Author Deborah Appleman, a college professor at Carlton College in Minnesota, chronicles a decade long literacy quest providing college-level courses at a high security Midwest prison teaching creative writing workshops. Appleman recognizes that her classes were a tough hard sell. Prose and poetry is viewed by many as having no real world value especially with those men serving lifetime sentences. But over time, her weekly writing classes opened up an array of opportunities for those who never had a voice with a chance to be heard. In addition these classes became a refuge of trust for the budding writers and poets. As students explored a variety of genre they gained confidence and began to share their work with others. Some inmates expressed hope they might even write their way out of prison. Appleman noted over time many of her students developed a sense of resilience and self-efficacy as they mastered a variety of writing tasks.
Appleman faced personal challenges teaching at the prison. She had to learn to navigate the system, gain trust and find support among the administration and her students for her classes, learn to deal with the constraints placed on the student teacher relationship all while operating under constant surveillance and a tone of suspicion.
Appleman writes in a straight forward no nonsense manner as she shares her teaching experiences. A detailed framework for how her classes are organized is interesting for readers to better understand the dynamics of a prison setting. Appleman includes many student testimonial stories and personal writing statements which enhance her message of empowerment and transformation. Students heartfelt messages are powerful, articulate, insightful pieces many ringing with a promise of hope. Over time classes developed into a collaborative community. Students felt respected and valued sharing their work among each other. Often students sought to write for a larger audience by seeking out a variety of publications. Many of these incarcerated writers transferred from being tutors to teaching beginning creative writing classes of their own.
Within each chapter Appleman posts a blog. Each one is a reflective piece where the author details a particular student learning experience, often using their own words that cite personal challenges and marked successes. School-to Prison Pipeline blog was particularly interesting since I've had over 30 years experience in the educational system. It's a reminder of the urgent need to fix a flawed system that carries so many students from high school to prison. There's an urgent need for schools to review current policies, look at restorative justice practises and consider a shared system of governance to be able to affect changes. It's an argument for the importance of providing liberal arts education for the incarcerated opening up an array of opportunities for people who have never had them before. It made many feel free though the power of words. In Appleman's words, “It can be an effective way to usher in success and leave failure behind.”
Appleman's book is an inspirational profile of a dedicated, passionate educator who writes from the heart. Her message of the tranformative power of literacy should be heard and read by all. A profound statement made by a student addressed to Appleman, “You teach to liberate,” caught my attention. Certainly a gratifying moment for a teacher.
Words No Bars Can Hold is available from local bookstores or online retailers such as Powell's Indiebound, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.