Mining experience: teaching autobiography to imprisoned writers

October 13, 2016

While teaching at the Women’s Rehabilitation Center in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, I have come to realize that autobiographical writing has the power to enhance self reflection, deepen experience and offer incarcerated learners a gateway to deeper modes of thought. Through written and oral reflection these learners experience opportunities to undergo a kind of freedom that is normally denied them​ through connection with themselves and others who have also gone through incarceration. As these students read autobiographical works about other incarcerated people who have been published and ​begin to ​write their own preliminary stories, they understand a new way to relate to and share their life experiences. Learning to meaningfully express themselves allows them to benefit from each other’s experience. The paper presents a rationale and techniques for incorporating life experience into the teaching autobiographical writing (and literature) within the prison setting.

Texto completo:
While teaching twelve women from their mid-twenties to fifties at the Women’s Rehabilitation Center in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, I have come to realize that autobiographical reading and writing have the power to enhance self-reflection, deepen the experience and offer incarcerated learners a gateway to deeper modes of thought. Through written and oral self-reflection these learners experience opportunities to undergo a kind of freedom that is normally denied them through connection with themselves and others who have also gone through incarceration. As these students read autobiographical works about other incarcerated women who have been published and begin to write their own preliminary stories, they understand a new way to relate to and share their life experience. Learning to meaningfully express themselves allows them to benefit from each other’s experience.

I have had other experiences of teaching autobiographical writing and literature within the prison setting. I previously taught communication as a life skill for five years at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Miramar, California, which is in San Diego County. During that time, I developed techniques to engage imprisoned learners by creating an atmosphere of trust and willingness to change. Some of these strategies were writing in journals, illustrating and discussing personal experiences. I have developed these strategies over the years as a university professor. Last semester, I had the opportunity to offer a poetry writing workshop at the Women’s Rehabilitation Center in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. While reflecting on their poetry and in discussion with the students, I observed that most of their writing was autobiographical. I realized that these women have an urge to connect with others through the sharing of their own stories.

Method, Reading Selection and Strategies

The method I use to approach the creation of these stories is to carefully select autobiographical reading models and develop autobiographical exercises that connect to the readings. For example, when selecting the Autobiography of Malcolm X, I question the X part of his name. What does X mean? Why would anyone use an X for the last name? How does X make a political statement? We discuss the implications of Malcolm X’s birth name, (Malcolm Little) and the history of slavery in the United States and Puerto Rico. Then the students are guided to complete a clustering activity that revolves around their own name. We discuss the importance of history for all society and through this discussion, the students are guided to answer ten questions about their ancestors. These questions about family stories and history are later developed into individual family narratives. In order to deepen the visible connection between particular family members and the students, I assign a Venn diagram activity where they select an influential ancestor and compare similarities and differences with him or her. There is a cyclic progression that begins with a focus on personal experience, moves to the autobiographical author’s experience and then returns back to the imprisoned writer’s experience. By focusing on the relationship between the author’s life and the imprisoned reader/writer’s personal experience a dynamic engagement with autobiography occurs. Through discussion and questioning, the student narratives are developed by placing them into various larger contexts such as socio-economical, cultural, and political, until the meaning frame that fits best is selected for the final version of the story.

Through my own reflections on Mark Salzman’s True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall(2004), I picked up insights about adapting to the prison population in relation to finding the most useful narrative writing voice. In this work, Salzman’s teaching experience encouraged me to allow various language styles in telling first-person narratives. As a guide for the writers, I suggest a balance between accurate English and the kind of diction that best fits the story.

Another work that has assisted in the development of this autobiographical project in the English class is Couldn’t Keep it to Myself (edited by Wally Lamb), which is a collection of narratives written by women in the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut; particularly useful is the selection, “Hair Chronicles” by Tabitha Rowley. As the students study this chapter, they understand that a relatively simple focus on hairstyles changing over time can be significant. It leads them to see that context creates meaning. In the reading, Tabitha Rowley discusses her embarrassment about her Afro style and writes that her classmates teased about her big hair. One boy on the bus receives a surprise punch in the nose because of his teasing behavior. She returns to this hairstyle during her incarceration. Again, she is teased, only this time by inmates and correctional officers. She begins singing a line from the Jackson Five’s ABC song, “A B C, it’s easy. Simple as 1, 2, 3,” and then she finishes with a 360-degree Michael Jackson turn. Rowley learns to play along instead of resorting to an automatic aggressive response. By reflecting on possible consequences, she changes her behavior, which is a valuable lesson is self-restraint.

As an activity, the chronicle of hairstyle extended through a time is examined as a particular artifact of identity. The students create their own timeline based on this idea and the selection of their own representative artifact. For example, they might select tattoos, clothing styles, or places lived, and then place these in chronological order. Afterward, they write a description of the artifact providing as many details as possible. From this beginning, they are encouraged to look for the inspiration of the artifact and place it within their family and culture. Through this placement, they begin to see the influence that society has on identity and behaviors. These are some ways that selected readings are extended into the autobiographical writing framework. The students learn through these readings and the autobiography project to celebrate the transformative power of self-reflection and the written word.

Writing Practice

The habit of writing is hard to come by for many people, especially those who are learning English with the goal of university level expression. To encourage writing fluency, the students develop a daily writing practice by using a stream of consciousness journals. This writing practice is particularly important because it creates the routine of writing in English. As with all of our Basic English University of Puerto Rico students, it takes encouragement and time for students to fluently write in English. I use Natalie Goldberg’s First Thoughts technique from the classic writing book, Writing Down the Bones, which helps to free students to develop writing confidence. This technique allows for mistakes and free association during the timed writing sessions. (The students write for ten minutes five times a day.)

Vocabulary development activities using the autobiographical reading material helps to teach some practical academic writing skills. As stated earlier, English is usually not their first language so it is important to expose them to as much English as possible. To augment the material, I use songs and reactions designed to connect personal experience with opinions and feeling reactions. Recently, I played the Blacked Eyed Peas song, “Where Is the Love” with this goal in mind. Students wrote about the painful changes and stresses that society has placed on everyone, which offered another entry point to the discussion about life and trauma. Further, the students use the acquired vocabulary to create and perform role plays from self-written scripts that are developed from the scheduling activity, “A Day in My Life.”

Many of these activities combine strategies that deepen communication about the self and strive to solve language problems. I also encourage reading aloud, the submission of multiple progress drafts for revision and editing, as well as other techniques that help students become comfortable and competent with sharing personal stories in English.

Obstacles to Learning

When considering teaching within a confinement setting some adjustments have to be made. Overlapping schedules causing missed classes, unplanned and frequent interruptions by officials, lack of materials such as paper and the unavailability of computers present challenges. Students frequently moving in and out of the room is a problem. Recently, mail call happened right during the class. Mail is important. Receiving mail might be the most important moment in a confines week. It could be a family letter—or lack of a letter—that causes anxiety or distracting joy. Returning to class with a handful of mail is Christmas come early! Class members want to share but try to pay attention to class.

Additional obstacles abound. Working with hand-written documents is a chore. It is especially difficult to revise and edit handwritten documents. It strains the eyes and the teacher’s patience. How can you teach MLA Style with a pencil and various sized pieces of paper? Unevenly skilled student groups can interfere with class planning. Sometimes several students need more time to learn English than the rest of the group. Occasionally, a student needs an individualized teaching strategy. Other students might become frustrated by the slower or faster learning pace. I recently noted that many students do not understand cursive writing and require printed comments on their drafts. As a teacher, you need to strike the right balance between establishing structure and flexibility.

Moreover, confronting your own feelings about incarceration is a challenge. Dealing with the idea of life in a cage is a profound metaphor that both professors and students will confront. For example, I recently noticed three women staring excitedly out a barred window. One of them was from English class so I walked over and asked them what they were looking at. They were hesitant at first but said it was just the other prisoners. While talking, it gradually sank in that these women were chained by the ankles and wrists, which was normal for those wearing blue, but also, that they were in a securely locked cage that was placed next to the windowed wall within the larger vestibule area. I experienced the layers of confinement and feelings of deepening constriction that they have become numb to. The fact that these women do not collapse in utter despondency is in itself a testament to the human spirit. I am inspired by their resiliency. I am inspired by these imprisoned writers who find cheer and self-expression within these layers of confinement. Leaving that day, I reminded myself that my work here matters. The obstacle of dealing with searches through my personal belongings and submitting to metal detector checks are a mere inconvenience. The security official may be tense one day and make me wait a long time. It doesn’t matter. I will continue to show complete and friendly neutrality because my presence here as a witness and teacher matters.


“Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.” ― Malcolm X (1965), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (363)

A lot has been said here at this conference that imprisoned students are just like students in our regular classroom. Indeed, we have the same goals, but just as teaching working adults has subtle differences from the incoming 18 year old student, primarily in the area of personal experience, the same is true for imprisoned writers. These imprisoned writers share a common painful experience. Rather that viewing their differences from other learning populations as a limitation, I agree with Malcolm X in the quote above, i.e., facing the reality of life and exploring experience as knowledge offers a foundation where both autobiography and experience can combine in new ways to create a common base for meaningful reading, writing and learning.


Appleman, D. (2013). Teaching in the Dark: The Promise and pedagogy of creative writing in prison. English Journal, 102 (4), 24-30.

Black Eyed Peas. (2016). #WHEREISTHELOVE (Remix).Universal Music.

Malcolm X & A. Haley. (1965). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Random House.

Halberstadt, A. (7 July 2014). A prisoner’s reading list.” The New Yorker, Retrieved from Accessed 29 September 2016.

Goldberg, N. (1985, 2006, 2016). Writing Down the Bones. Shamballa.

Jackson Five. (1970). “A B C.” Motown Records.

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—. (2010). Life narrative in historical perspective. Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. University of Minnesota Press, 103–125.

— (2010). The visual-verbal virtual contexts of life narrative.” Autobiography A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. University of Minnesota Press, 167–191.

Education, English, Autobiography, Writing

Segunda Jornada de Reflexión sobre Educación Universitaria en la Cárcel

Facultad de Estudios Generales de la Universidad de Puerto Rico Recinto de Río Piedras

Reseña biográfica:
Cynthia Pittmann is an Assistant Professor in the English Department in the College of General Studies, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. Cynthia completed her PhD at the University of Puerto Rico and her MA and undergraduate work at San Diego State University in San Diego, California. She has taught English literature, language, and communication with an emphasis on autobiography, social media and creative writing, especially in the areas of creative nonfiction and poetry. She has prose, poetry and scholarly articles published in the journals Sargasso and La Torreand the books Festschrift; Homenaje al Dr. Carlos Varona Duque EstradaIn a Sea of Heteroglossia, among others. She wrote the foreword to The Indelible Heart, which is a fictional novel whose principle characters are based on her mothers (both gay rights activists and founding members of Affirmations in the Detroit metropolitan area) who were killed in a hate crime in 1992. She is currently writing a memoir about this story.

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