The two moments you know they’ve succeeded

by Lance Eaton

I’m a newbie to Changing Lives Through Literature, so what I say here might seem old-hat to some or naive to others. I’m about two-thirds through my second group and there are two moments in the program that I find most rewarding.

I choose a mixture of challenging and strange texts. There’s a method to my madness in terms of the range and type, as well as the alignment, but I often get raised eyebrows from the participants and even the parole officers. The texts are evocative, usually leading the participants to come in with clear opinions. These opinions are usually a mixture of confusion, frustration, and dislike because the readings don’t always have clear endings and are sometimes outright confusing.

As participants enter, they’re often ready to engage with the story, sometimes venting before the meeting starts. They want answers to what they just experienced, which is always great to see. You know you’ve chosen a good text if you have to encourage them to refrain from discussing it too early.

The first moment of success is towards the end of the session. After spending nearly two hours discussing the text, the tide turns. Frustration and confusion give way to excitement and enthusiasm. Opinions move from disliking to liking, or at least a better appreciation of the story. It’s worth doing a quick poll at the beginning and at the end about participants’ feelings on the story to see what has changed.

It’s the change of opinion and thought about the story that I think is most important because it’s the best indicator of their learning and investment in the process. The program’s charge to change lives is generated by learning, which happens when there is investment. However, the program (rightfully) doesn’t require any more than participation: read, show up, discuss. This formula in itself doesn’t guarantee learning. We’ve all met on rare occasions the person who resists learning and performs the bare minimum. But overwhelmingly, the participants do so much more. Therefore, any change of opinions and thoughts becomes an indicator of their investment and their learning, which sets them down the path of changing their lives.

The second moment of success happens sometime past the half-way mark in the program. By this point, a sense of rhythm and expectation has been established. Participants know what to expect of the facilitator and the facilitator is familiar with the rhythm of the meetings. It’s usually around this point that the participants start to make the observation that the readings are “easier”. It becomes clear that they’re picking up on more ideas and significance within the stories. It’s usually around this time that I start to hear lines like, “This was easy” or “I knew what was going to happen after that first sentence”.

I mark this as success because the readings themselves don’t necessarily get easier. In fact, I often choose increasingly harder texts, recognizing that with the flow established, they’ll begin to feel more comfortable with more difficult texts. This comfort stems from knowing we will clarify things they don’t understand. However, their remarks indicate they’re developing stronger reading and analytical skills. They often overlook this but I take the time to draw out the point. When I do, I see not only smiles about the fact, but also realizations about their own abilities. It’s a great moment for facilitator and participant. It’s the crux of why we’re all sitting in the room, and it’s proof positive that their lives have value and meaning and that they have some control over it.

These two moments are part of the major reason I enjoy Changing Lives Through Literature. I don’t believe that the program directly produces grand change in every participants’ lives. But I believe the nature of the program does set them down the path of learning, self-reflection, and inner-value, which can change their lives in the long run.

Lance Eaton is an instructional designer at North Shore Community College, where he also teaches courses in American Literature, popular culture, and comics. He writes for several magazines and websites. He also serves as a social media consultant for several companies. His musings, reflections, and ramblings can be found at his blog or you can find out more about him on his website.

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