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.
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
Judge Bettina Borders, of Bristol County Juvenile Court, was named 2012 SouthCoast Woman of the Year. She made “contributions to the community as a justice and activist,” according to the New Bedford (MA) Standard-Times. Her work includes making use of alternative sentencing programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature.
Read reporter Natalie Sherman’s full article about this amazing Woman of the Year.
Is someone in your community changing lives for the better? Tell us about that person.
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We look forward to hearing about the remarkable, and perhaps under-recognized, people in your communities.
–Nancy E. Oliveira, Editor
By: Vicky Coffin
I love walking into libraries and book stores—I am like a kid in a candy shop. I just know that if I explore enough, I will find at least one book miraculously placed on the shelf just for me. It could be a novel about vampires or witches; it could be a pop-up picture book that I can share with my kids; it could be a manual on home repair full of instructions my husband and I need to fix the leaking kitchen faucet. In every scenario, there is one common theme: the freedom to choose. I can make the choice to escape my reality for a while, spend quality time with my family and friends, or educate and empower myself, all with just a book.
I did not always feel this way; when I was younger, reading felt like a chore. I equated reading with homework and drudgery. It seemed like a waste of time to read about events that happened in the distant past when I should be out in the real world living my life. I could not relate to many of the characters in books that are now considered classics; Tom Sawyer, Hamlet, and Madame Bovary were all so foreign to me. Not only did I not understand why the characters behaved the way they did, but I didn’t really care, either.
When I read Wuthering Heights for the first time, something changed. I hated Heathcliff and Cathy—they were both cruel, tortured souls. So, why did I care what happened to them? When I truly opened my mind and heart to the author’s words, I realized that these flawed characters were capable of sharing a perfect, deep love. It was not the fairy tale kind of love with happy endings and noble sacrifices—it was messy and passionate and all the more real to me for its honesty. And that is what hooked me—that I could get lost for a while in these other realities—that I could step back from my own life to problem-solve, reason, or even fantasize with all of the time in the world. If I needed to, I could simply shut the book and walk away. But I am nearly always compelled to crack that book open again after some time of reflection.
Now that I am a parent, I find it compelling to share my love of literature with my children. I have favorite stories that I think they will enjoy, but I’m always surprised how a book I picked up on a whim ends up being one of their new favorites. They always love to guess what will happen next, and we have the chance to talk about the rights and wrongs of the world through a story. I am also amazed at the factual information they absorb about their favorite subjects. My seven year-old told me today that the spot on Jupiter was most likely caused by a comet—that is news to me!
I cannot deny that I, too, love to learn new things from books authored by experts in all different subject matter. Parenting books filled with information about pediatric care helped me at 2:00 a.m. on many occasions when my kids were sick; my knowledge of installing flooring, cement board, tiles, fixtures, and even renovating a complete kitchen has expanded exponentially with the help of many how-to books; and of course, the textbooks I visually consumed during my studies in librarianship have led me down a career path that gives me much personal fulfillment. I am very fortunate to spend each day at my job helping others find just the right book—for research or just for pleasure.
And that is truly the key—finding the right book. One book can light a fire under you—make you question the world and seek out the answers—allow you the opportunity to ponder your own choices and your perceptions of others. In the world of reading and literature, you are given an opportunity that no one can take away—the freedom to choose where your thoughts will take you next. Get lost in a good book, and just maybe you will be found.
Vicky Coffin has worked at both public and academic libraries during her career as a librarian. For the past seven years, she has worked as a Reference Lecturer at the J. Eugene Smith Library at Eastern Connecticut State University where she is also the primary collection builder for the library’s popular Leisure Reading Collection.
By Ken Myers
It is well-known that children who read well experience greater progress in their academic studies. However, literature also is a valuable tool for teaching and reinforcing positive social skills that can help keep children on the right track when it comes to behavior. In fact, the power of literature is so strong, that many juvenile correction systems are implementing the use of required reading as an alternative to other types of punishment. Because literature has the potential to inspire positive change in children, parents and other adults who work with youths may want to try a few of the following ideas in order to begin seeing the effects of literature on a child’s social and emotional development.
1. Create a ritual. Children thrive on routine. This is especially true for children who come from rough backgrounds or who have been forced to overcome significant challenges. Younger children may benefit from having a set bedtime story ritual, while older children can find a regular reading schedule calming. This way, there is a portion of the day set aside that they can depend upon always being the same.
2. Use a book to approach a difficult issue. Working with children can lead to a need for some difficult conversations. Often, adults and children may struggle with ways to bring up particularly challenging topics. For this reason, books are often the perfect way to introduce specific topics for conversation. Through literature, you can seamlessly ease into topics such as divorce, death, and abuse.
3. Explore a common interest. For many children, bonding is a difficult process. However, when a child shares a common interest with an adult, the child is more likely to trust the adult for advice. This can be especially vital for juveniles to make progress towards their goals for better behavior. For this reason, try finding a common interest that you and your child can explore through reading specific literature and books.
4. Make a memory book. When children attempt to learn how to make better decisions, you can help them learn how to focus on the positive aspects of their lives. In these instances, encourage children to create their own literature. By making memory books, children develop powerful resources to track the positive changes occurring in their lives. In a group setting, each member can choose to create a page that everyone can read.
5. Extend reading through activities. Children learn best when they actively participate in an experience. For this reason, extend a literary assignment to include a physical activity. For example, a child who reads a sports-themed book may then enjoy taking part in a real-life game. This can reinforce the concepts the child learned in the story, such as the importance of teamwork.
When children read books, they are able to enter into a world where learning can take place regarding a variety of subjects. Not only is literature an excellent tool for teaching academics, but it is also a valuable resource for helping children learn positive social skills that will enable them to make better decisions. This is especially true for children who may not have had positive role models in the past. Literature should be an important part of any child’s life and supported through the efforts of adults who are dedicated to ensuring the child will have the best opportunities for success.
Ken Myers is the editor in chief and frequent contributor of http://www.gonannies.com/. Ken helps acquire knowledge on the duties & responsibilities of nannies to society. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Frederick Noronha on flickr.com
By Bettina Borders and Estella Rebeiro
One day several years ago, Katherine Knowles, the director of the Zeiterion, approached the Juvenile Court to offer the possibility for court-involved youth to attend Zeiterion performances. Ms. Knowles envisioned the Z as a valuable community resource and wanted to extend it’s reach to include everyone. In her mind, this also meant the kids most folks want to forget.
There are many words used to describe these kids, trouble makers, delinquents, “druggies,” problem kids, misguided, etc. Ms. Knowles thought that perhaps some of them could find something at the Z to facilitate “turning them around.” It sounded good to the court. Why not try it. By and large these were kids with little opportunity to attend the Z on their own resources. Thus through the vision of Ms. Knowles and the generosity of her board, an ostensibly unlikely partnership began. Under the supervision of probation, young people from our court, and often their families, began to attend the varied theatrical performances offered by the Z.
There were several permutations to this partnership, which is part of two alternative sentencing initiatives supervised by probation and the court. At one point Ms. Knowles identified an anonymous donor who wanted to have the kids attend the theater in style. A limousine appeared at the courthouse, picked the kids up and drove them around various scenic areas of the city before dropping them, and their parents, at the Z. Later they were picked up and returned to the courthouse.
At another time, the youth participating in an alternative sentencing program, Changing Lives Through Literature, read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and later attended the play, courtesy of the Z. There have been plays, musicals, storytelling, dance, theater and magic performances these youth have had the opportunity to see. But the question remains: What has it meant?
For most of these youth and their families, this is an extraordinary experience. First, they are having a wonderful experience together, one that most of us take for granted. The probation officers who accompany these youth have watched while the demeanor of these kids transforms as the evening unfolds. They are indistinguishable from the rest of the audience; polite, engaged, attentive, well behaved, well dressed, inquisitive, mesmerized by the magical extravaganzas they are watching. They are out of their “comfort zone” and yet “belong” in this new environment. It is wonderful to hear about as the probation officers report back to the court.
But the transformation does not end there. The youth are asked to write about their experiences or discuss them in groups. Each youth is excited, energized and articulate when dissecting the play or gushing over the virtuosity of dancers or musicians. Many “thank yous” by letter and by mouth are sent by the youths. Another lesson learned. These are experiences we want for all of the youth in our community and Ms. Knowles and the Board of the Z must be commended for making them accessible to those teens least likely to find their way to the beautiful Z.
Art, we know, can transform people, all people. Ms. Knowles and her board have set a high standard for accessibility to art. One that can be replicated in many other areas of our community, particularly for youth. Our youth have much to learn from its leaders and the places frequented by them. Our court certainly appreciates the efforts made by the Z to include these youth. As Ms. Knowles says at the beginning of a performance: “Let the magic begin.” Perhaps she is on to something.
Honorable Bettina Borders is first justice of Bristol County Juvenile Court in New Bedford. Estella Rebeiro is senior probation officer. This op-ed was originally posted in the South Coast Today.
By Colin Ollson
If you decided to sit your child down and announced that today you were going to give little Jacob or Emma a lesson in compassion, what do you think his or her reaction would be? More than likely, it would not be squeals of delight and a question about whether there would be a quiz at the end. Whether children realize it or not, learning how to be compassionate toward others is something they can start developing when they are quite young. The five books that make kids more compassionate listed here are great choices to help them learn that lesson without making them feel as if they are in school.
Milton’s Secret by Eckhart Tolle
This book, which is written for 4-8 year-olds, focuses on a young boy who is worried about the possibility of encountering a bully at school. Children learn compassion for the child who may be a target and through discovering this book with their parents can start a discussion about the bigger issue of bullying, why some children (and adults) behave that way, and how it makes the target of this type of behavior feel.
Another theme of this book is that we must learn to take each moment as it comes, without worrying about the future. This idea of being fully present in the here and now is one which will benefit a youngster as he or she grows into adulthood.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
The idea behind this beloved story is a very simple one. The main character is a tree which simply gave everything it had to a boy out of love, including simple things like shade to help keep him cool in hot weather or a larger request like a place to build a tree house. Children aged 4-8 will learn that giving out of love is the right thing to do.
Unexpected Treasures by Victoria Osteen
Author Victoria Osteen explores the theme that being kind to other people is the right thing to do, even when circumstances are difficult. In this story, Pirate Fred and Curly Beard are rescued from a sinking ship by Captain Jon and First Mate Sue. The rescued pirates are grumpy at first, but learn about friendship and sharing as the story moves on. This story is a good choice for children between the ages of 3-7.
The Ant Bully by John Nickle
The Ant Bully is a story about a bully having the tables turned on him by finding out how his actions affect others. This story, which is a good choice for children aged four and up, focuses on Lucas, a kid who is taunted by another child who turns on his bully with a squirt gun and uses it on an ant colony as well.
The ants use a magical green potion to shrink Lucas down to their size and sentence him to hard labor. He learns his lesson while living among the ants and children will learn the lesson that treating someone else badly because of the actions of a bully is not a way to show compassion for others.
The Recess Queen by Laura Huliska-Beith
This is another story which would be appropriate for children ages four and up. Its plot focuses on Mean Jean, who simply was the Recess Queen. No one on the playground did anything unless Jean told them it was all right to do it. She ruled the roost, until one day a new girl came to school and everything changed.
Katie Sue was not intimidated by Mean Jean. She asked Mean Jean to jump rope with her instead. This simple act of friendship (and compassion) made the difference in the story and it is an effective way to teach children that reaching out to others can be a way to diffuse a situation.
When you are exploring these five books that make kids more compassionate with the young people who mean the most to you, don’t forget to ask questions about their experiences as you read the story. The book can be a wonderful starting point for this ongoing life lesson.
Colin is an in-house copywriter at http://www.essaypedia.com/. He specializes in writing of custom research papers and essays on history and arts.
By Tam Neville
After lunch the group heard a presentation on “Research: Does it work?” led by Ron P. Corbett Jr. He began by saying that evidence-based practices are used in many settings.
Is there empirical support for what you do?
Is it having the effects you want on the people you work with?
All in Changing Lives Through Literature believe that it does change lives. A recidivism study has recently been done at UMass/Boston by retired professor Taylor Stoehr, Professor of Sociology, Russell Schutt, and Associate Professor, faculty member of the Criminal Justice Program, Xiaogang Deng. The study showed a reduction in offending for CLTL graduates.
Do we have the ability to help people reduce offending sometimes or altogether?
There was an experimental group and a control group. We looked at behavior 18 months before CLTL and 18 months after CLTL. There were 600 participants in the study. There was a 60 % drop for CLTL participants and 16% for others. Both the number and severity of incidents were reduced. Also the participants worked with a parole officer and took one other program (such as substance abuse, batterers, etc.).
What is it about Changing Lives that leads to a reduction in offending? What is the link between graduates of the program and those who offend less? Stoehr reports on this study:
“This group was larger than the Jarjoura/Rogers study and ran for a longer time. We had five jurisdictions: New Bedford, Lynn/Lowell, Dorchester, and two smaller courts. We had a larger range of information.
For the probationers, someone was paying attention to them. This is what was missing from their lives. In the Dorchester men’s class we have big groups so we break them up into smaller groups. Once in a class discussion, we had five guys who were great talkers, all talking at once. Then one held up his hand and said, “This is what our problem is, we don’t listen, we just talk.” Moments like this begin to happen in the third class. The process is unpredictable. You let go of controls. In Dorchester we don’t stick so hard to the text. The main thing is what happens in the classroom.
In the Dorchester program, we have a set of questions that we work with that go in a sequence. For example: What does it take to grow up? Does anybody ever learn things in school? And towards the end of the semester – What does it take to hit bottom? The questions get bigger and bigger.
In mid-semester we ask, “What is your evaluation of street smarts?” By this time there is trust. On street smarts – almost all are proud of their street smarts. The staff has a different view: street smarts prevent you from learning anything new. Many students cling to street smarts. The most important thing about Changing Lives is that people belong to a community that has the same concerns that they have. We have so little of that in America – where does that happen in your life? That makes a huge difference in what you do with your life.”
Books bring universality. A student realized, “I’m not the only one with this problem.” Through books students learn how to fight with words, not fists. They build a community together.
Reading is a cognitive behavior intervention – it makes thinking more flexible and more expansive, more empathetic.
The program boosts self-esteem too. To have a conversation with a judge can boost a student’s confidence. A student completes an assignment, voices an opinion, and is listened to.
Judge Kane said, “We’ve had the program for 20 years and there has never been a scary incident in these years. We get gratitude from our students.”
Judge Dever said, “People come into the program looking at life subjectively. In this program, through literature, they start looking at life objectively. This changes their ability to communicate. This then may help them with job interviews, things they thought were unattainable.
Reading slows you down – you have to find a quiet place and be by yourself. This is new for them – it leads to self-reflection.”
Stoehr talked about juveniles saying, “They don’t’ have a place to go with no noise and they’re full of hormones. Think of something you can do at the meeting, very short things (maybe rap), something that gives them a little challenge at the moment.”
Teresa Owens (PO, Taunton Division) said, “CLTL gives them a safe setting. One thing that always came out of the Dorchester women’s class was the question of choices. Were there other choices I could have made? Or, you can go to someone else to ask and say ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Also, people in class were accountable to each other in terms of doing the reading, homework, etc.”
CLTL is a team experience. When people have a chance to reflect on choices, this is their time, a time they can actually think. They don’t have that luxury in their lives. In CLTL they learn that there are more options, more choices.
Professor Waxler said, “We collectively make a community. The activity is primarily verbal. Reading brings engagement with narrative – you see that you are connected to other people. The story that I just read is my story too. Then discussion with everyone sitting around a table, there’s an open relationship between our experience and narrative. Story gives us meaning and helps us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.”
To begin the final session, a probation officer new to the program spoke using herself as an example. She said, “Say I want to start a program. How do I get a judge involved, a facilitator, and probation officers?”
Judge Kane answered her on the matter of judicial involvement. “At least have someone who will let you run the program. You will need a judge’s support to get POs behind it. Having a judge is very important.”
Jean Trounstine added, “Get a judge talking to a judge. This will increase the chance of their going to class. You then have to go out and find facilitators.”
Someone else commented, “You have to get the judge to commit to an incentive if CLTL is not a condition of probation.”
The question of incentive: Outcomes are more positive where a court can create incentives such as six months off probation period, discount on supervision fees, etc. This information is in the literature and on the website. Dee Kennedy pointed out that, “Many students start off by saying, ‘I never would have taken this without the time off’ but by graduation, their attitude has changed.”
To find a facilitator ask Jean Flanagan. Jean Trounstine added, “Try to find a facilitator who has a connection with a school. It’s good to have a school as a place to meet. Call an English department. We can help you – you don’t need to do this in a vacuum.”
Ideally, a university campus is the best place to hold a class. The students get a taste of college life and it makes them proud to go to a college campus. This is especially important with juveniles.
To start a class, ask probation officers to recruit students from among their probationers. Myrna Thornquist (PO, Waltham District Court) advised, “I check a person out – do they like to read? What is their education? In the beginning I don’t tell them what I’m thinking – that they would be a good candidate. I do a little research on a person. Then, are they interested? Sometimes it takes 6-12 months to be sure of someone as a candidate.”
On books, Jean Trounstine said, “We give the students the books, they don’t buy them and the facilitator is reimbursed for these. We also encourage every student to get a library card.”
How many students should be in a class? We have had classes with 5 or with 13. Taylor Stoehr said, “One day we had 50. We split into two groups, then used small groups of 4 to 5.”
Any staff has to be regular. It’s important that all the staff agrees on the class ground rules. If we have an issue sometimes we talk about it afterwards. For the most part we tell the students, be sober and straight, do your homework and be on time.”
For the graduation ceremony, the Lynn/Lowell programs hold graduation in the court house during the first session. Those in the dock witness graduation. The graduates receive books and a certificate. It’s a day for celebration.
This meeting was a very successful one and we now have several courts who are interested in starting a program. We need facilitators. If you, or anyone you know, would like to facilitate a Changing Lives Program please get in touch with Jean Trounstiine at: TROUNSTINEJ@middlesex.mass.edu