Sunday, January 14, 2007

my first inside-out class

we had our first full-class meeting inside the oregon state penitentiary on wednesday night. i didn't try to cover too much in terms of content; instead, i tried to set the tone and create a comfortable space for all of the students who will share these 10 weeks together. in separate meetings on monday and tuesday, i had asked both the outside (OSU) and the inside (OSP) students to do a little self-assessment and write a page or two for me detailing how they were feeling and what they were thinking going into the first combined class session. many of my inside students are not used to writing much, so they were teasing me already, joking that: "she thinks 2 pages is short." i emphasized that thoughtfulness was more important than length and left it at that.

their essays were, in fact, thoughtful and interesting and i've promised to return them to their writers before our last class so they can compare their early ideas to their thoughts after the course. in general, most of the outside students had never been in a prison and didn't quite know what to expect -- their images of prisons and inmates came mostly from the media, so they were nervous and excited to get a reality check. my inside students were also excited and eager for the opportunity to interact with people from the outside world. some were also anxious that after serving a number of years in prison, they may have forgotton how to communicate with "free" people.

while i was able to select my 15 inside students and 15 outside students from motivated pools of potential classmates, i had no control over the correctional officer we would be working with. i cannot express how grateful i am to have the good fortune to work with a patient and friendly officer for these 10 weeks. the OSU students and i met at the penitentiary at 5:30 and our officer spent the next half hour going over IDs, taking us all through the metal detectors, sign-ins, and many locked gates up to the education hall. once there, she showed us to our classroom and then, while clearly nearby if/when we needed her, she left us alone. at the end of our course, she patiently led us out.

so how did the class itself go? we had 30 chairs in a circle. the outside students and i arrived first, so i asked them to sit in every other chair. as our inside students filtered in from their various cell blocks, they took a seat and made small talk while we waited for all to arrive. we got started a bit late, because several of our inside students were sent back to their cells to put on their more formal shirts for the occasion -- something we had not anticipated. i guess next time we'll know. once everyone had arrived, we put on nametags and then spent about an hour on an icebreaker where every inside student spent 2-3 minutes talking to every outside student. the noise was incredible (as i can attest since i was responsible for interrupting them and getting them moving) and it proved a very effective way for the students to all meet each other. even those of us who hate icebreakers, had to admit this one really worked.

after that, we took a break and shared some water -- something we had to get special permission to do. the small talk continued throughout the break and then i asked everyone to get back in their every-other-inside-outside circle and together we came up with guidelines for the class. one of our guidelines/rules is that we can talk about the course as long as we protect the confidentiality of the participants. i'm taking that as the rule for this blog, too. i'll share the basics without identifying specifics.

finally, from the inside-out curriculum, i wrote a quote by dostoyevsky on a whiteboard and asked them to get into small groups to discuss it. the quote is: "the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." each group discussed what they thought it meant or what it made them think of and then i brought the class back together for a full-group discussion. the students had a lot to say and it took us to the end of the class when the inside students had to go back for counts.

i thought it was a successful first class because we had created a comfort zone in which to share ideas and perspectives and i think everyone is looking forward to the next nine weeks. the feedback that i am getting from my outside (OSU) students is that they are surprised at how much they have in common with the inside students. OSP administrators told me that they had heard nothing but wonderful comments from the inside students about the first class. while some mentioned they were nervous at first, one said it was the best experience he has had since coming to prison, "it was a positive ray of light."

now that we have the first class out of the way, i can breathe a little easier. we'll hit the academic content very seriously over the next eight weeks (and then have a big graduation/celebration/chance to say goodbye in our last class). i'm thrilled to hear that some of my inside students have already asked permission to get together to form small study groups--they are definitely going to make the most of this opportunity.

i can't wait for next week's class!

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