Sunday, June 21, 2015

Speech from a Graduate!

Twice a year, I have the privilege of watching students who are incarcerated in the county jail graduate high school with an actual high school diploma. Most students drop out of high school some time in their junior year, so they have quite a number of credits to make up. Some work extra hard to
finish up and attend classes every day as well as packets to fulfill any deficient units. One of their last assignments is to write a graduation speech as a reflection on their journey and how this accomplishment will help them in the future. Some students use it as a platform to thank their teachers, parents, children, and anyone else that supported them on this journey and some take the time to really reflect on how earning their high school diploma will make a difference not only in their lives, but future generations.

Here is one of the most beautiful speeches I have read from this year's graduating class.

There is a question that comes to everyone’s mind throughout life and it's usually around ten years old and that is “When do we stop growing?”  And there usually is an answer- like around 18-21 for women and 25-27 for men.  This may be true height-wise and genetically, but that isn’t true for every aspect of life.  Truth is, we never stop growing because the power of education keeps planting seeds within ourselves that later grow into beautiful art we display in our lives.  Education has no age limit.  It’s a powerful tool that I believe to be the key to life because having an education empowers you to do things you never thought you could.  Education becomes the bricks that pave the way to your dreams.  It's the foundation to what you choose to build in life.  It has no setting, no boundaries, no set age group, or no absolute definitive course.

Education is what you make of it and what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it.  What you want your future to look like? What you want to become?  It’s your own portrait, your own series, your own legacy. You are the director, the artist, the architect of your life.  Education takes on many forms and is different for every person.  It’s the invisible
garden we carry around with us, continually planting seeds and watching it grow and morph into things we’ve only dreamed of and sometimes things we never expected. 

Continuing my education was always part of the plan, but as we all know, we always stray from the plan.  It’s positive people in our lives that help us get back on track to continue reaching for the top to achieve more than we actually think we can.  To the many teachers, professors, facilitators, mentors, guides, and to the people with optimistic views who enlighten us to search for more beyond our dreams and ourselves, Thank you.  The lessons they bring to our lives go beyond their jobs and their titles when they invest in our abilities to strive for an education.  To them I extend my thanks and my gratitude because they keep our dreams alive.  They help you find something more, go deeper than you thought your could, and look for something you didn’t think you needed. 

And to my forever life teachers; my mom and my dad who have always been there for me even when I was not there for myself.  Through my whole life, through grade school, high school, and even sports, as well as my upbringing of my own children, you have always been there to give me the words I needed, the confidence to overcome, and the overall support a son, a father, needed and will always need in life.  I thank you now and forever. 

A special thanks goes out to my father, for not only being the example of a man I should follow but for showing me through his actions as a husband, as a father, and a man.  He continues to pave the road by continuing his quest for education in his life, even in his late 40’s - sorry Dad!  You have always been my hero, my life coach who I can always depend on to help me achieve my goals.  It’s like in baseball when you coached me and said, “Son, you’d be a hell of a baseball player if you’d just follow through with your swing.”  You see Dad, that applies to life and education because when you follow through with that you're sure to hit it out of the park.  Thanks Dad for giving me strength and confidence to get back in the box and take another swing at life and at education. 

In closing, I would like to say thank you for allowing me to finish what I’ve started many years ago but most of all for enlightening me to follow my dreams through education.  I now know that this is my story and I’m the narrator. In fact, we are all narrators to our own stories that will continue to move and change throughout our lives, never stopping, always continuing into the next chapter.  

It’s your story, you tell it. 

For all those who think spending money educating inmates is not worth it, think about this: if these guys finish high school, they have a 67% chance of getting a career that will stop the cycle of continuous incarceration for themselves, but more importantly, they have a 87% chance of stopping the cycle of generational incarceration. I think that this is so important to changing the way our society views felons and criminals. They can change. I believe it. I live it. I see it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I See You

I am who I am
            You say
I can’t, won’t, don’t know how to change
            You say
I am hard
I am strong
I am somebody
            You say

But I see through you
little one
Sitting there on the dirty
orange carpet with no milk
In the fridge
Tears running down your face
Terror in your eyes
Blood in your mouth

I see you
Baby child with no food
Trying to fit in
A mother or father to provide
Food, love, or
A chance to make it
A chance to survive

I see you
Dreaming about becoming
Somebody special
Becoming a man
Becoming the hero
Becoming different than
The expectation, the rule
What they think you should be

I see you, little boy
With your
Fear of being hit
Fear of being left behind
Fear of fear itself, that unmanly
Emotion that you can’t feel no matter
How much you feel it.
Fear, the shame of feeling
The shame that men can’t feel
Can’t trust, can’t run from

I see you
Crying out for love
For something different
For a future
I see you
I acknowledge you
I care about you
I see you
Not as you see yourself
But I see you…I see you

As the someone you will be

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I'm having a problem...

I thought that what I was doing would be accepted by everyone. I thought that what I was doing was amazing. I thought that EVERY American citizen would be interested in the difference between educated post-felons and non-educated current felons. I thought I would be respected....

I'm having a problem. I found out that not everyone believes in education for felons. Not everyone wants to divert state funds to educating people in jail. Not everyone believes they are worth anything more than a basic meal and a life spent away from society. Except- here is the problem- if they were
taken out of your community, they will eventually be put back into your community. You don't have a choice. You can't yell or tantrum your way out of changing this fact. It simply won't happen once they are out on parole. So, then by not accepting this change, you are  telling me you that you want the same drug addicted, high school dropout, father or mother to 3-4 kids by as many different partners on the streets. No? Yeah, I don't either.

See, here's the thing. I didn't get into this line of work because I wanted to martyr myself. I had NO information about this lifestyle prior to this job. I didn't know anything about gangs, tattoos, cultural expectations, or violence. I have been completely naive and stuck under the rock of natural selection. I admit this but I have seen a different side to life. I want to HELP them. I want to give them something to hang onto so that they can actually find work that will not only fulfill them but will give them a life they can be proud of.

I want to give them a future.

But I am finding it hard, no...really different... than what I anticipated. See, I thought, based on what I have been told, that I would be set up by the students so that they could get me into trouble. The problem is that this hasn't happened. The students have been ridiculously respectful, ready to work hard, get into the text and work like they never have before. The issue that I have been having is with the Deputies.


No, seriously, they hate me. The guy in the bubble that buzzes me in and out is so insulting, I want to run away. The two inmate trustees are awesome and respect me and want to make sure I am so absolutely protected that they tend to be a little overbearing, but in reality, I am the only thing they can protect, so they take it seriously. The CAs or Custody Assistants that I work with in this program are awesome and really into making sure that we are comfortable. But the reality is that 50% of the
Deputies are not happy. They hate what we do. They hate what we teach. They hate that we spend our time trying to educate people they think are not capable of being educated. They hate that the students are respectful and willing to work for me when they are really not interested in doing anything productive for the Deputies.

Yet, I have to maintain respect 24/7. I have to be their teacher, supervisor, counselor, fixer, confidante, role model, and maintain countless other roles that I have not necessarily been trained for. It's not so different than what I was doing before, but yet it is. I deal with a faction of the government that I never anticipated questioning and all the while, I am trying to teach and enlighten people that our society has given up on. I am trying to teach the "unteachable."

But, these guys needs metaphorical cheerleaders that are constantly telling them they can do whatever is in front of them. It is important. It has never happened in their lives. They need believers. We can be those believers. We can be the change.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Felons Love Macbeth??

You know that saying "when you expect it, they will bring it" (or something like that, it is Friday, so please bear  with me) well, my guys, ages 18-65, felons, some in there for 40+ life for all types of crimes, came into my English class on Monday not understanding what they were getting into and opening Macbeth. 

See, I had had most of them in the semester before and over time, they grew to trust me. They knew that I wasn't going to let them flail about and drown so they took a chance and requested my class again. (BTW: this doesn't happen very often) I front loaded a ton of info about the life of Shakespeare, the language, the feeling of the society, the background of King James I of Scotland and his love of witches- basically if I thought they would benefit from it, I was going to give them the information. 

But today, as I was looking around the room, hearing them analyze Act I, Scene 7, and snicker at Lady Macbeth's over manipulation and her way of stripping away Macbeth's masculinity, I knew that I had done my job, not only as an educator, but as a person that they can still count on to explain, show, answer, create analogies- they wouldn't drown even when it got a little harder and even when it was something they would never consider doing on the outside. It was an awesome feeling...

Saturday, August 23, 2014

So...I teach in a Jail...

I am now teaching in a jail. A bit different and quite a story, but here is the's really not that much different! Most of my students struggle with learning, most have some type of learning disability that had gone unnoticed by their teachers, and most need to hear that they can accomplish something in school that is acknowledged with a star on their paper and an "Attaboy!!" verbal exclamation.

But- there are some interesting differences...

For one thing, most of my students look something like this guy. All have tattoos somewhere and some of the more prominent gang members have tattoos on their scalps, their faces, on their ears, necks, fingers, and virtually any place they can have one, they usually have one.

They also flash gang signs to guys walking by, and some have been in hard state prisons for years at a time. Some are just waiting to be sentenced and hoping that they can show the judge improvement by going to school. Some are terrified that they will be away from their wives and children for years and their kids will grow up like they did, without their fathers to help them wade through the very real danger of gangs and murder on the streets.

I don't ask them about where they came from or why they are there. Some will tell me though and their stories are always so heartbreaking. I feel badly for these guys. Most grew up without stable parents, some were foster kids in and out of the system. Some were horribly abused and some watched their parents abuse drugs and alcohol. All of them were searching for something when they were arrested and usually that something is a quick dollar because they didn't finish school and couldn't get a job that made their family enough money to survive. Drugs became a way out, both financially and literally but most couldn't deal without being a part of a gang and so that is what they did- because they had to and because for many of them, it was the first real family that they had. Except it is difficult to just "dabble" in a gang. If you are a part of one, you become a true part of one and you must participate in everything that goes along with it...

So...I teach in a jail...and it's not that different, except it is...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A New Way to Teach Descriptive Writing

Some of my lower level English students struggle with understanding the impact of descriptive writing. They understand what an adjective does and what its function is in a sentence, but translating that to a larger scale and applying that concept to descriptive writing in a story is very difficult for them to do. After trying a couple of techniques to increase their ability to identify descriptive writing and becoming frustrated, I decided to have the students "DO" instead of just "LISTEN."

I only had four students in this class on this day and I could really take the time to show them what they were missing and where they needed to go. I placed them at different points around the school and had them look at the scene in front of them. I told them to write down all of the adjectives that they could think of to describe what they were looking at in 1 minute.

I timed them and once they were finished with that scene, they rotated clockwise to the next scene. Once they were finished with all of the scenes, I had them come back to the classroom where I drew a table on the board and wrote their names across the top and the title of each scene along the side. Each student recited the adjectives they thought of to describe each scene and I wrote them on the board. We discussed the different adjectives and I asked them if they saw any trends in the adjectives they chose.

The #1 trend they noticed was that almost all of the adjectives they chose were colors but there wasn't anything to describe the temperature, the sounds, the sights, the smells, the change in texture, sunlight, or perspective. I wrote a list of the five senses on the board and asked them to re-do one scene from outside using their five senses, and find adjectives to describe the scene that addressed each sense.

Once more, we went back inside after the minute was up and I wrote their new adjectives on the board next to their previous choices. It became obvious that these new adjectives made a huge difference in describing what they saw and to further make this point, I gave each student a different student's list and asked them to write a paragraph using the new adjectives.

One student only came up with two new adjectives and to the student who had to write a paragraph using only two adjectives, it soon became apparent that in order to write a paragraph, you needed more than two adjectives to describe a scene.

This exercise not just TOLD them but SHOWED them how important descriptions were to the development of the setting. In a story, instead of only reading the words, I want them to be more aware of how the author is creating the setting by accessing their five senses to create a comprehensive experience for the reader. I want them to to be able to identify when descriptive writing is being used and how it affects the development of the story.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Writing Guides: Providing Useful Organization for the ADHD and Learning Disabled Student

"Utter fear- that is what went through my head when my teacher assigned an essay for homework. First off, I am a crappy writer and then, I had to write about something I didn't understand, something that wasn't clear. It wasn't clear for a number of reasons- the topic wasn't explained well enough and getting to the point of actual writing a five paragraph essay was taught with the assumption that my previous teachers had taught me correctly EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. Except, here is the funny thing- since each teacher assumed the PREVIOUS teacher taught it to me, I never learned how to do it! Also, when you tell a dyslexic kid with ADHD to just 'write a hook sentence, include sentences about what the next body paragraphs are going to be about and follow your notes to write a thesis sentence' you basically set me up for failure."

I have talked extensively with my husband about why he wasn't successful in school until I met him during his Junior year of college. It always comes back to the same thing- he never learned how to write an effective sentence or paragraph or essay.

This is just a complete waste of time for students with ADHD.
My husband is an incredibly smart person. I am not kidding- he can take a multi-level, extremely difficult condominium project from blueprints to complete build. He sees this stuff in his mind as already completed, putting it into a 3D version as he reviews the plans, mentally going in and out of the rooms and seeing everything internally. The guy, as smart as he is though, simply can't write. He can just barely write a legible email and anything more complex leaves him very nervous and self-conscious. When I met him, he was earning just barely a C- in his college level courses that depended on papers and essays for grades. All other classes that were project based or test based, he was earning a B+ or better.

When he met me, I was in the middle of taking classes for a History major and double minors in English and Anthropology. I should have switched it around and worked for an English major but at the time I was feeling like I needed a challenge and History was harder for me than English. My husband would get so angry at me because I would have a paper due on Friday that I wouldn't start on until 7 pm on Thursday night, then I'd bang out 10-12 pages in two hours, go to the bar that night and still earn an A on it. He would spend 10-12 DAYS writing the same amount of pages and only come back with a D.

Writing always came pretty easy to me. In elementary school, I had fantastic teachers that modeled proper writing organization for me and would correct and critique my writing attempts, helping me learn how to self-edit my work as I went along and showed me the proper way to build on a proper sentence, then paragraph, then essay. It fit together for me like a giant puzzle and I loved the challenge. In my high school years, I had a teacher in my Honors English class that tore me apart and broke down my writing style until I was laid bare and learned how to say exactly what needed to be said and no more. After I mastered that skill, he helped me create the writer I wanted to be, eloquent and expressive, without being overly confident and self-indulgent.

When I became a teacher, I realized that writing in an organized fashion simply isn't natural to most people and by the time they reached high school, most students were so perplexed by the writing process, they put in the minimal amount of energy, doing what they needed to do to complete it, but not
caring about what they wrote or how it sounded. They were simply overwhelmed and too frustrated with the entire process because they were either taught by (well-meaning) people who used those tried and true statements such as "the hook sentence needs to come first in your introductory paragraph" or "write the thesis statement so it connects with your three body paragraphs" or better yet "you need to analyze the quote from the book in this paragraph." These people were simply parroting what they learned and how they understood writing. However, these statements don't take into account those kids who don't understand what those words mean or how to organize the essay. When these students hear statements like this, it is the same as the teacher saying to them "now, put your foot behind your head and hop in a counterclockwise direction chanting the ancient Navaho request for rain". It simply does not make sense.

So how are they supposed to know what to do, how to do it, and feel confident in the process? Answer: They simply can't.

I hate to see these students feel bad about their writing ability and I resolved to find a way to help them. I started at the beginning, remembering how I helped my husband organize his essay with simple verbal questions asking him to say what he wanted to say in his paper. Then, I used a very straightforward, linear organizer that had the components of each paragraph outlined with sentences and prompts that told him exactly what he needed to include in each sentence, eliminating the uncertainty of what goes where.

This seemed to help them "see" how to construct the essay and also what elements were included and why they were important. Originally, I designed the organizer without any breaks in between the paragraphs and I found that students were still feeling overwhelmed by the idea that there was SO MUCH to write! So, I separated each paragraph to be on its own page, eliminating the "wall of lines" and allowing them to focus on just finishing that paragraph instead of being daunted by "what comes next." To say I saw an improvement was an understatement!! Their essays were organized, included all the components of a correct essay such as a thesis statement, quote, analysis, transition sentence, and a correct conclusion that DIDN'T simply re-state the argument!

I have now expanded my Original writing guide to include one for a Compare/Contrast essay, a literary analysis essay, and "How To" guides for writing a Murder Mystery, an interesting biography and just recently, reflective journals. Some of the these writing guides are included in the units I designed them for, but I have been debating whether or not to make a large bundle with instructions on how to implement them for all levels and subject areas....still working on it though!

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