Guest blogger Ann Green is currently a professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University where she teaches in the Inside/Out Prison Exchange Program. She also teaches “Hospital Stories,” a service-learning course in narrative medicine and other immersion and service learning courses. She received the 2017 Outstanding Leader in Experimental Education Award from the National Society for Experiential Education. She has published in The Intima, CCC, The Huffington Post, and The LARB Blog, and she grew up on a working dairy farm in North-Eastern Pennsylvania.
I regularly teach in the The Inside-Out Center program, in which half of the students are incarcerated and half of the students are traditional college students. The class meets once a week in a local prison or jail, and our class, a team-taught philosophy and English course, is called “dimensions of freedom.” Inside/Out, as described by the founder, Lori Pompa, is a space where “the process of investigation and discovery is both communal and collaborative” (Prison Journal, 132). Started by Pompa at Temple University, Inside/Out classrooms are half “inside” or incarcerated students and half “outside,” or traditional university students. (I/O is now an international program with 800 trained teachers in 130+universities and 130+correctional facilities.)
The creation of classroom community and the importance of boundaries around people’s lives is particularly important in my experiences teaching in the Inside/Out Prison Exchange Program. In her essay “Macaroni and Cheese is Good Enough,” my colleague, Jenny Spinner, writes that not every classroom or every student needs to reveal intimate details of his/her/their life in class or in writing. Community building does not need to rely on over-sharing or false intimacy, but can draw from the significant details of our lives from which we can find common ground. In other words, community building paves the way for empathy.
When bringing inside and outside students together, building an intentional community is crucial as students from both groups harbor assumptions and stereotypes about the other. Classes typically meet once a week from two and a half to three hours and often begin, or end, with an exercise that gets students to engage with one another. These community-building exercises create space for students to decide when and what to disclose; in fact, since many of our “inside” classmates are waiting for trial, it is particularly important that icebreakers do not ask anyone to reveal details of their alleged crime. (Inside/Out students sign agreements not to have contact with one another beyond the classroom community.)
Here are five exercises (and links to more details) that you can adapt to different moments in the semester as building blocks for community, to address a difficult class dynamic, or to use as a brainstorming activity for a writing assignment. With gratitude, all of these come from different experiential learning communities I have experienced (the Inside/Out community; Corrymeela, Ireland’s oldest Peace and Reconciliation Community; and the work of Sharon Browning on “JUST Listening – …for the common good.”)
- Name on the Board: Each student writes their name on the board and explains, in a sentence or two, where their name came from. It is also good as everyone hears how names are pronounced. (Thanks to Colin Craig, Corrymeela.)
- Wagon Wheel (or “Concentric Circles”): Half of the class makes an inner circle facing out, the other half forms an outer circle facing a partner in the inner circle. A question is posed, each person has a minute or two to answer the question, and then the outside of the circle rotates to the next person. Questions can be adapted for brainstorming, to address a class dynamic, or to any need.
- Listening Circle: The set up is the same as the Wagon Wheel, but participants who are listening are instructed to “just listen,” not to nod, affirm, or ask a question while the partner speaks for one to two minutes. During the debrief, participants are asked to consider what it was like to “just listen” and to consider whether it was easier to talk or listen.
- First Sentence of Autobiography: Participants write down the first sentence of their imagined autobiography and then share with the group. The group listens for both what is included and what is left out. (Thank you to Pádraig Ó Tuama of Corrymeela for leading us in this exercise.)
- Six Word Memoir: Participants write the story of their life (or part of their life) in six words, then share. This is similar to the first sentence of the autobiography except for the conciseness of the words, but both are great if typed and shared with participants at a later class.
Classroom communities require ongoing attention and maintenance, and they are important for our students’ learning. If we are asking students to share writing with one another, both through formal peer review and informal activities, it is helpful if students “know” one another. I place “know” in quotation marks because our community building should also strive to create a space for the introverted and/or shy. While no space can be entirely “safe,” we can create classroom communities through sharing the details of our lives that Sonya Sotomayer suggests, “build bridges and not walls.”