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.”
When I asked Mike about forming relationships with students, he explained he shows up early for class and talks to the kids before it starts. He also speaks with them during breaks and tries to use those conversations to promote discussion in class.
“I would describe my role as . . . I don’t want to use the word friend, but I try to make the group a family,” he explains. “There is a lot of gang verbiage that uses the theme of ‘family’ as well. I learn things that their probation officer never finds out; I learn secrets and it’s easy for me to go off the record because I’m a lawyer. I want to build their trust, so if they ask me about their cases and the law, I’ll give them legal advice. If they can trust me, then they’ll open up to me, and that’s when the sessions really start making a difference.”
Another topic I wanted Mike’s opinion on was student apathy. In my experiences working with young offenders, they often display a ‘so what?’ attitude about the world around them. How then, I asked, does he deal with disinterest or incomplete assignments? “The first thing I ask kids is if they did the assignment? If a student hasn’t, I ask the rest of the kids not to talk to that student and I let them do the reading while the rest of us discuss.”
“When they don’t do their work, I ask about it during the break. Being a lawyer, I don’t always accept their first reason. I ask a series of questions about what’s doing on, usually, ‘I’m busy’ turns into ‘I’m having problems at home.’ I simply ask the students to do their readings because it’s not fair to the rest of the kids. I recommend they leave the book beside their bed and read a few pages a night, or take it with them on the bus. I tell every student that this isn’t like school: They all have an A, they just have to keep it. My goal is to have these kids not get in trouble again and understand themselves better, make better choices, and get caught up in the mob mentality by following whatever their friends are doing all the time. I always stress that they’re independent people and they don’t have to be followers.”