Rimutaka Prison Visit


Since being in New Zealand, I have started to say yes to every educational experience that presents itself, even if it is not directly related to my teaching practice.  People here are so friendly and want to help you in any way possible.  When I am talking to people about my project, they often recommend that I contact someone they know, “Just ring them up for a coffee and a chat.  They will be happy to meet with you.”  Even Airbnb hosts have connected me with local schools to visit while vacationing.  I have randomly called up several people for a coffee and a chat, which is something I would never do in the United States.   It has been so fascinating to meet people involved in different facets of education.  Its led me to a stranger’s home out in Hutt Valley, coffeeshops throughout Wellington, a teen pregnancy center, and a number of really interesting schools.   One of these random trips was to Rimutaka Prison, which ended up being one of the most powerful educational experiences I have had recently.

I volunteered to be a part of a writing workshop at Rimutaka Prison, one of the largest men’s prisons in New Zealand.  The workshop was put on by Write Where You Are, a organization local to Wellington that works in prisons to, “bring creative writing to places where there has typically been a barrier with creative writing.”  The group of volunteers was made up mostly of local writers and teachers; however, there were three well-known authors joining us and to assist with leading the workshop.  The authors were Brannavan Gnanalingam, Ian Tregillis, and Paula Green.   Writing and sharing your writing is quite a vulnerable process, which I often remind myself when my students are frustrated with writing.  I try to do writing assignments alongside of them to demonstrate my own writing process (forever inspired by Kelly Gallagher), which includes frustrations, doubts, and insecurities.  This is my tenth year teaching, and I have been working with writing since the beginning of my career.  Despite my experience with writing and writer’s workshops, I went into this experience feeling vulnerable about sharing my writing.

After going through a series of steps to get into the prison, we were asked to wait in the foyer before entering the space.  As we were waiting, we began to hear a guitar being played and singing.  The inmates ushered us in with a song in Maori and we shook hands with everyone.  It was very similar to the powhiris I have attended in New Zealand.  The workshop was focused on sharing in the writing process together and as equals, so we were introduced to writers as writers.  It was powerful to not know anyone’s backstory or history and come together as a group of writers to produce work.  It can be so challenging to shed preconceived notions about yourself.  Many of the students I have worked with have identified as being “bad” or “trouble” from a very early age.   Heather Hickox did an interesting study on self- concept for children with behavior disorders.   Her research found that negative labels on children becomes internalized and impacts a child’s self-perception.  Its interesting to think about this in terms of the labels “emotionally impaired” or “emotional and behavioral disorders,” which are negative labels that we often put on children at a young age.  These are labels that men and women who are incarcerated disproportionately share as well.  Once you have a negative label, it is often difficult to see yourself outside of that context, much less in new ways, which is why I think acknowledging the inmates as writers first was so important.  Our system of special education is a deficit model and often further minoritizes marginalized students.  I hope that special education in the United States moves away from a deficit model to model that is needs based based.

After introductions, some of the inmates chose to read poems that have previously written or some did not want to read theirs aloud so they had a friend read for them.  It was really powerful to hear their writing and listen to their stories.  Prior to this experience, many of the inmates had fairly awful experiences surrounding writing and education.  We then broke into small groups and did an interactive writing workshop.  We created poetry together, shared stories, and discussed craft.  As I previously mentioned, this was many of the inmate’s first time with creative writing.
Most of the poems focused on what it means to be a prisoner, the mistakes they made, and their hopes for their future.  Before going into this experience we were reminded that the inmates did cause harm, but often times they were victims themselves, which was evident in their writing.  One of the beautiful things about creative writing is that it allows people to see the world and their own worlds differently.  Through writing you can imagine possibilities, explore different ways, and empathize with others.  I was able to take all of those things away from this experience.

After the writing workshop, we had lunch together.  The Department of Corrections bought us sushi, which the inmates said was a highly unusual lunch for them.  The inmates graciously made sure that the volunteers ate first and assisted some of the older volunteers with getting their food.  It was really touching to see.  I was a bit nervous about what we would chat about over lunch, there were so many cultural barriers between myself and inmates in New Zealand.  However, I should have known that there is never a dearth of conversation as an American in the era of Trump.  Many of the inmates recognized my American accent and came over from their groups to ask me questions about Donald Trump and my thoughts on this administration.  They shared their perspectives and what they had been hearing on the news.  At some point, they started to feel bad about all of the questions they were asking me regarding American politics and what a negative light was being shed, so they tried to make me feel better by saying, “Well, he must be smart in some ways.”   We also talked about sports, favorite foods, and interests.  We shared in our humanity, which was beautiful and important.

This experience impacted me in many ways.  I saw the potential of a strong writing curriculum and the failures of broken system.   In my first blog post, I discussed the disproportionate amount of children with emotional and behavioral disorders being involved in the judicial system as children and later as adults.  I know that many of the students that I work with over the years will be incarcerated and in many of these cases it is a systematic failure that causes this.  Education is one piece in a complex puzzle of changing the system and creating a better future for younger generations.  Despite being frustrated with the United State’s educational policies and our deep systematic failures of children, I have hope. I have met incredible educators in the United States and New Zealand working to change this.  I am inspired by the dedicated professionals I work with at Beacon Day Treatment who go above and beyond everyday to ensure that the student’s emotional and academic needs are met, by the responses I have seen to guns in the classroom, by the community educator at Porirua College who ensures that student discipline is met through a restorative process that is fair and promotes positive well being of students, by the projects that teachers in the Fulbright Program are doing, the teachers at Te Ara who are dedicated to meeting the needs of their students in creative ways, the teacher I met at Salisbury School who saw that her student who was nonverbal loved Mr. Bean and worked with that student to create social stories using Mr. Bean and eventually got her to use words, and so many of the other educators I have met over the years.  I have spent a lot of time thinking about education during the last month, nearly everyone I interact with is a teacher or involved in education.  I have seen inspiring and exciting programs, and I am hopeful for our schools.

Aside from school visits, I have spent the last few weeks further exploring Wellington, learning to drive on the left side of the road, visiting Hawke’s Bay, riding the ferry ride to the South Island, exploring Abel Tasman, hiking at Rivendell, taking lithograph class, and learning to appreciate the flat white.  Below are a few pictures from the last few weeks.

The ferry to the South Island


Mr. Bean Social Stories
Kayaking in Abel Tasman

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Gabrielle Popp

My name is Gabrielle Popp. I am a high school English teacher at a center based special education school for children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. I work with children from all over Wayne County, Michigan. This February, I will be going to New Zealand on a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grant. I am looking forward to researching best practices on increasing community engagement opportunities for children and adults with special needs. This blog is an opportunity to share my insights and thoughts about teaching special education in the United States and aboard.

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