California Educator

November 2014

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Page 49 of 63

Learning By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin H E R E ' S A S AY I N G that the truth can set you free. And for students meeting on Wednesdays during lunchtime in Dennis Danziger's classroom, it's liberating to finally share the pain and challenges of having a loved one who's incarcerated. During this brief time, the walls come down. Even the gangbangers seem vulnerable. Over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stu- dents share the sadness of being left behind, the humiliation of being searched on visiting days, or the struggle to stay out of trouble and graduate. There are hopeful stories of reconnecting with a loved one upon release, and traumatic tales, such as the student whose father was released from prison and phoned home, only to have fam- ily members hear a gunshot before the line went dead. (He survived.) Many of these Venice High students have hid- den this part of their lives until now, to escape judgment or pity from teachers and peers. But living that way creates a different type of prison — one without walls. Most of the students who walk into POPS for the very first time feel alone. But they are not. One in 28 American children has a parent in prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The numbers soar when you consider siblings, T cope with prison system Teacher helps students grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles or friends who are behind bars. "The first thought that I had when I walked into the room was: These are all normal people," recalls Cierra Ingersoll with an air of wonder. "I learned there's nothing to be ashamed of. Everybody knows somebody who's in prison," says a boy who met his incarcerated brother for the first time briefly before he was released from prison and moved to El Salvador. Danziger, an English teacher for 21 years, sees dramatic changes in stu- dents who join the unique club called POPS, which stands for "Pain of the Prison System." " T h e y s e e m t o w a n t t o b e i n school. There are fewer trips to the dean's office and less truancy. They have a real support system here. It's not just a club." The first POPS meeting was held at Venice High School in February 2013. One year later, POPS the Club was launched as a nonprofit and pub- lished a book titled Runaway Thoughts showcasing powerful and emotional writing from students. Future books will include submissions from all stu- dents and teachers whose lives have been touched by the pain of the prison system, not just those from Venice High School, and indeed the club will be expanding to other schools in the coming year. (For more information, visit I am imprisoned Not physically But mentally I was too young It barely affected me They say I look just like my father Well I want a new identity I want to be like the man who raised me Not the criminal who misled me The chains he has on Are the same chains in my memory —Victor L.M. Demic Education trends Dennis Danziger s a y s P O P S , t h e c l u b w h e r e e v e r y o n e ' s c o n n e c t e d t o s o m e o n e w h o ' s i n c a r c e r a t e d , i s p u t t i n g s t u d e n t s o n a b e t t e r p a t h . 48

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