Changing Lives Through Literature: A Sentencing Option that Works (Part 2)

By Tam Neville

After lunch the group heard a presentation on “Research: Does it work?” led by Ron P. Corbett Jr. He began by saying that evidence-based practices are used in many settings.

Is there empirical support for what you do?

Is it having the effects you want on the people you work with?

All in Changing Lives Through Literature believe that it does change lives. A recidivism study has recently been done at UMass/Boston by retired professor Taylor Stoehr, Professor of Sociology, Russell Schutt, and Associate Professor, faculty member of the Criminal Justice Program, Xiaogang Deng. The study showed a reduction in offending for CLTL graduates.

Do we have the ability to help people reduce offending sometimes or altogether?

There was an experimental group and a control group. We looked at behavior 18 months before CLTL and 18 months after CLTL. There were 600 participants in the study. There was a 60 % drop for CLTL participants and 16% for others. Both the number and severity of incidents were reduced. Also the participants worked with a parole officer and took one other program (such as substance abuse, batterers, etc.).

What is it about Changing Lives that leads to a reduction in offending? What is the link between graduates of the program and those who offend less? Stoehr reports on this study:

“This group was larger than the Jarjoura/Rogers study and ran for a longer time. We had five jurisdictions: New Bedford, Lynn/Lowell, Dorchester, and two smaller courts. We had a larger range of information.

For the probationers, someone was paying attention to them. This is what was missing from their lives. In the Dorchester men’s class we have big groups so we break them up into smaller groups. Once in a class discussion, we had five guys who were great talkers, all talking at once. Then one held up his hand and said, “This is what our problem is, we don’t listen, we just talk.” Moments like this begin to happen in the third class. The process is unpredictable. You let go of controls. In Dorchester we don’t stick so hard to the text. The main thing is what happens in the classroom.

In the Dorchester program, we have a set of questions that we work with that go in a sequence. For example: What does it take to grow up? Does anybody ever learn things in school? And towards the end of the semester – What does it take to hit bottom? The questions get bigger and bigger.

In mid-semester we ask, “What is your evaluation of street smarts?” By this time there is trust. On street smarts – almost all are proud of their street smarts. The staff has a different view: street smarts prevent you from learning anything new. Many students cling to street smarts. The most important thing about Changing Lives is that people belong to a community that has the same concerns that they have. We have so little of that in America – where does that happen in your life? That makes a huge difference in what you do with your life.”

Books bring universality. A student realized, “I’m not the only one with this problem.” Through books students learn how to fight with words, not fists. They build a community together.

Reading is a cognitive behavior intervention – it makes thinking more flexible and more expansive, more empathetic.

The program boosts self-esteem too. To have a conversation with a judge can boost a student’s confidence. A student completes an assignment, voices an opinion, and is listened to.

Judge Kane said, “We’ve had the program for 20 years and there has never been a scary incident in these years. We get gratitude from our students.”

Judge Dever said, “People come into the program looking at life subjectively. In this program, through literature, they start looking at life objectively. This changes their ability to communicate. This then may help them with job interviews, things they thought were unattainable.

Reading slows you down – you have to find a quiet place and be by yourself. This is new for them – it leads to self-reflection.”

Stoehr talked about juveniles saying, “They don’t’ have a place to go with no noise and they’re full of hormones. Think of something you can do at the meeting, very short things (maybe rap), something that gives them a little challenge at the moment.”

Teresa Owens (PO, Taunton Division) said, “CLTL gives them a safe setting. One thing that always came out of the Dorchester women’s class was the question of choices. Were there other choices I could have made? Or, you can go to someone else to ask and say ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Also, people in class were accountable to each other in terms of doing the reading, homework, etc.”

CLTL is a team experience. When people have a chance to reflect on choices, this is their time, a time they can actually think. They don’t have that luxury in their lives. In CLTL they learn that there are more options, more choices.

Professor Waxler said, “We collectively make a community. The activity is primarily verbal. Reading brings engagement with narrative – you see that you are connected to other people. The story that I just read is my story too. Then discussion with everyone sitting around a table, there’s an open relationship between our experience and narrative. Story gives us meaning and helps us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.”

To begin the final session, a probation officer new to the program spoke using herself as an example. She said, “Say I want to start a program. How do I get a judge involved, a facilitator, and probation officers?”

Judge Kane answered her on the matter of judicial involvement. “At least have someone who will let you run the program. You will need a judge’s support to get POs behind it. Having a judge is very important.”

Jean Trounstine added, “Get a judge talking to a judge. This will increase the chance of their going to class. You then have to go out and find facilitators.”

Someone else commented, “You have to get the judge to commit to an incentive if CLTL is not a condition of probation.”

The question of incentive: Outcomes are more positive where a court can create incentives such as six months off probation period, discount on supervision fees, etc. This information is in the literature and on the website. Dee Kennedy pointed out that, “Many students start off by saying, ‘I never would have taken this without the time off’ but by graduation, their attitude has changed.”

To find a facilitator ask Jean Flanagan. Jean Trounstine added, “Try to find a facilitator who has a connection with a school. It’s good to have a school as a place to meet. Call an English department. We can help you – you don’t need to do this in a vacuum.”

Ideally, a university campus is the best place to hold a class. The students get a taste of college life and it makes them proud to go to a college campus. This is especially important with juveniles.

To start a class, ask probation officers to recruit students from among their probationers. Myrna Thornquist (PO, Waltham District Court) advised, “I check a person out – do they like to read? What is their education? In the beginning I don’t tell them what I’m thinking – that they would be a good candidate. I do a little research on a person. Then, are they interested? Sometimes it takes 6-12 months to be sure of someone as a candidate.”

On books, Jean Trounstine said, “We give the students the books, they don’t buy them and the facilitator is reimbursed for these. We also encourage every student to get a library card.”

How many students should be in a class? We have had classes with 5 or with 13. Taylor Stoehr said, “One day we had 50. We split into two groups, then used small groups of 4 to 5.”

Any staff has to be regular. It’s important that all the staff agrees on the class ground rules. If we have an issue sometimes we talk about it afterwards. For the most part we tell the students, be sober and straight, do your homework and be on time.”

For the graduation ceremony, the Lynn/Lowell programs hold graduation in the court house during the first session. Those in the dock witness graduation. The graduates receive books and a certificate. It’s a day for celebration.

This meeting was a very successful one and we now have several courts who are interested in starting a program. We need facilitators. If you, or anyone you know, would like to facilitate a Changing Lives Program please get in touch with Jean Trounstiine at:


Changing Lives Through Literature: A Sentencing Option that Works (Part 1)

By Tam Neville

This program is a great experiment about what democracy can mean. All masks, roles, hierarchies, fall away. There is a moment of beauty. In a class we have the voice, the breath of human beings, the flow of the human heart.

Dr. Robert P. Waxler


CLTL Program


On May 10, 2012, Judges, probation officers, and facilitators of the Changing Lives Through Literature program met at the Worcester Law Library. The purpose of the meeting was to assist potential participants in starting new programs. There were many new faces in the room and familiar faces too. Despite losing our funding in 2008, we are still going strong with ten programs running in Massachusetts and hopefully, with gatherings like this one, more will follow.

The day began with a presentation of the history of the Changing Lives Through Literature Program led by Hon. Robert J. Kane and Dr. Robert P. Waxler. Judge Kane talked briefly about the first CLTL class that took place in New Bedford with a group of men, all of whom had serious convictions. The idea was to try the new program on the toughest candidates. If it worked on them, that meant the program was sound.

Judge Kane said the program works because “the act of reading and writing allows people to learn, to learn to listen instead of just reacting.”

All programs have autonomy. Dorchester may use just one text, supplemented with stories, Roxbury may use poems, and another program may use film.

Classes democratically respond to works of literature and this dialogue leaves a deposit in everyone. Judge Kane said, “This was dramatically illustrated by a man with a rough history that we had as a student. He was scared and wanted to stir something up. We gave this turbulent student a different point of view that gave him the chance to reflect. I saw him the other day – he gave me a smile and handshake. This student got a different view of a judge. We, in turn, learn to drop any facile notion of what brings an offender into court. Changing Lives brings me energy and a sense of curiosity. CLTL is a vocation. I’d like to thank Ron Corbett whose great support gives us renewed spirit for the future of the program.”

Next Prof. Waxler spoke about the programs history and its implications.

“The center of the program is literature. Literature is one tool we have that can keep people human. Every time we walk into a class we have that possibility. Our program has a different effect than an anger management or a job-hunting class. The program began in l991 with those who had a major offence. We saw how the men in this first class changed. Watching them walk on campus – after 6-7 weeks they looked different, they looked much more like the other students.”

An independent study (the Jarjoura/Rogers study) was done and was helpful in the beginning of the program. It demonstrated that CLTL graduates had a lower rate of recidivism. 45% re-offended in the control group and of the CLTL group only 18% re-offended.

Not only do the students change but probation officers and judges change as well. Judge Dever said, ‘It has been the joy of my judgeship.’”

Waxler continued, “CLTL is a movement, not an organization or institution. We have 12 states that are involved: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Kansas, Texas, Arizona, California, and one program in great Britain. The goal is to have a program in every state, every court. We have three books written about the program, a website, and a blog.

I think the program works because people get excited about reading. Thinking and self-reflection (through the process of reading) can be more exciting than dealing drugs. After the third session one of our roughest students said ‘I never thought I would find anything as exciting as being out on the street selling drugs – but I have.’ Reading and being able to come in and engage in discussion with PO’s, other students, and a judge, was inspirational for him.

This program is a great experiment about what democracy can mean. All masks, roles, hierarchies, fall away. There is a moment of beauty. In a class we have the voice, the breath of human beings, the flow of the human heart. People find their own voice and also participate in a communal voice. Many people are stuck in a perpetual present, repeating the same behavior. As Franz Kafka said, literature can break through that frozen sea within us. When that happens through narrative you feel a stirring of desire. You see the future and remember parts of the past and break out of the prison of present moment.

I will tell you about one night in class, we were reading Sea Wolf by Jack London. The hero is a tough guy, but with some narcissist elements. He believes that might makes right and is stuck in this, can’t move off his own center. In the midst of discussion – one student said, ‘I used to be just like Wolf Larsen.’ He recognized himself but was also saying ‘I am now free of that personality.’ Stories can open things up. People are always more extraordinary than the stereotypes. People in the program feel they are not good people. They are down-and-out and believe others see them this way. As we read we see something different – complex human beings – and the students realize that they have that complexity.”

The second session of the day, led by Jean Trounstine, was on program modeling, or how to teach a particular book or story. The discussion was based on Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson.”

Trounstine began by asking, “What’s the lesson and who learns it?”

One participant said that Miss Moore exposed kids from a poor neighborhood to the outside world. She took them to F.A.O. Schwartz and here they began to learn about a larger world. Here there were new toys with high prices. The children learned that such things existed and about the inequality in the world.

Sylvia was one of the strongest characters of the story. She learns what she didn’t want to see and she says – “Why am I feeling ashamed when I walk into this store?” She didn’t fit in – she felt, “They are better than I am.” In her own world she ruled the roost. The story shows the limitations of poverty and how it’s difficult for people to see beyond it. Sugar expresses the inequality, “You know Miss Moore, I don’t think all of us here eat as much in one year as that sailboat costs.” Miss Moore is a radical in her own way. She was trying to show children that these inequalities exist and that you can work with them.

What was Sylvia’s world view before she goes to F.A.O. Shwartz? Sylvia’s view is, “My world’s ok, don’t rock the boat,” a predicable response. Now she has to look at a bigger picture and this “rocks Sylvia’s boat.”

Sylvia is angry because of her background. This is connected to our own classes and the question of how to draw students out of anger.

When they first go into the store, the children feel, “White people, crazy, wearing fur coats in the summer. But if everything you see glorifies a certain standard of living . . .” The children are frustrated by Miss Moore who says “Where we are is who we are.” She challenges them with the question of how to change this.

Do you like or dislike Miss Moore? She challenges them not with words or morals but by letting them have their own experience. Miss Moore doesn’t care if the children like her. The kids have a grudging respect for her. She is confrontational and persistent.

Taylor Stoehr asked, “What do you do with that anger? You have to learn this yourself. The lesson for us in this story is that the best you can do is open up the world. There is an analogy between Miss Moore and what we do in this program. In CLTL students are self-obsessed but without any self-esteem.”

Jean Trounstine said, “Let’s focus on what I would do with this in a CLTL class. You’re in a room with chairs in a circle. This is a good story to use at the beginning of semester. No one knows anyone. I have everyone read the story together. The students get over any fear of not understanding. Then I ask, ‘What did you get out of the story?’ Then we would start a discussion. It’s important not to instruct, but to choose a story good enough to make them think.”

Waxler added, “I’ve used this in a regular college classroom. Why does Miss Moore have to put it right in their faces – that they are poor? We are left with questions. Unlike other disciplines, literature doesn’t work for solutions.”

Ron Corbett asked, “Is it important that the characters have some characteristics that students have?” Trounstine answered, “I always pick things I think students will relate to. We used Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Once they come to class, they see the book differently.”

Enter a New World with Deep Reading

By Brittany Allcorn

When I was younger all of the children from my neighborhood would normally gather together to play outside, but on one particular day my friends were too busy (having more fun than me!) to come outside. As I was sitting outside on the sidewalk, playing with a twig, or some other earthly thing I had made into a “toy,” a woman came up to me and asked me if I liked to read. At that time, I really hadn’t thought about whether or not I liked to read, but I hesitantly said yes anyway. This kind woman, someone who I had never met before, asked me if I would like to borrow a book. Of course I said yes. I was so bored that I would accept anything to get me away from the boredom of the sweltering, friendless day. The book she leant me was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

It was fantastic! After immersing myself in the world of the endearing characters of the novel, I could answer the question “Do you like to read” with an affirmative yes. Through this book I learned that I don’t have to be sitting on the sidewalk on a sweltering day playing with a stick, I could be sitting in a horse drawn carriage on a bone chilling day with the White Witch. I learned that I could experience whole other worlds and whole other lives. I could be anyone and anywhere I wanted to be. Not only did reading offer me new experiences, but it also offered me new friends. For me, characters aren’t just words on a page. They are real people with desires and emotions. They are people with whom I can sympathize with and develop a connection to.

Having taken a course on literacy in the classroom with Maureen Hall, I have learned that the experiences I felt from reading are greatly embedded in the deep reading process. Deep reading involves readers making a connection to the text in both an imaginative and emotional way. Readers who go beyond the literal meaning of literature and “map” their experiences on to the text are experiencing deep reading.

Robert Waxler and Maureen Hall in their book, Transforming Literacy: Changing Lives through Reading and Writing, explain that, “literature, filled with ambiguity, always opens itself to the reader, calls to the reader, encouraging and demanding that the reader participate in the making of its ongoing meaning.” Narratives have a literal meaning that all readers can understand, but they can also be manipulated by individual readers who develop their own meaning and interpretation of a text based on their own experiences. The meaning readers develop from a text is important because it leads to a better understanding of the self.

I also learned several great ways teachers can incorporate the deep reading process in their classrooms. My personal favorite technique is provoking discussions through questions. These questions should be open-ended, with no right or wrong answers, because these are the types of questions that really get students thinking. Questioning not only guides readers to meaning making, but it can also allow students to make more connections between the characters and their own lives. Questioning is a great practice because it can be done at any stage of the reading process and can lead to better understanding, development, and epiphany of the self.

As Waxler and Hall explain, questioning, or the act of conversation, can spark the desire for, “students [to] wrestle with the story… [and] struggle to make meaning out of their personal and collective experience.” Discussing the text develops a community of learners who are able to learn and grow with one another by sharing their ideas. Understanding the self leads to a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness humans share and the vulnerability every individual has. This recognition allows for deeper discussions and thus a deeper understanding of a text and of the self.

Another important way for a teacher to accurately implement the deep reading process in his or her classroom is by experiencing deep reading firsthand. In order to better understand the experiences of deep reading, teachers should also have this experience. If a teacher has never experienced the process of deep reading he or she will not understand what his or her students are going through and will not know how to encourage students to participate in the process of meaning making that develops from deep reading. When appropriate, teachers can share some of their experiences with their students in order to make a stronger community of learners who feel comfortable enough to discuss their ideas and feelings about the text with not only their peers, but also with the teacher.

Through gaining knowledge of the deep reading process I have learned that my experience as a child reading T. S. Eliot’s work really had an impact on me and that I can share this experience with my own future students. By taking the journey along with the characters in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and by participating in the experience of deep reading as a child, I learned that I disagreed with the White Witch’s methods of power and with Edmund’s original alliance with the witch and betrayal of his brothers and sisters, but more importantly I learned about the power of family and the strength of love and kindness. I was able to make connections between the events in the book and my own life. Without the experience of deep reading I wouldn’t have been able to make these connections and learn from the story. Deep reading has a powerful impact on the individual reading. It can start at any age and can blossom into a better understanding of not only the self, but also of all humanity.