Acknowledging the Pain and Anger

There are students who try to get kicked out of class. It reminds me of foster children who know exactly what they need to do to get kicked out of a foster home. They figure it’s going to happen anyway, so they might as well get it over with. Some probably don’t believe they can pass the GED Test, or are too lazy to try.  If they can get kicked out by “mean Ms. Chamberlin”, then they can blame me instead of themselves.

These guys, especially the younger ones, will get really angry and rude. They are often very intelligent, but they’ll do whatever they can to get thrown out.  So, knowing that, I visit with them, let them know I’m aware of their plan (even if they don’t realize what they’re doing), and usually I can get them to decide to stay and try.

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A Curmudgeon and a Tattooed Screamer

To motivate the students, it is important to figure out the real meaning for their attitudes. It helps with motivation and with classroom behavior, which are intertwined.
Mr. Lopez* was meaner than a snake. He was probably in his fifties, and he was an old curmudgeon. I could not break through to this man to get him to do any work. He didn’t see the value of studying, and was snotty to me all the time.

Finally, Mr. Lopez ended up leaving school. I can’t remember if I ended up throwing him out because he wasn’t producing, or if he quit. But it taught me a lesson; I thought this man had a really ugly heart and was very mean-spirited. I totally misunderstood his behaviors.

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“I Can’t Believe all the Sh*t I Don’t Know”

We have a lot of students with low self-esteem. One student I’ll call Mr. Miller* was really, really smart, but he just wasn’t doing anything in class. It dawned on me he didn’t know he was so smart.

Mr. Miller cracked me up one day when he was looking at a world map, and said to me, “I don’t understand why they even label the oceans. Why do they have an Atlantic Ocean, a Pacific Ocean, and a Lake Michigan? When you’re in a boat and you’re just driving along, or you’re in a ship and you’re riding along, there are no signs out there that say what ocean it is. Who cares what it’s called? Why’d they even have to name them? You just have to go across them.”

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Unlocking Student Potential

The largest amount of my time, and probably one of the most important things I do, is creating an environment where my students believe they can succeed, and where they want to succeed. I understand those who say no one can be motivated by anyone. I understand their reasoning.  However, I’m talking about setting the stage where students who are afraid to learn, or hate school, or don’t believe in themselves, can feel safe and thrive in an educational setting.  If that can’t be accomplished, very little learning will occur. 
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A Runaway Fan and A Revolving Door

The conditions are poor. Temperatures get too hot or too cold.  Mold and high humidity ruin the books and the sinuses. Pipes break, creating steam leaks and additional mold. Once, I was helping a man at a computer and several men called my name.  I didn’t turn around; instead, I told them, “Hang on a minute.”  They sounded agitated so I looked in their direction and realized my ceiling fan had broken loose.  It was dangling about three feet from the floor, hanging by one wire, as it continued to oscillate. Thankfully, no one was hurt.  One of my colleagues from down the hall assisted me by disconnecting the fan until it could be repaired.  Things break down all the time, and we often wait months or years for repair. Several years after the fan incident I came upon that poor fan crammed in a storage closet. For all I know, it’s still in there.
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Marijuana-laced Cookies?

Most people are surprised to hear there is no security officer assigned to each individual prison classroom. I have up to 25 individuals in each class, and I am basically responsible for the security. Occasionally, a security officer does come down the hall, or we can call for help from an in-house phone, if necessary. But basically, I discipline my own classroom. In a future blog, I will elaborate on how I deal with discipline, safety and security.
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MISSOURI CURE ANNUAL STATEWIDE CONFERENCE is pleased to announce that in one week, on Saturday, September 17, 2011 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Missouri CURE will be holding their Annual Statewide Conference.

Topics covered include:

  • Reentry
  • Parole
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Legislation

At this conference lunch is provided, speakers will do their thing, workshops will be presented, and officers will be installed. With Free Admission there is no reason to not attend. No RSVP required. Everyone is welcome.

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Who and What is Taught in Prison?

So what do we teach in prison?  We work on adult basic education skills for those who aren’t literate.  The first goal is to reach 6th grade in reading, math, and language skills.  Once reached, the next goal is to pass the GED test.  Forty per cent of high school graduates in this country cannot pass the GED test.  It’s not as simple as many think.  So it is a major accomplishment for a man to move up to a level that allows him to pass the test.  After the GED is passed, there are other educational opportunities, including vocational programs and Purdue University classes which can lead to certifications and degrees.  Our vocational programs include classes in computers, marketing, horticulture, automobile repair, electronics, culinary arts, and construction trades. My colleagues and I are very dedicated to helping the men become contributors to society. This also lowers the possibility of them returning to prison.
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Got Any Pencils?

Our supplies, our technical equipment and our materials are quite scarce. For example, there have been times when we only received 20 pencils a month, and these were shared among 40 to 60 students each day. Someone in the bean counter’s office determined that one pencil should last for 129 pages. I used to get angry, now I just chuckle and make do the best I can.

My overhead projector was last repaired in 1988, according to the ticket on it. I recently obtained a TV, VCR and DVD player. A couple months ago a whiteboard was delivered, which I have been waiting for since I started teaching at the prison.

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The “Mama Bear”

For fourteen years, I have been the “mama bear” in a correctional facility, mostly teaching adult males between the ages of 18 to 75. I also have nearly a year’s experience in an all-male juvenile facility, with ages ranging from 12 to 18.  So, I have experience with a full spectrum of ages.

The prison setting obviously has many cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We have Caucasians, African Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and probably any combination of the above.
The ability levels range from non-readers at kindergarten level, all the way to twelfth grade. Until recently, our school was departmentalized by subject area, and the students were also placed by academic level. Specifically, I taught the high-level math. These students were at the high school level; I instructed them in numbers and operations, measurement, algebra and geometry.

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