To a large extent, the make-up of the selected group shapes the curriculum.
Stories about struggles for manhood, about violence, about individuals fighting for freedom against rigid authority often appeal to the men as they begin to encounter their own dark side.
Women's lives are different and so they call for different stories. Women in our program often suffer from lack of support and encouragement, abusive boyfriends, or childhood rejection. Often they are single parents, alone and anxious about their children.
In the same context, different ethnic groups often profit from stories relevant to their interests and concerns, their particular struggles and desires.
Choosing books for discussion is obviously an important matter. The best books will provoke deep discussion, offer characters for self-reflection, and explore themes that disturb us, shock us, and remind us that we are not alone.
Many groups have found it important to start with books that are short and easy to read, progressing to more difficult and longer books in later sessions. This approach builds confidence because many offenders have never read a complete book before.
Once confidence is gained, though, the reading ability of the offenders often increases dramatically and quickly, calling into question standard approaches to literacy training.
Many CLTL programs primarily use novels for discussions, believing that the sense of accomplishment that comes from reading a complete book significantly enhances the confidence and self-esteem of the offenders. The length of a novel also lends itself to a full development of the complexity of plot and character, allowing for a rich range of perspectives and insights to emerge in discussion.
Many team members, though, favor short stories and poetry, arguing the merits of these shorter forms. Autobiography is also used at times, especially when relevant as a model for a particular group.
Many groups now structure the CLTL program as a twelve-week series of discussions, two hours each time, meeting every two weeks for a total of six sessions. Other groups prefer weekly meetings, sometimes extending over a ten-week period.
The timeframe influences the curriculum. Meeting every two weeks gives offenders time to read a complete novel for each session. Meeting every week, the reading might be divided into chapters, or there might be an emphasis on short stories and poems. Both methods have met with success.
The first session is particularly important in order to set the tone and indicate through example what the sessions are all about.
We usually provide a syllabus the first night, with the complete schedule and list of books as well as a few generic questions about theme and character. But the syllabus always remains open to change and revision as we move through the sessions, the discussions shaping the reading as we go.
We recommend the use of one or two short stories the first evening (read silently or aloud around the table) followed by discussion demonstrating the relationship between the story in the text and life itself. As the plot unfolds, so too does the interior self.
A good discussion on that first night often ends with a recognition that the story we have explored - the issues raised, the themes discovered - are our own stories. We are all embarked on a journey that will take us in future weeks deeper into this interior terrain, mirroring our fears and desires.
As the reading continues from week to week, we begin to weave the themes and issues together into a rich tapestry of complex meaning, recognizing ourselves, not only in each story, but in the connections made through discussion from one story to the next, from the interplay of literature and life.
Although not all groups use writing, we have found that writing used as a prompt for further discussion is very effective. No doubt writing, the flip-side of reading, is closely connected to thinking, sharpens focus, and enhances the connection between personal revelation and the story under investigation.
Writing in small groups has proven particularly valuable. Not only does it allow each student to find his own expression and give voice to her thinking, but it serves as a useful springboard to enhance further discussion in the larger group sitting at the table.