FOR THOSE TRYING TO DO SIMILAR WORK ELSEWHERE

FOR THOSE TRYING TO DO SIMILAR WORK ELSEWHERE

MPWW is often approached by people who want to teach in prison or create their own programs.  Here’s a list of questions we are commonly asked others.

 

How do I begin?

Contact the warden at the facility in which you’d like to teach.  It helps if you have a syllabus, a publishing or teaching history, or other credentials to offer.  Don’t assume facilities will gladly take anyone off the street.  Classroom space and security staff is often limited.  For that reason, it’s an honor and a great responsibility to offer consistent, high-quality, programming.

Also, start small. We began with one class and six students.  We expanded to six classes and sixty students.  We now teach 25 or more classes per year to hundreds of students and offer a mentor program and auxiliary programming.  With every step we’ve found it helpful to pilot and refine new ideas before making them a permanent part of programming.

Do you have data to back up the effectiveness of such work?

We admire the research that Larry Brewster has done with that the William James Association:  Qualitative Study of the California-Arts-in-Corrections Program and The Impacts of Prison Arts Programs on Inmate Attitudes and Behavior: A Quantitative Evaluation. See more research here.

In addition to that research we also request quantitative and qualitative feedback from students.  We find their stories and testimonies to most convincing.

Do you teach men or women?

Both.

Do you feel less safe teaching men?

We can’t speak for every instructor, but in general our staff and volunteers report feeling safe, comfortable, and appreciated by students across all eight facilities.

Do you feel safe in general?

Yes.  While it likely varies from state to state, the MN DOC takes volunteers’ safety seriously.  In addition, our students want to be in class and it shows.

How many students do you allow into each class?

Approximately 10-15.

How long do classes run?

It depends on the facility and their movement block but typically we meet once per week for 10-14 weeks.

What does an average class look like?

Most classes are 10-14 weeks long, meet weekly, and promise 30 contact hours between instructors and students.  (Movement times vary, which is why class length does too.)  We do often do a craft review, discussion of last week's literature, a writing prompt, and often a workshop.   Sentence lengths for most of our students are long so we see the same writers year after year.  At our busier facilities we offer advanced and beginner courses. Our course offerings are dynamic and ever-changing so students get a good variety and a balance of poetry, prose, craft, etc.

What’s your curriculum?

We don’t have a packaged curriculum.  Because we work with the same men and women for years, we offer new courses often. Instructors create the class of their dreams and the one they feel best qualified to teach.  Across all our classes we do adhere to standards such as:

  • Offering written feedback to our students
  • Providing an opportunity for oral sharing and oral responses
  • Assigning racially and ethnically diverse literature
  • Creating a respectful and safe atmosphere
  • Honoring a commitment to the arts community we’re building, inside and out, by continuing to come back and teach and finding instructors who are interested in returning.
Can you share your curriculum with me?

If you want to see a sample syllabus, we’ll be glad to share.

What are examples of writing prompts that work well for incarcerated students?

Any prompt you’d use for a non-incarcerated writing student works for incarcerated writers too.  As with all creative writing students, prompts are just exercises meant to get the pen moving. If you still aren’t sure what that looks like, read craft books or magazines meant for writers and writing instructors.

Do you administer tests?

Nope!  We are all about writing and reading and talking about writing and reading, most specifically the students' creative work.  We also provide extensive feedback on students' written work and most classes culminate in a class reading.

Do you administer evaluations?

We do.  We administer a self-evaluation at the beginning of class and a final evaluation on the last day.  Email us if you’d like a copy.

Who are your instructors?

We’re a group of writers who are actively writing and often teaching creative writing. All of us are actively publishing and/or performing and have a deep love of writing and a desire to share that with others.

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently when you began?

Actively recruited POCI instructors and mentors from day one.  We also wish we’d reached out to nonprofits earlier to understand how individual giving sustains nonprofit organizations.

Are there any programs or materials you found helpful to get started?

The Prison Arts Coalition is a wonderful resource, which includes a list of prison arts programs across the country.  We learned a lot from Alternatives to Violence, William James Association, and Cornell Prison Education Program.

Do you recommend starting a nonprofit?

No, actually.  If there are other organizations in your area doing similar work see if you can help them.  If there aren’t and you begin this work, spend plenty of time immersed in the work itself.  A nonprofit requires its own care and feeding.  If it helps you stay funded and sustain your work, great.  But if it doesn’t it’s fine to wait on that step or forego it entirely.

What’s the most important point you’d stress to someone starting this work?

Disappointment is pretty common in prison.  So are people fading away. If you begin this work please do so with a commitment to stick around and bring in others who will try to stick around.