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Teaching in the Prisons 2020: Dear Scholars

By Caroline Young and Joshua King

Dr. Young and Dr. King

Since 2008, Common Good Atlanta has provided in-person, community-based instruction in north Georgia correctional facilities.  What began with one graduate student’s letter campaign to fourteen GDC wardens has evolved to over 100 volunteer professors teaching at five area prisons across the region. Every week, dozens of teachers, tutors, and coordinators deliver college-accredited education to a diverse body of scholars who happen to be incarcerated. In February, 2020, a new cadre of Athens-based writing center recruits were bound for certification training, building off our small but dedicated UGA community at Whitworth Women’s Facility in Hartwell, Georgia. 

So, what happens to a prison education program when the world shuts down?   

On Friday, March 7, four UGA undergraduates accompanied Caroline Young to Whitworth on what would be the last permittable visit in 2020. CGA Literature instructor and UGA PhD candidate, Amy Bonnaffons, just missed the opportunity to celebrate her students on their scheduled final day of instruction. Graduation ceremonies were cancelled. Our students lost their education pipeline. More importantly, they lost human contact with loved ones as all visitations and movement were suspended for the foreseeable future.   

Suddenly, all anybody could do was connect through correspondence.   

In April, CGA Founder Sarah Higinbotham and the Georgia Department of Corrections opened dialogue about how to deliver college-credit instruction remotely to our vulnerable student population. By May, Common Good Atlanta initiated a GDC-approved course packet delivery system, Bard College secured remote learning accreditation, and our dedicated instructors were off and, well, writing more letters.   

While the Clemente Course model emphasizes writing in all subject areas, our instruction now relies on it entirely. Common Good professors compose letters of instruction introducing an accompanying lesson plan, students write in response, and site directors meet our GDC partners at prison doors for the masked weekly packet exchange and occasional temperature check.   

The big news is that the correspondence model works. Since June, the Whitworth scholars have successfully completed two Clemente Course units remotely: Art History and Philosophy. With writing taking center stage, Joshua King composed a new format for the Critical Thinking and Writing unit, and he has just completed the first of two 4-week writing intensives. 

The course’s title is “Recursive Selves,” and each week’s packet asks students to revise what they’ve written while considering the function of self-aware repetition in the literature assigned each week. To accompany this focus on revision and reflection, students have created and accomplished extensive revision plans on the papers they wrote for the philosophy course that most of them took before entering Critical Thinking and Writing, and they have created new reflective narrative essays on recursive routines in their own lives. In the second half of the course, students will revise another course’s final paper, this time recreating a history paper for a new audience. Finally, students will collect and reflect on their writing in a heavily modified take on the FYW final reflective portfolio.  

Each week’s packet is between ten and fifteen pages and includes writing instruction, a drafting or revision assignment, a step-by-step writing exercise designed around the week’s theme, an introduction to the reading assignment (complete with thinking or discussion questions), and a short biography of the reading’s author. The second week, for example, focused on analysis and opened with a three-page introduction to the basics of analysis, using tree identification as a metaphor and the poem “Tree” by Jane Hirshfield as a sample subject for analysis. The exercise that week walked students through writing a short rhetorical analysis of one of the week’s short stories: “Gorilla, My Love,” by Toni Cade Bambara and asked students questions geared toward applying analytical practice to the week’s other major assignment, an exploratory draft of the reflective narrative essay. 

The real correspondence begins in the second week. Joshua responds with a one-page letter to each scholar, addressing the work they did in their writing exercises, answering any questions, and suggesting directions and revisions for the draft submitted the previous week. Mid-course evaluations confirmed that while students missed their time in a physical classroom, they found that the correspondence model was both helpful for their writing and created a strong human connection with the instructor. Joshua will begin teaching the second half of the course in January. 

Despite all obstacles, the program is thriving thanks to this unique community partnership and its many committed agencies. In 2020, Whitworth celebrated (remotely) seven graduates from the program, and Caroline Young initiated a monthly Zoom-based, alumnae writing circle with recently released students looking to connect. Remotely or not, we look forward to a progressive 2021.  Bard has extended CGA’s remote accreditation, and UGA PhD candidate and Clemson Lecturer, Tareva Johnson, will be teaching our spring Literature unit. Finally, a long-range collaboration between UGA writing students, the Georgia Museum of Art, the GDC, and Common Good Atlanta is also in the works. More on the “Museum in a Suitcase/Works on Paper” project as plans unfold.   

For more information on this program, send us a note! Correspondence connects. 

Teaching with CGA: Whitworth Site Director, Caroline Young, cyoung@uga.edu.   

Tutoring with CGA: Whitworth Writing Center Coordinator, Joshua King, kingja@uga.edu. 

 

Caroline Young is a Lecture in the UGA English Department and Joshua King is the Assistant Director of First-Year Writing at UGA.

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