The following set of blog posts summarizes the work I have done with an organization called Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL). My first post described CLTL, next were two interviews with former CLTL student, Ken and Sheila. This fourth post, “Interview with Veronica,” discusses the importance of writing in the CLTL classroom and highlights the last of three interviews I conducted during a February trip to Boston.
Writing and CLTL
Writing is used in many ways in the Changing Lives Through Literature classroom. Some facilitators begin a class with writing, while others schedule writing periods in the middle or at the end. But, according to long-time CLTL facilitator Tamlin Neville, feedback is of central importance for CLTL writing assignments:
Students write more easily than they speak. A quiet student may shed her reserve when she takes up her pen. One who speaks distractedly may become a different person on the page, composed and able to organize his thoughts. . . . with writing, teachers enter into a one-to-one relationship with a student. This is a place where a teacher can really listen and attend.
Professor Taylor Stoehr, Ken’s facilitator, has his students begin and end the class by writing for ten minutes on a question raised by the text. Stoehr collects the work, adds his comments, and returns it, typed and printed, to the students. In this way, each student’s work is “published” once Stoehr distributes copies. At graduation, students receive a booklet of their own writing plus an anthology of class writings.
CLTL allows students to see reflect on their lives through novels, short stories, memoirs, poems, discussion, and writing. According to Stoehr:
These students have been told they are incompetent readers and writers, and this tends to make them so. But the incompetence is superficial in most cases. Their speech skills are usually more than adequate and often superb . . . A student’s own writing helps them objectify their experiences, and this, in turn, opens the way for change.
The West Roxbury courthouse women’s CLTL program is specialized for women suffering from mental illness, drug addiction or both. Veronica, a single mother, was more reserved than my previous interview subjects, Ken and Sheila. Yet Veronica’s shyness is nothing compared to her crippling inability to communicate before taking CLTL. Veronica told me, “I would never talk to nobody before; I never got along with nobody.” She continued:
In front of the class everyone would get a chance to talk about their problems. I have never opened up to people like I did with Adita, the people In my class, and Leigh, the teacher. I got to learn a lot and become closer with people. Now I’m very open.
The opportunity to share her thoughts and feelings in reading/writing group environment changed Veronica’s ability to communicate with others. But she also told me about some other positive benefits of CLTL, specifically benefits for her daughter:
I never used to read before, now I read, I have a library card for the first time ever. I write more, read more, talk more. Reading keeps you out of trouble. I even read more to my daughter now. She loves animal books!
Volunteers like Adita Velasquez, Veronica’s probation officer, and Leigh, the Boston English professor who facilitates Veronica’s course, used a structured program of reading and writing to effect the positive changes for students in the West Roxbury program. But, as Veronica puts it, “we’re finished but we’re still not finished.” Each year, Leigh collects and publishes the best writings from the CLTL group. As in the men’s Dorchester programs, this is the first time Veronica have ever seen their writing in print.
In conclusion, I’d like to recognize an excellent new essay by CLTL facilitator, Dr Erin Battat, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s American Studies program. My next post will align the insights I’ve gathered from my work with CLTL with several similar projects that seek to use humanities education to help impoverished or disenfranchised populations. Please leave comments or check other posts I’ve written for the CLTL blog, Changing Lives Changing Minds: