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The Philosophy behind Changing Lives Through Literature

Changing Lives Through Literature is based on the idea that literature has the power to transform. Although it sounds simple - it's essentially a reading group that meets over a period of weeks and that is attended by an instructor, probation officer, judge, and students - CLTL has the ability to allow us to make connections with the characters or ideas in a text and to rethink our own behavior. The phrase "Changing Lives" may sound grandiose and, in a way, it is. This program can be the first step toward permanent change or an additional step on the path to a new way of being in the world. CLTL contends that through literature, we can more deeply understand ourselves and our human condition. But what is it about literature that allows this to occur? And why do many of us who are involved with CLTL feel that it is one of the most underused tools in the criminal justice system?

As Professor Robert Waxler, co-founder of the program, said, when we talk about literature, we are not just talking about "the words on a page or a book sitting peacefully on a shelf." We are talking about what it is in the material itself that engages us deeply and what it is that takes us inside a story, that which enables us to be part of the tale. This way of relating to literature is active. It takes imagination. It takes a willingness to participate. It may not necessarily take advanced reading skills, and it certainly doesn't take a college degree. Even those who have not finished high school have found success in CLTL programs. But opening up the heart and mind is, for many, as difficult as anything they have ever accomplished. We believe that this is often the first step toward change and toward believing. As Kit, an ex-offender said, "There are other ways of living than the streets."

This process - which often creates epiphany - depends on material that engages us. It depends on the old-fashioned idea of a good story. It also depends on whatever it is that happens to us when we read a worthwhile book or immerse ourselves in a short story. If we were blessed with parents who read to us when we were young or if we had success in school, we may easily find our way inside a story. As Robert Waxler noted, from the anthology he co-edited with Professor Jean Trounstine, Changing Lives Through Literature:

"When my son Jonathan was young, I would make up cowboy stories for him at bedtime. Cowboy Jonathan became a character of endless adventure, riding off to meet his next challenge, returning home weary, yet always ready for another journey out. We were never certain what would happen to Cowboy Jonathan when he set out on any particular night, but we cared about him, rooted for him, felt his danger, and celebrated his triumphs. He became part of our collective memory, and we carried traces of his story wherever we went."

That story provided a way for Waxler and his son to dream about their own lives, to defeat their enemies, and to be their best selves. The story allowed them to imagine and live inside their imaginations.

But what of readers who have not read much or have had poor experiences with school? Many CLTL students struggle through books and think they have retained little of the text. They often are the first ones to say the book had no meaning. But in our discussions, where we sit around the table talking about the text and together recreate the story, where we refashion its travails and its successes, look into why the characters do what they do, and reconsider their actions, these readers often find that, far more than they imagined, a book stays inside them. A character touches a familiar chord, or a story allows them to rethink their own experiences. Through reading, we see; through discussion, we hear. The CLTL discussion is as important as the reading. With literature, the imagination comes alive through an engagement with language. In the classroom, language can lead to better verbal skills and to better listening. As we hear others talk about their experience of the text, and as we talk about the characters with others who may see the world far differently than we do, we experience a paradox: we begin to see other perspectives than our own and, at the same time, realize that we are not alone. A good story not only calls on us to exercise our minds, it asks us to reach deep into our hearts and evoke compassion for the characters, for each other, and for ourselves.

Much has been written about how stepping inside the shoes of another allows us to be free. We are able to consider even the most awful of human actions through a character and come to grips with the most dreadful of our own experiences through someone else's story. There is safety in the CLTL classroom precisely because the story seems to be about someone else. The word "seems" is important here. Whether we identify fully or just see parts of ourselves and those we know in the characters we meet, the CLTL discussion enables us to process our own experiences without confessing. Another paradox: CLTL is not therapy, but the process of learning about our lives can be therapeutic. This is what we mean by transformational. This is what we mean when we say that CLTL is based on the idea that literature has the power to transform lives.

Every CLTL program is different, as you will discover as you browse through some of the programs here (see the New Bedford, Lynn-Lowell , and Dorchester paradigms), but all have this in common: literature and discussion. The literature may be a stepping-off place, or it may be the meat and potatoes of the class. All of the programs are connected to the Socratic notion that "the unexamined life is not worth living." We reach out to offenders who have the motivation to change behavior that has over and over again caused them to end up as statistics in the criminal justice system. Through literature, we ask participants in CLTL to explore their identity, and the result is often their way out of crime.

Videos (may take a few moments to download):

Presiding Justice Joseph Reardon describes his philosophy regarding CLTL (video).

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