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Curriculum Project: Learning a Learner Identity

HCRL's picture

Identity, Access and Innovation in Education
Curriculum Project

            This curriculum is designed for women at a Correctional Facility (CF) who participate in a weekly literacy group. The literacy group is composed of six Bi-Co college students who act as "tutors," and approximately 10-15 women who live at the facility. The group is very new and was created because the correctional facility's social worker recognized a need for a class geared to women with less developed English reading and writing skills. Holding a class in a prison poses some logistical problems which must be worked around. For example, the group of women attending the class will likely fluctuate due to women being released, and because of miscommunication with and between correctional officers. Thus, the lessons should build upon each other, but also be able to stand independently. Lastly, classroom materials are limited, and cannot include any technology. 

            Offering a class is a prison also introduces other complexities that are perhaps more important than the logistical challenges. First, the tutors are able to fluidly enter and leave the prison while the women obviously do not have that freedom. Second, many of the women in the class are much older than the Bi-Co students and have faced immense difficulties, including mental illness, death of both parents at a young age, and becoming a mother at a young age. While I cannot speak for all of the tutors, I can say that personally I have never dealt with such serious obstacles. Lastly, despite being younger and less experienced than most of the women, I have more developed literacy skills and have been able to access more formal education than the majority of the women. None of these complexities are necessarily hindering, but the accompanying privilege and power must be constantly kept at the forefront of the tutors' minds.

            While it is clear that working in prisons presents many difficulties, it also offers two significant benefits. First, the class is a self-selecting group of women who are extremely happy to be involved with the class. They are not forced to be there, and they do not gain anything other than a learning experience by attending the class. Most of the women love to participate, and they all remain engaged for the whole class. Second, the class does not need to worry about meeting certain standards or attaining high test scores. As the class is not for credit, the women and tutors have total flexibility to create and adapt the curriculum to reflect their interests.

            All of these factors were taken into account when creating this curriculum. The words of Jay Fluellen, a Philadelphia high school teacher, were utilized as the backbone of the curriculum. He explained three essential concepts that must be integrated into effective teaching. He stated that a curriculum needs to be responsive to the class population, that students must be taught the way they prefer to learn, and that students should be engaged with whatever materials are accessible. This advice is deeply linked with Gerald Campano's concept of the second classroom, or the space that exists when a classroom "develops organically by following the students' leads, interests, desires, forms of cultural expression and especially stories" (40). Campano explains that his class was the most successful when the second classroom was not subordinate to the more traditional first classroom. Perhaps the greatest aspect of the literacy group is that the second classroom can dominate the first classroom. The curriculum is focused on the previously voiced interests of the women in the class and their narratives. The specific lesson plans will likely change based on the women's opinions.

            The short-term objective of the literacy group is for the women to improve their literacy skills. However, the overarching goal of the class is for the women to gain a confident sense of self as learners, a concept borrowed from Hazel Rose Markus, and as individuals who are highly educated (64). In order to achieve both the objectives and goal, three lesson plans designed for 90 minute periods have been developed. Each lesson plan is centered on a goal derived from the second classroom, as well as a secondary first classroom objective. To facilitate an inclusive classroom environment, a number of iterations of the same activity are presented in each lesson plan. Hopefully this will allow each woman to utilize an outlet about which she is excited.

Lesson #1:
1. Explore own identity, and start to develop learner identity.
2. Gain a basic understanding of verbs, nouns and adjectives.

  • Explain concept of "I am From" poems. One Bi-Co student will present an example.
  • Simultaneously use the poems to explain parts of speech: I am (verb) from the beautiful (adjective) mountains (noun).
  • Women have the option of writing their own I am From poem, performing an I am From poem without writing it down, drawing an image of where they are from, or collaging an image of where they are from. They can also combine options.
  • Each woman who wishes to will present her creation, and will identify at least two each of nouns, verbs and adjectives in her poem or used to describe her image.

            The aim of this first lesson plan is to plant the seed for developing a learner identity, if the women do not already identify as learners. In a perfect world, each woman would cement her learner identity before the class's end. However, this is far from realistic as this process will involve unlearning past school-related identities. It is likely that many of the women's past identities in school contributed to them not completing high school. Markus explains that identifying as a learner helps to motivate and focus students, and most importantly for the adult prison setting "buffers threats to one's view of the self as a capable, effective learner or achiever" (64). As many of the women in the group have limited experience with formal schooling, some of them have low confidence in their reading and writing abilities. These women likely face a litany of constant small difficulties such as not understanding a word's meaning or not knowing how to spell a word. Developing a learner identity that buffers against these challenges will help women focus on their learning from each of these moments, rather than on their struggles.

            Markus explains that individuals are more likely to identify as learners when they feel that they are "welcomed, included and belong in the classroom" (64). By exploring and discussing identities, hopefully the women in the group will understand that the tutors and fellow students value each individual in the class and her life experiences. Additionally, sharing personal stories will allow the tutors to learn about the class's women, and use that knowledge to foster a comfortable environment. Markus explicates that a student identity is very responsive to social context, and hopefully this first lesson will enable women to cultivate these identities (64).

Lesson #2:
1. Explore how identities facilitated and/or prevented access to education.
2. Gain a basic understanding of the concept of brainstorming, stereotypes and the writing process.

  • Ask if any women can explain the concept of brainstorming, if not, Bi-Co student explain it.
  • Review the definition of a stereotype and use correctional officers as an example.
  • Hand out extra large and wide pieces of paper, with 3 vertical sections already delineated.
  • Ask women to brainstorm stereotypes that describe the neighborhood in which they spent most of their childhood using single words or sentences. Ideally they will write using words, but they can also draw a detailed stereotypical picture of the neighborhood.
  • Ask women to brainstorm as many words or sentences that accurately describe their neighborhood, home and/or family. Provide the following examples if women request more guidance: how people treat each other, how much formal schooling people tend to receive, where individuals are from. It is okay if some are repeated from the stereotype section.
  • Ask women to brainstorm what they learned or taught while living in their neighborhood. Examples: how to care for a family at a young age, how to speak another language.
  • Explain that the last section is one type of education.
  • Discuss how identities explored in the previous week shaped access to education as a young person. Ask the following questions:

            1) In what ways did neighborhoods erect barriers to accessing education?

                        -Who created the barrier? Individuals, or more structural societal problems?

            2) In what ways did neighborhoods provide access to a rich education?      

  • Ask women to create cohesive narratives of their experiences in their neighborhoods. Explain that when writing formally it is often helpful to first create an outline. Show that the women have already developed an outline through their brainstorming and discussion.
  • If necessary, provide examples from pp. 49 of Campano's book. (Note: While Campano did not undergo this process before his students wrote narratives, going through these steps will help the women who otherwise would struggle with structuring a cohesive narrative.)
  • Each woman who wishes to share will be encouraged to do so.

            The goal of this lesson is twofold. The overarching goal is for women to explore the impact of their identity on their access to education. The related goal is for the women to perceive informal learning as a legitimate type of education. Many of the women in the class did not graduate high school, and had limited access to formal education. However, they have all endured trying life experiences from which they likely learned enormous amounts. Abraham Bolish would qualify these situations as "regimes of study," which he defines as "sets of practices, institutions, and processes that enroll people in particular ways of knowing, teaching and learning." It is critical to recognize the value of informal learning, and doing so will help foster a learner identity for the women.

            Not only will this lesson ideally contribute to learner identities, but it will also examine the role that neighborhoods play in regimes of study.  Hopefully it will elicit similar responses that Campano witnessed when his students described their neighborhoods. He comments that the writing allowed students to "critically mediate their understanding of the neighborhood, resist preconceptions and analyze the material conditions that threatened to diminish their life opportunities" (49). While composing these narratives the reality of many of the women's neighborhoods, including high levels of poverty, crime and incarceration, should not be ignored. However, the focus should be placed on the silver lining of those issues, and to reflect upon the lessons that emerged from those experiences. Examining past neighborhoods is also pertinent because based on conversations with some of the women, it seems like many of them will return to the same neighborhood once they are released from CF or immediately after completing a rehabilitation program. Hopefully if they can start to look at their own neighborhood as an educational space it will help them view their home in a positive light (if they do not already), and as a place that they can use as a springboard for more formal kinds of learning. Bolish would not be pleased with this end goal, but realistically it is quite hard to survive or succeed today without at least a high school diploma or GED.

Lesson #3
1. Look to the future and reflect upon how current identity will lead to some form of access to education.
2. Gain experience writing a longer piece of work.

  • Ask the women to write down 3-5 goals that relate to their future formal or informal education. Some goals should be attainable in CF, and others only attainable in the outside world. Examples: I will strive to read 1 book a week, to teach my child about respecting their family members, to enroll in a program that will provide me computer literacy training.
  • Ask women to write a story, myth, or poem about them achieving at least one of those goals, If they don't want to write, they can instead draw or collage a picture of achieving a goal (but they will have to describe the picture in writing as well). ** Many of the women enjoy reading myths, so it would be great for them to create their own.
  • The final image or piece of writing should include hurdles that might arise, how they will jump over those hurdles, and why their goal is important. It can be literal, or metaphorical.
  • The women will have about 1 hour to complete this task, so emphasize that it should be fairly long. Remind women to think back to the previous week where they learned about the writing process of planning a piece of writing.
  • At the end of the class everyone who wishes to will share their creation 

            This rationale for this lesson is derived from the importance of a learner identity, but its emphasis on the future is not based on past literature. In the first two sessions of this curriculum, the women will reflect upon the past, but for the third session they will have the opportunity to look towards their future. It is clear that the future for many of the women will be complicated and difficult. Some women have expressed that they have no one in the outside world who will support them. Others will step into the role of mother for the first time. However, if looking forward can help illustrate to the women how their learner identity can be active in a variety of settings then perhaps the transition will be marginally easier. Maintaining this identity could help the women attend more schooling, gain employment, instill the learner identity in their children, or strengthen their confidence in their general abilities.