May 26, 2012

English for inmates: lessons in prison 11

Nothing exciting or dramatic, not that exciting and dramatic things normally happen English lessons. But there is a slow drama unwinding here, as relationships develop and personalities emerge. There is an element of gentle excitement too, as a sense of achievement is present in every lesson. Because we really are making progress and even the more restrained and wary men in the class feel at ease enough to drop their guard now and then.

You have to remember that here we are all strangers to each other -- the only thing that these men in this classroom have in common is the fact that they are on this English course and, of course, that they are in prison. This is the only place, I think, that most of them ever see each other, and they're certainly not free to socialise and develop acquaintance once they leave the lesson, even if they wanted to do so.

In a ‘normal’ adult classroom people will naturally want to talk about themselves and find out about each other but that doesn't really happen here. Maybe they have all found out from each other what they are inside for -- I have no idea on inmate etiquette. Certainly it's a topic that’s not discussed in lessons, although last year a couple of students did talk about their sentences to me when we were able to have a chat while waiting for a lesson or when walking back towards the cell blocks after a lesson. The only time the subject has cropped up in class was when I corrected a student’s pronunciation: I thought he was trying to say that he was a ‘butcher’, but in reality he was telling me he was a ‘pusher’ - lots of rowdy amusement here from the rest of the class, especially since I'd spent the last five minutes explaining to everyone what a ‘butcher’ was.

As I have talked about in previous posts, my main priority has probably been to establish a sense of the lesson as a neutral safe place, where everyone needs to respect each other equally in order to enable a collaborative spirit of learning. Everyone knows there's a job in hand and we all try to get down to it. I'm not going to say that the lesson becomes devoid of personality or personal input. I want students to feel free to be themselves, without placing any sort of pressure at all to reveal the facts of themselves. Of course, as these beginners stop being beginners, there's more language available and ever more possibilities present themselves in terms of what can be talked about, and it is unrealistic to steer the lesson constantly clear of their personal lives. We can hardly not learn the language relating to families, backgrounds, likes and preferences, but the men here are free to step inside as little or as much as they want, and often it's not very far. It's not easy to talk about a toddler son who you haven't seen for two years because the mother's mother has forbidden any visits, or about parents who never visit at all, always finding a last-minute excuse not to come (I know these things from the short personal chats some men like to have when they can).

So in the lesson it's a question of finding that fine line. The other things that can make elementary lessons interesting are simply not interesting at all here: everyone wakes up at the same time, has their meals at the same time -- and exactly the same meals, and goes to bed at the same time. Mondays are the same as Fridays and Sundays -- 22 hours a day in a cell more often than not.

From a teaching point of view, you do need to introduce the past earlier than you normally would. Introducing ‘to have’, pretty soon prompts them to ask you how you say ‘had’. The car, the house, money and more: all things they ‘had’.

Well, one thing they do have is their English lessons.

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