A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Success Stories: Life Skills Through Literature, January 1997

Why Literature?

Critical Thinking

by Meghan McLaughlin

The world of the incarcerated prisoner tends to be a narrow and self-absorbed one. There is a tendency toward the "woe is me" way of thinking that makes teaching basic skills difficult.

Studying literature is an effective means of counteracting that way of thinking. Reading a good story, we feel less alone. Through comparing ourselves to the characters and situations described, we can think more clearly about our own strengths and weaknesses and about how we respond to various problems and trials.

The narrow world view of many incarcerated people can be broadened through the reading of literature. Good stories teach about compassion and deepen our understanding of human nature, life, death, love, loss, responsibility, and the consequences of good or bad actions. As they become good readers, the incarcerated start to ask questions about the characters' qualities and behavior, predict the action, recognize common themes, and draw analogies to their own lives. They become actively engaged in the story — questioning, understanding, enjoying, and learning.

Ideally, we should all be thinking about our places in the world and how we measure up to particular standards and expectations. Generally, we begin this kind of thinking and questioning during adolescence. And, while the typical high school student is guided through literature, family influences, rites of passage, etc., in how to think about and respond to life's situations, the incarcerated person, who could most benefit from this kind of guidance, is sadly neglected.

While the typical education for incarcerated people emphasizes training in basic skills, teaching these skills in isolation often fails to prepare the incarcerated individual for acquiring other skills. For example, teaching only for the high school equivalency degree often ends there. The students gets his or her G.E.D., and there ends the quest for further learning. But teach someone to appreciate and learn from literature, and the result is a person who will continue reading, questioning, analyzing, and learning.

Through reading and reacting to literature, incarcerated students learn to see their situations more objectively, to put aside feelings of hostility, to stop the habit of acting impulsively and the tendency to see things in black or white. They learn to move beyond that inarticulate and immobilizing sense of "I'm the only one who has ever felt this way, so you can't teach me anything." Letting the story be the teacher, the teacher becomes a guide who points out ways for understanding and learning from the readings.

Finally, as the students become more skilled in the basics of reading comprehension, critical thinking, and vocabulary acquisition, they become more thoughtful, and, hence, more human. They learn to compare characters and actions to their own lives and to ask the questions good thinkers ask:

Program Profile

I began at "Building Alternatives" helping incarcerated youth in an alternative education program prepare for their G.E.D.'s and learn measurement and the other math skills necessary for working on a construction site. I also worked to improve their chances of finding employment when released by showing them how to find job openings, fill out applications, and write resumes and cover letters.

Although "Building Alternatives" has been in existence for over ten years, a three-year demonstration grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Correctional Education enabled our program to expand, allowing me to teach English along with math and life skills. Initially, I taught basic mechanics, e.g., rules of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling.

The teaching of literature, primarily short stories but also some poetry, came about because of concern at the lack of any positive value systems within the youth. Generally, their thinking was:

Well, I don' t care if I rip someone off as long as I don't get caught.


It wasn't my fault, I was drunk at the time.


Everyone does it.

Since telling others how they ought to behave is seldom, if ever, effective, I decided to use literature as a way of showing situations in which a need for definitive action is required. We read these stories as a group, then discussed the action, the characters, and the consequences of their choices.

After the inevitable first reaction of groans at and suspicion of anything new — like reading literature — the students began to look forward to the stories and discussions. I found that they liked reading aloud and were willing to write about and respond to what they had read. The youth gradually learned to form opinions beyond, "I hated it/I liked it," to learn new words through context clues, and perhaps most important, to begin to recognize that literature can teach us something about our own lives.

I used stories such as "The Monkey's Paw," "The Lottery," and "The Veldt," which are easily found in most high school or early college anthologies. The selections deal with topics of greed, acting before thinking, conformity, the consequences of not having positive role models. The situations described easily compare to the lives of this population, to the circumstances in which they offended in the first place. Further, the topics are ones that are common to the closed world of the correctional facility.

Through literature, discussions about values can emerge informally. I told my students that we were discussing values such as friendship, loyalty, perseverance and compassion because these are what shape good people, good relationships, good lives. I explained that the stories had been chosen because they embodied one or another of these values in either a positive or a negative way. Sometimes, I told them which value I thought was most represented in the story, but encouraged them to look for examples of other values as well.

I found this overt presentation of our agenda helpful later on when we discussed the stories. With the purposes for reading literature clearly presented, it was easier to keep discussion focused on the characters and how their actions could be compared to our own experiences. We could then stay clear of the always-present danger of a discussion degenerating into "war stories," that is, personal tales of mayhem and crime that turn the classroom into a jail-house extension.

I did this, partially, by preparing activities around the stories that allowed the students to respond on a personal level but which aimed at a thoughtful contribution as opposed to a quick reaction. I also prepared several questions about the readings designed to help analyze and generalize them and to keep the lesson's objectives clear.

Through reading and interpreting literature, these students became better thinkers and more able and interested readers. In an engaging way, they were preparing both for their equivalency degrees and for functioning as responsible members of society — whether prison or the "outside."

Because the primary focus of Building Alternatives is carpentry training, conducting an English class that was effective and interesting was often difficult. Some of the problems I faced were:

The class was structured so that "work-sheet" type lessons covering a particular skill such as capitalization, punctuation, or spelling, were presented first. These lessons, given the once-a-week class time, may not have been sufficient for students to retain the featured skill, but I kept them in the structure for two reasons. The first reason may sound odd, but I maintain it's the truth: even though they moaned and groaned, the students seemed to like the familiarity of having a work sheet they could complete and be graded on. It gave them a sense of having completed something and made them feel a little like non-incarcerated, average high school kids. The second reason: the work sheets were a good warm-up for the literature component. They gave me time to gauge who was in a good mood, who was sulking or upset, and generally how everyone was feeling that day.

Basically, the literature segment went like this:

Presentation of the story, its theme, setting, genre

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An introduction to the author, if of interest

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Some type of activity that would tie into the story (see examples in the sample lesson plans)

This was followed by a round-the-table reading of the story.

Reading the story aloud encouraged participation and attention and allowed those of a reading level below that of the story's to follow along. Because of the range of ability levels and personalities, nobody was made to read aloud, nor was a minimum length set. Thus, a shy or poor reader who nonetheless wanted to participate could opt to read a paragraph; better readers could read more. I did set a maximum length, however, because most people wanted to read, and I wanted to he sure there was enough story to go around.

We often stopped during the story to discuss a word or a paragraph that seemed difficult to understand. I encouraged comments, whether simply, "Nice guy!" in response to a nasty character or laughter at a funny part. Sometimes, I would stop the reading to ask if anyone had a guess as to what would happen next, encouraging them to look for clues that would help them predict the outcome.

Follow-up activities, like the pre-reading ones, varied according to the story. Always, I had prepared several questions about the action, plot, themes, and the values that were either exemplified or much needed. If the story grabbed the students, many of my questions weren't necessary.

It was important to guide the discussion so that it did not degenerate into tales of terrorizing and crime sprees. I learned that once they moved too far in that direction, it was very difficult to get the youth back to the comparatively staid topic of themes in literature. Thus, a quick, "reactions to the story?" followed by guided questions was an effective way to keep the discussion on track.

I used short stories because they are often more accessible than novels and because of the time factor. Since I didn't see my students every day and homework was out of the question, I used readings that could be processed in one session. I chose stories based on content, readability, length, and relevance to the students.

Sample Lesson Plan

"The Veldt"


"The Veldt" is a science fiction story about a family of four who live in a "Happy Life Home" which "clothed and fed and rocked them to sleep and played and sang and was good to them." The house also features a "nursery" designed to create make-believe worlds wished for by the children. In the past, the nursery had created scenes from children's stories and rhymes, but now it depicts a hot African veldt with growling lions and vultures nibbling at carcasses. The parents uneasily visit the nursery, only to run out when the lions rush at them.

Disturbed by the "death thoughts" emanating from the nursery but originating in the children, the parents decide to close up the place and go away for awhile. When confronted by the scene in the nursery, the children deny the existence of the veldt. They show their parents a nursery containing a pastoral scene. Realizing their children are deceiving them, the parents decide to consult a psychologist before taking the children away. The father says, "They're insufferable - let's admit it. They come and go as they like: They treat us as if we were offspring. Their spoiled and we're spoiled."

As they try to sleep that night, the parents hear screams coming from the nursery. These screams, in a nice bit of foreshadowing, sound vaguely familiar to them. Indeed, there is a lot of foreshadowing in this story. The father finds an old wallet of his, chewed and bloodied, on the veldt. The mother is missing a scarf. The children are cold and arrogant.

When the psychologist meets them, he declares that the children are spoiled and feels that they have been let down in some way by their parents. The mother asks her husband what prompted them to buy the nursery in the first place. He replies, "Pride, money and foolishness."

The story ends with the children luring their parents into the nursery and slamming the door behind them. Locked in the nursery/veldt, the parents watch in horror as the lions move in, realizing too late "why those other screams had sounded familiar."

Pre-Reading Discussion

I begin with a discussion on role models. Who did students look up to while growing up? Was it a parent? Step-parent? Older brother or sister?

This topic is a good one for gaining insight into the students' lives. Since they are an incarcerated population, their role models typically have been negative ones. I ask what they think the characteristics of a good role model would be. Although examples of bad role models may predominate, working together, the students have come up with attributes of good ones. Often mentioned are grandmothers and, occasionally, teachers. Gradually, what emerges is a picture of someone who is consistent, caring, responsible, someone who holds one to a certain set of expectations.

We discuss these questions:

Post-Reading Discussion

My students react with horror and surprise to "The Veldt." In spite of the foreshadowing, no one seems to see where the story is going. As a result, I have the class go back over the story, looking for hints on how it might end. This can be more fun than it may sound. I start with the example of the father's wallet:

With this gory bit of foreshadowing at hand, the students are able to pick out other hints; for instance, the mother's missing scarf, the vultures picking at bones, the children's' attitudes.

We talk about predicting the outcome of a story by using personal experiences:

Finally, we turn the question around:

Sample Lesson Plan

"The Lottery"

Summary of Story

"The Lottery" takes place in a nameless village in a time that could be long ago or the present. The story opens with the townspeople assembling on what could be the town green for the annual lottery held on the same date each summer. We do not learn what this lottery is actually for until the last page of the story. We do learn that it involves everyone in the village, from infant to old person, and that some people seem to be uneasy, while others, especially the boys, are in good humor. Nearby is a pile of rocks. The boys play around the pile, filling their pockets with stones. The adults seem to avoid the pile.

This ambiguity around the setting of the story and the nature of the lottery itself creates a tension in the reader. We wonder what the heck is going on. Even a student who is not familiar with literature should sense something is amiss.

After everyone has been accounted for, the lottery begins. The head of each household must pick a folded piece of paper from a black box placed in the center of the assembled. When everyone has picked, the papers are opened. The person with a black dot on his paper must draw again, along with the rest of his family. The person within the family who gets the paper with the black dot, we finally learn, is stoned to death by the villagers.

The story closes with Mrs. Hutchinson, the one with the black dot, screaming, "It isn't fair, it isn't right," as the villagers move in on her, throwing rocks and stones.

Pre-Reading Discussion

Because of the title, I usually begin the lesson with a discussion about lotteries:

This is a good topic for breaking the ice because almost everyone knows a winner and/or a devoted player. I hear stories about how devotedly people play the lottery, lucky numbers people play, which stores sell the most winning tickets.

The themes of luck and routine lead nicely into a discussion of rituals. When does a routine or habit become a ritual? What are some common rituals? Even in this less-than-traditional population, family rituals can be found: Christmas dinner, hunting season, birthday celebrations. A writing activity at this point is to have the students describe a ritual unique to their family, community, or group of friends. I give the students five to seven minutes to write; then they may tell others what they wrote about. The goal here is to elicit some themes common to rituals and the reasons behind them; for example, they are comforting to the group, a consistent act in an inconsistent world.

I introduce the story by explaining that the lottery in the story is a kind of ritual for the townspeople and that we should look for examples of ritualistic behavior as we read.

Post-Reading Discussion

Generally, the initial reaction to this story is one of horror and surprise. Students are convinced this story took place "a long time ago" and that nothing like this happens anymore. Alas! This is a population familiar with violence, so this reaction is short-lived and naturally evolves into stories about gangs beating up on individuals, jailhouse rivalries, etc. Although these topics can help students identify with the story, my purpose is to keep the discussion focused on the text. Thus, the following questions:

Once, when we discussed this story, the class unanimously agreed it was a "weird" story that could never really happen. They wanted no further discussion. I told them

Okay, since you're so sure of the meaning of this story, we will do one more exercise, then move on. We will have our own lottery. The person with the black dot has to summarize the story for Joe [our vocational ed. instructor who was in a nearby office, but out of earshot].

To these students, summarizing a story was worse than being stoned to death, so there was a resurgence of interest. We filled a student's baseball cap — several caps were volunteered — with folded-up bits of paper, one having that crucial black dot. As in the story, the students drew their papers, one by one. Nobody looked until the last paper was drawn. With great hooting and hollering, people waved their blank papers — all but the one who had gotten the black dot. He slumped down in his seat, suddenly the outsider. I called Joe in and explained that Charles would summarize a story we'd just read. Joe went along with it. As Charles began, the students turned, as one, and hurled their papers at Joe.

Amazed, I said:

Look what you've just done! You just stoned to death your vocational ed. instructor, a man ignorant of the ritual within this classroom.

There was a sheepish silence, as they realized this was true.

After that, the class was more willing to discuss the actions in the story and the possibility of aberrant behavior in all of us.

Sample Lesson Plan

"The Monkey's Paw"

Summary of Story

The story opens with a father and son playing chess on a stormy night while the mother knits by the fire. We see that they are a close family, humorous and affectionate with one another. Soon, "Sergeant Major Morris," an old friend of the father's, arrives and they all sit by the fire. The man regales the family with tales of his travels throughout the world. The topic turns to a monkey's paw which the man had once mentioned to the father. We see vivid foreshadowing about the paw on page three in these two sentences: "'It had a spell put on it by an old fakir', said the sergeant major, 'a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow."' He goes on to explain that three separate people could each have three wishes from it.

The story quickly becomes spooky. The sergeant major mentions one man who wished on the paw and whose third wish was for death. The sergeant major himself had wished on the paw, he says, but won't tell his wishes. Instead, he throws the paw into the fire, advising the father to let it burn. But the father pulls the paw from the fire. After the man leaves, the family jokes about the power of the monkey's paw. They decide to wish for money — 200 pounds — then, laughing, they go off to bed.

The next day, a man comes to tell the parents that their son is dead, having been caught in the machinery at his workplace. As compensation, the company sent along — you guessed it — 200 pounds. The experienced reader can predict the course of the story now. Most of my students cannot. The mother grabs the paw and wishes her son back. In the dead of night, there is a horrible thudding at the door. The mother runs to answer the door; the father runs for the paw "and frantically breathed his third and final wish."

Pre-Reading Activity

Since the vocabulary in this story is sometimes beyond that of the students, I do an informal lesson on understanding the meaning of words through their context in the sentence. I give some examples:

I ask the students for examples of their own, then use a couple of examples from the story, which leads to introducing "The Monkey's Paw."

I tell the class that the story involves three wishes, then ask if they can think of other stories that have three wishes or three chances or three sons/daughters as a theme. "Why three?" I ask them. "Why not four or two?"

By exploring the three-wish structure, we are also realizing something about human nature; namely, the tendency to act impulsively, rue the impulse, and find a quick and easy way out of the situation.

Finally, I have the students imagine they find a genie in a bottle who grants them three wishes and to write these wishes down without telling anyone what they are. After we read the "Monkey's Paw," I ask them if they want to change their wishes.

Post-Reading Discussion

Initially, I let the students simply react to the story. Some typical reactions are:


Was it really the son at the door?

What do you think the guy who wished to die had for his other two wishes?

We speculate for awhile, then move on to the themes of greed, impulsivity, and interfering with fate. I ask:

Students respond in different ways to these questions. Some believe we are controlled by fate; "Once a druggie always a druggie," one said. Others object to this notion, giving examples of how they have worked to change their lives. Examples they give of tampering with fate have been aborting a fetus, mercy killing, and capital punishment.

Concluding with the students' three wishes is fun. Realizing they haven't thought about consequences, some want to change their wishes. One student wished that life was an endless party, that he could have a girlfriend who looked like Cindy Crawford, and that he could get away with stealing anything he wanted.

A few of his classmates pointed out that an endless party would get boring; that he hadn't mentioned anything about the personality of the girlfriend; and that he should have just wished for the things he wanted to steal because, even if be didn't get caught, he was still doing something wrong.

Derry, on the other hand, made pretty good wishes. She wished that she would be the discoverer of a cure for AIDS, that her father would sober up, and that the world wouldn't end in a nuclear war. When I told her how selfless and thoughtful these wishes were, her reply was, "Well, I was going to wish to be rich and famous. But I knew something bad would happen from that. So then I figured, if I found the cure for AIDS, I'd be rich and famous anyway."

[Why Literature? The Power of Stories] [Table of Contents] [Why Literature? The Dramatic Text]