Teaching Incarcerated Students in a Pandemic

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Isaac Foster Mirza

Common Good Atlanta (CGA) is a nonprofit that runs education programs in four Atlanta-area prisons. Students in CGA’s classes earn college credits for the work they do. More importantly, they learn new ways of thinking about their relationships with others, both inside and outside the prison system. And they gain the tools and confidence to share their experiences with others.

As a Mellon Public Writing fellow working with CGA, I am involved in several projects. I am connecting students with opportunities to have their work published. Georgia law prohibits the publication of incarcerated students’ work, but alumni who have been released and students in CGA’s downtown program for formerly incarcerated students are free to publish. So I am helping a handful of students to flesh out essays they wrote for class, and I am reaching out to digital publications to gauge their interest in the students’ work. I am also facilitating a partnership between CGA and the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) to start CGA’s own journal. Finally, I am preparing a lesson on Nick Sousanis’s 2015 book Unflattening for students in one class.

I have been teaching in one form or another for over half my life. Everything from private music lessons to preschool classes, from tutoring undergraduate music theory to teaching three undergraduate religion courses at Spelman, my teaching experience is wide. But one element of the teaching experience has always remained constant: interacting with my students. It’s something I have always taken for granted when I teach. I talk with my hands and draw pictures and diagrams on the whiteboard; I prefer conversation-based classes to lecture-based. Watching students’ body-language helps me catch when they get lost, even if they are reluctant to speak up.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced us into lockdown, I could connect with my students via phone, Zoom, email, and message boards on our class’s learning management portal. If something was unclear, students could reach out to me through any of those channels. I could alert students to a relevant article or video I found in seconds. We met once a week on Zoom to check in with each other and encourage anyone who was struggling.

As difficult as the transition to remote learning has been for students of all stripes around the world, the pandemic has disproportionately affected incarcerated students’ learning environment. Incarcerated students already face problems other college students do not, as access to resources and technology are restricted by state law, prison rules, and funding issues. Without internet access to join a Zoom lecture or watch an educational YouTube video, CGA students have lessons entirely in writing. Professors’ written “lectures” are printed out and periodically given to students in lesson packets to work through.

CGA’s response to COVID-19 has highlighted the fact that their two greatest assets are a faculty of professors who are passionate about their students and a student body that is engaged and enthusiastic about learning. Conducting class via written lessons requires a high degree of trust between professors and students. Professors must trust their students to be disciplined enough to work through lessons on their own, and to be engaged enough to make a sincere effort on assignments. Students must trust their professors to deliver lessons that are clear, and to anticipate where they might have difficulties or questions without becoming patronizing.   That CGA’s classes are continuing through the current pandemic is a testament to the trust and respect their professors and students have for each other. It is an honor and a pleasure to have the opportunity to work for students as dedicated as those in CGA’s programs.

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