Teaching General Psychology in Jail

By Don R. . .

I met a young African American man in jail, who impressed me as eager to learn. I told him I had been a psychology teacher for quite a few years. If he was interested, we could work on an introductory class together. Of course, we had no textbook or notes. But I had taught the class for so many years that I knew I could remember most everything without a book or lecture notes. He agreed to give it a try, probably in part because he (and we) needed to pass the time in some way.

And thus we worked on the subject, primarily by one-to-one discussion and my drawing some diagrams I recalled from class. I personalized the class for him, and he personalized it as well. Soon we were having discussions for two or more hours each day. In the pod, with other inmates sitting at the table, listening in and sometimes making comments. I offered to let them join us, but they quickly backed off. They feigned disinterest. But I knew the likely truth–they had not done well in classrooms of the past. But I welcomed even their limited involvement.

My student was particularly interested in a section on the human brain. Thus I went into considerably greater detail on that subject. I wanted to help him map the brain, and one of the others present, a rather unpleasant fellow who complained and criticized almost everything and everyone, agreed to let me use his head to help locate sections of the brain. I told him it might get painful when we got to the middle of the brain. And we all laughed.

Eventually, my student and I worked our way through the standard topics to abnormal psychology. As we surveyed the various disorders, my student quietly said, “Bipolar sounds like what he has,” pointing to the cell of my previous brain-mapping volunteer. Others nearby said he spent almost every day, all day, sleeping. Then he would arise and be a real pain in the ____.

It did appear that their assessment fit the man, but I told them only a clinical psychologist could be certain of such a diagnosis. I confess that my main motivation for saying that was that I did not want him to hear that I was talking about him. But the implied warning of giving a too-quick diagnosis was also an important message to hear.

As we came to the end of the class, I decided to give my student a “final exam” that was as personalized as the entire class had been. I asked him to walk to a wall of the pod, then pause to touch the wall. He did so, and returned to our table.

Then I asked him to describe what had happened in his legs, his arms and his brain to make those things happen. We had never talked about those particular actions as they related to the brain, so I knew it was a challenging question. He then began to describe nearly everything involved in those actions in relation to both the brain and related activities of neurons in arms, legs, and eyes, using our earlier discussions. I was very impressed that he was able to connect our sometimes abstract dialogue to that specific example. It revealed that he had learned the principles well, as well as the difficult task of connecting principles to specific experience. I expressed my delight with his performance, and I believe the others in the pod congratulated him as well. We did not have a graduation ceremony.

I knew I could not give him academic credit for the class, yet I wondered if there was some way to concretely give him some token of his accomplishment. I asked him if his mother lived nearby, and he told me that she resided in a distant state. Had they kept in contact? He nodded his head slowly. I then began to write a letter to her, as he looked on, expressing my appreciation for his hard work. I told her that he had performed very well on the “final exam.” I also said that I would have been proud to have him as a student at the college where I worked. It was a college that is highly esteemed. I was sure she was acquainted with it, as she was a high school teacher. I concluded the letter with the comment that she could be proud of her son and that he held excellent academic promise. He had the potential to make it in a real class.

I gave him the letter and suggested that he share it with his mother. He thanked me profusely and asked me if I was up for teaching another class! This time we worked on a sociology class, and I tried to personalize it as I had psychology.

Soon after we completed the second class, he was released from jail. Of course I was glad to see he was released. But I also missed having such a great student.

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