About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Writing in and out of Jail

The other day I received a letter from a young man incarcerated at Pelican Bay, a maximum-security prison in Northern California. He heard an interview I did on a show called Humankind (and if you find this of interest, see also Speaking of Faith). He decided to write.

The letter is five pages long, crammed top to bottom, and contains mostly social analysis involving education, the conditions in the inner-city, and the state of Black America. Since entering prison, the writer has been taking college classes and receiving rehabilitation counseling. He reads widely, from self-help books to Jonathan Kozol. I couldn’t help but think of Malcolm Little, another young Black man in the middle of the last century, who powerfully read and wrote his way from prison into a new life.

There are two new books that recommend. Father Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart and From the Inside Out compiled by Deborah Appleman.

Father Boyle is well-known in Southern California as the founder of Homeboy Industries, a remarkable cluster of gang rehabilitation programs that involve job training, counseling, and education. If you’re not familiar with the program, spend a few minutes on their website.

I’ve just had the chance to skim Tattoos on the Heart, though I have heard Father Boyle read from it. I’ve read and heard enough to strongly recommend it. The book is structured as a series of stories and vignettes drawn from Father Boyle’s work with young men and women caught up in gang life. He is a good writer and captures in brief sketches the terribly complex lives he encounters. There is much in the stories that sheds light on poverty and despair and violence, but also on possibility and human development, even in the most seemingly hopeless of circumstances.

There is a potent lesson here, I think, for programs that work with all manner of children and adults – not only gang members – who have had a rough go of it. Programs and classrooms that convey a sense that you matter, that your mind matters, foster achievement where achievement seemed unlikely. To feel intellectually cherished – which also means being intellectually challenged and pushed – enables people to be smart.

Deborah Appleman taught writing in a Minnesota prison and the result is From the Inside Out. It is a collection of prose and poetry written by the prisoners, addressed mostly to those on the outside, to sons and daughters, to relatives, to their younger selves – and some of the most painful writing is to their younger selves. The writing is at times angry and driven by shame and self-recrimination; at other times, it is tender and filled with longing:

My heart breaks at the thought of not witnessing you walking into school for the first time. I know I would have been more nervous than you. I didn’t get to hear you retell every minute of that day as I recall my own experiences from so long ago. I gave all of that away.

Reading From the Inside Out, we’re reminded of how powerful a medium writing can be in trying to render experience and reflect on it. Appleman is a gifted teacher, and she created the conditions for these men to bear witness in print. I can’t help but think about how little a sense we get these days of all that putting pen to paper can achieve. So much of the discussion of Language Arts is characterized by benchmarks and test scores and curriculum guidelines. It takes these guys writing to save their souls to remind us of what else it can mean to write.


  1. Dear Mike...

    Wow. I am in tears reading this. The world always brings one full-circle. Just before I left L.A. I was working with a woman who has made her life's work in getting young people in juvenile halls and prisons all over california to write their way through their pain and into self-betterment, growth, and healing. Her name is Leila Steinberg. She is most widely known for being Tupac Shakur's first mentor and manager. What most people don't know about her is that she is an artist and one who knows how powerful writing inside jail can be for an individual's process of emotional survival and rehabilitation. I wish you could meet her. There is also a program called Inside-Out Writers based out of a prison in Sylmar, I believe.

    Finally, I highly recommend the book "The Bandana Republic" which is a collection of poems written by former gang members, many of whom were in prison when they wrote their pieces.

    I crave working in this area...I'm not sure why, but I think it is because I believe so strongly in writing as a dignifying force.

    Anyway, I wanted to say mostly, that I am deeply grateful for this blog entry. It certainly struck a chord. I often follow silently because I'm not sure how to react other than to think deeply...but I thank you for continuing your work and ongoing writing!

    Much respect,


  2. I've read G-Dog and the Homeboys by Celeste Fremon. It chronicles some of what Father Boyle has done in this community. It really shows how one person can make a tremendous difference.

    I am also reminded of the book True Notebooks by Mark Salzman. He is a writer who worked with teens in youth detention in L.A.

    Both of these books go pat the stereotypes and present one on one what these teens are like. It is not always pretty, not always hopeful, but they both give a sense of the humanity of the people in these situations.

    Thanks for sharing the titles. I will put them on my "to look for" list.

  3. Mike,
    Thanks you for the recommendations and thanks to Ms. and Art. I have a friend who is training to work with prisoners right now, and I will send your article and comments. I am touched, knowing the redemptive power of writing. Thanks for speaking to heart of real education --its potency in bringing peace, understanding, and advancement.

  4. Dear Mike and any of the others in previous comments, I have just retired from LAUSD after nearly 20 years (in part to write) and I may eventually want to pursue working with incarcerated youth and/or women and/or men. I think my specialty would be poetry but I also want to study the Spoken Word genre because I think that that can be a very powerful approach too. Please feel free to suggest any relevant contacts, This is still in the dream stage but I would appreciated any recommendations (beyond what to read). Thanks, Sue :)

  5. I am newly retired from nearly 20 years of inner city teaching in LAUSD, and I may want to work with incarcerated individuals (youth? women? men?) and would love some contacts and resources.

    Sue Sloan, M.Ed.