Changing Lives Through Literature: Try to Understand Each Other.
“In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”
-John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal.
During my teacher training, I taught the book Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck to three different classes for their English Literature GCSE exam. The book was popular and easy to access for students, but in the run up to the exam everyone was getting a little fatigued by our over-analysis of the book as we recounted again and again the important scenes, characters and symbolism. We all knew it off by heart and my students were set to achieve well in their exam, but I wouldn’t necessarily have said the book was changing any of our lives.
A visit from Andy French
Then Andy French visited the school. Andy had been in and out of prison for around 20 years of his life and had never engaged in school or had an interest in reading until he took part in a Stories Connect workshop while he was in prison.
Stories Connect was set up by Mary Stephenson, a writer who has worked extensively with prisoners and their families. The aim of the programme was to use stories to connect inmates with their emotions by connecting the stories to their lives.
Reading Of Mice and Men at a stories connect workshop gave Andy the opportunity to discuss such themes such as friendship, loneliness, failure and dreams. This had changed his life as he had never had the opportunity to connect with literature and these feelings before.
When he visited my classroom, he grabbed my students’ attention with his honesty and his experience helped show them that Of Mice and Men was more than just a book to be studied for an exam.
What is so powerful about Stories Connect?
Andy’s talk also intrigued me as I began to wonder how Stories Connect, had used Of Mice and Men differently to how we were reading the novel in the classroom. His talk also saddened me as I thought, why only after 20 years in prison has Andy been introduced to the power of reading?
I wondered: ‘Why are we not doing whatever Stories Connect are doing in the classroom to help people tune into the power of reading from a younger age?’
Changing Lives Through Literature
When I started working on The Story Project, I reached out to Mary Stephenson to try to find out more about Stories Connect and whether its methods could be translated to a classroom setting.
Mary was extremely helpful and gave me lots of information including informing me about a programme in the U.S. on which Stories Connect was based: Changing Lives Through Literature. On their website, I was able to find lots of information about how the program is run, so when I started applying for my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust grant, I knew that a visit to the programme had to be a priority for my research.
Mary helped to put me in touch with the founder of the programme, Bob Waxler and the founder of the first women’s program, Jean Trounstine – both of whom she had visited before she started up Stories Connect. Bob helped to arrange a meeting for me with Stella Ribiero and Bob Schilling who had led the programme within the Juvenile Justice system in New Bedford Massachusetts, and Jean arranged for me to join in with her women’s Changing Lives Through Literature Programme which covers the courts of Lowell and Lynne in Massachusetts.
That is how I found myself sat around a table with: Jean; Judge Flatley, the judge overseeing Lynne County Court; Jennifer and Maureen, probation officers covering Lowell and Lynn; and Kady, Lorie, Jeanette and Angelica, who were taking part in the CLTL session as part of their probation. We had all read the book Sula by Toni Morrison and were sat around the table as equals ready to discuss the book.
"How you know it was you [who was good]? . . . Maybe it was me’
The book centres around two incredibly close childhood friends who take very different paths in life and the book evokes a lot of interesting discussion about which of the characters is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Jean acted as the facilitator of the group and started off by introducing everyone, before we went around the table firstly offering one thing we found interesting about the book, then offering one thing we found confusing or annoying or upsetting or negative about the book.
Everyone listened as people gave their opinion and every opinion was valid. This was only the second time the group had met and as we went around the room, you could visibly see people relaxing and making bonds as we nodded in agreement at points we agreed with or listened open-mindedly to points we didn’t agree with. Every opinion was valued, and when Lorie explained that she didn’t really like the book this was also questioned with interest - not judgement.
In her blog about CLTL Jean explains: ‘My role is to draw these women out, to reinforce that they have something important to say even if we disagree, and to allow them and encourage them to express their disagreements with others in strong but respectful ways.’
I personally found the book very interesting, but there were some parts that had confused me a little. When I told the group that I didn’t know what to make of a character called Shadrack, all of the group responded with a multitude of agreements.
It was interesting to see that the Judge, who has a job requiring some of the highest education in the U.S., baffled over this point along with the other members in the group who exclaimed during the session that they had not really done much at school.
Everyone is smart
Within this group, your level of education did not matter, as everyone gave equally interesting points and when Kady, a member of the group made a comment about her lack of education, Lorie who was sat next to her, just whispered with genuine respect ‘You seem really smart to me.’
And it was true. Everyone was smart - in ways that they didn’t seem to perceive they would be. The conversation about the book brought people to life and Lorie summed up the feeling of the room by saying towards the end of the session. ‘I actually like the book now, after we have talked about it, I’m finding it really interesting.’
Although I had found the book interesting before the CLTL session, the session helped me to understand and gave me some insight into what makes a CLTL session different to the classroom.
Firstly, it is the sense of respect and importance that everyone in the room receives. Some of the ladies in the group had been sentenced by Judge Flatley, but that was not mentioned; instead, everyone in the group is an equal.
When I spoke with Stella, Bob and Jeremy (Robert Waxler's son) about the Juvenile program they also credited the respect aspect as helping to make their sessions a success. They spoke about how some of the most successful CLTL sessions they had run had been held inside a police station. Traditionally, the relationship between young people involved in the juvenile court and police officers is a contentious one, but when the young people came for a CLTL session they were treated with respect.
Officer Joe Cordeiro who is now the city’s chief of police, arranged for the sessions to be in the police station and ensured that the young people didn’t need to have their bag searched when they entered the building. This small act helped change the young people’s perceptions of the police and during the course of the sessions they began to have positive associations with the law. The police officers had an opportunity to see young people positively too as they saw the young people’s enthusiasm for CLTL.
While discussing the Juvenile version of CLTL we also spoke about how this atmosphere of respect and equality could be created in a classroom. Bob raised the point that it would be interesting to have people in authority joining in with book groups at schools. Perhaps head teachers or leaders within the community could create a sense of importance to the group. Jean then expanded on this by suggesting perhaps parents could be involved too. Involving a variety of adults in positions of authority is definitely something that could help engage students and help them to see the importance of reading.
As well as creating mutual respect, the programme is also giving the offenders the skills to express themselves around positions of authority. Jean explains in her blog about CLTL, that ‘this learning to express oneself appropriately in the face of authority is important for the women. They come from histories of violence where they have seen yelling, physical abuse, sexual abuse, rape, and, in some cases, murder. More are victims of violence, but some are also perpetrators and have abused their children or partners. Some associate vigorous discussions with forcing others to see things your way, and CLTL can improve upon that understanding. Part of expressing oneself is learning to listen, valuing others opinions, and not being afraid of difference.’
The woman's group celebrate the end of their program with a graduation ceremony at the local county court. Their families and friends are invited to the ceremony, but also in the audience are the members of the court for that day. So before a real court session starts, the ceremony happens in front of everyone who has attended court that day.
The ceremony is led by the CLTL facilitator and the judge and the participants are presented with certificates and gifts. There is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction in the fact that the participants are being praised and celebrated in the exact location that they may have been condemned before.
Secondly, to make the groups a success, the books are carefully chosen to be relevant for the groups who are taking part. Stella explained how within one CLTL group of young men, three of the participants had been expectant fathers, so they had focussed on books with the theme of responsibility. She had also found a book called ‘Speak’ to be effective with young girls as it raises the theme of date rape.
Jean and Stella spoke about how they valued the use of local authors as they would often be able to invite the author into the group to speak about their book; Elizabeth Graver the author of The Honey Thief will actually be joining Jean’s Ladies group next month. Stella also told me that one of the books that was read in her Juvenile group was actually written by the relative of one of the young offenders and involved a probation officer as a hero figure. I can’t think of many books that could be more relevant than that!
Whilst all the facilitators talk about their work, it hard not to be infected by their enthusiasm and vigour. I heard countless stories of judges coming out of retirement and probation officers travelling to different districts, all to take part in the programme. Everyone involved clearly cares immensely about it and this is not just because of the feel-good factor that it gives everyone, it is because it works!
Research studies have shown that CLTL reduces recidivism rates by up to 50% and it saves the U.S. Government thousands of dollars by avoiding incarceration. However, despite the long term savings the programme provides, it still relies on grants and benefactors to make a lot of the work possible.
It also relies on the dedication and enthusiasm of the people who run the sessions and I feel very privileged to have met and communicated with some of these people during my trip.
Thank you to Bob Waxler, Jean Trounstine, Sheila Ribiero, Bob Schelling and Jeremy Waxler for inspiring me with your work.