Changing Lives Through Literature part 1 of 5: What is Changing Lives Through Literature?

cltllogoThe following set of blog posts summarizes the work I have done with an organization called Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL). This first post, “What is Changing Lives Through Literature?,” describes the tenets of CLTL based on notes I’ve taken from the past two CLTL annual conferences in Boston. The remaining four posts describe unique interviews I conducted while in Boston for the CLTL 2009 conference. Each interview is between myself and three former CLTL participants. I believe a program similar to CLTL could succeed in Canada, but it will require a great deal of lobbying and effort by committed individuals. Now that I am finished my Master of Arts degree, perhaps I will begin this process.

Changing Lives Through Literature

Ken, Sheila, and Veronica are a unique group of Literature students. Unsurprisingly their classes are held at the University of Massachusetts, in the town of Dartmouth, but perhaps surprisingly their enrolment began at Boston’s Dorchester and West Roxbury courthouses. These three individuals are criminal offenders engaged in a rehabilitative program called “Changing Lives Through Literature” (CLTL). This program is comprised of dozens of classes, taking place in a variety of locations throughout the United States. No two classes are the same—the curricula differ, the syllabi differ, the terms of graduation differ, and even subject matter differs. An example of the latter case would be in Texas where the focus is not on literature, but philosophy and politics.

For the past 15 years, CLTL participants, judges, probation officers, and facilitators have acted under the overarching belief that bringing great works of literature to criminal offenders may help them gain insight into their lives and behaviour, while learning that they are not alone with their problems. CLTL instructors are typically professors of English, teaching students whose presiding judge has offered CLTL in lieu of jail time or probation. Frequently a student’s judge and supervising probation officer will join the class. Judge Robert Kane, CLTL co-founder and Massachusetts Superior Court Justice, tacitly implies that many members of the criminal justice system frown upon CLTL’s grassroots approach to criminal justice:

“The court system is too fast moving and quick paced to really deal with individuals. Changing Lives Through Literature wants to slow things down and treat offenders like individuals, but our peers think we’re crazy. That’s what we’re up against and it’s damn hard.”

Ultimately, CLTL aims to create an environment a where professors, probation officers, judges, and offenders can discuss great works of literature as equals—for this reason the instructors are called facilitators.

For the past two years I have travelled from Waterloo, ON in Canada to Boston, MA in the United States to attend the Changing Lives Through Literature annual conference. This year provided an exciting opportunity to sit down with the three aforementioned CLTL graduates. During these one-to-one interviews, the semi-structured interview protocol asked four questions:

1. Could you please describe your experience with the program?

2. Could you share your experience with the program?

3. Do you think of people differently after taking the program?

4. Do you think of yourself differently after taking the program?

Following these interviews, I also had the opportunity to meet and discuss CLTL with two probation officers: Pam Pierce and Adita Velasquez. The following is a qualitative analysis of this overall these interviews.

Ken, Sheila, and Veronica were each enrolled in different classes, and it is important to first note some of the similarities and differences between how different CLTL classes are run. CLTL programs require the support of a presiding judge who can dictate the terms and sanctions of a criminal offender’s probation. In a way, CLTL’s pedagogical approach to criminal justice is “crazy,” insofar as that indicates a dramatic shift from modern jurisprudence. The implementation of a CLTL program is an elaborate process requiring, at least, one judge, one probation officer, one instructor capable of facilitating a post-secondary level discussion of literature, and a group of students whose position within the legal system places them on probation and with a willingness to engage the program. Bookshelves

While a judge decides the implementation of each CLTL program, each class is organized by one or more probation officers. Adita Velasquez, the West Roxbury probation officer who arranged my interview with Veronica, was ordered by her presiding to begin a CLTL program—mainly because of her Master’s degree in psychology with a specialization in bilingual counseling. “I never in a million years thought a program like this would work” recounts Velasquez:

“I primarily deal with probationers who suffer from mental disease and drug addiction. My judge told me about this Changing Lives Through Literature program and he said another judge was pressuring him to start a similar program in West Roxbury. So he ordered me to do it. I thought he was crazy.”

Judges require probation officers, like Adita, to refer criminal offenders for the program, and an instructor to arrange reading materials, syllabi, writing assignments, and a meeting space. CLTL classes are held on a university campus, and this is often the first time students have entered a university classroom. Judges are encouraged to participate in class, but there is no dictum forcing them to do so. Group discussions are a fundamental part of the CLTL classroom; every student must speak, and every student must complete written assignments that will be shared during the discussions. Instructors type up the students’ writing, provide brief feedback, and return the pieces to their authors. As a graduation token, selections from each graduating student’s writing is collected into a printed volume. Finally, while attempts at mixed-gender classes have been attempted in the past, classes are typically same-sex.

My next post will summarize my interview with former CLTL participant, Ken. Please leave comments or check other posts I’ve written for the CLTL blog, Changing Lives Changing Minds:

Book Review: “Missing Sarah” by Maggie de Vries

Has the Torch Been Passed? A Review of the 2008 Annual Conference

A Different Light: Report from the 2009 Changing Lives Through Literature Conference

Starting and Maintaining a CLTL Juvenile Program: An Interview with Michael Habib

4 thoughts on “Changing Lives Through Literature part 1 of 5: What is Changing Lives Through Literature?

  1. I’d counter that nothing involving criminal justice or rehabilitation can be guaranteed. In fact, I’m suspicious of most guarantees. There have been follow up studies on programs on this kind. I’ll include a summary of those studies in my final post of this series. Please feel free to keep commenting.


  2. One of the tenets of Banduras social cognitive theory is that observational learning is more efficient than learning through direct experience. This type of learning spares us countless amounts of trial and error on our own. A skilled facilitator who enables us to take the lessons of others and apply them to our own lifes choices is invaluable. Literature is so full of others making successful and unsuccessful choices so why not use this resource. I wonder Al how key you feel the skill of the facilitator is in helping people use the literature to see themselves and their world from a different perspective ? To me the facilitator might be more important of a choice than the material?


  3. I think its a better idea then to keep sending people to ‘criminal school’. What are the success rates like? Also what types of crimes did these people commit, as in where they white colar, blue colar, murder, and does the tpye of crime a person has commited affect their eligibility to enter these programs?
    How do I get to the rest of this and sorry about my spelling and grahmer.


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