Dec 13, 2011

Back to Prison

Today it's back to prison -- I think I’ve missed the place. If you put a lot into your lessons it takes a lot out of you and I must say that when I finished last year's course it actually left me feeling more than a little drained. I wasn't really aware of it until the times I thought about starting again, and then I really wondered “Am I ready for it yet?”
Nonetheless, it was certainly one of the most important teaching experiences in my rather long career, immensely rewarding on different levels - but I suppose that as in other things, the reward is in proportion to the challenge.
So, a new challenge today. In half an hour from now it will be ID checks, metal detectors, steel gates, echoes and cages. And -- my students: 16 of them apparently. Who knows how things will turn out?

Later ……….
The usual suspects – the pen-pushers got things off to a poor start. At the post metal-detector stage one of the guards who I often saw last year - and was never the most enthusiastically co-operative - recognised me and mentioned with a wry smile that he thought that when I reached the library section I would find no-one waiting for me: he thought that the official papers were not there. He was right. I was greeted by the duty warden’s blank expressions followed by lots of flicking through ledgers and stacks of photocopies – all to no avail. Fortunately, with some friendly pressure from the man who co-ordinates all voluntary programmes, phone calls were made and , yes, the course was authorised and due to start today.
Half an hour later a couple of my students showed up and we were ushered to our classroom – old school-desks and bare browny-grey partition walls which are as sound-proof as a stain. There wasn’t really time to do that much – and I wanted to wait for any others to turn up, which happened in dribs and drabs.
First lessons with new groups are always testing – as a teacher you need to make lots of inviting space for your students to feel at ease about stepping into. You need to see and hear as much as you can – the people you are teaching are probably strangers to each other and they want to sound things out too. In a normal classroom it requires intuition and experience to handle these situations in a way that creates enough space for information to transmit without putting people on the spot. In a prison the pressures are probably significantly greater - in any group of young(ish) males who meet for the first time there is going to be a lot of sizing each other up and a degree of wariness. Basically what you want to achieve is a sense of ‘respect’: you are there to do a job and do it seriously. You take the task at hand seriously, and you take the people who are there seriously, and you want to walk away feeling you’ve all achieved something worthwhile. What you need is to engender ‘consensus’ – that’s the vehicle that will carry everything forward.
In the end I had seven students: two Italians, three Romanians, one Colombian and one young man from North Africa, I think – the acoustic interference from the next room was too much and I had already asked people to repeat things so often that I got a serious glimpse of what it means to be hard-of-hearing.
From what I learned we have a big range of levels – there’s a 19-year-old Romanian whose English seems excellent: he says he started learning when he was three. “That’s unusual” I said, “I’m not a usual guy” he replied. One of the Italians speaks reasonable English too: I asked those who knew a few words to introduce themselves, and invited the others to tell me what – if anything - they had understood or guessed. The Italian man had studied English at High School and university and had used English in his work in Zurich where he was in the financial field. The rest are – or claim to be – beginners, although one of the Romanian men understood everything. He also came across as rather intense: “We have to get a lot from this course,” he told the others, “we mustn’t waste time with simple things – we must do this intensively if we want results.” Hmmm.
Next lesson I hope to have the full group – apparently down to twelve now - and the real challenge will begin. Things are not helped by circumstances: I had asked for two one-hour lessons weekly, like last year, but they can only let me do one 90-minute lesson a week, which, in addition to the extreme range of levels, I’m seriously worried might reduce all our efforts to little more than enjoyable time-killing. Mind you, with these guys often spending 22 hours a day in a cell the size of a caravan with three others, enjoyable time-killing could even be all right.

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