By Sara Dawkins
While reading, you use your imagination to visualize a story’s characters as if they’re starring in a movie within your mind. Although the author’s words greatly impact the flow of your mind-movie, your imagination fills in the blanks. Reading about characters who have similar circumstances to yours can help shed light on your own situation. This is one of the base beliefs behind the alternative sentencing program called Changing Lives Through Literature. How can literature encourage positive change in a criminal’s way of thinking?
1. Reflection: When offenders openly analyze their own lives through literary characters, they get a chance for inner reflection that they may never have explored before. They put themselves in the spotlight for self-examination.
2. Positive Role Models: After ordering CLTL classes as part of sentencing, judges may attend the classes involving the offenders-turned-students. By contributing to the literary discussions, the judges start becoming positive role models in the students’ lives—possibly changing how the students view the world. Parole officers can become role models just as much by participating in the students’ progress in the classes. This can greatly increase the chances of rehabilitation and reduce the likelihood of re-offending.
3. Self-Worth: In order for the program to work, students must have a capacity to accept responsibility for their actions. Students must show and demonstrate that they can be proactive in their own rehabilitation. For some, it is difficult to rely only on themselves to stay motivated enough for better lives. Family histories can be pivotal to how students adapt to this method of rehabilitation.
4. Perspective: This alternative method of sentencing is more than just a book club. The literary works chosen reflect students’ lives—either through the characters or the situations. It’s a way for students to examine their actions from the perceptions of others. As their imaginations explore the settings, the literature often drives a point home better than more jail time would.
5. Safety: The philosophy behind CLTL is such that it allows students to feel safe when discussing literature. Students open themselves up and discuss the actions of literary characters, and how the characters relate to themselves.
Alternative sentencing methods for criminal offenders has had great success. Support is growing for methods such as these. Words can be powerful to those who are open to their meanings. We should embrace the success of CLTL and support rehabilitation over punishment to those who need it and who are willing to benefit from it.
Sara Dawkins is an active nanny as well as an active freelance writer. She is a frequent contributor of http://www.nannypro.com/.
This is Katie Newport’s first post as web editor for Changing Lives, Changing Minds.
In the year 2000, I entered my freshman year at Framingham State College; I was eager to learn, hopeful for the future, and had indiscriminately chosen a major -Communication Arts. It wasn’t long before I decided to change my path; I had fallen in love – with Art History. For the next four years, I devoured books on feminist art history, marveled over the seemingly insignificant smudges and dollops of oil paint that make up a Van Gogh, and got lost in the presence of anything from the Dutch realists.
During this time, in lieu of electives, I took anything and everything that related to English literature or writing. Children’s Literature, World Literature, Myth and Folklore, Women Writers, The Classics, etc. Each of these satisfied my insatiable need for the written word, and – even more compelling – they were fun. Four years later, I had taken so many of these elective classes that, upon graduating, I was awarded a degree in Art History and English; my reading and writing habits had become functional, and permanent, fixtures.
Over time, it became increasingly obvious that writing was, in fact, my calling. And though I still lose my breath at the sight of a Dutch memento mori, I know that Art History is the hobby, not Literature.
As my graduate career in the Professional Writing program draws to a close this semester, and as I accept this position as Web Editor for Changing Lives, Changing Minds, I cannot help but reflect on the role that literature has played in my life up until this point. I cannot help but wonder where I would be without my shelves, stocked with dog-eared favorites and stiffly bound not-yet-read books? Who would I have become if not for the likes of Judy Blume at age thirteen, Jane Austen at sixteen, F. Scott Fitzgerald at seventeen, and Steinbeck at nineteen? Their voices and their words changed mine.
Similarly so, the Changing Lives Through Literature program transforms reading from a passive, solitary practice to an active, participatory endeavor – one that engages and expands upon an individual’s experience or existence, creating opportunities for growth and change. The reflection of one’s self in the pages of classic literature is a striking thing; it is a moment that is both humbling and grandiose, and ultimately hard to forget. It is a moment that can strike you much like looking closely, and intensely, at a painting.
In my undergraduate Art History classes, we’d begin to discuss a piece by looking at it in full view, displayed up on the projector screen. Then, the slide would change, and we would visually dissect detailed photographs. As a class, we would discuss each nuance, color choice, brush selection, and medium variation.
After a while, it became harder to see the piece as a whole, and instead we saw it as a marriage of thousands of distinct, deliberate choices, all of which were made by one person, in one moment, for one end. This exercise in intimacy compels a relationship between the piece and the audience, much like close reading and literary analysis.
I am very excited about the upcoming months here at Changing Lives, Changing Minds, and look forward to being a contributor and facilitator of discussion, and more so, an audience to our essayists.
Brooke Joseph is a graduate student in education at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She has a bachelor’s degree in Humanities and Social Sciences with a concentration in Sociology and Elementary Education.
In a recent interview with Professor Robert P. Waxler, co-founder of the Changing Lives through Literature (CLTL) program, I focused on finding out how CLTL changes lives. Three themes emerged from this interview: Putting Yourself in the Story, Becoming Friends with Characters, and Breaking Down Stereotypes.
Putting Yourself in the Story
Reading and writing can change people’s lives by helping individuals to focus and increase their awareness through self-reflection. Waxler explained that when you are reading a good piece of literature, you often put yourself in the story and empathize with characters. Even though during the CLTL sessions everyone is reading the same story, each individual will read the story in a different manner. Therefore, when the story is discussed, the characters are seen from opposing angles and people “begin to understand that stories, like our lives, are richly textured possibilities.”
Although stories do not offer definitive solutions to people, they do “raise profound questions about our lives. And as long as we continue to ask important questions, we are doing something worthwhile with our lives.” Waxler says reading the right stories helps us to “pursue our identity as if we are on a journey through life;” by “expanding our perceptions, offering new experiences and deepening our thinking, stories move us and they make us self-reflective. They offer us questions, and then the stories give us the opportunity to pursue answers to those questions.”
Becoming Friends with Characters
Dr. Waxler also gave an example of how a particular character can change people’s lives. When people are reading they allow the characters to become a part of their lives; characters in the stories “become our friends. Their voices are embedded in our hearts.” For example, take Santiago from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea novel. Even though Santiago does not catch a fish for weeks, he continues to wake up every morning to “fight the good fight; his endurance is admirable.”
Robert LeBlanc is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Rhode Island. His dissertation research focuses on notions of publicness and subjectivity in Christian leftist texts. He has taught writing and literature courses at the college level.
I suppose I became an active reader at a fairly young age, and I remember looking out for interesting books at school or at the local public library. During my first few years as a reader, my interests were normal ones for a young boy in the 1980s: dinosaurs, baseball, cars. I would read or leaf through a few children’s reference books about cars or the American Revolution or the Red Sox, and then after a few weeks it was onto another topic to read about.
At a certain point this habit of reading took a turn toward stories. I began to realize that I liked some stories for themselves, independently of what topics and settings were featured in their pages. If the story was told with a certain rawness or intensity, if the words really leapt off the page and begged me to read on toward the conclusion, then I could enjoy reading a story just for its own sake.
In the fifth grade, I began to devour a wide range of young adult novels and short stories. I was enjoying—in a secondhand, readerly way—the experiences that different narratives brought to life, and I also started to develop a real appreciation for writers with a daring style. Some writers avoided the typical plots and worn-out phrases and went right for those moments of odd insight that would bring me back to certain passages again and again.
Even after I had raced through certain books, I would turn back to my favorite descriptions and stylistic flourishes within their chapters to marvel at the way the words reached out across the gap of communication to strike me with an almost physical force.
Readers who grew up as part of my generation will remember that the young adult market was at a saturation point in the late 80s and early 90s. Many classic YA novels that had defined the genre in the 60s and 70s were still in print or at least sitting on the classroom bookshelves, and new writers were churning out novels at a rapid pace.
I began to drift toward the novels of a particularly daring writer, one whose works (according to my teachers) even challenged their labeling as young adult fiction in their increasing experimentation with postmodernist form and controversial content. This writer, Robert Cormier, also fascinated me because I learned that he was born in my hometown: Leominster, Massachusetts.
Allyson Sonne is a senior at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.
She is currently working towards a bachelors degree in English with
concentration in writing and communications, as well as a masters degree
in Education. She is focused on becoming a middle school English teacher post graduation.
T.C. Boyle’s short story “Greasy Lake” (1979) is a fast-paced telling of a night in the lives of three boys: Jeff, Digby and the unidentified narrator. Looking for a dangerous thrill to feed their “bad boy” images, they head to Greasy Lake. The night quickly goes from wanting to be “bad” to a situation where even the most “wanna be bad boy” would want to trade his leather jacket and cigarettes for a suit and tie. Mistaking a strange man in a car for their friend, the boys honk and pester the car until the man gets out. The narrator gives a devastating blow to the man’s head with a tire iron. The “tough guy” character emerges again within the boys as they feel accomplished; they decide to see what they can get away with by the girl in the car.
As the story goes on and the night goes on, the boys’ positions are shattered by the realization of what was actually happening. Reading this I envisioned the boys resembling John Travolta and the T-Birds in the movie Grease. Although this image is clear-cut, I feel that Boyle made the characters universal at the same time. No matter where you are from, what you look like or how old you are, the characters and the situation can be identifiable with something in your life.
Of course, I’m sure not many have smashed someone with a tire iron, ran for their life, hid in a mucky lake, or stumbled upon a dead body and a couple of stray women. At least I hope not. The point is, somewhere, sometime we have all been in a situation that just didn’t turn out how we expected. Good or bad, regretful or lesson learned, there is a well-remembered turning point on the road to maturity in all of us.
Allan McDougall is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Allan is a staunch believer in language as social action, with a focus on reading and writing. Allan is currently writing his MA thesis on Changing Lives Through Literature, and writes about professional and academic issues on his blog: allanmcdougall.wordpress.com.
This essay is the second in a series of three posts written by Allan McDougall based on interviews he conducted with CLTL program participants.
The Dorchester Women’s Program classes are smaller, but, according to Judge Sydney Hanlon, a smaller group allows for a more intimate environment in which to discuss themes of violence, illness, responsibilities for children, and unthinkable tragedies (Trounstine and Waxler, 56). At the 2009 CLTL Annual Conference, Probation Officer Adita Vazquez would later share a similar sentiment:
In the CLTL classroom, I’m aware of what’s going on with each of these women, and I’m listening to what they tell us about those stories. And the same thing happens again and again: violence. The classroom is a special environment for them. We discuss are how they should handle it, what’s there to protect them, and how they see themselves.
At the same conference, Judge Hanlon stated that she once sat in a CLTL classroom with eight women, all mothers. At some point in each of their lives, all of these mothers had witnessed shootings, and all of them had life insurance policies on their children. “Hearing something like that changes a judge: you don’t see people the same way again.”
Read the rest of this entry »
Jenni Baker is the communications specialist for Goodwill Industries International in Washington, DC. This is her final post as marketing and media advisor for Changing Lives Through Literature.
Anyone afforded the opportunity to participate in Changing Lives Through Literature will speak of the change it enacts within every person around the table.
Some talk of the affirmation they receive from knowing they are not alone in their thoughts and in their life struggles. Men and women who participate in this program as part of their probation sentence habitually note the affirmation they receive from voicing their insights on an equal playing field with individuals they never considered as equals.
My time in the program taught me that this affirmation works both ways. As a student of English, I entered the program familiar with literature’s potential to change. I was inexperienced, however, with the power of reading and discussion to overcome obstacles of gender, race, and class.
Just as the participants who had spent time in the justice system thought they knew the judge and probation officers they now sat beside, I brought my own preconceptions to the table that first night. After spending years discussing literature with college peers and academics, I confess I entered the sessions with classist thoughts — I wasn’t sure what kind of valuable conversation I could have with individuals who in many cases did not finish high school.
The answer to that question kept me coming to session after session. Seeing literature change the lives of these criminal offenders week after week was certainly inspiring. On a personal level, however, I was more moved by the connections and conversations that strengthened with each meeting.
Julia M. O’Brien is Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA. She is the author of Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets and several commentaries on the prophetic books. This entry is adapted from her on-line project, Reading the Bible as an Adult, a guide for book clubs, Bible studies, and anyone else who wants to read the Bible like a grown-up, found at her website: http://juliamobrien.net.
Great writing can guide souls. Many voices over the centuries have advocated the ennobling power of the well-told tale.
Theirs is a soapbox on which I can stand. Having taught Bible to undergraduates and now to seminary students, I’m convinced that teaching students to read Bible as literature helps it become more, not less, relevant to their lives.
Reading the Bible purely as an instruction book gets in the way of the reading process. While of course the Bible does offer some explicit rules, most of it, especially the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, is narrative and poetry. Reading a story or a poem only for its moral bottom-line not only leads to odd doctrine but also but makes readers to miss what stories and poems do best: incite the imagination and let people lose (and find) themselves within the worlds they create.
And yet, I’m equally convinced that the critique of great literature can change lives. I can affirm that multicultural interpretation and ideology criticism also touch people’s deepest concerns.
David Clemens, author of “Great Books 2.0” sharply contrasts a curriculum focused on “fine literature” with “militant multicultural and squash-you-all-flat postmodernism.” He defines his mission as “to save students who want to study only pop culture from teachers who want to teach only pop culture and administrators who want only packed classes.”
In his moral universe, the choices are stark: either lift students up to the mountaintop of meaning by nourishing them on the great Western classics or throw them into murky, meaningless swamp of postmodernism. Suddenly, I hear echoes of Harold Bloom’s 1994 manifesto The Western Canon and Frank Lentricchia’s announcement several years ago that he was tired of theory and just wanted to read literature.
I’ve witnessed too much to the contrary to believe Clemens, and I can tell stories that challenge his own.