Green Light, Yellow Light, Red Light

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I’m lucky. Having your classes canceled at the jail is always a possibility. If there is a lockdown, if there are not enough officers to cover the adult classrooms, a class can always be cut. One adult men’s class this semester has already been canceled four times. On Monday, my class was canceled for the first time this semester. I’m hoping to start energized and fresh next week.

I miss the women already. In our first class, at the beginning of January, we opened by playing green-light/yellow-light/red-light (credit to Sarah Shotland). In the icebreaker, the class takes turns voicing varying degrees of personal information. A green light is something you don’t mind telling everyone (“I love Teddy Pendergrass.”). A yellow light delves deeper—something about you only a few people know (“I wish I were skinnier.”). But a red light is something you may have only told God. As a lone male teacher, it didn’t feel right—especially in the first class—to nudge the women to reveal their darkest secrets. Plus, we just didn’t have time to go that deep. You need time to run such an emotional lap, time for silence, time to grab Kleenex. Instead, we talked yellow and green.

I asked all the students to write down their red light but not to share it. They isolated the feeling that arose from the red-light. I led them through imagining that feeling—shame, guilt, anger—as a physical object. The students composed excellent poems based on the exercise. Two students envisioned anvils for their objects. The object of course did not have to be heavy. It could have been light as a tooth, soft as a feather. For these two students, the emotion weighed them down to the floor. I never asked any of the women to disclose their original secrets, and in fact, I discouraged it. However, a few did share. I won’t go into those details, but my heart twists whenever a student shares an intense personal story to which I can’t relate. I’m not a parent. I haven’t been married. But I can be honest about not sharing those experiences. I can offer a willing ear.

We opened another class with dialogue from Macbeth. One student, Kaylan, described Lady Macbeth as “passionate and treacherous.” Pretty accurate. In another class, we talked spoken word and Danez Smith. Dionne spit two of her own poems that she’d memorized.

I’m lucky to have such consistency this term and to have such involved students. I know they’ll be writing this week during lockdown. The closed doors won’t dim their creative spirits.

—Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher

The Joy of Sharing Truths

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At our first class this term, a woman came in late with her tiny baby. She had only arrived at Sojourner House at the end of last semester. She participated in the final public reading, but as she had no material of her own, she read a poem written by a woman who graduated before the term ended. It turned out the poem expressed something relevant to her. She felt it was fate. Now, she has the opportunity to attend the class for spring term. As our first session was wrapping up she said “I’m not a writer, but I heard the writings of the women last fall and I was inspired.” She was excited to become a part of the program.

From one point of view, what’s not to like about a writing class? Ever. Anywhere. I can’t imagine anyone not loving the opportunity, particularly in the context of difficult life situations. Women sometimes ask us at the end of class: are you coming back next week? I’m never 100% sure that they are asking because they hope we will, or hope we won’t.  But I like to think, and I tend to think, they want us back. When we go around the room and hear each woman read, they are writers. The strength of their voices, their body language, their focus, tell us that they are present in that moment with a determination and an identity outside and beyond and yet because of their personal setbacks. Whatever else they are going through, you can see a kind of joy that comes from the language of sharing truths.  Creating with written words has a power and a transcendence. You feel the bonds forming in that process. As a group, the energy is positive, supportive, sometimes sad, often light; and it is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. And yet, each part is great enough.  

-Shawna Kent, Words Without Walls Teacher

Dr. Whiteboard or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Input

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As a student of creative writing pedagogy at Chatham, I learned how to lesson plan. It’s important to me that I hit several elements when planning a lesson. However, I’ve always had trouble with one of the most fundamental elements of teaching: input. This major component of creative writing pedagogy boils down the facts, what you’re telling your students.

It’s easy to associate a negative connotation with input. I’m a poet! I like to be fluid and break the rules and tell my students in ACJ to write whatever they please. I much prefer writing to prompts, workshopping, or having lively discussions. Input is for the sciences. Here, we make
art!

But, somehow, this semester has manifested itself differently. As I was going over our readings for the first two weeks of class, I realized how many useful devices cropped up: alliteration, repetition, enjambment, simile, onomatopoeia, personification. So, I bought a few expo markers, printed off some dictionary definitions and got ready to do the unthinkable: lean into input.

Thus far, I have been very happy with the results. As we read Jim Daniels and Toi Derricotte, I was able to point to specific examples of these devices in the text and then give exact definitions on the whiteboard in the front of class. I noticed that some of the students that weren’t engaged with the reading perked up when they were given definitions and examples of literary devices.

I’ve been even more pleased with how my students have readily recalled these elements in class and started to use them in their writing. We talked about onomatopoeia in a Jim Daniels poem our first week and a student brought it up again the second week. One of my students, Tracey, read a particularly moving piece about his father. The poem was especially poignant, as Tracey masterfully used similes to compare his father to a shining star in the distance.

This semester, I hope to completely shake the negative connotation I have for input. I’d
like to better utilize it to help my students as they progress and grow as writers.

Elia Hohauser-Thatcher, Words Without Walls Teacher

Freedom Is...

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At our Words Without Walls teacher orientation in December we made a list of the things we can or can’t control in our classroom. We discussed how little we could control about our students’ environment outside of the classroom, particularly in the jail.

 Each pod has its own set of rules, its own corrections officers, its own cast of characters, and our students come from several different pods. As teachers, it’s hard to anticipate or even imagine what they are coming from. The only thing we can try to control is the environment of the classroom, and the way we respond to our students individually.

I’m heading into my fifth term teaching the juvenile class, and each semester I am more comfortable teaching, more aware of the classroom dynamic, and more trusted by the students. This semester, my goal is to pay more attention to the less vocal members of the class. It’s something written in every book of pedagogy: that sometimes (or often) the students seeking the least attention are the ones who need it most.

On the first class one of my students—I’ll call him S—didn’t want to read the poem I brought in for class, Tyehimba Jess’ “Freedom.” When he saw the word “Freedom,” he pushed the paper away on his desk and crossed his arms. S is a really smart kid. He doesn’t speak often, but when he does, it’s to say something he feels strongly about.

“Why you have us reading about freedom when we’re in jail?” He said.

Last year I might have just continued the class. I understand their frustration about being in here. I can’t do anything about it, and I really don’t want to open up a conversation about their case, because it’s a topic I’m not qualified or even permitted to address. But this wasn’t about his case.

“Just give this poem one chance, S.” I said, hoping he might at least read along. “I think you might find it really complicates what freedom means, you might actually like it.

 He hesitantly pulled the paper back and read along. He circled a few sentences. Then he looked up said, “Some of this I can relate to.”

 I gave a follow up prompt to write a poem about freedom, starting with the phrase “Freedom is…”

S looked determined. When the guards called them to go back to the pod, he stood up and said, “I’m going to write some real shit about this.” Then he shook my hand and walked out the door.

Mike Bennett, Words Without Walls Teacher

 

John Edgar Wideman Visits ACJ Juvenile Class

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It’s never a sure thing, in jail. No matter who is coming to visit, or what is planned for the day, a lockdown stops all movement. John Edgar Wideman writes of his own experience with this in Brothers and Keepers, voicing frustrations about trying to visit his brother at Western Peniteniary. Any number of things could cause a lockdown, and there's nothing you can do about.  So their classroom teacher Kristine and I were careful not to get too excited at the prospect of Wideman visiting our class this morning.  We hadn’t had a class canceled for lockdown in the entire semester, and here we were, two days before the visit, crossing our fingers.

My students are anywhere from fourteen to eighteen years old, being held in an adult jail. While they hold the enthusiasm and imagination that any young mind should, they are also used to being let down, and they probably wouldn’t take it as rough as we did if something came up.  Besides, I think Kristine and I were a bit more excited about this than they were.  We had both read Brothers and Keepers before meeting each other, so using it as our textbook for the semester seemed like a perfect match.

 Our young writers instantly caught on to the book, both from a narrative standpoint—what happened with Robby, and why is he still incarcerated?—to the way Wideman crafted his brother’s voice so truthfully, so much that Robby became more of an author than a main character.

We spent each week reading passages in class, alternating between John and Robby’s voices.  Then we wrote creative responses. The passage that stood out to most, I think, was along John’s quest to find out where Robby’s path diverged, revisiting the death of Robby’s friend Garth and its impact on his brother.

A lot of these youngsters have already dealt with more grief than many ever experience in their lives. Most, if not all of them, have had a best friend or sibling pass, and many of them wrote about that in their creative work.

I should probably tell you at this point that it happened—John Edgar Wideman visited our class today. He brought nothing but his mind and voice, but that was more than enough to fill the room with great wisdom and encouragement to love yourself, to take control of your life, and to dream.

Instead of reading his own work, the Pittsburgh native shared the stage with our students, who took turns reading creative pieces. Everyone was invited to chime in with feedback. It was also a practice run for their formal reading on Friday, when they’ll share some of this work again in front of all the Words Without Walls creative writing classes. This practice run just so happened to include coaching from one of the most premier fiction writers in the country.

Wideman also answered questions with humbling honesty. He admitted that Brothers and Keepers would always be a disappointment to him as long as his brother was still incarcerated, and deep down, he really wrote the book because he thought it would somehow lead to Robby’s freedom.

He spoke of the neglect of Homewood, of walking around and seeing so much empty space. He discussed the discipline and reward of time management, and always listening, reading, and working toward your goals. He urged them, along with everyone else in the room, to push back against anyone and anything that wants to make us, as individuals, irrelevant.

This was truly a remarkable morning, one of several visits Wideman has made in his hometown communities.  This whole event wouldn't have been possible without the help of Dan Kubis and the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh.  Through that program,  he also visited a class of Westinghouse high school students and gave them feedback on responses to the same text.  Eventually, we are planning to add their work into a compilation of student responses—not just a chapbook, but also a commemoration of an inspiring visit.  This morning was the culmination of remarkable nine weeks, here in the juvenile class at ACJ.  I couldn’t have asked for a better semester.