Inspired by the speech of Judge Roanne Licht P’17 at the Class of 2017’s graduation ceremony, nearly a dozen members of the English Department committed to leading literature courses for defendants at the Cambridge District Court starting this winter.
Their efforts will continue work already in place through Judge Licht’s Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program, an initiative that aims to transform the lives of probationers through weekly discussions based on a series of readings. Judge Robert Kane of the New Bedford District Court and Professor Robert Waxler of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth began the program in 1991, and Judge Licht has been involved since 2011.
“We want our courts to be rehabilitative, not just punitive,” Judge Licht said.
Shortly after graduation, English Teacher Jean Klingler organized a June meeting with Judge Licht and other interested English teachers—10 in all, though three were out of town—to discuss how the department could become involved.
At the meeting, Judge Licht explained that the goal of CLTL is to give defendants of all educational backgrounds the opportunity to participate in a literature course that opens them to new perspectives. Each week CLTL classes address a different topic or theme, such as the role of guilt, the effects of evil, and the morality of war.
Designed by previous instructors of the class—high school teachers and college professors—the course challenges students to think about how various characters’ experiences relate to their own lives and how they might reconsider the decisions that led to their entry into the justice system, Judge Licht said.
During the class’s third meeting, for example, the discussion focuses on the extent to which individuals have choices and how the choices they do have affect them. Students of the course typically read “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, “Eveline” by James Joyce, and “New Directions” by Maya Angelou, among other works.
Aside from reading, students produce weekly writing assignments to analyze the texts and consider any links to their own lives. Assignments are confidential between the student and the teacher and do not influence their case, so probationers can write in an uninhibited manner.
English Department Head Sharon Krauss said that she is eager to discuss the stories “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates and “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe—both of which many sophomores at the school read—and to compare what strikes each group about the works.
“I’m looking forward to participating in a program that helps people develop their lives during a transitional time,” she said.
The classes run for two hours on six consecutive Wednesdays, with groups ranging in size from six to 10 students. In addition to the teacher, each session has Judge Licht, a probation officer, and a security guard present. Students who complete the class can expect their probationary periods to be shortened anywhere from six weeks to three months and to have most of their fees waived.
English Teacher Zoe Balaconis said she is excited to put her skills to use in helping more vulnerable members of our community.
“I believe that reading literature helps us learn empathy, practice thinking critically and making decisions, and develop the ability to see beyond our circumstances,” she said.
CLTL has provided many of its students their first opportunity to discuss and write about works of literature in depth, Judge Licht said. Graduates from the program have gone on to reenroll in school, complete their General Educational Development (GED), and attend college. Many students have written back letters describing how the course inspired them to continue their studies.
To prepare for teaching the course themselves, the English teachers plan to take turns observing classes at the Cambridge District Court from September to November. Their thinking is that they will team-teach specific seasons in pairs, beginning in the winter of 2018, English Teacher Allison Kornet said.
“We’re pretty excited to collaborate with each other in this new way for this new population,” Ms. Kornet said. “Many of us were sitting in different spots at graduation, but the same desire to get involved rose up separately in each of us when we heard Roanne speak. There was a great buzz, and it continued when we met.”
Judge Licht said she and the English Department hope to get BB&N students involved with CLTL eventually. For example, students might someday serve as tutors for the defendants to help them complete their assignments or attend the classes themselves to provide an additional perspective.
“We are still thinking about both of these ideas, but student involvement could be very promising,” Judge Licht said.