|September 13, 2001
Volume 32 Number 2
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Teaching with Bob at Leavenworth: Safe Places
As we approached the front steps of the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, we were followed by the eyes and shotgun of the guard in the outermost tower. Razor wire curled over the tops of the walls. Speaking into a metal box on the side of the wall, we announced who we were, waited while someone verified we had a right to be standing there and waited for the buzz and click, which signaled that the first door was about to slide open. We stepped inside and it slid closed behind us; another door opened and we stood in front of the main security checkpoint. From there, we were ushered through metal detectors into a room to be searched and to have a urine sample taken. Finally, we returned to the outer hall where we were escorted through more doors until, deep in the prisons interior, we reached the education wing.
I stopped being nervous when I reached the classroom and started teaching. My friend, Bob Antonio, and I had volunteered to teach sociology classes at the prison because we thought it would be exciting, and we thought it would be even more interesting if we team taught our two courses together. For almost 10 years, we made the once-a-week drive from Lawrence, Kansas, in the early afternoon, and returned home late at night. It was one of the best experiences of my life as a teacher and scholar. The students were certainly interesting. We got to teach some of Americas most notorious white-collar criminals, bank robbers, murderers, and people who defined themselves as political prisoners. It was the only time in my teaching career that the class offered to take care of someone who was disrespectful and hadnt done his homework (we declined the offer), and it is the only time in my life when a student slapped the desk and shouted, Hegel! Hes my man! after I announced that the next class period would be devoted to Hegel.
But like all students, these men came to class with baggagepreknowledge. Some of them already knew an enormous amount about the topic of the day; some could write well; and others had honed their analytic skills on fellow inmates. We had a student who grew up on a North Dakota reservation and one who had grown up in east L.A. The trick, in teaching, is to figure out what each students unique knowledge is and build on it in a common setting over a period of time. This was not something I knew before I started working at the prison.
As I said earlier, I felt safe once I got to the classroom; it was familiar to me and I knew, or thought I did, what to do. Nevertheless, teaching in a prison caused me to confront immediately what a classroom was, and what one had to do when faced with a room full of adults, all of whom had different experiences, knowledge bases, and expectations. The first time we taught, people just looked at us. We got virtually no responses; we did not have a clue whether we were making everybody angry, bored, or sorry they had shown up.
The next time we came, we asked them about themselves, their educational backgrounds, and what they wanted out of the class. Their expectations were those of very good students: they wanted us to do our best for them. We talked about ourselves and why we had come to Leavenworth. As we found out, some questioned our motives.
Neither Bob nor I spontaneously shifted gears in terms of how we were going to teach the class or developing new lesson plans. We changed a lot, but we did so because we had the opportunity to talk to one another. The long ride to Leavenworth and back gave us a safe place to talk about what we were trying to do, what had happened in the classroom, and whether or not we were helpful to one another in dealing with questions and keeping our students motivated. Over 10 years I think we covered every basic issue relating to teaching and learning. We did not know the literature on teaching and learning, so it took awhile to arrive at some basic truths about teaching. I later found out that many of our ideas had been much more eloquently summarized as 7 Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Among these principles are such obvious things as give prompt feedback, communicate high expectations, respect the diverse talent and ways of learning of your students, get to know your students, encourage them to work together on appropriate projects, and get them to use their time wisely and focus on the task at hand.
Teaching is often a lonely business. We go into our classrooms and shut the door. Sometimes we only talk candidly and with immediacy about what we are doing if there is a problem with it. We need what Bob and I had, a safe place to talk about teaching, where we can learn from one another, and share our vital concerns and experiences.
That is why the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) was created; it is intended to provide people with opportunities to talk candidly and with immediacy about the most important work they do: the creation of positive environments for teaching and learning. This is a job, by the way, that extends beyond the faculty to the professional librarians, counselors, residence hall directors, advisers, and departmental secretariesall of those who work to help us realize our first strategic priority.
The CELT annual conference was established to provide a place for people
to share their ideas, to take time out from daily routines to meet with
one another and learn from one another. I cordially invite you to the
7th Annual CELT Conference on Excellence in Learning and Teaching. Hear
from your colleagues in K-12, members of the local community, faculty
from Butte Community College, and our own faculty and staff about what
they are doing to create high-quality learning environments. Come and
pay tribute to our Outstanding Teacher, Russ Mills, and our Outstanding
Adviser, Ernst Schoen-Rene. And enjoy the picnic.
Scott G. McNall
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