We write in detention, in juvenile corrections. I give open-ended assignments and they write. We print, and I pencil in corrections, and then we print again, clean. Then we read aloud.
In DT, which is our term for juvey in Utah, we have certain restrictions. We can’t glorify lawbreaking, which means we can’t write positively about drugs, violence or sex. We can tell the truth about our experiences but we can’t make them seem glamorous or desirable.
That doesn’t stop us from some powerful truth-telling about our lives. When we tell the truth without bluster, it’s easier to tell how that party really was, and for the most part, it wasn’t all that fun to throw up or get raped or get busted or pass out or get in a fistfight.
Everyone listens when we read aloud–including the facility staff, but we aren’t listening to find fault. Indeed, my class instructions are to listen very carefully for at least one specific thing that you liked. Most of us already know where we make mistakes, where we are weak. We don’t need people to find fault with us. Because I’ve already read through the papers and made corrections, that’s negative feedback enough.
Kids need positive feedback anyhow, especially when locked up. They already know where they’ve screwed up.
Facility staff always comes in to hear the stories, not to censure or correct, but because it’s so interesting, touching, and fun to hear the stories. The kids reveal the truths about their lives, how they fell in love–how their baby was born–what the gravel felt like on their faces when the police forced them to the ground–how their mom died on the living room couch–how they just knew they were doing wrong when they ran from their foster homes–and more and more.
We listen, we laugh, we cry, and we listen more. Everyone feels safe enough to read their stuff aloud. It’s not always sad. Sometimes it’s about hitting the home run that wins the tournament. Sometimes it’s about building a bike from scratch. Sometimes it’s about being released from custody just for Thanksgiving with the whole family.
We laugh, we cry, we listen, and we listen more.
I have some secret techniques for getting this good writing. I will share them with you.
- Make sure you shape the writing by the assignment. I take a lot of time setting up comparison/contrast, or description. For example, when I ask for a description of a person, I ask for a paragraph each on how they move, how they dress, how they talk, how they are at work or school, how they are with their friends and family, and one on the “other side” of the person. This is very structured instruction, but gives much freed0m in fleshing out the details.
- I ask for specific details from the five senses, usually two per sense: two things smelled, seen, touched, tasted, and heard. This again may seem like overinstruction, but you would be surprised at how powerful the writing is when students follow the simple instruction of using sensory details in personal writing.
- I require that kids write about stuff they really care about. When we do a process paper, no instructions on how to make peanut-butter sandwiches! Give me how to build a bike from scratch–how to make a Mexican dinner with chicken enchiladas and mole sauce–real stuff that kids know and care about.
- I ask that the papers be a certain length. We type on those oldie-goldie machines called AlphaSmarts, which are pared-down keyboards for writing papers. We don’t use computers in lockup so we write on these keyboards. By having the papers be a certain length, it requires some thorough thinking about details and anecdotes.
- And yes, anecdotes are the way we flesh out the papers. I teach anecdote as the stuff of personal writing. Anecdote is the supporting evidence in personal writing.
What happens to kids with this kind of writing is very interesting. Sometimes a student who can’t produce a paragraph at the outset learns to produce the requisite page and a half (especially after several incarcerations ). Sometimes we find kids with such a narrative gift that we fall gladly and headfirst into their storytelling. Sometimes kids who seem hard and hardcore have terrifying or poignant stories to tell about their lives. Most times, kids leap into projects with energy and enthusiasm.
For example, yesterday we read a few essays aloud, from kids incarcerated over time, reading to kids newly brought in. Many of the kids wanted to tell similar stories that happened to them, so we spent some time just hearing each others’ tales. Then I set up the assignment:
Write about one or more things you never want to forget.
The kids didn’t want to take breaks and they didn’t want to do art. They wanted to keep writing, and most of them almost finished their essays. Today we finish, print, correct, and get ready to read aloud.
I can’t wait to hear the papers.