to work with the good ideas to produce writing you’ll enjoy.
Watch a show you love and think about the writing. Find what lines you enjoy the most and listen for striking stories you may have missed otherwise. Creative writing is one piece art and another formal structure. Structure can be taught, but creativity must be allowed to grow in order to see the results you wish. Both creativity and structure need to be developed through experience. It’s unlikely that your first story will be your greatest achievement, so be patient with yourself and let the creativity flow.
Selena Marimba is a journalist who writes about all aspect of education. Her recent work is on her plans to earn an MAT degree.
The following post was written for the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries blog. The personal story that is included, I feel, exemplifies what is at the heart of the Changing Lives through Literature program. The original post can be found here.
Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig
I’ve never been one to state how others should live or choose to enjoy their lives. I’ve never found anyone who does this to truly understand anything, to be perfectly honest. My thought on the subject, and on life for that matter, is relatively simple.
Step one: Seek out what you truly enjoy doing.
Step two: Do it.
Easy, right? Now I am going to complicate things here a bit. Stay with me.
I enjoy watching TV. When I’m in a lazy mood (which is more often than I’d like to admit) I don’t believe there is anything better than sitting on my couch or lying in bed watching bad TV. I can’t fault anyone for enjoying this, either. It is easy entertainment at its most discounted price. What is missing, however, is the sense of satisfaction. After sitting and watching TV for six hours, I receive no personal satisfaction because I put in absolutely no work and received the bare minimum amount of pleasure. This is where I’ll segue to fishing, I think.
This may make sense. Again, stay with me.
Some nights, I’ll lie in bed and set my alarm for four-thirty in the morning, promising myself that I will wake up and attempt to start the old engine on the back of my boat to putter out a mile or so into the pre-dawn Atlantic and drop a few lines into the water. “It’s worth it,” I’ll tell myself. “Just wake up and make yourself do it. It’s that easy.”
But it’s not easy. It takes effort.
In my half-asleep state, I feel that fateful time on my iPhone alarm clock ticking nearer and nearer until it’s ringing loudly into my ears. I open my eyes and squint into the darkness and stillness of the morning. “I could just go back to sleep. I don’t have to get up. I don’t want to get up,” I tell myself. And sometimes, I don’t. But on some mornings, I work up enough strength to kick the covers off my feet and stand up out of bed. In a sleep-deprived haze, I walk across the wet grass in the moonless darkness and start my car.
When I get to the harbor, I still don’t see the moon or anyone on the street or even hear anyone on the radio. I get out of my car and re-stretch my legs. I take two, sometimes three trips to the dock and load all of my gear into the little leaky dingy and row feebly out to my 18-foot center console at the far edge of the harbor next to the white water lapping on the mossy breakwater boulders in the flood tide.
I start my engine once, putters, blows a plume of smoke, stalls out. I start it again; same thing but a bigger plume of smoke. On the third attempt, the engine shakes and rumbles and decides to stay running long enough for me to shift into gear. Finally, I’m off.
A few meandering gulls sleepwalk awkwardly out of the way of the fiberglass hull of my boat, parting the water, just barely showing the first glimpses of sunlight from the false dawn rising atop the dunes of the beach and the roofs of the beach houses.
As I near my supposed destination, I slow my little boat to a saunter just as the first glimpse of the sun shows its face. Then, I cut the engine; silence, but for a noisy tern circling, watching me, wondering what I’m doing. I prepare my rods and wait, either five minutes, an hour, three hours, all day…
For that moment, as I lean on the gunnels, rocking softly against the direction-less waves, hearing the water gurgle as it rises and falls through the scuppers, I’m happy that I woke up and dragged myself out of bed and trusted my old engine to get me to where I wanted to go. “I can’t believe I almost didn’t do this,” I think to myself. “I can’t believe I almost traded in this satisfaction of actually accomplishing something for a warm bed and a few cheap television shows.” The satisfaction of working hard to truly accomplish or understand something is more fulfilling than any creature comfort. I may even catch a fish.
When I find myself in the last few pages of a book, truly caring, understanding, feeling for characters that are completely fictionalized by some man or woman I don’t and will never know, I am granted this same, deep sense of satisfaction and self-awareness. I am grateful that I can feel this way, that if I invest enough work—be it physical or emotional—into what I’m doing, I can feel this way. For this reason, I am excited to become more involved in the Changing Lives through Literature program and blog. I feel that everyone should be able to experience this sense of satisfaction. I know that literature has the power to change and better even the most beat-down and hardened lives and I am ecstatic that I will be given the opportunity to witness and experience this first-hand.
I apologize for the lengthy preface to this introductory blog. So, let’s see. Let me start with some facts in no particular order.
My name is Billy Mitchell and I have never run a blog before.
I have a list of books I mean to read turning over in my mind that spans the number of books I have ever read and will probably ever read in my lifetime.
I enjoy beer and I enjoy a good book and a combination of the two could keep me satisfied forever.
My favorite author is very cliché, as is my favorite book, so I won’t get into that.
I read The Sun Also Rises in high school and thought to myself, “Wow what a happy book, I would love to be one of these characters.” I read it again a few years later and was shocked at how I could have been so naïve.
I was once assigned Tolstoy’s War and Peace to read for a class. I read and enjoyed the whole massive thing up until the last chapter where I stopped, and haven’t picked it up since. I’m not sure why I did that.
When I finish a book, I find myself dreaming about the characters more so than I do about real-life people. Sometimes I like to believe that the characters are real-life people, and convince myself so.
I still haven’t met Dean, or anyone who is mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.
I’m still beating on, boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly.
I tend to write like Hemingway when I’m drinking scotch, which is almost never, but I can wish, can’t I?
I’m not quite sure if this is the best of times or the worst of times, but I feel it’s somewhere in the middle and I can’t hate that prospect.
I’m no Ishmael and you can’t call me that.
I’m still not sure where my white whale is; I can’t remember the last time I saw him.
I hope to never go 84 days without a fish.
I enjoy fishing and the metaphorical symbolism that comes with it, and I feel it is the closest resemblance that anyone can experience to reading and understanding a truly great book.
Hemingway said “there is no friend as loyal as a good book.” I would tend to agree, unless you have a really great dog. But I hear Hemingway was a cat guy.
So, readers of the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog, I’ll leave you with this. Reading is like fishing, or something like that. In my heart, I recognize the ability of a good piece of literature to change the way that a person thinks about and perceives the world around them. And I think this is important for everyone to realize. No, I know it’s important. So never stop waking up early and putting in the work. Never let the temptation of what is easy or accessible or cheap overcome your need for your own personal satisfaction. I guess what I am trying to say, is this: Never stop fishing.
Can’t decide what to read this summer? Don’t know how to get the whole family reading?
Not sure what to suggest for your Changing Lives Through Literature group—or other book group?
This fun Summer Reading Flowchart will guide you to the right book! We thank Sarah Fudin for sharing this fantastic Teach.com visual.
Brought to you by Teach.com
Read Sarah Fudin’s accompanying article—Keep Reading Fun—also published on this blog.
Sarah Fudin works at an education company where she manages the community relations for the George Washington University’s online MPH degree, an innovative program that allows students to take public health courses online.
By Nancy E. Oliveira, Editor
Plan Now for Pretrial, Probation, and Parole Supervision Week— July 21-27, 2013
Now is the time to start planning how you will acknowledge the American Probation and Parole Association’s Pretrial, Probation, and Parole Supervision Week— July 21-27, 2013. This will be a time to recognize the accomplishments of the thousands of dedicated people working in our criminal justice system in the areas of pretrial services, probation, and parole.
The APPA says of these professionals: “They are Changing Lives and Building Futures every day.”
For more information: Pretrial, Probation, and Parole Supervision Week
Image provided by appa-net.org.
Next Week: Summer Reading Info-graphic
Next week, before going on summer vacation, we will post a wonderful and fun summer reading info-graphic and article. Whether you’re looking for a book to read yourself or to share with a Changing Lives Through Literature group or other reading group, next week’s info-graphic will help you choose enjoyable and meaningful reading material.
Blog Takes Summer Break
This blog will go on summer break effective May 19, 2013. We will resume posting new material in September.
The American Library Association encourages you to celebrate National Library Week, April 14-20, with the theme Communities matter @ your library.
Local free public libraries continue to provide equal access to literature—from the classics to the latest best-sellers—to all members of their communities. Whether you’re wealthy or poor, educated or not, libraries provide you with great works of literature.
Literature has the power to transform lives. Libraries provide the books—the tangible resources—to help make those transformations happen.
Whether you’re running a Changing Lives Through Literature alternative sentencing group or some other literature discussion group, encourage your members to continue reading and thinking about literature.
Find out how your community matters to your local library by visiting your library during National Library Week. Comment on this blog post to share with us how you participated in National Library Week.
For more information visit American Library Association – National Library Week.
Image provided by American Library Association.