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Writing for change: engaging juveniles through alternative literacy education.


Research on incarceration and educational access continues to reveal the stark reality for many adjudicated youth: without access to educational opportunities recidivism is probable. Yet conventional methods of teaching critical reading, writing, and thinking skills are not always successful for juveniles who have found little success (or hope) in traditional schooling. This essay argues that alternative literacy practices can effectively supplement conventional GED and vocational training courses by engaging juveniles through creativity, critical self-awareness, and a shift in how audience and authorship is understood. Research indicates that literate activity such as writing workshops, zine networks, peer and professional mentoring, and increased engagement with the publishing industry can meet the unique needs and expectations of youth offenders while also working toward the democratic principles held by many correctional educators and the general public. The essay suggests specific pedagogical approaches and practices for engaging juveniles by reviewing existing programs across the U.S. and articulates five core educational and life skills outcomes that can emerge as students learn to write beyond the sometimes limiting notion of school.


"This is what The Beat introduced me to: a piece of paper and a pencil. Then I soon learned how to introduce the paper and pencil to my thoughts."
 Mervyn Wool
 A former Beat writing workshop participant
 and current college student and employee
 at The Beat Within.

"These voices give witness to human suffering and claim joy and freedom as their birthright. They are voices that can teach those of us on the other side of the razor wire much about humanity, ourselves, our ignorance, and possibly, about creating a more just and humane world."
 Ann Folwell Stanford
 "Windows to Freedom" and "Girl Talk" jail
 writing workshop facilitator

It is widely established that many youth offenders have not had successful experiences within traditional avenues of schooling (Snyder and Sickmund, 2006). While most facilities offer juveniles access to literacy programs such as functional literacy training and tutoring and life skills classes, over 50% of state prison inmates under 24 have not achieved a high school diploma or GED (Harlow, 2003). Despite these failures educators and policymakers continue to identify education as vital to reduced recidivism. One answer is to rethink how educational programming is defined and implemented. Alternative literacy learning opportunities, for example, invite a different set of motivations, expectations, and achievements, as Wool and Stanford suggest above. Alternative literacy approaches may effectively engage youth learners who associate the conventional schooling with failure and disappointment by offering them creative and innovative ways to tell and publish their life narratives. Alternative literacies can supplement an existing program or be employed as a full curriculum, and this essay will suggest ways that such programs can meet the unique needs and expectations of youth offenders while also working toward the democratic principles held by many correctional educators and publics.

What Juvenile Offenders Need to Succeed

An increasing body of research suggests that youth who end up in juvenile correctional facilities have a clear set of developmental and social needs that can be linked to reduced recidivism and healthy transitions into productive adulthood and civic life. Coley and Barton (2006) argue that, "To help put juveniles on a path to a crime-free life, logic dictates that residential facilities should also function as good schools--from both academic and vocational standpoints" (p. 12). Yet the notion of "good school" is challenging to determine since the methods that work with many teens have often not been successful with juveniles who find themselves behind bars; creative and alternative approaches are necessary to effectively engage reluctant learners. Although many factors may be linked to school failure, research demonstrates that the psychosocial maturity of youth offenders is arrested by their removal from home communities and conventional educational access (Steinberg, Chung, and Little, 2004; Sullivan 2004). Juvenile girls, in particular, often have literacy instruction needs that correspond directly with psychosocial development including social and pragmatic communication development (the latter emphasizing the ability to communicate for a specific purpose with a specific audience) (Sanger, Maag and Spilker, 2006, p. 109-10). Researchers suggest an emphasis on social skills training may impact the improvement of pragmatic abilities (Sanger, Maag, and Spilker, 2006). Alternative literacy practices can lead to strengthened language and literacy skills as well as development in maturity levels since many exercises require cooperative and collaborative learning and audience awareness. Youth zine writer Kimra McPherson (1999), for example, claims that zine writing allowed her to engage with community in new ways:
 writing for the zine was like asking myself questions--the
 difference was that by letting this zinestress network read the
 questions I was posing, I could actually get some answers. Being a
 member of the zine community has allowed me to, in a very safe
 manner, express my feelings and put them out for a selective piece
 of the public to read ... Anybody who can consciously tell deep
 thoughts to an unknown audience and is willing to accept feedback
 on these thoughts is worthy of seeing my own ... And for girls who
 do not have a nearby support network for personal issues, the zine
 community is truly a family. (p. 149-150)

Embracing alternative literacy practices encourages such 'good school' functioning by recognizing the ways that academic literacy practices are increasingly multi-modal in their design (teaching print, visual, and oral literacies) as well as the specific skill sets valued by vocational training programs (creative problem-solving, ability to complete tasks independently, understand multi-staged operations, elements of design and reception, etc.). Others link a lack of education and career preparation to limited or unsuccessful community transitioning upon release (Mendel, 2001, p. 46). Without access to critical skills and experiences, juveniles often experience an inability to approach the complex life tasks (economic and social) that independent living requires. Attitudes that are publicly interpreted as laziness or defiance might better be understood as a lack of knowledge about how to approach and succeed in necessary life circumstances (e.g. a job interview, a housing application). Education and life skills training programs that recognize that many incarcerated juveniles may respond well to creative and unconventional approaches to learning are more likely to motivate change when offered in tandem with conventional educational programs than the latter can in isolation.

Alternative writing and publication projects such as writing workshops or zine writing are productive ways for youth offenders to engage in critical reading practices, to overcome negative stereotypes of schooling, of working against dominant narratives of the deviant youth by publishing and circulating their stories in their own voices. This essay offers a range of potential methods for engaging youth in alternative literacy and publishing practices in order to demonstrate the benefits and possibilities of employing alternative literacy practices to achieve educational (and life) goals. It further argues that such practices contribute to social change by instituting democratic methods into the classroom and disseminating the resulting literate products into the general population.

Pedagogical Alternatives for Critical Correctional Education

Essayistic literacy has long dominated our education (and class) system, and traditional Pre-GED/GED programs risk maintaining an "educational status quo" through their similar focus on correctness and the use of standardized testing instruments. While it may not be preferable or even possible to replace conventional corrections education programs wholly with alternative literacy methods, such programming can complement conventional schooling models and improve juvenile literacy abilities by improving motivation and engagement. In other words, offering juveniles opportunities to engage in both conventional schooling and alternative visual and textual practices can enhance critical thinking and decision-making skills, resulting in a critical correctional education.

Literacy researchers have increasingly called for attention to home and out-of-school literacy practices in order to understand the complex and multi-literate practices that youth experience as they mature into adulthood. Hull and Schultz (2002) argue that research on literate activity outside of school can be effectively understood as in collaboration with in-school learning. A pedagogy of alternative literacy recognizes the reality and value of our media-rich practices of information consumption; that is, our shifting practices of gaining and employing literacy. Juveniles regularly "read" text messages, email, online ads and articles, magazines, television, radio, pod casting--in addition to books. Prison language arts teacher Margo DelliCarpini (2006) suggests that key factors to consider in designing programs include the following: mutual respect, range of motivational strategies, balancing basic skill with functional and high interest ideas, support native language literacy practices, model family literacy, other multiple literacy programs (ESL, functional, workplace, creative) (p. 3-4). Alternative literacy programs are well-situated to complement existing (often mandated) conventional literacy programs by attending to the needs of contemporary adolescent learners.

Educators who recognize the value of offering students multiple ways to access information improve students potential to develop critical reading and writing skills as they prepare for productive personal and public adult lives. This is particularly important to recognize as we search for ways to replace negative schooling experiences with positive ones. Community literacy scholars argue that inquiry-based practices and experimentation with multiple styles and communication forms can create effective forums for change. Peck, Flower, and Higgins (1994) suggest that such practices "seek to restructure the conversation itself into a collaboration in which individuals share expertise and experience through the act of planning and writing about problems they must jointly define" (p. 12). Alternative literacies are one way to actively engage youth offenders in activity that includes basic skills and moves toward critical education and successful community transitioning.

Alternative literacy practices /programs range from independently authored written and visual texts to collaborative workshops and classes. Four literacy models will be highlighted in the remainder of this essay: writing workshops, writing mentors, zine writing and networking, and independent publishing.

Writing workshops. Creative or expository writing workshops have become an increasingly recognized component of correctional education programs. Programs are facilitated by correctional educators, outside volunteers or contracted teachers and often meet for at least an hour weekly in a small group setting. Programs are grounded by a variety of goals. Many promote a blend of creative expression and active and critical self-reflection to improved written literacy and communication skills. Smitherman and Thompson (2002) report increased motive for participants in their "Writing our Stories" program:
 Students in the writing program take enormous pride in their
 finished work, and counselors and caseworkers report that the
 students are more willing to approach new tasks in other
 situations. Through the writing class experience, these students
 learn to confidently and candidly express feelings while becoming
 empathetic toward their peers (i.e., fellow writers), their
 families and even the victims of their crimes if they have been
 violent offenders. (p. 77)

Other programs assume a more overt blend of individual growth and social critique by situating writing workshops as spaces for critical understanding and meaning-making. For example, a collaboration between the Nancy Jefferson Alternative School (a temporary juvenile detention center) and the Young Chicago Authors and the Guild Complex produced a vibrant writing and publishing program founded on individual and social goals. Coordinator Ryan Keesling (2004) writes that "These writers have the courage to reflect upon their strength and resiliency, as well as upon their vulnerability to social and economic currents born in high places and fed by rivulets of greet and fear" (p. 123).

Many programs also include a publishing component with the additional goal of social change through public education. Such publications range from economically produced booklets to more polished collections of writers work and often include writing and visual contributions from each writer in a workshop group. Some programs also publish writers work online (though this limits access for most incarcerated readers). These practices--promoting creative and critical expression, improving literacy and communication skills, and publishing writers work in public venues--all provide alternative motivations for juveniles to incorporate literacy, particularly written and visual literacy, into their daily lives in ways that traditional school strategies do not always inspire.

Inside-outside writing mentor programs. Another model for encouraging alternative literacy learning in juvenile populations is through mentor programs. Some facilities allow incarcerated students to serve as peer mentors, a practice that instills confidence and pride in mentors and demonstrates a belief that incarcerated youth can become more than their crime. This often happens informally in writing workshop as peers are trained to respond to each others' efforts through encouragement and constructive criticism. Other facilities such as New York's Bedford Hills Women's CF allow inmates to form peer organizations (such as counseling, leadership, and education groups) (Correctional Association of New York, 2006).

More formal inside-outside collaborations exist as well. Best known is the Pen American Center's Prison Mentor Program (; established writers are paired with incarcerated writers for at least writing exchanges in which the mentor provides "careful criticism, tips on craft, and guidance in the fundamentals of grammar" to encourage individual writer's growth and a general understanding of the writing process. The fundamental practice the PEN program offers is easily adaptable to local settings; for example, my Spring 2006 English capstone class developed a writing mentor exchange program with our local jail based on similar goals. Other university-corrections relationships have emerged from specific programs and courses (e.g. Ithaca College's Writing for Social Justice, Writing for Change senior capstone course or Boston's Suffolk University's Prison Literature course collaboration with Los Angelos-based InsideOUT Writers) as well as service-learning courses where college students serve as mentors (Swanson, King, and Wolbert, 1997). Other mentoring programs focus on problem solving (e.g. writing as addictions therapy or parenting training) or more conventional literacy training build around less conventional practice (e.g. connecting university literature classes with prison literature classes through structured discussion and written exchange). Another hybrid is Dr. Ann Folwell Stanford's cross-institutional work that engaged incarcerated women writers in Chicago's Cook County Jail with girls writing in a nearby juvenile facility through written (and published) correspondence. The project produced a journal issue cataloging their exchanges on issues such as incarceration, hope, children, and life dreams.

Writing mentoring programs also emerge post-incarceration when individuals successfully transition back into communities and find inspiration to reach out. Reginald Betts started the Young Men Read book club after spending his late teenage years in prison; the club aims "to create a place where it was cool for black boys to hang out, speak up and be smart" (Parker, 2006, p. A01). Mentoring, particular literacy-based relationships, extends an extraordinary range of ways to shift the lives of incarcerated youth.

Independent zine writing and networking. Zines are do-it-yourself [DIY], copied and pasted multi-genre publications intended to communicate the personal thoughts and perspectives of the zinester. They are often hand copied and circulated through geographically disparate zine networks and local independent bookstores and cafes. While many zines are individually authored, a wide range of print zines (e.g. Tenacious, Chairmen of the Bored, Birdland, Poor and Forgotten) and online collectives are devoted to circulating the thoughts and ideas of incarcerated people.

Zines embrace the current trend toward multi-genre writing in and beyond classroom settings by encouraging writers to explore topics relevant to their personal lives while adding a multiliteracy focus on visuals, design, conversations about publishing, design, and audience. Although many researchers argue that genres like zines cannot be assigned in conventional school settings, an ethic of zining can lead to more engaging writing assignments and experiences for youth writers (Guzzetti and Gamboa, 2004; Knobel and Lankshear, 2002; Dutro, Sinor, and Rubinow, 1999). Zines offer space to recognize the literacy practices teens value while also engaging them in significant learning activities that don't only privilege the "correctness" they may associate with failure.

Zines are also appropriate for incarcerated writers because their primary mode of circulation is through the mail. Zine distribution sites allow zinesters to circulate their work through established zine exchange networks and to receive zines from other writers around the country. Teen zinester Kimra McPherson (2006) attests to the opportunities zines provide:
 I can try something original and untested, print it in my zine, and
 gather responses from my network of zine peers.... zines have made
 me a more secure and confident writer. Though I'm still wary of
 sharing my writing with those I know, the positive responses I've
 received from other zinestresses have made me more able to do so.
 (p. 151)

Zines thus encourage both the creative expression and reflection that many juveniles engage in privately while also broadening the audience (from one or perhaps a select group of peers) to include a geographically diverse set of readers that requires increased attention to communication styles and rhetorical strategies.

Independent writing for corrections or independent publications. Writers can also work toward publication in a wide range of publications. Many correctional facilities sponsor newspapers or newsletters for prisoners. Professional prison journals such as The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, or the weekly The Beat Within encourage submissions from writers from any institution. Writers can also submit their creative work to outside literary journals (e.g. The Sun, various literary reviews) and magazines and local and national newspapers as well as online and print publications geared specifically to adolescent life (Teen Voices, Spank Magazine, L.A. Youth, The InSite, Oasis Magazine).

Further, learning about the somewhat formidable world of publication can itself be an act of literacy education. Educators can participate and enable this process by collecting and collaboratively analyzing publication guidelines, jargon, and the process of submission. Query letters, for example, can be used to introduce the genre of argument as well as the epistolary form. Other forms of writing might include letters to the editor, editorial columns, essays, memoir, poetry, or fiction. Learning about outside publication processes also affords opportunities for juveniles to consider the very real issues of ethics and the risks of committing certain writings to paper. These issues offer space for engaged debate and can enhance life skills training by encouraging juveniles to consider the consequences of their words and decisions.

Alternative Literacies and Youth Offenders

Alternative literacy programs open doors that sometimes lead to success with conventional education standards (e.g. improvement on GED tests or employment assessments). Importantly though, such programs also lead to the identity work and sense of community that many juveniles crave. The documented practices of existing programs reveals a core set of benefits that emerge from sustained engagement with non-conventional learning tools. The key findings outlined below emerge from analysis of current alternative literacy programs, scholarship on juvenile literacy acquisition, and publications produced in writing programs.

1. Alternative literacies improve reading, writing, and thinking skills and create opportunities for employing alternative assessment methods. Conventional schooling is built upon an expectation of correct answers and behaviors, particularly in this "No Child Left Behind" age of standards-based student and school assessment. Many students struggle to succeed in conventional schooling, but for incarcerated juveniles the struggle is tenfold. In addition to a school record that suggests inconsistency and often failure, many juveniles struggle to meet the stringent expectations of correct behavior imposed by many correctional facilities. Thus a GED program can seem like another set of rules and a frustrating reminder of past failures. Hodges (1994) suggests that a "nontraditional, motivational approach that provides students with immediate positive feedback and then encourages them to strive for success. The approach--not customarily found in schools--is noteworthy because frequently a juvenile offender's sense of inadequacy has been reinforced by the experience of academic failure" (p. 5). Taylor and McAtee (2003) further argue that:
 reluctant readers (adolescents and adults) need to feel empowered
 and respected in their quest for literacy ... [they] also need
 motivation to partake in the risky process of reading (where they
 previously were unsuccessful) ... The goal is to build fluency and
 confidence as independent readers so they will continue to read
 (practice) and get better as they leave the institution and become
 lifelong learners. (p. 476)

Alternative literacy practices suggest ways to offer incentive and feedback to students' communication and writing efforts without imposing the anxiety and even hopelessness of looming predetermined test scores. This is not to suggest that juveniles or teachers should abandon such standards and the GED as a significant (and necessary) milestone, but rather to encourage an educational trajectory that encourages conventional academic achievement that is supplemented by the collaborative and creative methods which also encourage basic and critical literacy development. For example, writing, revising, and editing a zine demonstrates an engagement with and understanding of the writing process. Work on design and layout demonstrates recognition of an imagined audience and an intention about how that audience should proceed through the text. These processes and decisions are significant in terms of literacy development as well as promoting a juvenile's sense of ownership over a project. Other alternative literacy activities such as collaborative writing workshops and publishing opportunities similarly work to advance both critical and mechanical comprehension and written abilities and in so doing complement the mandated curricula of a GED program.

These practices also make space for alternative forms of assessment. Rather than a multiple choice grammar assessment or predetermined set of criteria for an essay evaluation, alternative literacies encourage teachers and students to negotiate the terms of a project's success. Students might also compile and present upon a portfolio of writing; given the chance to articulate their goals and accomplishments, many students will produce sophisticated understandings of their writerly choices and overall learning. Although such assessment requires more time than conventional testing, they can reveal the articulation of a set of literate practices that will serve a juvenile far more effectively in post-incarceration life than a test score (that potentially reinforces an already low self-assessment).

2. Alternative literacies promote an increased sense of identity, confidence, and motivation (Schultz and Hull, 2002). Movement beyond traditional literate training (basic reading and writing skills) suggests space for the creative and the multi-modal (e.g. oral, visual, and written strategies) as juveniles work toward attaining the critical literacy skills that will enable them to succeed functionally and socially after their incarceration. Prison arts teachers Williams and Taylor (2004) successfully developed a narrative arts-based intervention model that draws heavily on literate practices such as storytelling and journaling at a women's facility in Iowa. They emphasize the necessity of linking such activity with life experiences and self-reflection through critical and supportive collaborations (p. 48); "Their stories and collages mapped their previous experiences and helped them see patterns and milestones that played a role in their current self-concept" (p. 51). Engaging in self reflective literacy exercises and identifying such patterns and milestones can help juveniles to move toward positive self-images in post-incarceration life. Mentoring relationships provide equally compelling shifts in self-identity; in their study of student perspectives on programming, Tewsbury and Stengel (2006) found that students are very likely to value tutorial relationships and cite improved self-esteem as a primary goal of their correctional education (p. 19- 21). Further mentoring can provide modeling for stable and sustainable relationships with adults that many juveniles have not experienced (Mecartney, Styles, and Morrow, 1994). Alternative literacy programs can strengthen the relationships fostered in conventional schooling classes by engaging mentors or writing partners in activities based in problem-solving or writers' life experiences.

Engaging in self-reflection through writing often also creates a desire to be heard, especially in juvenile populations. As Barton et. al. (2002) suggest, writing can offer opportunities for imagining oneself (and one's words) being received:
 Young people who are angry, frustrated, ill-informed, and just
 plain 'off the track' need a way to be heard. They crave respect
 and identity. Learning the craft of poetry, fiction and/or creative
 nonfiction writing gives them a way to gain the identity they yearn
 for and to express wishes, fears, and deep-seated frustration that
 they might not otherwise release. (p. 1)

Further, alternative literacies draw upon multiple traditions in enacting classroom pedagogy and practices. Writing workshops often blend the discovery exercises of expressive writing theories with the political components of critical literacy to create hybrid spaces focused both on identity work and public education. Such practices work to increase the self-esteem and motivation of student writers by engaging them in self-study and a larger move toward shifting public perceptions of incarcerated youth. Such enthusiasm can be generated through collaborative exchange, peer mentoring, community support, and feedback emerging from non-evaluative sources.

3. Alternative literacies allow juveniles to develop strong rhetorical communication skills. Alternative publishing practices encourage students to consider authorship and audience as they consider how to best represent their ideas more fully than traditional school exercises often do. Most juveniles do not have experience naming themselves as authors. They readily assume the persona of student, but have not had the opportunity to think of themselves as writers whose work is relevant and meaningful to a set of readers beyond teachers. Writing workshops often encourage peer readership and collective publications that enable juveniles to imagine their words reaching a much wider audience. Each writer must consider how her words will represent her identity including the text and biographical information that is often included in published collections. The latter is sometimes represented through an author biography, a photo, a symbol, or artwork. These opportunities, while small, offer juveniles to make decisions about how they want to author themselves to the world, a significant choice to offer teens whose recent set of experiences has been tightly controlled and designed without their positive influence.

The concept of audience becomes significant. Youth zine writers, for example, enter into a network of zinesters that challenge traditional geographic audiences and allow writers to imagine and present a writerly identity that moves beyond issues such as geographic and class affiliations, a significant challenge for adolescents who are immersed in the process of developing an adult identity. Many workshop programs use the issue of audience to open conversations on language use and the establishment of collective guidelines. Since many program facilitators encourage democratic dialogues on how a workshop and publication will function, juveniles participate directly in negotiating which topics and even words will be approved by the group (and institution) for inclusion in a final publication. This might mean that certain language choices are restricted after the writers have reasoned through the purpose and potential impact of including/banning them--and it is the participation in the choice that can make all the difference for juveniles struggling to establish their identities and imagine life after incarceration.

Work on rhetorical audience skills also extends to issues of presentation. Many youth writers who participate in writing workshops or mentor projects publish pieces and pages with significant attention to layout and artwork, working hard to imbue their intended intonation and style through font choice, size, color, placement, etc.. Like a biographical text or sign, these choices are significant because they indicate attention to the ways that language and other symbolic systems communicate a sense of identity and intention. For many juveniles this form of authorship becomes an exercise in counter-representation, an alternative to the image of youth culture and juvenile justice that is commonly circulated in the media (Polettie, 2005; Schilt, 2003). In sum, alternative literacy practices allow writers to understand rhetorical processes more explicitly than some conventional school practices (comprehension questions or grammatical exercises, for example).

4. Alternative literacies encourage juveniles to interact with each other and writers from around world and to engage with the publishing industry.

Alternative literacy programs can exponentially increase students experience with local and global writing communities. The mission statements of many programs demonstrate their commitment to encouraging adolescents to think of themselves as writers whose words are worth publication. I highlight three examples below that exemplify available programs as well as their distinguishing features:
 The Beat provides something that few of these youngsters have ever
 known: a view of themselves as having self worth, and having
 something worthwhile to say, a sense of belonging to a community of
 writers, and an interactive and positive relationship with the
 adults who facilitate Beat workshops in their units. Every single
 published piece in The Beat gets a written response, allowing for
 an ongoing dialogue. The Beat Within

The Beat Within is a weekly publication devoted to circulating the work of juvenile and adult prison writers. It is unique in its move to publish workshop and editorial comments (usually one paragraph) with every piece it prints. This is a significant method of increasing the visibility of the program and its approach to text as a means of growth for adolescent writers. It also allows the magazine to pursue its aim of interacting with writers about writing, social issues, and change.
 Ya Heard Me is a publication of young people's original poems,
 stories, lyrics, drawings and other creative writings. The mission
 is to recognize, encourage and share the creative talents of youth
 who are currently incarcerated in Louisiana's juvenile correctional
 facilities. Ya Heard Me provides support and encouragement for all
 incarcerated youth to express themselves through writing and art.
 Through this support and creative expression, youth will gain
 confidence that will allow them to grow and thrive in other ways.
 Juvenile Justice Program of Louisiana

In many ways, Ya Heard Me's aim is typical of most carceral writing programs. It defines literacy in unconventional ways by including visual and oral texts and highlights the importance of writers' experiences. It highlights the youth writers as the primary actors in the program, but also implies the importance of distributing their work to peer writers (and beyond) to make visible shared and new experiences as does the mission of InsideOut Writers. Our mission is to reduce juvenile violence, increase respect for others, and enhance the love of learning for incarcerated and at-risk youth, using professional writers to teach creative writing in juvenile detention facilities. InsideOut Writers (

Exposure to and interaction with professional writers demonstrates both the power of the written word and the commitment that western culture has made to literate practice as a social value. Some programs, as the Los Angelos-based InsideOut Writers Program indicates, invite professional writers to serve as guest leaders in writing workshops; others invite well-known authors to contribute to the editing of community publications. The participation of locally or nationally recognized writers can serve multiple functions: raising the profile of the program through media coverage, impressing the value of their stories and experiences upon the youth writers, improving access to the publishing world, and potentially attracting donors to the program. While many programs function well without the leadership of published writers, their presence in prison adult writing programs has led to increased public awareness (e.g. Eve Ensler at Bedford Hills CF, Wally Lamb at York CF, Jimmy Santiago Baca at a variety of New Mexico facilities).

Several programs work to encourage writers to participate during and beyond their period of incarceration. InsideOUT, for example, has an alumni association that demonstrates the connections former students keep to writing as well as their future endeavors. The Beat Within regularly hires former workshop participants as part of its editorial staff. Other programs encourage writing as a lifelong endeavor and informal support system by setting up post-incarceration community writing groups. This work might also include introducing juveniles to local writing groups, library resources, and publishing opportunities.

5. Alternative literacies enable juveniles to participate with peer and public community in new ways as they imagine themselves beyond their crime and confinement. Writing and publishing allows them to imagine a different world. Many youth writers have had little experience with readers beyond the conventional school system. Alternative literacies open up dialogue across peer groups in new ways. The act of writing or working on a multi-authored project can create unlikely allies. A zine writing program between my spring 2007 university literacy course and a residential treatment center resulted in a zine (including a cd of collaboratively developed songs) authored by young men from rival gangs. The InsideOUT program anticipates similar possibilities:
 We believe that inside each young person, no matter who they are or
 where they grow up, is an important message to be shared. At the
 writing table, kids who might ordinarily be enemies on the street
 and think that they have nothing in common, are able to take off
 their tough facades and discover the truth about themselves and
 others--from the inside out. (Inside Out website)

Likewise, alternative literacy practices invite juveniles to imagine themselves beyond their time inside. Often opportunities begin inside as writers publish in local or global venues that specifically seek the words of the incarcerated or in a wide range of other publication sources (i.e. literary, political, technical). As individuals become more comfortable with a writer-as-self identity, many move beyond their immediate conditions and write about more systemic issues. Wooldridge (1993) documents the success juveniles in her prison poetry workshop: "... they began to see that journals and poems could provide a place to collect ideas and worlds and to make observations and discoveries about themselves" (p. 8).

Publishing not only offers a new kind of audience (and motive) for writers; it also encourage writers to learn more about and engage in the professional work of design, layout, editing and marketing. Local efforts can involve writers fully in the process; regional or national publications might involve writers by sending editorial requests or page proofs. Each step a writer participates in beyond the initial drafting process invites juveniles to make choices about how to represent their words/ideas/selves to the world.

Writing published in the workshop collections or through independent publications transitions juveniles from a focus on self to a wider world view. Ya Heard Me, the publication emerging from the Juvenile Justice Program of Louisiana, accomplishes this through a commitment to shifting public stereotypes.
 We believe that the distribution of Ya Heard Me will help change
 public perception about incarcerated youth to one that recognizes
 their strengths and talents. This will promote changes in policy
 regarding delinquent youth and provide them greater opportunities
 upon their release.

Much of the writing they publish embodies this aim. Nakeia (2002), for example, calls for action and solidarity in her poem "Prison Life and Woman Life:"
 We must stand our feet on solid ground, and never let anyone take
 over our womanhood, especially prison life. We are all strong
 sistas. If only we could build ourselves up as one in womanhood,
 not only could we change prison life and woman life, but life
 itself (excerpt).

The call for action moves far beyond individual writers and impresses a sense of responsibility upon all publics. Improving public understanding of juveniles and youth culture as a valuable part of our social network is an overt goal that many programs pursue through publication. As Comstock (2001) argues for girl zine writers, juveniles in alternative literacy programs "teach us that authorship is not a fixed or completely predetermined category but a site of collective struggle and interactivity" (p. 388). The Beat Within, for example, uses publication to highlight factors contributing to youth incarceration as well as potential impact of the dissemination of writing:
 For those of us on the outside, The Beat provides a unique window
 into a world few of us can even imagine. In each issue, these young
 men and women paint verbal pictures of lives filled with violence
 in their homes and on the streets, lives self-medicated by drugs
 and alcohol, lives of parental abandonment and abuse. Yet, in
 addition to their rage and despair, they also convey the exuberance
 of youthful hope in poetry, prose and drawings that regularly leave
 us breathless. Through The Beat, these seldom-told stories reach a
 growing audience that includes judges, probation officers, police
 officers, community workers, as well as the families of the
 incarcerated. As part of Pacific News Service, The Beat's voices
 also reach a greater community of readers in the mainstream and
 ethnic media that are part of the PNS network. The Beat Within

Meaningful individual and systemic change often moves at a glacial pace; however, the increased exposure that community publishing offers can quicken that process through collective understanding and education. Both juvenile writers and publics that are increasingly quick to condemn youth to isolation can challenge their own perceptions about how and why violence (physical and emotional) occurs--and how it might be arrested through increased collective responsibility. Literate activity is one contributing factor to bringing about change, but a significant one since many communication practices hinge upon its mastery.


Participation in alternative literacy practices is not without risk for writers or program administrators. As Rodriguez (2002) suggests, prison writings never emerge from writers who are "simply free to write" (p. 409); the institutional context is always present for writers and readers, a reality which potentially threatens the act of writing as rehabilitative and self-empowering as well as the potential of circulating the work in ways that challenge fixed notions of incarcerated youth. There is also the risk of calling attention to individuals or programs in ways that create tension with correctional facility administrators, particularly if such literacy work is read as resistance or providing special attention to participants (Stanford, 2004; Salzman, 2003; Rodriguez, 2002). Finally and significantly, participation in writing workshops, mentoring programs, or zine networks could lead to situations that mirror writers' prior normative or negative school literacy experience if their writing is not well-received (Moje, Willes, and Fassio, 2001). Although educators and program facilitators can design ways to self-publish and promote writings on a local level to motivate writing and feelings of success, it is also important to note that such work often does not adhere to conventional publishing standards and therefore can engender a false sense of confidence in writers. While such risks do not sufficiently counterbalance the benefits of providing access to alternative literacy practices to juveniles, they do suggest the need for ethical program development and facilitation to ensure that both individual writers and larger literacy projects are designed with care and assessed regularly.

Future Directions for Alternative Literacy and Democratic Practice

"I want to know what's the emphasis of your class? Are you improving their skills?"

"I try to correct the obvious problems, but that's not the main thing. I'm trying to build their confidence by giving them topics they want to write about." (p. 127)

Exchange between administrator and teacher, True Notebooks, Salzman 2003

To engage in alternative literacy education is to adopt the belief that multiple forms of literacy and learning are integral to the development of intelligent, caring, civic-minded adults. Such work advances theory on how at-risk youth learn independently and in collaborative or group settings. It also works to cultivate democratic learning spaces by inviting both teacher and student to explore topics and interests relevant to their lives through a blend of process and product-based pedagogy. Further, traditional classroom learning and practices are extended through negotiated publications that both demonstrate writers' commitment and engage in public education. The latter exposes readers to youth voices that seldom circulate without the veil of media interpretation (Chu, 1997). In short, alternative literacy practices offer significant opportunities for juveniles, correctional educators and the publics they communicate with to learn more about how education can contribute to a more just shared existence.

Perhaps the most important pedagogical strategy alternative literacy practices make visible is literacy as co-inquiry, the notion of education as democratic practice. Co-inquiry--defined as authentic learning contexts for both student and teacher--offers space for establishing classroom/program goals and practices in ways that allow all participants to feel invested and engaged. A program might build learning goals around a theme like "identity" which allows students to work toward multiple outcomes such as self-understanding, improved communication skills, improved basic and critical literacy, and problem-solving through engagement with peers. Such practices challenge the traditional hierarchies of the school (and correctional facility) by offering participants opportunities to empower themselves and each other. Alexandria Mageehon (2006) suggests that the notion of the good teacher embodied by educators who are active learners and negotiator, and such pedagogy is at the heart of most alternative literacy practices:
 This notion of a teacher who brings awareness of both self and
 others to the classroom in a compassionate and engaged way fits
 with the idea of education that is empowering.... Equally important
 is that the successful classroom teacher allows students
 self-determination and responsibility over their education. (p.

Workshop practices readily invite educators both to facilitate and participate in writing activities; teachers can model (and help dissipate the fear of) sharing by offering to reveal and invite critique on their own words.

Although most of this essay has encouraged educators to look beyond correctness in their understanding of literacy education, traditional skills such as comprehension, summary, analysis, and grammar are not overlooked; rather, the way they are taught is reorganized so that the skills-based practices that many juveniles have had little success with are replaced by alternative methods of reaching similar achievement. In a collaborative workshop, for example, writers often feel paralyzed by spelling. Educators can dispel this nervousness early on by announcing that anyone with a question about meaning or spelling should ask the group. When the query is directed toward the teacher, she acknowledges the dictionary in the room and asks someone to look it up and share the definition/spelling, and so creates a collaborative model for the writing process. This challenges the notion that learning is an individual process and that writing is a skill set one must master in isolation. Further these kinds of practices foster leadership, a collective sense of responsibility for the success of the program, and group problem-solving dynamics. Educators thus have opportunities to supplement the skills required in pre-GED/GED classes by engaging in literacy teaching that place primary emphasis on connecting juveniles' life experiences to literate activity and social change.

Beyond the immediate classroom lies the relationship between alternative literacies, administration, and the larger public. Here, too, there are increased opportunities for dialogue. Writing exchanges can foster increased understanding between the corrections staff and youth writers and suggest ways to achieve mutual respect and interaction. Too, the products that emerge--books, cd and dvd recordings of performances, film, music, and a range of articles, poems, and essays intended for public dissemination--have the potential to influence public understanding of individual students, youth culture, and juvenile detention trends and policies.


The relationship between education and reduced recidivism is well-documented, and literacy skills lay at the heart any substantial education program. Alternative practices such as collaborative writing workshops and local and national publishing opportunities offer incarcerated juveniles vital spaces for investing in and achieving meaningful literacy skills. While alternative writing and publishing projects are not intended to supplant traditional and necessary educational programs (GED, ESL), they can contribute significantly to youth offenders positive self-esteem and self-image and the development of social peer groups that extend beyond incarceration. Such practices also offer correctional educators opportunities to connect in measurable and significant ways with students for whom traditional schooling strategies have failed. Further, encouraging juveniles to participate in on- or off-site writing-based projects offers correctional facilities a way to further balance their mandate to administer both punishment and rehabilitation by offering youth a way to develop beyond their socially assigned identity as criminal. Too, correctional facilities contribute to shifting public images and fear of the criminal youth by allowing the writers to re-craft their identities through zine and writing communities and to disseminate those stories in the larger public sphere. The production and circulation of youth writings does not solve the complicated issues facing youth offenders and the communities they return to; collaborative efforts by the judicial and social welfare system must continue to work toward improved access to mental and physical healthcare, workforce training, and community-based aftercare. Alternative literacy projects do, however, contribute to a holistic social change by taking another step toward creating individuals with strong support systems and successful futures as contributing citizens.


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Biographical Sketch

TOBI JACOBI is an assistant professor of composition and rhetoric and the co-director of the Center for Community Literacy in the English Department at Colorado State University. Her research focuses on community literacies and the experiences of incarcerated writers.
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Author:Jacobi, Tobi
Publication:Journal of Correctional Education
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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