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