A Lesson at the Chalkboard

James Tackach is a professor of English at Roger Williams University.  He taught at the Rhode Island Adult Correctinal Institution from 1979 through 1981 in a program offered by Rhode Island College.

Teaching prison inmates, which I did for a couple of years three decades ago, was serious business. But whenever anyone asks me about the time I spent teaching in the maximum security unit of the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institution (ACI), through a federal program housed at Rhode Island College, I generally recall the lighter, less serious moments.

The forbidding maximum security unit of the Rhode Island ACI does not appear to be fertile ground for humor. The main building is a big, gray, ugly stone structure that might suggest a mid-19th-century factory at best and a medieval dungeon at worst. To get to the section of the unit that held a couple of seedy classrooms, I had to pass through a metal detector and two sets of barred doors, then walk past the rows of confining cells that housed the inmates. It was a very serious place.

Yet some of the funniest moments of my teaching career occurred in this humorless place. One comes vividly back to my mind every time I have to hunt for a piece of chalk in a classroom.

The classrooms at the ACI were minimally equipped: student desks, a desk in front of the room on which I could sit during class, a paint-stained blackboard on the front wall. Sometimes there was chalk in the blackboard chalk tray; often there wasn’t. I like to write terms, draw pictures, and do all sorts of scribbling on the blackboard during a class session, and the lack of chalk was a serious impediment to my teaching style. And try to find a piece of chalk in a maximum security prison—finding a snow shovel in a Florida garage might be easier.

A few weeks into one semester at the ACI, having had to teach two or three chalk-less class sessions, I decided to solve my problem for the remainder of the semester. At that time in my life, I was without a full-time teaching position, so I strung together two or three adjunct gigs to earn a salary that paid my bills. The course at the ACI was one source of income. I also taught a couple of courses at Roger Williams College (RWC), now Roger Williams University, and I did some freelance technical writing as well.

At RWC, a private college in Bristol, Rhode Island, chalk was plentiful. Each of the classrooms in which I taught had dozens of pieces of chalk lying on the blackboard chalk trays. One day, knowing that I would be teaching at the ACI that evening, I grabbed a handful of chalk from the RWC classroom in which I was teaching and threw the pieces into my briefcase for use later at the ACI.

That evening at the ACI, I was trying to lead my student inmates through a discussion of a short story that I’ve now forgotten in an Introduction to Fiction course. I needed to write a term on the blackboard, but, as usual, there was not a piece of chalk to be found. No problem. I opened my briefcase and grabbed the handful of chalk that I had stored there earlier in the day and put the chalk on the blackboard tray.

“Now I’ll have enough chalk for the rest of the semester,” I told my student inmates. “And do you guys know where that chalk came from?” I asked. No one offered a response. “I stole the chalk from Roger Williams College!” I proudly announced.

Immediately a roar of approval came from my students. “He stole the damn chalk!” one student shouted. “He stole the chalk!” The students started excitedly high-fiving one another. Several broke out in applause.

Yes, I, too, was a criminal in my students’ eyes—a thief to be exact. For a moment, the teacher, a young man who had toed a very straight line through life—high school, college, graduate school, never breaking anything more than the speed limit law—and the inmates, some of whom had done dreadful things, had something in common. Moreover, I had broken the law—stolen something—and, apparently, had gotten away with it. That earned my students’ admiration. I could have purchased a box of chalk cheaply enough at a stationery store, but it seemed so much more satisfying, and appropriate, to steal the chalk and smuggle it into the ACI.

From that moment on, I had a certain street credibility in that ACI classroom. Did I change any lives by leading the student inmates through riveting discussions of short stories and novels? I cannot say for certain that I did. But at least I had those students’ attention for the remainder of the semester—and plenty of chalk for every classroom session.


12 thoughts on “A Lesson at the Chalkboard

  1. James: Thanks for the tip here about how to keep attention in the classroom. For me, the real challenge these days is how to get student attention with all the electronic gadgets buzzing through the classroom space. Any ideas on that?

  2. James, my guess is that you did affect some lives teaching that course. Once you established your “street cred,” I bet your students focused more intently on what you said and walked away from the class with an admiration for more than your talent as a criminal.

  3. James,
    this is a funny blog that made me laugh out loud; but it is also quote serious. I am glad you too the the time to describe the conditions of the ACI, and the room there in which you taught; those details are intriguingly disturbing. Even through terrible conditions – like having no chalk to teach – you found ways to persevere. And in your perseverance, you unintentionally found a way to build community.

  4. It sounds like a comical and memorable experience. You described it well, too. Your story really got the point across.

    I liked that you succeeded in gaining the inmates’ trust by smuggling chalk.

    Whether it is a group of inmates, or a group of college students, respect and trust is important in any classroom. If a student cannot trust a teacher, how can they trust the material that is taught?

  5. I think it’s really great that you turned what could have been a very tough situation into a humorous one that you will never forget.
    We are often taught that you need to find something in common with the students you are working with and that sometimes can be a very difficult thing.
    It also seems like stealing the chalk wasn’t a pre-meditated thing and it was sort of an in the moment, I know there won’t be any chalk there so they won’t miss any if i just take some. This act that took about 2 seconds to do in turn made a huge difference in the teaching job at the prison.

  6. I feel like this can offer up an overall lesson about how to relate to students. You (purposely or not) found a way to gain some respect. Having respect from students automatically helps a teacher to succeed in teaching students. I know that I always paid more attention in class to teachers that I had more respect for, or felt like I could relate to. Creating this kind of respect may be difficult for teachers, but once it’s established it serves as an invaluable tool. I feel like it would be a lot easier in many cases for a younger teacher to gain respect because they are closer in age to students. However, I think that humor is the easiest way for teachers of all ages to try and connect with students.

  7. This was an excellent example proving that being able to relate to students is definitely a way of “grabbing their attention”. When a teacher demonstrates that he or she can relate to the students, students are feel as though they are not being taught by someone who completely does not understand. Although a student’s perspective on life may be significantly different from a teacher’s, teachers need to be able to get students motivated in learning. This example with stealing chalk showed the students that really, teachers are exactly like students.

  8. This is the stuff of a Hilary Swank inspirational movie. Humor is the superglue of a successful teacher-student relationship. What you were teaching that day (a piece of fiction which you admit to having forgotten now, and that the inmates may have erased from their memories, as well) I’m sure paled in comparison to what you actually ended up being taught. These inmates, whose deviancy ranged from traffic violation to life revocation, saw you as a person they could connect to through one small remark on your part.

  9. That’s a great story. Its funny how simple little moments like that probably help teachers and students relate just a little more to each other and it probably did get the prisoners to pay a little extra attention, at least for that session. Its moments like that which help to make teachers appear more human, more down to earth, and thus a little easier to try to relate to.

  10. That was a really interesting story. There is no better way to connect with the students then to just make them laugh, whether it be at you or with you. Something like this makes it a lot easier for the students and helps them become more interested in listening to what you have to say.

  11. Wow–I’m surprised by the number of comments, all very positive. No one accused me of setting a bad example for my inmate-students by stealing chalk.

    Maybe there is a teaching tip lodged in what I remember as merely a humorous incident that occurred 30 years ago. Connect with students, build trust and credibility (beyond your degrees and other credentials). See the world from your students’ point of view.

    James Tackach

  12. Pingback: Aesthetic Tragedy, New York Times Style: Mime Panic Buttons Defunded in California « Crime Victims Media Report

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