CLTL Featured on “Writers Who Kill” Blog

The following was written by Shari Randall for the “Writers Who Kill” blog.

By Shari Randall

Can a paperback copy of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter do what jail cannot – change an offender’s life for the better?
Readers know that books can take us to other worlds, provide entertainment, information, insight, solace. Now there is evidence that literature can also transform the lives of people in the justice system.
Seasonal Wanderer

Seasonal Wanderer

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 original CLTL program included eight men who had 145 convictions, many of them felony convictions. Waxler wanted to test his program with “tough guys” who would prove that he hadn’t stacked the deck with more highly educated, less dangerous participants. At the end of the program, the tough guys’ recidivism rate was only 19 percent, compared to 45 percent for the general prison population. The results were impressive, but Waxler said that the statistics were not what interested him. He knew the program was working when one young drug dealer told him of his excitement at reading Jack London’sSea Wolf, and how his newfound love of books led him to start reading to his three-year-old daughter.
How does CLTL work? Offenders serve part of their sentence by meeting in small groups to discuss books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. These and the other books chosen for the program have characters that face serious choices and issues. The most unique part of CLTL is the participation of members of the legal and law enforcement communities. Participants could find themselves talking about Langston Hughes’ poems with a judge or a probation officer, and a college professor facilitator. By sitting around a table, listening to each other, participants feel valued for their ideas, not judged for their crimes. Participants see each other as human beings, not as statistics or faceless uniforms.
CLTL programs are in place in 14 states and have been adopted in the UK. One longitudinal study of 600 CLTL participants in Massachusetts showed a 60 percent drop in recidivism for those who completed the program and a 16 percent drop for those who did not. In cases where participants reoffended, there was a significant drop in the number and severity of the type of crime committed. These are better results than many more expensive programs, and the program has been particularly effective for juvenile offenders.
With U. S. Bureau of Justice statistics stating that prisoners cost U. S. taxpayers more than $70 billion  and the New York Times reporting that 1 in 100 Americans are currently or have been in the criminal justice system, we need ideas and programs like CLTL.
Compare $70 billion to the cost of a box of paperback books, a facilitator, and an hour a week around a table in a library.
As the CLTL webpage states, literature has the power to transform. Yet, one article I read stated that CLTL has been a “hard sell” to government officials, who doubt the effectiveness of a literature based program.
You have to wonder. Why would states prefer to spend billions on jails instead of buying a few boxes of books?
Is there a book that changed your life?

 


Speakout! Journals as Adult Literacy Learning Tools

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?

Speakout!

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.


Changing Lives through Literature in Action

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.

***

 

An alternative sentencing program has been reducing recidivism in Massachusetts for over twenty years.  In 1991, UMASS-Dartmouth Literature Professor Robert Waxler, Judge Robert Kane and Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre started the program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.”  For 12 to 14 weeks, probationers, Judges and probation officers read and discuss six or seven literary works. The program ends with a graduation ceremony in a full courtroom.
 At the twenty year anniversary, the Trial Court participated in a day-long symposium to assess the program’s  impact. Numerous testimonials and studies proving the success of the program have been listed on the CLTL website.
“I was walking through the streets of the city the other night,” a student in Robert Waxler’s class told him once. “It could have been any city, any street, any of us. ‘And I was thinking about Santiago [ in Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea ],’ he continued. ‘I came to a corner where all my old buddies hang out up the street. You know, I’ve been struggling to stay clean for a long time. But I was depressed. So I began to make the turn, to go down that street, back to the old neighborhood. Then I heard him, the old man. It was like listening to his voice. I remembered how he had gone out each day for almost three months without catching a fish. He hadn’t caught anything, but he still got up each morning, tried it again. He must have felt terrible, but he didn’t give up. So I didn’t make the turn that day. Stayed strong. Thanks to the old man. I heard him.’ “
Image

                                                                               Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

Last May, the Trial Court announced that it will be expanding the program to reach more Courts and more probationers. Herein is “What you need to know about Changing Lives Through Literature.”

Salvation Through a Pad and a Pen

By Eve Pearce
row of prison cells

It is amazing how much writing can help somebody to unlock their potential and turn their life around. All some people need is an outlet for their creativity in order to get onto the right track. One of the best examples of this is a friend who I shall refer to as “Stevie.” When we were growing up, Stevie was a pleasant, happy kid. He was nice and polite to everyone and never put a foot out of place. Nobody would ever have expected that he would become a criminal in later life.

Stevie continued to be personable and affable into his late teens. When he was eighteen, he learned to drive and we would cruise about together, enjoying the excitement that was to be gained from having a set of wheels at our disposal. He was a typical adolescent driver, honking at girls and turning his speaker system up to full volume.

However, as is the case with many younger drivers, Stevie’s lack of experience soon led to an accident. He hit the back of a truck one day and went straight through the front windscreen, leaving him with significant scarring on his face.

Scarred for life

The injuries that Stevie sustained were not life threatening but damaged his self-confidence. He developed a condition known as social anxiety disorder, which is characterized by fear of social situations.

The Stevie that I once knew was now a thing of the past. He spent most of his time indoors and struggled even to talk to his closest friends, stuttering and stammering his words and obviously struggling. The accident had stripped him of his ability to socialize.

Descent into crime

Stevie’s condition left him feeling useless. He completed a university degree but felt that inability to muster up the courage to speak during job interviews would prevent him from ever finding meaningful employment—so he embarked upon a life of crime instead. He started off selling marijuana and soon progressed to cocaine, using his newfound edginess as a mask for his anxiety. Stevie was still just as scared of meeting people as ever but covered it up with fake aggression and attempted to be somebody that he was not. When he was twenty-three, Stevie sold drugs to an undercover police officer and received a prison sentence.individual prison cell

Discovering his talent

Stevie expected his time inside prison to be a living hell, but it was in there that he discovered that he had a talent. In order to pass the time behind his cell door, he would write about his experiences and soon realized that he had a gift.

Everybody he showed his writing to remarked upon how well he captured the details of prison. He soon had prisoners approaching him to help them put their lives into words.

A new beginning

Stevie left prison knowing exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He was still very socially phobic despite having been locked up with other people 24/7, but decided that it was not going to hold him back from making something of himself. He set out to become a writer. He sent articles to magazines and newspapers and soon had regular slots in several publications. Nowadays he makes a living from his work. Although he is yet to cure himself of his condition, he no longer needs to rely upon crime for his income. He is now a full-time freelance writer.

Although he committed immoral acts in the past, Stevie is by no means a bad person. He is somebody who made mistakes and allowed the trials and tribulations that cropped up in his life to drive him to partake in illegal activity.

Writing was his savior. It not only provided him with a living but also gave him an outlet to express his feelings so that he did not keep them bottled up and grow depressed about them. His story is a testament to the rehabilitative powers of putting pen to paper. By tapping into people’s talent for the written word, we can unleash their true potential and help then to become valuable members of society.

Eve Pearce is a full-time feature writer as well as an art and photography aficionado. She has written for numerous sites on various topics over the past few years.

Images provided by Eve Pearce.


Woman of the Year embraces alternative sentencing

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.

To submit brief comments, use the comments link at the top of this post. To submit longer comments, or to include images, email me at cltl@umassd.edu.

We look forward to hearing about the remarkable, and perhaps under-recognized, people in your communities.

–Nancy E. Oliveira, Editor


The freedom to choose: finding the right book

By: Vicky Coffin

Vicky Coffin, librarian

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.     


Five ways to use literature to encourage positive changes in children

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 kmyers.ceo@gmail.com.

Image: Frederick Noronha on flickr.com


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