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.”


4 thoughts on “Changing Lives Through Literature: A Sentencing Option that Works (Part 1)

  1. Nice work, as always, Tam. You’ve caught the essence of that wondeful morning. I look forward to Part Two–the summary of the afternoon session that day in Worcester.

  2. More exciting than dealing drugs – yes! This is why CLTL works. I am full of admiration for all your work – facilitators, judges and probations officers alike -and for your enduring commitment to the programme’s principles.

  3. Hi I am 53 now and I participated in this program & I loved it I have not offended
    Since 1999 & it is now 2017 now I highly recommend this program to continue throughout the court system

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