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  • Adult Probation program changing lives, one book at a time

    Submitted by Dave Reynolds and JoAnne Pope

    According to the World Literacy Foundation, two-thirds of fourth-grade students who don’t read proficiently will end up in jail or on public assistance.

    With this in mind, it’s not surprising that if you ask an incoming LEARN student about their favorite book, they often respond with a blank look and a firm, "I don’t read." Here at the South Adult Probation LEARN Lab, staff has worked hard to counteract that response, and the results have been inspiring.

    LEARN – Literacy Education and Resource Network – is a program of the Adult Probation Department of Superior Court in Pima County. The goal of the LEARN Students readingprogram is to provide probationers and any community member with the skills and attitudes necessary to pursue a General Education Development (GED) diploma, and college and career pathway participation. More than 2,100 learners have earned their GED through the LEARN program.

    It began when Dave, site coordinator and lead instructor, introduced short stories—some no more than a few hundred words.  When your reading list consists of text messages and conditions of probation, a full novel can be intimidating. A short story, however, is user-friendly. Dave read these stories out loud while students followed along, and he’d often stop to discuss things like context, foreshadowing, and connections; he’d also ask students for their opinions. As they engaged, he introduced short stories in serial format, which proved to be popular. Not only did students make sure to attend on story day, they felt comfortable sharing their thoughts and predictions for the next installment.  Reading sessions became humorously known as "Story Time with Mr. Dave" and remain the most-requested lesson.

    At that point, JoAnne, South LEARN’s education assistant, chimed in. Outside work, JoAnne is a young adult author and brought Dave her copy of The Hate U Give, which tells the story of a marginalized teen who witnesses the shooting of her childhood best friend.  The book was quickly passed around, and students were captivated by the opening scene, saying it perfectly described the world in which they were raised. Several students read the book and asked for more.  

    Next up was the new release by celebrated author Jason Reynolds. Long Way Down, written in verse, is a raw, gritty tale of a young man, raised on the streets, who contemplates revenge for the death of his brother. As with The Hate U Give, Dave introduced students to the book by showing them the cover and asking what information and clues they gleaned from the artwork, title and jacket copy. He then read the first 20 or so pages out loud while they followed along. Long Way Down was an instant hit and spread like wildfire. One student spent several months showing it to other students and asking, “Have you read this yet?”  She’d then convince them to read what’s now called The Book so they could discuss the ambiguous ending. One student, who had trouble filling out a monthly report when she enrolled the previous year, picked it up and discovered that the novel-in-verse format was within her grasp. It became the first book she ever finished. 

    The effects grew. Students asked for more books to read by Jason Reynolds, and we began a lending library, adding carefully curated titles that spoke to our students’ lives and experiences. An author gave us with a stack of her picture books, allowing us to give students a copy to take home and read to their children. Students researched Jason Reynolds, asking us to play interview videos and holding impromptu discussions about the cycle and futility of street justice. They asked if we could invite Jason for an author visit. Sadly, Jason lives in New York and booking a visit was beyond our abilities. 

    Students with Kathleen Glasgow, author of Girl in Pieces
    A few months, and several books later, the class began Girl in Pieces. A New York Times’ bestseller, as most of our books are, this one takes place mostly in Tucson. It centers around Charlie, a young woman who struggles to break free from self-harming and toxic relationships. The book hit a deep nerve with students and took on a life of its own. One student, who’d racked up two failed enrollments and was on his way to a third, latched on, shared that he self-harmed, and became engrossed. Another stayed up reading until early in the morning, and told JoAnne that she’d sobbed during that time, finally understanding what her sister went through when they were younger. And the student who previously couldn’t read a monthly report? Girl in Pieces became the second book she read—and the first full-length novel.

    As we watched our students intently reading, JoAnne mentioned that Kathleen Glasgow, author of Girl in Pieces, lives in Tucson. What’s more, she’d been in the audience for two of Kathleen’s speaking engagements and found her to be knowledgeable (she herself self-harmed, and is a recovering alcoholic and addict), supportive, and a GED recipient to boot.  We were able to invite Kathleen to LEARN for an author visit.  She accepted, and as students excitedly worked to finish her novel they created a list of thoughtful questions to ask.

    Kathleen’s visit was magical. She worked with students for three hours, discussing Girl in Pieces and the process of writing.  More than that, they discussed mental health, grief, sobriety, second chances, and the importance of creating.  She led them in writing exercises and gave them copies of a book on writing that she herself uses for inspiration.  Most of the students were stunned that such an important author saw them, spoke their language, and took time to forge a connection with them.  It was an emotional time for many, and has had a lasting impact. And that student with multiple failed enrollments?  He now has perfect attendance, is highly engaged, and writes deep, insightful essays. He introduced his therapy group to Girl in Pieces, and now they text each other quotes from the book as encouragement.

    A month later we were visited by Elaine Powers, the author who, many months before, donated a stack of her picture books. Don’t Make Me Fly presents facts about one of Arizona’s most iconic birds – the roadrunner. Along with writing picture books about animals native to southern Arizona, she’s also a conservationist and retired biologist. Elaine brought several rescued friends: turtles and tortoises of varying sizes, including an 1,100-pound tortoise named Duke who roamed the lab.  She also brought Blue, a five-foot blue iguana (who broke out of his box to say hi), and Krinkle, a three-foot spiny iguana who was saved from a dire situation and bears a deformed body. The students learned ecology, biology, the importance of conservation, proper animal care, and the steps needed to map out a story. Students who are normally silent and impassive came alive as they held reptiles and learned in a way that videos and lectures could never emulate. One student in particular, who rarely smiles, sat for nearly half an hour with a cheesy grin as Krinkle was content to nap in his arms.

    The LEARN literacy program is growing and evolving, and the effects are tangible. Students have already written one anthology of essays and stories and are working on a second. In October, we’ll come full circle as the book that started it all, The Hate U Give, will be released as a major motion picture. Students are already making plans to see it on opening day, and look forward to comparing and contrasting the book with the film. Through it all, one thing is certain: with the correct books, students feel validated, seen, and know that their lives and experiences matter. It increases their comfort and trust in our program and allows them to open up and learn in a way they haven’t before.

    These days, if you ask a South LEARN student about their favorite book, you just might get an answer.  And, though they may not realize it, they’re a step further from that jail cell.

    Top: Students, many of whom had never read a book, devoured novels like “The Hate U Give.”

    Bottom: Students with Kathleen Glasgow (center), the Tucson-based author of "Girl in Pieces."
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