Sunday, March 16, 2008


is it possible to make a difference in a student's education in just one day? i guess it depends on the day.

having taught three inside-out classes in the oregon state penitentiary, i can say with absolute certainty that spending a quarter learning inside a maximum-security prison can change a life. i've seen it happen with my students, both inside (inmates) and outside (osu students). they learn about each other and from each other in ways that forever change their perspectives about crime, conformity, punishment, and prisons.

the challenge for me lately is to figure out if i can extend that kind of learning opportunity to more students in my larger on-campus classes. the first experiment took place this week when i took a dozen osu students into the penitentiary to meet with the lifer's club. for me, the main goal was to humanize the other -- to let the two groups interact and ask each other questions in a relatively informal setting (there were ground rules, of course, including strict limits as to the personal information exchanged. i was in no way bringing a dating pool into the prison). i wasn't sure how much would be accomplished in one 2-hour session, but the students and the lifers were eager for the opportunity to meet. after getting through all the red tape, i was happy to facilitate the meeting between the two groups.

so what was the result? i asked the osu students for feedback and here are excerpts from some of their comments:

Thank you so much for giving me and the other students the opportunity to have an experience such as this one. It has definitely been one of the highlights of my college career. I appreciate it. I thought the lifers were great. I think it's only natural for everyone to be a little nervous at first so I don’t know how to get around that, but they were all very open and respectful, and most were very eager to have discussion after a little warming up. I got so many different perspectives and insights from them, it was very beneficial.

The time we spent with the lifers was really life changing on how I now view prisons and inmates. I had never been to a prison before and definitely have never spoken to a big room of convicts. Every single inmate that I was able to talk with was very respectful of me and the other students in my group. I was surprised that so many had a positive outlook on life, even after being locked up for years and having many years to go until they had a chance of parole and some not even having that chance.

I went into this thinking these are all going to be bad guys with no personality, very mean, no remorse. I was really nervous when they all walked out. But after talking to a lot of them you realize they are humans too.

I would just really encourage those who participated to share with others what you saw, what you experienced, and encourage people to open their eyes and hearts to the idea that these men are PEOPLE, people who have paid a huge debt for their crimes and should be forgiven and given a chance to succeed in life.
so, i guess you can make a significant difference and push the limits of education in one day. it's good to know. tomorrow morning i have a meeting at a correctional facility for girls and young women to discuss ways that my delinquency and sociology of education students might work with them in service-learning projects spring quarter (as in later this month). it will be an enormous amount of work to set it up, but it just may be worth it.

on another note, this blog will be moving to a new address shortly and it looks like we may be gaining new friends and readers in the process. stay tuned...

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