What Felons Don’t Know – Writing

courtesy Wikipedia

courtesy Wikipedia

I always find it amazing how little the felons know whom I teach. English. Standard, edited English. I teach medium- and minimum-security level males in a prison of some 500 inmates in a facility in Wisconsin. Close to one-half of those inmates attend the prison school to chase down their G.E.D.‘s. I’ve done this for over fifteen years, the longest I’ve held a continuous position at any job.

True, I have two study hall hours and one section of lower level civics, but my remaining three sections remain my bread and butter, that-which-I-was-hired-for reading and writing. I love the latter two best, especially writing.

Having no experience in standard public schools, I can only guess as to why so few men come ill prepared for some of the most basic writing standards. Subject/verb agreement, random capitalization, never ending and period-less sentences, apostrophes thrown in at random before final S‘s, atrocious spelling, and almost universal cluelessness towards quotation marks–these are among the numerous problems nearly all men face towards writing competency.

Yet even some items of a more fundamental level (I would have guessed!) cannot be taken for granted. The choice of A as in “a car” versus An as in “an elephant”–this must be taught! The personal pronoun I ? This must be brought to men’s notice as a constantly capitalized form. Those are two egregious examples. More basics than those two abound in the men’s ignorance.

What has happened in the public schools? That question may be unfair. My students admit to having some memory of these school basics when I question them. But most of these men must write so very little (and care nothing for how they appear in print when they do write, as in a letter home) that expansion–let alone implementation–of any writing skills is next to never on their radar screens. So I do know the woeful state of their skills when each arrives and starts the long trek towards competency.

Nor are these deficits limited to race or region. White men from small towns of middle age, some who have run businesses (construction, plumbing, electrical wiring) are as likely to be ignorant of English basics as a black young man from inner Milwaukee–likewise the black man of collegiate experience or the Hispanic man with broad bilingual (spoken) ability.

I don’t know how or where to place blame, so I don’t. The decline is general and across demography. Perhaps my even questioning public schools as I have done above is unfair to those schools. The culture of writing seems to be in decline, at least among the rarefied men who drag themselves into my classes. Those schools and educators, too, are fighting the same valiant but discouraging battle.

Then too, fellow bloggers, we may be the exception as all who aspire to write have always been. We care at least to some extent about how our writing appears. We have audience; we want to shine. I wonder if prison teachers of, say, the 1940’s would have shared my sentiments almost verbatim?

courtesy swap.mag.co.uk

courtesy swap.mag.co.uk

4 thoughts on “What Felons Don’t Know – Writing

  1. Well goodness – you have returned! Hope your xmas was a good one 🙂
    One counter-argument I feel should be accounted for is that years ago people who couldn’t write simply took jobs where this didn’t matter. I don’t know if things are that much worse. The apparent rise in illiteracy is partly down to making literacy compulsory. Now those who would have worked in manual or artisan fields are required to be literate even where this is not relevant to their choice of occupation (must a painter be able to write?)
    Literacy is important if you want to write, but why should EVERYONE have to be able to read and write, but not EVERYONE has to play an instrument, or learn a craft? Why have we given writing primacy like this? Is it actually at the cost of our valuing art?

    • You have valid responses. In the pre-internet (and especially pre-social media) society, so-so (or barely competent) writing skills could get blue-collar workers through an entire career. Now, however, at least some literary competency is needed for entry level for any but the most mindless positions. (Offhand, I can’t think of one!) Fewer blue collar jobs equals a demand for more competent writing skills unless one is an accomplished artisan or musician, for example, as you rightly state. Thanks for making me think twice.

  2. This topic is really fascinating, and as a visual artist and a lover of literature and writing, I personally feel both forms of expression are imperative. There are many kinds of ways for a person to be self-expressive, but invariably only a few do not require the use of spoken or written language to transmit ideas and emotions (visual arts, music, dance and architecture for example)
    Without a sound structural understanding of whichever language you choose to express yourself, it is nearly impossible to convey the nuances of feeling, the complexities of thought and the vast scope of original creativity that is the birthright of every human being…

  3. Pingback: Happy Valentine’s Day: It’s the Versatile Blogger Award! | the living notebook

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