Can literature transform lives not just in the classroom, but in the “real world”? According to one innovative sentencing program called Changing Lives Through Literature, the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ CLTL was founded in Massachusetts in 1991 by Professor Robert Waxler and Judge Robert Kane.
That’s why I’ve chosen “Jail Time or Jane Eyre” by Zoe Sandvig as the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet:
Would you rather go to jail or join a book club? No, it’s not a trick question.
Changing Lives Through Literature, an alternative sentencing program, gives low-level offenders the option of skipping out of jail if they take a literature course with other offenders, a judge, and their probation officer. […]
As participants read John Steinbeck, Frederick Douglass, and Toni Morrison, they begin to find themselves within the stories, inside a character. For those who have felt marginalized or alienated, this sense of “not being the only one” offers them hope. And getting to speak their opinions before a judge or probation officer makes them feel listened to and gives them confidence to take a job interview or apply to school.
Literature can give perspective. It can give a voice. It can give an outlet. The great characters and themes in literature resonate with real people; that’s part of what makes them classics. But while literature is an important component and complement of the program’s conceptual basis, I think another, perhaps even more important theme emerges. From the program’s website, here’s what one student participant had to say:
“After giving this some thought, I also realize there was another important aspect to this group. The judge, probation officer, and teacher – all authority figures to us – they were all there for us – to listen to us, guide us, and direct us. It was their belief in the program and us that helped me deal with a lot of shame. They respected me until I could learn to respect myself.”
Literature plays a role, certainly, but even more important are the individuals who believe in and respect the students in the program, telling them “you have worth; we care about you.”
I especially like one article on the CLTL website called “Literacy and Individual Development” by Janet Hale. She says, “The lives that can be changed through literature belong to all of us. When one is lost, we are all poorer. When one is rescued, we all prosper.”
And in the end, it is the human touch that invites others to belong.
Thanks, Zoe, for a thought-provoking post!