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Paper 2

HSBurke's picture

Teaching through Experience: Painting a Positive Picture of the Relationship between Prisons and Schools

Before beginning, I would like to note that this is the photo that I posted for our Vision memo, rather than the Voice class assignment. Additionally, while this is not the picture I originally chose (which had to be taken down to due copyright issues) this royalty-free photo is very similar, and evokes the same feeling of hopefulness for me. I developed the deeper understanding that I now have of the relationship between schools and prisons by witnessing how my classmates (and myself, initially) associated the two institutions through images on Serendip. This illuminates why I have chosen the picture I posted at a later time, for a separate Vision assignment, by reflecting my being able to take time to synthesize our collection of visual representations as a whole and understand them as a genre in addition to on an individual basis. This deeper understanding then came to inform the claim that I will make about our widely negative interpretation of the relationship between schools and prisons.

What I saw scrolling through our poignant images was nothing short of depressing. There were schools that looked like prisons, students that looked like prisoners and prison food that differed very little from what I was served for school lunch. It would not be far-fetched to gather from our visualizations that schools and prisons are almost one in the same. For me, this evoked a feeling of hopelessness. Who can deny the inevitability of the school-to-prison pipeline when we can see the similarities between the two so clearly? Did we as students spend twelve years of our lives in a sort of pseudo-prison? To sum up these complicated feelings, our pictures were quite the negative bunch. Looking at these images solidified a feeling that I had been having that the connection between schools and prisons as intensely negative represents the dominant discourse of our class. Here, I will take the time to problematize our approach and introduce the idea of prison acting as a learning experience, from which those who have been incarcerated can teach, thus putting a positive spin on the connection between the two institutions.

The prisoner’s agency and ability to teach comes from the Deweyian notion of experience as a valuable educative tool because “education…is a process of living” (Dewey 7). Experience, whether negative or positive, is something universal to all of us, and thus provides everyone with the ability to learn from a medium that is separate (but often intertwined!) from typical book knowledge. This places incarcerated people in a unique position. Given that their experience of being incarcerated is truly an education in itself; they are then able to use this place of experience to teach and illuminate others who lack the same experience. This ability then harkens back to the connection between school and prison. To more fully align with my claim, however, I would like to extend the word “school” here past the more structural definition that our visualizations reference and instead use the definition of “group of scholars and teachers pursuing knowledge together” (Merriam-Webster).

An important point to take into account is that our experience and learning as a part of this 360 is largely based on our connection with a jail. In addition, many of the texts we’ve read so far in class rely on the voices of incarcerated women to inform and legitimize each piece’s central argument or idea. As a 360, we’ve been continuously “schooled” with texts by and about incarcerated people. And, and demonstrated by moments such as our recent silent web, we’ve made great strides in our understanding and thinking about incarceration because of these mediums. This connection between school and prison is vital to the function of our program. Thus, as a class, we refute the very idea of a negative connection between schools and prisons that we are so willing to pick up on. In fact, this learning experience that we’ve engaged in so far in the semester would not have been possible without the presence and voice of the institution of prison to color our class. By determining how much we have benefitted from the voices of those incarcerated in our 360, I was encouraged to explore whether prisoners could be also be an instructive force in settings outside of our unique group.

The incarcerated women’s experiential education of being in the prison system was the basis for my reforming and rethinking of the positive possibilities for this inescapable connection between schools and prisons. Using YASP as a model, I have developed an idea for a program that will provide an employment opportunity for women who have been incarcerated as well as allow them to use their experience to educate others about ways to improve the system. As proposed in my last Vision memo, I have come up with a program that I named Flourish. This will not be a recovery program similar to Alliance or Visions, but rather a group made up of women recently released from prison that will help inform positive improvements and structural changes that can be made to programs like the ones they have experienced. For these women, working with Flourish will be a job. They will be paid hourly with no employment discrimination based on criminal record. In Flourish, the women will offer free workshops to various women’s institutions, in which the women will act as intermediaries between the incarcerated women and the staff members, providing valuable information as to how these institutions could have better served them. The women will be able to speak directly from their personal experiences within these types of institutions. The benefit that the receiving programs reap based on these firsthand accounts serve to bring legitimacy to the unique “education” that people receive while in prison and then allow them to speak out and make positive change by teaching from this experience.

So many times, the connection between schools and prisons is presented in a negative manner. We lament (rightly so) the school-to-prison pipeline and we speak of prisoners being taught and reformed as almost passive receptacles – medicated by the pharmaceutical bookshelf of prison education. However, very little credence is given to the possibility of the ability to be taught by these people, who are buoyed by their own experience behind bars. While it’s has not been concretely discussed by our class, this is something that is inevitably enmeshed in the fiber of our 360. And through Flourish, the program that I have introduced here in short, this ability for teaching and learning can be taken outside of our 360 space to benefit other members of the community and alter our understanding of the connection between schools and prisons as a negative relationship.

Works Cited

Dewey, John. My Pedagogic Creed. Chicago: A. Flanagan, 1910. Print.

"school." Merriam-Webster, 2012. Web. 24 October 2011.