Relating to the Journey of Change

by Rachel Wicks

First, I would like to take a moment to apologize for the posting inconsistency during the past few weeks. I have been extremely sick for the past month and it is unbelievably difficult to compose literature articles with a 101 degree fever.

I’m still not recovered in the slightest, but I refuse to let my responsibilities towards this blog slip through the cracks during the end-of-semester rush. Therefore, without further ado, I would like to discuss active reading strategies.

During my time as the intern for the CLTL blog, there has been one main idea that I have seen continuously referred to again and again: putting one’s self in the shoes of a fictional character. I first encountered this idea when I personally attended one of the CLTL meetings held at UMass Dartmouth, which you can read about here.

When I first started working for the CLTL, I was still rather uncertain on how exactly literature was being used as a means of alternative sentencing. I did not see how reading books could have an effect strong enough to be a form of sentencing in the first place, but on the day I attended the CLTL meeting in person, I finally understood that what makes reading such a powerful method of change is that the readers are being encouraged to actively identify with the characters in the story.

Therefore, I came to the conclusion that members of the CLTL program, both attendees and facilitators alike, undoubtedly benefit from directly employing active reading strategies.

The main strategy in place by the CLTL, of course, is the aforementioned character relating. Most books are written so that the main character is set up to be someone that anyone can relate to, whether the reader is identifying with the situation of the character, the personality, the background, the dialogue, the emotion, etc.

More often than not, the main way that writers can make their characters relatable is by placing them in situations of failure. For example, The Old Man and the Sea would be pretty boring if Santiago had caught that fish on his very first try. It’s through this character’s struggle to succeed that we relate, as opposed to the success itself, since struggle is far more universal than success is.

However, there may one day be a case where relating to a character may be particularly difficult. If this is the case, it can probably be safely assumed that this is a purposeful choice by the writer, but even so it may be necessary to actively force oneself to think from that character’s perspective, instead of being able to slip into their shoes and see out their own two eyes with ease.

Forcing oneself to relate may be difficult at times, but I would argue that stories that are a little harder to relate to can be some of the most powerful. Throughout my readings over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern. When an author writes a character to be particularly unlikable, to the point where one cannot see themselves as the character, this character often undergoes a catharsis throughout the course of the story, and suddenly the reader, who was once so against this character, finds himself sympathetic to the character as they undergo emotional change.

Perhaps the character starts out cold hearted but, in the end, finds love. Perhaps a character begins with an embedded idea that no one is to be trusted, but as the story goes on, they learn to trust and understand that it’s okay to rely on others.

No matter the case, if you encounter a character who, unlike other stories you may have read, is essentially a gaping void of where human empathy should be, watch how they change over time. It’s quite possible that you might find yourself changing with them.


Is Blogging A Threat to Quality Writing?

Literary expression takes many forms; from short stories to expanded documentation covering myriad subjects.  Throughout history, authors have set themselves apart offering written works as diverse as romantic novels and epic tales of adventure, spanning several volumes.  Within each genre, sub-specialists write in styles running the gamut from concise academic form, to sprawling embellishments of everyday encounters.  Thanks to technology and the proliferation of the World Wide Web, there is a relatively new player on the field, begging the question:  Are bloggers a threat to literary integrity?

Motivation Dictates Value

Before people had pencils and pens, drawings and symbols left on cave walls were effective communication.  So who took responsibility for preserving thoughts in this way?  The cave people skilled at drawing most likely bore much of the burden, but lesser illustrators surely weighed in too.  As communication became more important to society, formalizing language and alphabets, more and more people took up writing as a form of expression.  Early writers were not necessarily highly-skilled. But they wrote anyway, because they could. So the slippery slope of unskilled writers sharing ideas, whether or not they have the slightest clue how to do it properly, is nothing new.

It could even be argued that the same motivation existed for cave drawers as for some of today’s bloggers.  Fame and recognition, the desire to be heard and remembered, are motivators for taking pens to paper, charcoal to cave walls, and most recently, fingertips to keyboards.  What has changed over time is the relative importance of fame, heightened in an information age placing great emphasis on celebrity and adulation.

The evolution of the World Wide Web continues to change the landscape for fame-seekers.  An instant audience, perhaps millions, is a powerful draw for those committed to being noticed.  As a result, many bloggers put the cart before the horse; adding to the blogosphere, before they really have something to say.  Blogging’s greatest threat to quality writing is found among ‘vanity’ blogs, serving only their authors; rather than informative, relevant content shared by capable writers blogging online.

Blog Economics

In addition to personal rewards for bloggers, the practice of sharing online carries cash benefits, once bloggers establish followings.  Unfortunately, poorly written blogs yield returns for bloggers able to draw traffic, in spite of themselves.  When poor content is rewarded with cash, it might appear as though it undermines quality writing, but it may be too soon to judge.

Blogging is an evolving pursuit, subject to corrections as it matures into a long-term phenomenon. And just as competition influences other economic trends, bloggers face free market influences, which may eventually serve to elevate good writing and take incentives away from bloggers spewing drivel.

Purely promotional blog content, disguised as education, is increasingly being called-out for what it is, filtering-out blogs without intrinsic value. Spam gives blogs a bad name, but it also makes legitimate content shine amid the noise.  In other words, bloggers with something meaningful to share will prevail, but only with a firm commitment to high quality content, and perseverance sharing their messages.

Discouraging signs may show themselves in the short-term, but blogging is not a threat to quality writing over the long haul.


This guest post is contributed by Rebecca Gray, who writes for She welcomes your comments at her email:

Changing Lives through Literature in Action

The following post was written for the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries blog. The personal story that is included, I feel, exemplifies what is at the heart of the Changing Lives through Literature program. The original post can be found here.



An alternative sentencing program has been reducing recidivism in Massachusetts for over twenty years.  In 1991, UMASS-Dartmouth Literature Professor Robert Waxler, Judge Robert Kane and Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre started the program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.”  For 12 to 14 weeks, probationers, Judges and probation officers read and discuss six or seven literary works. The program ends with a graduation ceremony in a full courtroom.
 At the twenty year anniversary, the Trial Court participated in a day-long symposium to assess the program’s  impact. Numerous testimonials and studies proving the success of the program have been listed on the CLTL website.
“I was walking through the streets of the city the other night,” a student in Robert Waxler’s class told him once. “It could have been any city, any street, any of us. ‘And I was thinking about Santiago [ in Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea ],’ he continued. ‘I came to a corner where all my old buddies hang out up the street. You know, I’ve been struggling to stay clean for a long time. But I was depressed. So I began to make the turn, to go down that street, back to the old neighborhood. Then I heard him, the old man. It was like listening to his voice. I remembered how he had gone out each day for almost three months without catching a fish. He hadn’t caught anything, but he still got up each morning, tried it again. He must have felt terrible, but he didn’t give up. So I didn’t make the turn that day. Stayed strong. Thanks to the old man. I heard him.’ “

                                                                               Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

Last May, the Trial Court announced that it will be expanding the program to reach more Courts and more probationers. Herein is “What you need to know about Changing Lives Through Literature.”

Three ways literature can help criminal offenders make better decisions

By Jack Meyers

As alternative sentencing gains in popularity, many will wonder just how this form of “punishment” enlightens offenders. Instead of sticking people in jail to think about what they have done—usually devising better ways to be criminals—literature and support groups can help offenders realize how their decisions affect those around them.

Characters and stories in literature can impact how an individual processes information. A well written novel correlating to an offender’s specific crime can create more of a positive impact on the offender’s mind, compared to being locked up. How can literature be so inspiring to those who read it?

1. Caring about what happens
Well written novels can develop characters that readers can connect with on an emotional level. These connections can stir emotions as tribulations unfold within the novels causing readers to care about what happens to the characters.

Connecting with literary characters can lead offenders to emotionally bond with the stories. Understanding the characters’ decisions can help offenders begin to understand why circumstances happen and how to deal with them in ways other than breaking the law.

2. Analyzing the affects of actions
If offenders can discover how their actions affect the world around them, it could lead to enlightening realizations of how their actions hurt those involved.

The imagination is a powerful tool. It can create objects of wonder or items of destruction. Using their imaginations could help them realize the damage they have wrought with their actions. By helping offenders analyze their circumstances in relation to literature, there is a good chance that they will have an epiphany about their own experiences and how their surroundings were affected.

3. Getting support
One of the most important aspects of alternative sentencing through literature is the presence of supportive individuals who help offenders discuss the nature of each chosen novel.
Most of the support groups using alternative sentencing methods consist of visits by parole officers and the judges who sentenced the offenders. This could be a vital piece of the puzzle—it shows the offenders that there are those that care about whether they succeed or not.

Whether it is the Bible or a coveted novel, the stories and characters in books can reveal a lot about who you are. This isn’t saying that books can cure all criminal intentions, but they can go a long way in helping some offenders see how their actions can lead to a ripple effect in the pond of life.

Jack Meyers is a regular contributor for As a detective he wants to spread the knowledge of the terrible things that can happen when people don’t fully verify the credentials of a caregiver or any employee. He also writes for various law enforcement blogs and sites.

Woman of the Year embraces alternative sentencing

Judge Bettina Borders, of Bristol County Juvenile Court, was named 2012 SouthCoast Woman of the Year. She made “contributions to the community as a justice and activist,” according to the New Bedford (MA) Standard-Times. Her work includes making use of alternative sentencing programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature.

Read reporter Natalie Sherman’s full article about this amazing Woman of the Year.

Is someone in your community changing lives for the better? Tell us about that person.

To submit brief comments, use the comments link at the top of this post. To submit longer comments, or to include images, email me at

We look forward to hearing about the remarkable, and perhaps under-recognized, people in your communities.

–Nancy E. Oliveira, Editor

A year-end letter to our readers


Nancy E. Oliveira, blog editor

Nancy E. Oliveira, blog editor

Dear Readers,

As we approach the end of 2012, let’s take a moment to reflect on this year’s successes—big and small—of Changing Lives Through Literature and other alternative sentencing programs.

Our purpose

We are the official blog of Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL)—an alternative sentencing program “based on the power of literature to transform lives through reading and group discussion,” as well-stated on the official CLTL website.

The main purpose of the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog is to support CLTL. This blog provides a place to discuss:

  • CLTL and other alternative sentencing programs that reduce criminal recidivism or change lives for the better—share news, concerns, successes, difficulties, and ideas
  • Literature—recommend stories that inspire; talk about literary events that enlighten
  • Criminal justice reform and other relevant criminal justice topics of today—discuss what works and what changes still need to take place

A milestone reached: 200 posts

We reached a milestone this year—we published our 200th post. Please continue to join us as we embark on our next 200. Also, while CLTL has been around since 1991, this blog turned four years old last month. Let’s look forward to the next four years and beyond.

Thank you

Thank you for contributing your thoughts, experiences, and insights to this blog. Also, thank you for reading it! We hope you find its content meaningful and valuable.

A call to action: share your 2012 success stories

We invite you to share your CLTL (or similar program) successes of 2012. We encourage you to use this blog to share your answers to any of these questions:

  • How did your CLTL group or similar program succeed in 2012?
  • What breakthroughs were experienced?
  • What piece of literature did you or someone in your program find most inspiring?

For shorter comments, please use the leave a comment link at the top of this post and enter your reply. For longer comments, or to include images, submit up to 700 words to for publication on this blog.

We also welcome your thoughts on what you’d like to read on this blog for the upcoming year.

Again, thank you for helping to make this blog, CLTL, and similar programs a success.


Nancy E. Oliveira

Editor of Changing Lives, Changing Minds—a Changing Lives Through Literature blog

Photo taken by JoAnne Breault.

Rehabilitation through reading: an opportunity to self-reflect and gain perspective

By Sara Dawkins

While reading, you use your imagination to visualize a story’s characters as if they’re starring in a movie within your mind. Although the author’s words greatly impact the flow of your mind-movie, your imagination fills in the blanks. Reading about characters who have similar circumstances to yours can help shed light on your own situation. This is one of the base beliefs behind the alternative sentencing program called Changing Lives Through Literature. How can literature encourage positive change in a criminal’s way of thinking?

1. Reflection:  When offenders openly analyze their own lives through literary characters, they get a chance for inner reflection that they may never have explored before. They put themselves in the spotlight for self-examination.

2. Positive Role Models:  After ordering CLTL classes as part of sentencing, judges may attend the classes involving the offenders-turned-students. By contributing to the literary discussions, the judges start becoming positive role models in the students’ lives—possibly changing how the students view the world. Parole officers can become role models just as much by participating in the students’ progress in the classes. This can greatly increase the chances of rehabilitation and reduce the likelihood of re-offending.

3. Self-Worth:  In order for the program to work, students must have a capacity to accept responsibility for their actions. Students must show and demonstrate that they can be proactive in their own rehabilitation. For some, it is difficult to rely only on themselves to stay motivated enough for better lives.  Family histories can be pivotal to how students adapt to this method of rehabilitation.

4.  Perspective:  This alternative method of sentencing is more than just a book club. The literary works chosen reflect students’ lives—either through the characters or the situations. It’s a way for students to examine their actions from the perceptions of others. As their imaginations explore the settings, the literature often drives a point home better than more jail time would.

5. Safety:  The philosophy behind CLTL is such that it allows students to feel safe when discussing literature. Students open themselves up and discuss the actions of literary characters, and how the characters relate to themselves.

Alternative sentencing methods for criminal offenders has had great success. Support is growing for methods such as these. Words can be powerful to those who are open to their meanings. We should embrace the success of CLTL and support rehabilitation over punishment to those who need it and who are willing to benefit from it.

Sara Dawkins is an active nanny as well as an active freelance writer. She is a frequent contributor of

Drug Court and Other Options in Alternative Sentencing

By Robert McGale

Alternative sentencing is gaining acceptance in today’s judicial system. The county jails and state prisons are filled to over-capacity. In some prisons, portions of the prison general population are crammed into large auditoriums. Fights erupt often, and prison guards face many dangers. Something proactive needed to be done to decrease the number of people incarcerated in America’s penal institutions.

Rehabilitation versus Correction
Prisons used to be institutions for rehabilitating felons to eventually re-enter society and become productive citizens. For the most part, this did not happen. Inmate drug programs were abysmal, million dollar failures. Prisons in the U.S.A. evolved into revolving doors for drug offenders and other felons. In one state, the prison system was, for decades, called the Department of Rehabilitation. It was ultimately renamed the Department of Corrections because nobody was getting rehabilitated.

Drug Court Instead of the State Penitentiary
Drug Court is an alternative sentence option with a long waiting list. When a drug offender appears before the judge at his or her arraignment, the Public Defender requests Drug Court in lieu of serving time in the state penitentiary. The defendant is put on a waiting list. When the drug offender’s name reaches the top of the waiting list, he or she begins participating in Drug Court.

A large treatment facility is contracted by the state to do drug rehabilitation, and a commissioner or judge is designated to preside over the Drug Court Program. Monday through Thursday of each week Drug Court participants attend outpatient drug rehabilitation where they are taught techniques in relapse prevention and undergo other addiction treatment and behavioral therapy. Drug Court participants learn how to confront daily situations without the use of drugs.

All Drug Court participants are drug tested at random during the week. Those that test positive for drugs are sentenced by the judge to a week in the county jail. A Drug Court participant is permitted to have two positive drug tests, but on the third positive test, the drug offender is sentenced to state prison to serve the remainder of his or her sentence.

All Drug Court members attend court on Friday. Members are also promoted to higher levels of treatment while in front of the judge on Fridays. When a Drug Court member has completed the entire program, which is usually around 18 months long, a graduation is held. Drug Court has a much lower recidivism rate than incarceration.

More Options in Alternative Sentencing
Another alternative sentence is the Work Release Program. Inmates are released during the day to work and then return to prison at night. Some states enable felons to serve their jail time on the week-ends. Community service and the installation of a breathalyzer device in an alcohol offender’s car are two other very common alternative sentences. House arrest, in conjunction with the wearing of an ankle device, has proven to be effective in curbing crime and decreasing prison overcrowding.

Robert McGale is a law enthusiast since experiencing a difficult time a few years ago. He is currently working on his law degree at Osgoode Hall Law School and interning at a Toronto criminal law office. If you have been charged with a criminal offense he recommends contacting Morrie Luft, Criminal Defence Lawyer.

CLCM Monthly Reader: January

NEAcoverNational Endowment for the Arts: Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy

A new report from the NEA reveals that reading is on the rise among Americans. From Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA:

“For the first time in over a quarter-century, our survey shows that literary reading has risen among adult Americans. After decades of declining trends, there has been a decisive and unambiguous increase among virtually every group measured in this comprehensive national survey.”

Gioia is optimistic about the results.”Cultural decline is not inevitable,” he argues. “For those of us who have studied the impact of active and engaged literacy on the lives of individuals and communities, Reading on the Rise provides inspiring news.”

Print and electronic media are buzzing about the NEA report. A Google news search reveals 42 publications reporting on the news, with the Google blog search uncovering over 2,000 blogs talking about the topic.

The Washington Post’s Ann Patchett echoes Gioia’s excitement and emphasizes the importance of reading. “Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone,” she explains. “It gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin.”

Others are more cautious about what the results of the NEA’s report mean and take issue with the study’s design. Kassia Krozser over at Booksquare says of the report, “It defines reading very narrowly. Not only does it refuse to acknowledge that there are many readers who read for pleasure but don’t read “literary” works — think of those readers who derive great enjoyment from a steady diet of, oh, historical biography — but it doesn’t explore different types of reading.”

Brandon from Flap Copy questions the study’s lack of differentiation in the type of reading performed by participants. “The cautionary wisdom of Mark Twain keeps running through my mind,” he writes. “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

photo by sarilonka on stock.xchng

Higher Ed: Viewing is the new reading

Over at the Higher Ed blog, David Eubanks has written an interesting piece in which he argues that digital media are rapidly replacing print media. While electronic texts are becoming increasingly popular, Eubanks argues our interactions with the printed word are turning away from “reading” and towards “viewing.”

He examines the future of college textbooks in light of this shift, proposing that technical disciplines will easily make the shift to electronic alternatives in the future, but courses that require lengthy readings and intense concentration will still fall back on the printed page. He writes,

Imagine a best case, where you are curled up with a computer with a big beautifully optimized screen for reading. You open up A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and begin reading where you left off. Then an icon at the bottom of the screen flickers–you have a new facebook message. Or your calendar pops up with a reminder that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Or (more likely) Windows wants to reboot itself because it just downloaded a patch. If your mind wanders at all, you may want to google a strange word, or look up Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s biography. Now imagine trying to do the same with an organic chemistry textbook instead, where more discipline is required to stay on task.

Click the link below to read more interesting stories and reports from January!

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