Unlearning Long Divisions: Safety Nets & Bandwidths

Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction

The prison fence obviously divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to—by wide opportunity gaps; by our own judgments, assumptions and inabilities to listen to and know each other; by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, and online comments have turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.

Unlearning Long Divisions: Safety Nets and Bandwidths

I don’t make great decisions when I’m stressed, worried, or sleep deprived.  I say or write things at the wrong time and in the wrong way. I push “send” when I haven’t had enough time or energy to think through what I’m writing. I usually pay my bills as quickly as possible, but at the end of the month in which I lost a family member, I was shocked to find them in the mail with interest charges and late fees. I simply hadn’t thought about my bills at all. In our consumer-driven culture, I make silly purchases when I’m feeling stressed. But, I have never been in a situation when I believed that my current upsets and stresses would last indefinitely. I belong to a big family that provides a safety net. Millions of people don’t have that kind of security, and for many their sense of insecurity lasts a lifetime.

I’ve always heard talk about poor people being lazy. And, I certainly hear a lot of judgments about people behind bars: their criminal behavior, their poor choices, their lack of motivation, and their laziness. So often, prison and poverty are inextricably linked. So many of the men I knew in prison came from impoverished communities; some from abject poverty.

 I’ve thought a lot about these “poor choices.” If a young boy’s father is in jail, if his mom has two jobs to support the family, if his school is failing him, if his community is dangerous, and if he sees few people working because there are so few jobs, I wonder what his good choices might be? When my students made choices to swallow their pride and acknowledge the hard work necessary to graduate, they were perfectly capable of making good decisions. When incarcerated, school is a good place to be—and they knew it.

However, when they had news about serious problems, a sickness or a death of someone they loved at home, when they worried about their own health, when they had problems in their unit with a bunkie or an officer, they didn’t always make good decisions as students. When they were “short”—close to going home—maintaining their same level of performance was very often difficult.

Mr. Gregory, an African-American man in his mid-30’s, was neatly dressed and soft-spoken. In my English class he was an exemplary student, so well read that he brought me titles that the class could read and that I should read. “The character development in this novel blew me away,” he would say as he either gave me a title or loaned me a book he had somehow managed to get from the outside. He was never late and never missed a class. I couldn’t ever give him less than an A.

Then, just as he was getting ready to graduate and go home, he fell completely apart. He’d been incarcerated for more than ten years, and he was extremely worried about what awaited him outside the fence. When I talked to him about college, he asked me how he would ever be able to afford it. He was going home to Detroit, not a place with a plethora of jobs for anyone, let alone people who had criminal records. His assignments went missing, and they were done poorly. He reported that he was constantly distracted, worried, and losing sleep every night. He came to class, but his usual role as a discussion leader disappeared. It seemed the person he had been had disappeared too.

I saw the same kinds of stress and worry about going home with many of my students. I watched how stress affected their school performance. I wondered about the impoverished conditions they had come from; I wondered about the tragedies and traumas they had experienced. I wondered how all of that had affected the choices they had made.

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir have written a book called Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. They identify our mental capacity as bandwidth, and explain it like this:

We can measure fluid intelligence, a key resource that affects how we process information and make decisions. We can measure executive control, a key resource that affects how impulsively we behave. And we find that scarcity reduces all these components of bandwidth—it makes us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled. And, the effects are large. Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth. (1)

Mullainathan and Shafir go on to explain other kinds of scarcity like not having enough time, or friends, or food and that scarcity operates on top of culture, economic forces and personality.

It is so easy to judge other people and label them lazy, or as Congressman Paul Ryan has noted, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence.”

I don’t think wanting to be dependent is a natural human tendency. What I saw in my prison students was how much my students wanted self-reliance and self-worth. Once they figured out how to become competent students, they worked hard. Looking ahead to getting out, they wanted jobs. Maybe if we examined our own experiences of scarcity, we would understand other groups and why they seem to make “poor choices.” I’ve often wondered what I would do if I were constantly worried about the basics like housing and food—or worse, if my children were constantly hungry or we were facing homelessness. I don’t think I would do very well, nor would I be working on long-term goals.

1.  Mullainathan, Sendhil and Shafir, Eldar, Scarcity: why having too little means so much, p. 13.

No Man’s Land

Two compelling stories have my focus this holiday season. One contains hope; the other anguish. The hopeful one is about the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in WW I, celebrating its 100th anniversary this Christmas Eve. It was one of my favorite historical stories to teach, especially in December when my prison students were lonely for home and distracted in the classroom. They loved hearing about it, and I still love reading about it—how the British soldiers heard the German troops singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve across No Man’s Land; how a German soldier lifted a Christmas tree, sparkling with candles on its branches, and moved out of his trench to approach enemy lines. How the British soldiers withheld their fire, how they crawled out of their trenches to reach out and shake hands with the enemy. Later, they traded treats from home, played soccer, and sang along with the Germans. Both sides were able to bury their dead. The truce was a mere blip in the four years of horror that spread across the world during WW I, but it has remained a symbol of hope and courage ever since.

The other story is about the lack of compassion as more black people are killed by white policemen. Instead of trying to understand what it means to be black in the this country, what the challenges are about raising black children, what I’m hearing more about is their “criminal behavior,” their “bad decisions” and that they “did it to themselves,” as if these killings are somehow justified. Unless people are living within the confines of fear, degradation, and economic oppression like so many people of color are, it is difficult to recognize their pain and fear, especially for those of us who live in the midst of white privilege. Many of us mourn the country we are becoming. It feels like No Man’s Land.

It feels like we are at war. We were discussing a foreign war in my prison classroom one day when a man asked,  “Why are we talking about that war when we have one right here—my city is a war zone.”

Thousands and thousands of people are behind bars because of our War on Drugs, its Black Hawk helicopters and war-like tactics used in our inner cities, almost always against people of color. In Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City and across the country—even in my own neighborhood, unarmed black people have been gunned down by white policemen—and so far, with impunity. The images of police in riot gear are seared into our brains. Recently I saw a huge army tank in my town with the name of my county—not my country– painted on its side. The police are scared—and often say so. Guns—and/or the fear of them–are omnipresent.

One of my students keeps walking around in my head. Mr. Bridgman was a tall, good-looking, young African American man, who carried himself well and was always neatly dressed. Like many of the men I taught, Mr. Bridgman needed a while to get used to being in school. When he joined my history class, I knew only that he had grown up in foster homes and dropped out early in high school. When he showed up for class the first time, he greeted me respectfully, then sat down and did almost nothing. Any written work proved that he was very capable, but he looked like he was zoning out and seemed to hear nothing, including my warnings that he was not earning credit. “I’m just not feelin’ it,” he told me.

The year I had Mr. Bridgman in history, we were studying WWI at the end of the fall semester. I handed out a page of statistics listing the countries that fought in the Great War, the amount of people engaged in the fighting, the war dead and the number of casualties. Mr. Bridgman liked math and asked for a calculator when he got the hand-out. He figured and figured, then burst out, “Mrs. Wenzel, more than eight and a half million people died! Later he figured out that they weren’t all soldiers. “Mrs. Wenzel, so many civilians died too!”

He was having a hard week, but he was waking up. Courageously, he did some more reading, discovering the devastation of the Spanish flu in 1918. He asked, “Mrs. Wenzel, how could this happen on top of all the people who died in the war. 20-40 million more people died from the flu! What about their families?” As I fumbled around, answering his questions inadequately, I saw that he was finally engaged in what he could learn. I saw some of his innocence peel away from his eyes, and I’m still amazed that it was the carnage of WW I that woke him up that semester. I don’t think it was just the overwhelming numbers, however, that so shocked him. I think it was his innate compassion that changed him. He was finally “feelin’ it.”

The Western Front in 1914 was the deadliest place on earth, but on Christmas Eve, soldiers on both sides, who endured life in the trenches and aimed their rifles at ordinary people they did not know, needed a respite—just to feel human again. America needs far more than a quick truce. We need truth, and we need reconciliation. In order to get there, white people need to summon the courage to look back at our history and understand our long and complicated struggles of both personal and structural racism, the injustice, the anguish, and the raw fear that so many black people experience. We can start by at least recognizing that Black America is not lived or experienced like White America. We can wake up, ask and listen carefully, trying to understand and feel it as much as possible. Compassion humanizes. Its expressions, reaching across our great divides, could be a first step in the long, hard process of healing our old and open wounds. It could at least get us out of the trench.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow, Cover

Once in a while an author comes along, uses new language and exposes truths we hadn’t seen right in front of us. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander tells of spending several years as a civil rights lawyer before she began to see the nation’s prison system morphing into a new kind of racial control. Her well-researched facts and staggering statistics are not easy to absorb. Among them are these: no other country locks up such an overwhelming number of its racial minorities than the United States; more African-Americans are under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850, and 1 in 3 young black men will spend some time behind bars. She points out that though the majority of drug users and dealers are white, 75% of the people targeted in the War on Drugs have been poor and vulnerable blacks and Latinos.

She points to discrimination that is legal in housing, employment, and public assistance as people are released from prison–only to face overwhelming barriers when trying to put their lives back together. The denial of civil rights after incarceration, such as voting and serving on juries, gives people the message that they will never be full citizens nor will they ever be able to pay for the crimes they committed. She helps us understand how having a black president in the White House camouflages a permanent American racial caste system, not with outright racial hostility, but because it creates our racial indifference.

This is not an easy book to read, nor are these realities easy to acknowledge, but it is a necessary book if we are to dismantle the American tragedy of mass incarceration and understand how it devastates people’s lives and communities. It has cost us trillions of dollars and failed to solve our seemingly intractable problems of poverty, drug use, education, and mental health issues. The New Jim Crow shows us how our American ideals of freedom and justice are gravely imperiled and how our national moral character is profoundly weakened.


Published by The New Press

ISBN: 879-1-59558-643-8

Unlearning Long Divisions: Gifts

Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction

The prison fence is an obvious structure that divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to, by huge opportunity gaps, by our own judgements, assumptions and inabilities to listen and know each other, by our geography, by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, during slavery and then under Jim Crow, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, online comments, and the addition of big money have all turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.


 A community can use all the skills of its people.

— Maori proverb

All of us are gifted and talented. Students who return to school after dropping out often lack confidence and experience in being students, making them unaware or unsure of how capable and gifted they are. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences intrigued my inmate students when I mentioned them one day, so I put a list on the bulletin board. Since then, Gardner has added two more to his original seven: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intra-personal, linguistic, logical-mathematic, plus naturalist, and moral/existential. I found them all within the men in my classroom, often manifested in surprising ways.

Mr. Romero smiled when he came into class, but then put his head down and worked, saying little to any other students and contributing nothing to class discussions, almost disappearing into his small stature at the back of the room. Every student needed to take a turn at facilitating a weekly discussion on current events, and I wondered how Mr. Romero would handle it. When it was his turn late in the semester, he walked in, took his place and quietly announced that he hoped everyone in the room could have a chance to add to the discussion that day. Some hot-button topics came up with several men talking at once, but Mr. Romero simply smiled, raised his flattened his palms and brought them slowly down. The room went silent. Without saying a word, he had total command of the group. When another shy person spoke up, he said, “Do you have anything to add to that? If you do, we’d like to hear it.” Unlike other people who led the group, he put his own report at the end, showing us that leadership could be more about listening than talking. He showed us it could be quiet, controlled, inclusive and about the group, not about himself. I sat and watched, amazed.

Mr. Zimmer rushed in from science class after seeing a frog dissected, saying, “I’ve never in my life seen anything so exciting–I love everything in that class! I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was in grade school.” He got A’s in science and could not get enough extra work.

When asked after three weeks into a new semester what they had learned about themselves, Mr. Finch said, “I didn’t know I could sing! That choir is the best time of the week for me—I get into it and I don’t even know I’m in prison. I sing better all the time too.”

Students in our art program would proclaim similar surprise at what they could create. Mr. Bell lamented one day, “I’d rather dance than do anything else.”

When we read poems aloud, the class would ask Mr. Richards to read his own, beautiful words strung together from his childhood world in Jamaica. Mr. Carmel, dignified and reserved, wrote words of wisdom at the end of every assignment about living with integrity, about loving people and the meaning of life and death, most of which I copied for myself to keep at home. He would fit into Gardner’s moral-existential intelligence.

I know someone with Down Syndrome, who is tuned into other people’s emotions in extraordinarily perceptive, compassionate ways. When I look carefully at the world around me within my circle of family and friends, I am amazed by how things balance, how what I cannot do, someone else can, how our different parts fit into a whole. Even though we all harbor unknown gifts within us, it reminds me of the many opportunities the people around me have had to develop and use what we do well.

Isn’t this what school is for? A place to figure out our students’ talents and abilities so that they can add them to a needy world? For many people, what we love most is also what we do well, and what we do well adds meaning and purpose to our lives. Many of my students came from failing schools, and they had little exposure to the arts, music, or even adequate instruction in the basic skills. “I didn’t know I could…” was a familiar refrain. Their families and communities need their gifts—to heal from poverty and deprivation, to grow and thrive so that everyone has a place and a part to play. The rest of us need them too, so that their gifts can spread out and mend our fractured, divided world. Otherwise, what immeasurable loss, for the people who never grow into who they were born to be—and for the rest of us who are not enriched from what they have to give.

We can all help. We can take young people to concerts, museums and art galleries, sharing our own gifts and passions; we can invite them into our workplaces; we can develop book clubs and poetry circles and help facilitate groups for problem solving and conflict resolution, building community in the process. Who knows how many quiet problem solvers, leaders and philosophers could have a reach beyond their own lives? How many artists could discover the depth of their gifts? How many people could become doctors and nurses? How many more musicians could enrich the world?

Unlearning Long Divisions: Shipping Crates

 Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction

Though our American diversity and its attendant challenges have always created conflicts and divisions since the days when we first became a country, the current chasms between us seem to be growing wider and deeper. We focus on the dysfunction of Congress, but the people we elect to represent us also reflect who we are, and we have as much responsibility in solving the problems as they do. I think about how we can build bridges between us—right in our own back yards, within our families, in our neighborhoods and in our communities. Every act of courage, of kindness and of friendliness is not small, but adds to the larger picture of creating a more cooperative and compassionate world. I would like to address some of the problems I see that create divisions, the first of which follows here. Much of this was informed by my inmate students.

Shipping Crates:

If I’m upset about an issue in the news and hear negative reports about a person connected to it, I don’t automatically check the facts from several sources, especially when the narrative lines up with my politics and values. It seems like a common human tendency to form opinions without very much information when we’re bombarded with media images, squeezed by time and churned up with anger over things that hurt our hearts.  All kinds of people and groups who don’t share my worldview end up in my head like they’re in shipping crates, nailed shut so that no light can get in and with labels stamped firmly on the outside.

The students in my prison classroom constantly upended my crates, pried them open and erased the labels. Sometimes they dazzled me with the light in their boxes that forced me to see people and difficult situations in a whole new way.

Mr. Dunn was my student in several classes, and I rarely saw even a hint of a smile on his middle-aged, frowning face. He wasn’t a very confident student, but he did do all of his work. What really bothered me was that I had no relationship with him, no eye contact and no conversations about anything. I had him in a box with labels that said grumpy, unfriendly and most important doesn’t like me. I kept trying to talk to him, but got no further than a few humphs. He didn’t seem to brighten up anything or anybody, and I didn’t think he was adding a darn thing to the group.

One day another student blurted out an insult about gay people, and a few others laughed. Someone else added another offensive comment and an argument followed, heating up as it went along. I tried to stay out of such conflicts, wanting them to learn to solve problems by themselves. All of a sudden, Mr. Dunn’s deep voice rang out as he looked around from his customary seat in the middle of the room, “I can’t believe my ears! What in the world is the difference between how you’re talking and the prejudice we feel as black people? Gay people are no different than any of us, and I’m not going to sit here and listen to this!” The room went still and silent—and the subject was dropped. I was as surprised as everyone else, and told him as he was leaving that I was grateful he had spoken up. I got a usual monosyllabic humph. Later, as he was getting ready to go home, he appeared at my door. Many of them came to say good-bye, but I was very surprised to see this student standing there.

“Come out here Mrs. Wenzel,” he said, gesturing with his hand and moving me into a corner in the hall. “I have something to give you. I know I can’t give you a present, so this can be part of the program. I know how much you love poetry and I know you don’t have it, because I’ve been looking through all the poetry books in the room for a while now. I just know you’ll like it.” He pulled Nikki Giovanni’s Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea out of his blue net bag and put it in my hands. A huge smile spread across his face.

I wonder, do we ever get anyone’s whole story, really know who other people are? It’s so much easier to stay on the surface of things, keep our first impressions and maintain a distance. The prison fence keeps us on the surface–and at a distance. It is a powerful label on the shipping crate of the prison itself. The fence tells us that the people inside are so dangerous that we can’t see them or get to know them. Distance creates stereotypes of people all the time.

It’s easier for me to stay at a safe distance from people who struggle so much more than I do than it is to get closer to them and try to understand the box they are in. The men I met in prison over 25 years allowed me to get closer and hear their stories, so unlike my own, often making me uncomfortable as I began to understand the opportunity gap that existed between us. They taught me to investigate my notions about people and situations I know nothing about. I need to do that more often. I need to at least admit I don’t have all the information, that it’s nailed into the crate, and I don’t see any light—about human beings who might be as scared and uninformed as I am. I need to recognize the danger of distance and that I rarely experience things first hand. I need to remember what it feels like to have a black-eyed pea in my hand.

Don’t Think
“The most important thing
I know
about teaching
is that the teacher is also learning.
Don’t think
you have to know it all.”
–Nikki Giovanni, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (HarperCollins New York), 2002, 109

Unlearning Long Divisions: Mr. Hoffer’s Labels

Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction

The prison fence is an obvious structure that divides us, but we are separated in other more subtle structural ways, by how we build wealth—or are not able to, by huge opportunity gaps, by our own judgements, assumptions and inabilities to listen and know each other, by our geography, by neighborhoods, lifestyles, and cultural misunderstandings. America has always had its separations, during slavery and then under Jim Crow, of class, race, cultural groups and religions, but it seems that the rancorous voices of political campaigns, talk radio, online comments, and the addition of big money have all turned up the volume and deepened the divisions between us. Much of it is fear-driven, no more evident than how we perceive people who are behind bars. The ideas in the following posts come from my interactions with my inmate students, who taught me how to unlearn many of my own assumptions—and to see them and my country in new ways.

Mr. Hoffer’s Labels

When Mr. Hoffer walked in on his first day of Language Arts, he reminded me of a linebacker on a football team: tall, muscular, and big.

Adult students who return to school after dropping out have much to teach us about how people learn and what gets in their way–Mr. Hoffer was no different in that regard. At the beginning of a language arts class, I talked to each of my students individually. One particular semester, there were no white students in my language art classroom—the group was evenly split between Hispanic men needing help with English as a Second Language (ESL) and African-American men. These students had two identifying facts in common: all were labeled felons and they were all drop-outs, having left school at differing points. For almost all new students, their first job was to recover their confidence and not fall back into thinking they could not succeed. Almost everyone who returns to an adult education high school classroom needs to work on language skills and the purpose of the class was to address reading and writing.

In addition to being a man of large presence, Mr. Hoffer’s smile was big too. He wore that smile as he headed for the back corner of the room on the first day of class. I learned to pay attention to students who wanted to sit in the farthest corner and in the back row. Often this signaled that they were more nervous about their ability than those who sat in the front of the room.

Mr. Hoffer saw me coming toward him when it was his turn to talk to me and jumped up to find me a more comfortable chair. I thanked him for helping the man who was sitting next to him.

“How do you feel about being back in school?” I asked.

His face clouded and he said in a low voice, “Mrs. Wenzel, I was always in special ed.”

I was surprised.

A few weeks passed as I watched him carefully, noticing that he was always friendly, easy-going, and unflappable. If he couldn’t understand a lesson, he stuck with it until he did, often wanting to figure it out himself. He was reliable, always getting his work done on time, and focused and steady as he worked. He continued to be helpful to other students. People in the office reported that he had offered to help with anything they needed, so he was spending time doing routine office work in his spare time. As I watched him, I kept coming up with the word competent. I saw no special needs. When mid-term evaluations came around, I used the word competent, spelling out his strong skills as a student. He told me no one had ever told him that before. His test scores had improved by the end of the semester, giving him the confidence to take higher level classes. He handled those with ease.

As we prepared for graduation, he told me that his mother was coming from another state to attend, and how excited they both were. His smile spread wide across his face as he accepted his diploma and stood for the photograph with the superintendent. During the reception following the ceremony, I found his mother and told her how much we had enjoyed her son and how helpful he had been to other students–and to the program. Her eyes filled with tears as she said, “I never thought I would see this day. He had such a horrible time in school.”

It is easy to pay attention to labels as a teacher. I have done that myself and not expected enough from my students. I wonder how the label of special ed that followed him from teacher to teacher and year to year—and the fact that he was an African-American growing up in a poor neighborhood—affected what kind of expectations his teachers had for him. I wonder about labels, how they get internalized, damage confidence, and affect student achievement. Somehow as an adult in his 20’s, Mr. Hoffer was able to overcome the negative labels enough to succeed in school. But if there was a direct link between his experience as a student when he was growing up and the fact that he committed a crime, as there often is, finding success in a prison classroom was a high price to pay.

Teaching Integrity

in·teg·ri·ty | inˈtegritē/ noun
1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.
“he is known to be a man of integrity”
2. the state of being whole and undivided.
“upholding territorial integrity and national sovereignty”

I was teaching Civics when I first introduced the subject of integrity to a prison classroom. I didn’t know what to expect. but from the first day, my students sat up straighter, talked a lot and wanted more.

To introduce the everyday occurrence of integrity, we began by informally chatting about how people make choices in their daily lives. We all agreed that very few of us get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and review our firm set of rules about living an ethical life.

In my experience, reading plays had been a very successful activity to do with any group. Because of that, I used Sophocles’ Antigone as a place to start. Antigone is a tragic play, in which the characters face questions of civil disobedience, personal morality, and justice. In particular, the play asks questions about actions in defiance of one’s state. The classic dilemmas presented in the story about loyalty, principles, and the pitfalls of pride reach across the centuries and provide rich discussions. I divided them into groups to discuss which character had the most integrity and which was the most tragic. Discussions were always lively and interesting.

Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter’s book, Integrity, discusses Antigone in the early chapters. The work spins out the breadth of the challenges and problems that the characters face in the play. I used other moral dilemmas in Carter’s book to challenge my students, and lively discussions were created with them too.

My goal was to help my students see the complexity in many moral decisions that often involve two Right positions and not one Wrong and one Right.

Twelve Angry Men, a play by Reginald Rose, is the story of  jury deliberations in a murder trial, is another classroom gem. In working through this lesson,  I found that furniture arrangement in the classroom proved important. When we shaped the desks so that they formed a simple square with everyone facing in, the students commented that they felt like they were on a real jury. The discussion on Twelve Angry Men revolved around what it means to stand alone against the group and how the evidence on the surface is rarely the whole story.

Another teaching tool came from the old game of Scruples, which includes a stack of cards with moral dilemmas printed on them. I sorted through the cards, keeping only those that applied to my students and put one student in charge of each card. He had to come to the front of the room and lead the discussion. By then, as a group, they had made a list of some “bottom-line belief statements” like: stealing is wrong, lying damages trust, and the Golden Rule. I loved watching their enthusiasm and the vigorous arguments, trying to let them handle it by themselves. I told them often that it was no different for me to do the right thing in my life on the other side of the prison fence.

The word discernment was new to them, but it was gratifying to see them use it once they understood the concept of taking time and deep thought to work out a problem, a life choice or an ethical challenge–and to work at seeing what was not on the surface: that most problems have no simple answers. I also could have used the Scruples cards as “filler” while waiting for lunch or the bell to ring.

I taught integrity at the beginning of any Civics class, as it gave us some language and understanding about how people learn to be good citizens and live peaceably with others. That being said, the issues of integrity, the problems of moral choices, and the hard human work of figuring out what guiding principles make up ethical living, should not be contained in an isolated educational unit.

My students were adults working on a high school diploma, but these discussions could be adapted to any group of students at any age. I think most people are hard-wired to want to do the right thing, but we don’t talk very much about how hard it can be. The feedback I got was that they appreciated thinking about what they valued and believed.

Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer by Richard Shelton

Crossing the Yard:Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer, written by Richard Shelton, is a rare look into the lives of people incarcerated in maximum security prisons. The book tells of Shelton teaching creative writing to prisoners in grim and violent facilities as a volunteer for thirty years. This memoir, written with tough-minded honesty, forces the reader to see the humanity in condemned and forgotten people, and this interface between a committed, compassionate teacher and eager students reminds us of what is possible when people find their voices–and sometimes a new identity–in the process of writing. The stories compel us to see “bad” people in a new, more whole way and recounts the satisfaction of seeing their poetry published in various books, projects taken on by both Shelton and his wife.

The acclaimed poet Jimmy Santiago Baca was one of his students. The book points to the success of art programs inside prisons, and how creativity, especially in the writing of poetry, has the power to both flourish and heal. In the face of constant frustrations when dealing with the repression of prison systems, Shelton is a model of tenacity and courage. Crossing the Yard gives us examples of the triumph of the human spirit, in both teachers and students alike.

Published by the University of Arizona Press
ISBN: 978-0-8165-2594-2
Available in libraries and at amazon.com