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.
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.
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.
During my junior year, highly regarded American novelist Robert Stone came to speak at Assumption College in Worcester, MA.
Demonstrating that the pen is truly mightier than the sword, Stone writes not only to entertain, but also to alert, educate, and motivate others, as I plan to do as a journalist. Known for using literature to spark political activism, Stone has written numerous pieces on the Vietnam War, including “Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties,” from which he read several passages.
In this memoir, Stone reflects on his time as a soldier and correspondent in Vietnam, an experience that inspired him to write for a better world.
After Stone had shared some of his work with us, an older man stood up and asked, “Why aren’t kids these days involved like you and I were? Why don’t they do something or try to make a difference in this world?”
Before giving his input on how the draft and the socialists of the 1960s made a large difference, Stone scanned the audience, looking for a brave, young soul who may have some proof of the contrary.
Well, here goes nothing.
“Kids these days,” or Generation Y, are the 76 million Americans born roughly between 1980 and 1994. Also known as Echo Boomers, Generation Y is expected to live up to the working of the Baby Boomers. It has been declared the next big generation, an exceptionally powerful group that can, and will transform every life stage it enters, just as our parents’ generation did.
Like the Baby Boomers, we’re facing an unpopular, foreign, and seemingly endless war in addition to countless other issues. But compared to the activists who spent the 60’s and 70’s fighting for civil rights, women’s equality, and an end to the Vietnam War, Generation Y seems anything but radical. With this, we have been labeled apathetic and self-absorbed.
The Prison Diary of Arthur Longworth #299180
Pygmy Forest Press
From Pygmy Forest Press publisher Leonard J. Cirino:
Arthur Longworth, 43, has been incarcerated since age 18. His youth was spent in a variety of foster homes–usually for only two or three months at a time. He was separated from his sister at an early age and, in his teens, he lived in a series of youth facilities. At sixteen he was released to the streets with no means of support. he had only a seventh grade education and began life in Seattle breaking into cars and doing petty criminal activity. At age 18 he escalated into armed robbery and in one holdup a victim was killed. Arthur was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
After he arrived in prison he asked to go to school to get an education. He was told that as a “lifer” he wouldn’t need an education. Eventually he visited the library and educated himself. He is a PEN prisoner writing award winner and has published one of his Prison Diary at the Anne Frank Center in New York City. Longworth’s writing have also recently appeared in Iconoclast, a New York literary magazine.
The diary itself is a collection of eleven short entries reflecting on Longworth’s experiences in the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington. The following are short excerpts from the eighth essay, “About Education” and reflect on the power of literature to touch the lives of offenders.
My favorite is a small book entitled One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich–the story of a day in the life of a prisoner in the Soviet Union. I love that book, not only because it reflects the strength and perseverance of the human spirit in the face of seeming hopelessness but, because it could have only been written by a prisoner…only a prisoner can know of so many of the things he wrote.In fact the book startled me when I read it because I knew it was written about prisoners in another country, during a different time, under different circumstances, yet I felt as if I was reading about prisoners and guards I know, what goes on here, and what goes through many of our minds while we’re experiencing it. There were so many parallels, I couldn’t help but feel close to them. Of course, I am conscious that Ivan and many of those in prison around him were political prisoners, and I am those around me are criminals, but there is still a connection…and that connection is that we are human beings.
Maybe I am deluding myself, but I have always felt that Mr. Solzhenitsyn would be able to relate to what is going on here with many prisoners…feel as close to us as I have always felt to him. Getting a sentence of Life without Parole when you are young is hopelessness. Continuing on after that, learning to survive in an American prison and proceed forward as decades stack one atop another, and you have long since forgotten what is on the other side of these walls, is perseverance of human spirit.
Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s writing inspired me as a young prisoner to continue my efforts to educate myself and, eventually, led me to write a book modeled after his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It’s a manuscript that is passed from convict to convict; the story of one day in the life of a prisoner inside the prison in which I grew into adulthood and have spent most of my life–the prison in Walla Walla. When officials there discovered a copy and read it, they threw me in the hole and revoked my medium-custody classification. But the manuscript still makes it rounds. Prisoners read it because it puts words to what they are unable to, relates the truth about prison, and what it does to those who are in it. I have always felt that Mr. Solzhenitsyn is as responsible for the existence of this convict manuscript as I am.
To purchase a copy of The Prison Diary of Arthur Longworth #299180 (for $7), contact editor Leonard J. Cirino at cirino7715(at)comcast.net