Lost Souls Gaining the World

photo by f-l-e-x

While studying for the ministry, David G. Sarles began substitute teaching in the New Haven public schools and have been teaching since. He began running also then, up and down East Rock, and has been running more or less since then. But his running pales in comparison to those inmates who circle prison yards thousands of times to compete in marathons.


Last December, the high school writing class I teach read the CLTL post on “The Real Cost of Prisons.” One of these graphic stories was about a 15 year-old busted on a drug charge. It moved the students; however, they were anything but shocked. “Oh, yeah,” said Jermania, “That is just like my sister’s friend who got caught just talking to a friend who turned out to be a lookout. She’s in a juvenile home.” Delphine remarked, “Kids on my block are always offering me stuff.” Others replied with stories of crack houses, dealers, and runners they know from their exurban Long Island towns, most of them middle class communities.


They see some of their acquaintances getting sent up but can’t know what life behind bars is like. How much can those behind bars relate to prison life when they are back on the outside? The writing class can tap into the CLTL site and read and relate to the stories posted. Reading and discussing one of CLTL’s stories, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” offers Delphine and her writing classmates an impression of what it’s like to fail to resist tempters. CLTL blogs provide a glimpse of writers who work with those who walk the line between the streets and prisons.


It’s all but impossible, it seems, for the bars to disappear for prisoners. One of our role models, the photojournalist Taryn Simon, documented lives of exonerated prisoners in her book The Innocents. Simon’s eye into the lives of former prisoners, many from maximum security prisons, piqued the interest of my writing class. How can those returned to society after years of time served for crimes they did not commit know what to do in life on the outside?


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Starting and Maintaining a CLTL Juvenile Program: An Interview with Michael Habib

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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.

Combined with the biological awkwardness of growing up, young offenders are often under added pressure at home, at school, and in their peer groups. I can say this because I’m a volunteer with young offenders here in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Furthermore, I greatly admire facilitators who run juvenile community programs.


For these reasons and others, I listened carefully to the words of Fall River’s juvenile program facilitator, Michael Habib, at the last two annual conferences. When a call for blog posts went out, I knew this was the perfect opportunity to interview Mike and get answers to some key questions that I could use in my own volunteer work: What tips do you have for other juvenile reading programs? How do you get kids to open up? What do you do when they don’t do their assigned work?


One of the first things Mike, a lawyer, will tell you about himself is he’s never been a big reader of fiction. “I read more non-fiction and history, but I’ve always enjoyed discussing books with my colleagues and I’ve always given books to kids because I believe in the power of literature. When I was a young lawyer, I was representing this kid who was charged with robbery. I didn’t believe his story, but it turned out he was telling the truth in the end. Well he got in trouble again and said, ‘okay, I did it. What are you going to do for me now?’  I worked out a deal for him so the charges were dismissed, but he had to attend a youth program. I also gave him Ellison’s The Invisible Man. A while later, he sent me a letter asking for recommendations on other black writers. That was the first kid I ever gave a book to.”


Mike’s reputation for giving books to juvenile offenders became well known in Fall River, and when one of his colleagues became a judge, he asked Mike to facilitate the court’s first CLTL program.“Not being an English professor, I had to do a lot of research on what kids read. I used the CLTL homepage as a resource, consulted with librarians, audited a session at the New Bedford program, and found a great website called www.theliterarylink.com, which I highly recommend.”


In Mike’s experience, a CLTL program for kids needs to run differently than a program for adults. “The stories have to pick the kids,” says Mike. “These kids don’t trust you and they don’t know who you are. Part of the facilitator’s task is listening to them and building relationships. Kids don’t respond well to classic literature. Contemporary works will be more engaging for them.”


“Before each class, I prepare a list of discussion questions and for the first hour we talk about the assigned reading,” he continues. “After a break, we spend the second hour reading aloud from where the previous week’s assigned reading ended. We keep on reading until the end of class, while pausing to periodically discuss questions. At the end, I assign the reading assignment for the following week, which is generally about 20 pages long. 20 pages doesn’t seem like much, but these kids have school, homework, and often problems at home—they don’t all read like average students. So a novel generally lasts 5 weeks.”


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Arming the Courts with Research: 10 Evidence-Based Sentencing Initiatives

Pew Center on the StatesFrom the Pew Center on the States’ latest report:


Over one million felony offenders are sentenced in state courts annually, accounting for 94 percent of all felony convictions in the United States.  Sixty to 80 percent of state felony defendants are placed on probation, fined or jailed in their local communities. Although the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, there are nearly three times more offenders on probation than in state prisons. Recidivism rates among these felony defendants are at unprecedented levels. Almost 60 percent have been previously convicted and more than 40 percent of those on probation fail to complete probation successfully. The high recidivism rate among felons on probation pushes up state crime rates and is one of the principal contributors to our extraordinarily high incarceration rates. High recidivism rates also contribute to the rapidly escalating cost of state corrections, the second fastest growing expenditure item in state budgets over the past 20 years. 

For many years, conventional wisdom has been that “nothing works” to change offender behavior—that once an offender has turned to crime little can be done to help turn his or her life around. Today, however, there is a voluminous body of solid research showing that certain “evidence-based” sentencing and corrections practices do work and can reduce crime rates as effectively as prisons at much lower cost. A comprehensive study by the Washington legislature, for example, showed that greater use of these evidence-based practices would reduce Washington’s crime rate by 8 percent while saving taxpayers over $2 billion in additional prison construction. As the United States faces the prospect of its deepest and longest recession since the Great Depression, we cannot afford to ignore the opportunity to reduce offender recidivism and resulting high crime rates through use of these cost-effective evidence-based practices.  


The report praises the following ten initiatives:

  1. Establish recidivism reduction as an explicit sentencing goal
  2. Provide sufficient flexibility to consider recidivism reduction options
  3. Base sentencing decisions on risk/needs assessment
  4. Require community corrections programs to be evidence-based
  5. Integrate services and sanctions 
  6. Ensure courts know about available sentencing options
  7. Train court officers on evidence-based practice (EBP)
  8. Encourage swift and certain responses to violations of probation
  9. Use court hearings and incentives to motivate offender behavior change
  10. Promote effective collaboration among criminal justice agencies


To read the full report, including details about each of the above initiatives, navigate to the Pew Center on the States site.

On the Literature Classroom, Blogs, and the Balance of Old Space and New Media

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Christopher Schaberg recently received his Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Davis, where he wrote a dissertation on the textual aspects of U.S. airports.  In August 2009 he will join the English Department at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he will be Assistant Professor of Contemporary Literature and Critical Theory. 


My favorite part of teaching literature is getting students to really linger on short passages.  I like to teach students how to enjoy the liveliness of language, how the sounds and shapes of words can come alive on a page; and in turn, this liveliness affects how we think about life off the page. 


To study literature with attention and intelligence requires a slow pace that is difficult to maintain: it demands re-reading, asking the same questions over and over, and as my mentor Timothy Morton once put it, “daring to be dumb.”  The literature classroom is a sort of protected zone in which these increasingly rare activities can thrive.  What I love about the literature classroom is that I get to sit around with a group of other minds and work together with textual matter, and to see how far we can slow down without stopping altogether.  Such perpetual deceleration results not in final truths, but in inquiry without end.  I’m more confused than I have ever been about what literature actually is, and I’m thankful for this confusion: it lets me approach texts afresh and be spontaneous when my students see things I had not seen or even imagined in a text. 


About a year ago I started a blog called “What is literature?”  This basic question is one that I return to again and again in my classes, and it is a question that strikes me whenever I notice literary allusions in films, in magazine articles, or in other pieces of cultural ephemera.  In my blog I try to keep a record of these literary problems that pop out of culture at large.  My blog, which I maintain in a minimalist but consistent fashion, has been a fascinating experiment that has challenged me to write in new ways: more aphoristically, less argumentatively.  I often end up writing in the form of cascading questions. 


I decided to teach an advanced composition course in which everyone in the class (including myself) would create and write on our own blogs—and we would read and comment on each other’s work online, not on paper.  This class was a success not only because the students generally seemed to like writing ‘posts’ rather than papers or essays, but also because the medium fostered dynamic textual interactions between students.  In other words, on a public blog one simply cannot write for a single reader (i.e., the professor).  The online forum requires accountability on behalf of one’s use of language; suddenly, that old retort about ‘audience’ is starkly real. 


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What Comes After Changing Lives?

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Taylor Stoehr is a professor of literature in the College of Liberal Arts at UMass Boston and helped found the Dorcester, MA branch of CLTL in 1994.


The evidence is overwhelming that having a decent job is a crucial determining factor in whether criminal offenders are able to reform instead of returning to jail. Robert Sampson and John Laub’s prize-winning book Crime in the Making(Harvard UP, 1993) proves the point compellingly. But whether in prison or out, job training and educational opportunities have been decimated by the false economies of state budget cuts, and CORI checks prevent even qualified former offenders from getting hired. No wonder we find massive unemployment among precisely the population most at risk.


What can be done? Our experiment in the Changing Lives program in Boston’s inner city, begun about the same moment and in the same locale that Sampson and Laub were writing about, may not offer a solution to the huge social problem they describe, but it does shed light on the realities that face criminal offenders trying to change their lives for the better.


I remember a class not long ago in which more than half of the probationers were jobless – some for so long that they had given up looking; others were actively searching but unwilling to work for demeaning minimum wages. One man with a college degree had been fired after four days in a white-collar job, when his felony record caught up with him, and he was now washing dishes. Several men were living off family members – parents, girlfriends. One young fellow about to become a father was full of good intentions, but without skills or experience, his ambition had already dissolved in marijuana fantasies. The dishwasher joked about going back to armed robbery as a career. Here was the practical dimension of life bearing down on the emotional and ethical choices people make. How were we to answer his bitter jest?


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Making a Difference

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Kelly DeSouza is an English teacher and mentor at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School. She is the mother of two beautiful children and lives in Lakeville, MA.


I have had many positive experiences with facilitating Changing Lives Through Literature groups in the juvenile drug court. These experiences are all the direct result of listening and connecting with the adolescents in the group; in doing this, I have not only listened but heard the students express what is important to them.


Enter sixteen-year-old Amelia. This past CLTL group was her third time participating and it was completely voluntary. She was an active participant and missed only one class, because she was moving back home. Amelia said, on more than one occasion, “We need more programs like this. It really helps.” Her sincerity is reflected in her not being required to attend the class; nevertheless she was a faithful participant.


Erin is another sixteen-year-old girl who also thought we needed more programs. She enjoyed the book we read, The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin. The book was about an unfit mother and her three children. As part of our writing assignment, the class wrote letters to their moms expressing everything that they are thankful for. Erin is fluent in American Sign Language and had always been uncomfortable publicly signing to her mother. At our CLTL graduation ceremony, Erin signed the thank you letter she had written to her mom as it was being read.


Yolanda is a thirteen-year-old who absolutely loved our class. She was always getting into trouble at school, but always shined in our classes. Yolanda often said she wished English at school was like this. Unfortunately, Yolanda was locked up before our graduation; the first thing she did was call a lawyer to ask if she could be placed in the next class when she is released.  Stella Ribeiro (probation officer) and I are looking forward to her return.


The teens that we work with have multi-faceted problems: drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, poor home lives, gang involvement, peer pressure, and many other issues present in today’s society. For three hours, every week, the students are able to liberate themselves from the challenges of their world; how do they escape? Many would not believe the answer–literature.         


I don’t think the students like the class because of the books we read, but rather what the books provide. We read, journal, and discuss; this is the key to getting through to the participants. The characters from the pages suddenly become real people that we can analyze and learn from. We have had many healthy debates, learned from the students, and they from us. The classes offer a safe environment because we are all there for the same reason. Students aren’t graded, judged, or tested but are appreciated. The focus is on them, their insight into the literature, and how situations are applicable in today’s world. It is a safe way to discuss options and choices with only hypothetical consequences.


I had a wise professor who used to speak of “the journey” as being more important than the end. The Changing Lives Through Literature class is an important journey for our youth; it is the catalyst that will transport them from where they have been to somewhere they didn’t think was possible, or know exists.

The Experience of Democracy

photo by trialbyjury on Flickr

Kathy McLellan is the Youth Outreach Librarian at the Johnson County Library in Kansas. From 1998-2008 she facilitated CLTL groups for juvenile offenders and visited residents at the Juvenile Detention Center bringing books and promoting literary discussions.  She is currently working to create an Early Literacy Center for the library.


A recent summons to jury duty reminded me of what it means to be a participating member of a democratic community.  When the judge entered the courtroom, we all rose until he was seated and his first order of business was to explain the reason for that little ritual.  It was, he said, not for him that we stood, but for the robe, a symbol of justice. It struck me as significant that these were his first words to us. I had first met this judge while facilitating a CLTL session. I was reminded of the many CLTL participants I’ve encountered over the past 10 years and thought about the similarities of these two different experiences.


Foremost, serving on a jury can change how an individual thinks of him or her self and society; CLTL practitioners believe that literature is a vehicle for change and a mirror of self in relation to society.  As Professor Waxler says, CLTL is an exploration into the meaning of democracy of which trial by jury is a fundamental right.


Looking around at this ‘jury of peers’ I realized that, like a CLTL group, there was a diverse mix of experience and opinion. Attitudes ranged from those eager to participate to those with a hint of contempt for the system.  Based on their answers to the attorney’s questions and under-the-breath comments, I recognized the cynicism that often shows itself in those first few meetings of a new CLTL session.


The individuals selected as jurors would be called upon to apply their judgment and decision-making skills to the case they heard. The position required a level of commitment and willingness to engage. The jury would engage in focused discussion that would require them to communicate their thoughts and analyze a situation.  There would be disagreement, persuasion and a presentation of various points of view.  Hopefully, the jurors would eventually reach an agreement.  

This type of conversation and commitment strongly resembles the qualities inherent in CLTL classrooms across the country. For both groups, the process is pure democracy at work.  


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Reading: The Gateway to Understanding

the pinballsNicole Beaudoin is a master’s candidate in the Professional Writing Program at UMass Dartmouth. Currently, she works with the University’s web team and teaches Business Communications as a TA. She has a passion for literature, writing and especially dogs. 


Personal growth and understanding usually comes with vast and tumultuous learning experiences. Through life we slowly acquire new skill sets, knowledge about our surroundings, others and ourselves. We see the world and what it has to offer and what it can do to someone, both good and bad.  Simply put: we learn how the world works.

But what happens when we are sheltered from the “real world” by no fault of our own?

One book in particular that coaxed me into reality was The Pinballs by Betsy Byars. This young adult novel chronicles the lives of three foster children living with the Masons, a seasoned foster family. The foster children–Carlie, Harvey and Thomas J.–did not have a stable figure in their lives until they arrive at the Masons. They lived through abuse (emotional and physical), abandonment and the family court system. Bouncing from one place to another, controlled by fate, they are pinballs. Through the course of the novel, they gain each other’s trust and finally become a family.


Reading this novel as a budding teen, experiencing uncertainty, low self-esteem and imbalanced hormone levels, I tried to identify with the characters. They were unlike anyone I had ever met and like everyone I had met all at the same time. The characters were seemingly normal adolescents going through trials that I could never imagine and trying to find their place in world. Our lives, although vastly different, connected on an emotional level.


I recognized myself in these characters. As humans, we share the common bond of human experience. I learned that not everyone lives a serendipitous life but you can endure bad experiences and make the best of your situation.  You have choices in life even though you cannot always control your surroundings. You can heal. You can learn. You can live. You can love.


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Feeling Good

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Gail Mooney is a Professor of Humanities at Middlesex Community College. She formerly facilitated the Concord-Woburn Women’s CLTL Program. Professor Mooney has a background in literature and earned her MFA in Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.


The first time I led a Changing Lives Through Literature group, I found that the learning experience was my own. At the beginning, I had trouble dropping the role of the didact, my teacherly inclination to organize and present my gems of wisdom to them was a hard thing to let go. I realized right away, with the help of the first probation officer, Randy Ryan, that this was not that type of experience.


I found that, with few exceptions, once drawn out, almost all of the women were willing and eager to talk, and that their insights (based not on a referential framework, not academic) were cogent and perceptive. They loved to talk! They had life experiences, which allowed them to relate to the material, and they were most often the wiser for them. In short, they were a lot like all of the women I know.


In addition to that initial delight and surprise at how insightful the women were, facilitating a women’s group has caused me to take a better look at the forces shaping women today. I sort of presumed that most of the probationer-students had gotten into various kinds of trouble because of their bad choices in men. I’m not sure why I assumed that a woman would only get into drug dealing, for example, if there were a man involved or that it had to be a bad relationship that caused the drinking or the fighting. In fact, for most of the women, it seemed to me that the cause of many of their troubles had more to do with lousy childhoods, the presence of learning disabilities, and the product of both: low self-esteem.


They don’t see themselves as victims, though; over and over they say, “It was my own fault.” They even take responsibility for the forces in their lives over which they have little control: “I did lousy in school, even in elementary school. I didn’t try,” or, “I wasn’t interested in school. I was too busy partying.”


I’ve often heard both comments, and I always think, silently, that first, doing poorly in grammar school is rarely the result of poor effort: it usually indicates a learning or emotional problem resulting from the child’s home life. This gets me to that next oft-repeated statement about partying too much: where were the parents? Not there, not available, had their own problems, etc. These were girls generally left on their own with no real sense of community or support.



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