I have been volunteering for about year as a facilitator for an organization called The College Guild. Their website explains “The College Guild provides non-traditional correspondence courses to prisoners across America.” The courses are free, non-credit courses and available to any prisoner no matter their circumstances. Every three weeks or so, I receive an anonymous packet by email. It takes about an hour, sometimes longer, to read through the students answers and give positive, constructive feedback. The students range from barely literate to highly educated. The packets are sent via an intermediary, are totally anonymous to both the student and teacher (only first names are used) and the inmate may be literally in any correctional facility in the U.S.A. I volunteered because I am a strong advocate for prison reform and prisoner education and rehabilitation. I had no idea how much I would love doing this.
What I love most about my work with the College Guild is that with anonymity I can focus totally on the student work. I have little distraction about who the inmate is or what he/she may have done. The only thing I know about the student is what is on the page in front of me. Occasionally, the work gets personal, perhaps discussing a relationship with a parent, but I have yet to know the crime the inmate has committed, and I have learned, it simply doesn’t matter.
I teach high school English and ask anyone who knows me; I absolutely hate grading papers. That was my one serious consideration before I volunteered with The College Guild; since I hate grading was I really going to want to volunteer? But I learned a lot about myself and grading. It isn’t grading I hate. What I hate is the endless papers written by students who just really don’t care about their learning or even what they are writing. I really can’t stand grading the project that was done at 3 a.m. when it was due at 8 a.m. I hate grading the essay that was dashed off in the cafeteria just before class. I can’t tell you that students “qualify” their papers when they hand them in by saying, “I really just wrote this last period,” or, “I know this isn’t my best, but I had a game last night.” I grade endless quizzes that no one studied for or read the chapter. That is not the case with The College Guild. These students are so grateful for the chance for an education—even an unaccredited one—they take time to answer each question to the best of their ability (all long answer and usually about 20 questions in all.) Some answers are typed but most are handwritten. I really get to interact and respond to the student in ways I only wish I could in public education. I carefully read each answer and give a full comment for ever single question. Sometimes my comment is only a few sentences, other times, it can be a paragraph. At the end of the lesson I give a summary of the lesson as a whole. I feel closer and more of a teacher to students I will never meet or even know who they are than with my own students who sit in front of me every single day. This interaction, the depth of true learning, is why I became a teacher to begin with.
I know what I do with The College Guild is a luxury not afforded to public school teachers. Even if I could wave my magic wand and all 100 of my students decided that education was like air and they wanted it more than anything, I wouldn’t have the time to give them each 1 hour every day or even every week or unfortunately, once every three weeks, like I do with The College Guild. It highlights one of the many problems in public education.
If you are a teacher looking to do some volunteer work this may be the place for you. I would be happy to walk you through your first few submissions. I think you would find it rewarding. Unlike regular grading, when I am done with a College Guild packet, I feel like I have done a rewarding job. Volunteering will make you remember why you became a teacher. Feel to reach out to me with questions about my experience.
For more information go to their webpage: www.collegeguild.org