Preparing for Release

Context:

This class is part of a reintegration program for men in prison. In this program, they develop skills and knowledge that will help them transition back into their communities, including how to get a driver’s license or ID, how to find housing, knowing when you do or don’t need to disclose your criminal record, etc. They use these topics to continue developing their reading, writing, and problem-solving skills. The class needs to be open entry/exit because prisoners come in and out of the system, or move within it, frequently. Many of them are also trying to get their GEDs, but the class is not named that way because the program wants to encourage all to participate. Some are there, despite their high school diplomas, to improve their ability to read and write the formal/legal language that’s used in the court system.

One of the topics in the course curriculum is “restoration of voting rights.” Each state makes its own laws regarding felony disenfranchisement and many of these have changed since the 2000 election so the teacher, Mark, decided to check that his information was correct. Since prisoners aren’t allowed access to the Internet, he searched on-line at home for information about the laws in their own state of Iowa . On the state’s Board of Parole website he learned that, “If you were convicted of a felony, then you must obtain a pardon or a restoration of your citizenship from the Governor in order to regain your right to vote.” It went on to say that you could write to the Board for an Application for Restoration of Citizenship.

Back in class, the group talked about the range of laws that exist in the 50 states (from permanent disenfranchisement in several states to full voting rights even while you're in prison in Vermont and Maine ), what their own state law meant, and why they thought these laws existed. Although they did not all agree that ex-felons should be allowed to vote, they did decide to write for the applications anyway – this despite the fact that many of them would be in prison for at least another year.

Mark looked at the performance levels of the Convey Ideas in Writing Standard and determined that the request for applications was probably a Level 3 task since it had a clear, single purpose and straightforward structure. He worked with the more inexperienced writers together at the board to discuss the wording of the request and construct a simple paragraph. They worked on punctuation by reading their sentences aloud and discussing where the commas and periods belonged. To create a challenge for the more experienced writers, he assigned them the task of planning a lesson on letter formats that they would teach to the others once the content was drafted.

Lesson
To actually regain their voting rights, however, the prisoners were going to have to fill out the application and gain approval from the Governor. The next week, Mark suggested that they prepare for this by discussing the issue further and then writing a practice letter to the Governor about their views either way. This would give them practice constructing a persuasive argument, which would serve their goals of preparing for the GED and corresponding effectively with the courts. The students agreed that learning these strategies would be helpful.

Mark looked at the performance continuum again and saw that this would be either a Level 4 or 5 task, depending on the detail and complexity of the letters. Mark would have to adapt the activity to the multi-level needs of his group. But he started by drawing out their prior knowledge and thinking on the topic – something they would need to do at any level. Building on their last conversation, they started talking about the pros and cons of allowing felons or ex-felons to vote. A student scribed at the board as they listed their arguments:

Pro:

  • we served our time; the past is over
  • voting is a basic right of citizens
  • it's important that everybody in a democracy votes
  • the purpose of these laws is to exclude poor people
  • we need to show our kids that it's important to vote
  • this is a state choice; other states don't deny felons this right

Con:

  • we were given a chance to be citizens and we blew it
  • voting should be a privilege, not a right
  • it doesn’t matter, we don’t vote anyway

This last item led them into a final discussion about whether not using a right means you shouldn’t have it.

In the next class they talked about a different kind of prior knowledge – experience with this kind of writing task. Have they ever been persuaded by something they read? What won them over? Have they ever persuaded others? How did they do it? How might this situation be the same or different? They talked about audience and tone. What tone would they want to use? Having brought their knowledge to the surface, Mark went on to ask them what they'd look for to know whether or not they'd written a good persuasive letter.
Through conversation they arrived at:

  • the ideas will be clear and make sense
  • we will give supporting reasons for what we're saying
  • the grammar, spelling, and punctuation will be correct
  • the letter format will be correct

Mark asked them to think again about the qualities of persuasion they had described from their own experience and they added:

  • be smooth, not too pushy (which they reworded to “use a respectful tone” and “focus on the purpose”)
  • put yourself in the other person's shoes; imagine where they're at (which they reworded to “consider the audience”)

Mark asked them to look at the Convey Ideas in Writing Standard, which they had seen before, to see if their list captured the full Standard. They saw links to the first three components, but not to the fourth ("Seek feedback and revise to enhance the effectiveness of the communication.") What would show they had done that well? They agreed that they would have to do more than one draft and that, “We will be able to explain why draft #2 is better than draft #1 -- what we changed and why.”

Mark put these indicators together into a checklist that they would use to assess their letters. Since these letters, or some version of them, might one day go to the Governor, everyone agreed that in addition to the authors and the teacher someone outside the class should assess how well they had written them. The group chose a prison counselor that they all liked.

Now it was time to work. They followed these activity steps :

  1. They were given time to build their letters from the brainstormed ideas.
  2. Mark provided scaffolding for the more beginning writers by having them copy down the ideas that they wanted from the board, work in pairs to discuss ideas they wanted to add, and speak their ideas into a tape recorder so that they could replay and write down their own words. Mark also walked around as they worked, noting common errors that he used to teach spelling and grammar rules in mini-lessons later.

    To make the task a bit more complex for the most advanced writers, Mark considered the four dimensions of performance - knowledge, fluency, independence, and range. In addition to expecting their letters to include greater detail and elaboration of their views, he added a step to their assignment that would develop their range. He asked them to write a second version of the letter as an op-ed advocacy piece. In this piece, they could write about the sense of injustice that they couldn't fully express in a letter to the Governor. Mark would find out if they could adjust their writing to a different purpose and audience.

  3. In the next class, the students paired to read each other's work. Each author could ask for feedback on clarity, tone, logic of ideas, organization of ideas, and/or awareness of audience. Mark would also give feedback on these points.
  4. As they revised their content, Mark circulated to answer questions and note remaining errors to review. Then he did another mini-lesson on those areas and assigned final edits for homework. Peer editing followed in the next class - the final opportunity to make corrections before volunteers would read their letters aloud (or ask others to read them).

When finished, three people used the class-created checklist to assess the letters: the authors themselves, Mark, and the prison counselor, and then Mark sat down with each student to review the assessments.

Evaluating how each lesson helped students prepare for the GED and meet other goals was a long-established ritual in Mark's class, so the students knew this was coming at the end of the lesson. In this evaluation, the students recognized that the more they practice thinking through their views, organizing their ideas so that others can understand them, and correcting their own writing, the more comfortable and confident they will feel facing the GED or whatever their next writing task. While they hope to never again have to communicate formally to an official, they do want to transfer the confidence they’ve developed to other kinds of writing such as writing their life stories or writing letters to the editor.

Convey Ideas in Writing

Ways the standard was addressed by the lesson

Determine the purpose for communicating.

The purpose arose when students learned that, in order to restore their voting rights, they would have to send a written application to the Governor.

Organize and present information to serve the purpose, context, and audience.

Mark elicited and built a lot of student knowledge about purpose, organization and tone as he had them brainstorm the checklist for a persuasive letter to an official. In addition, the advanced writers were asked to redo their letters for a different purpose and audience, a task that would help them see how much those factors affect a piece of writing.

Pay attention to the con-ventions of English language usage, including grammar, spelling, and sentence structure, to minimize barriers to reader’s comprehension.

Mark identified the conventions that were difficult for the students by observing them as they wrote individually and together at the board. His mini-lessons addressed these areas of difficulty, drawing from their own texts rather than using hypothetical examples.

Seek feedback and revise to enhance the effectiveness of the communication.

Students received feedback from several sources throughout the process – the teacher, the counselor, their peers- in addition to doing their own revisions and self-edits.

For state-specific information about felony disenfranchisement laws, see http://www.sentencingproject.org/Admin/Documents/publications/fd_bs_fdlawsinus.pdf.