This spring, the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project has adopted innovative tutoring methods to engage inmates pursuing their GEDs.
Though YUPP has been holding weekly tutoring sessions in prisons for about six years, this semester tutors have started using creative teaching materials designed to capture inmates’ interest, such as rap music and March madness brackets. The new tutoring methods are primarily being implemented in the New Haven Correctional Center and the Manson Youth Institution.
“I think the best thing we can do is get [the inmates] interested and engaged and get them ready to take an initiative and learn themselves,” said Ezra Ritchin ’15, vice president of YUPP. “They’re not going to do that if they associate learning with boring grammar books.”
YUPP modified their tutoring program when volunteers and inmates realized they shared similar music interests, said Paul Elish ’15, copresident of YUPP. The discussion led to prisoners asking tutors to learn spelling and grammar by analyzing rap lyrics, he said.
Before volunteers modified their lessons, students generally seemed uninterested in the writing that the tutors brought in for English overview, Ritchin said. Under the new curriculum, student inmates are asked to spot grammatical errors and informal language in popular rap lyrics. Tutors have noticed the significant positive impact these new learning materials have had on students’ interest in spelling and English, Ritchin said.
“We don’t have quantifiable improvements that we can see, but there’s been an increase in engagement and excitement on the part of the students,” Ritchin said.
Teaching reading and writing skills with rap lyrics has not become standard for all YUPP tutors, but is reflective of YUPP’s permanent efforts to tailor lessons to the students’ interests, Elish said.
“Our program is learning how to most effectively tutor towards the GED,” Elish said. “When they express interest in hip-hop music or other things, like entrepreneurship, we try to do something like that.”
While tutors are primarily using rap music to teach basic, pre-GED language skills in the New Haven jail, GED tutors in the Manson Youth Institution have also modified their teaching methods by talking with inmates, said Will Portman ’15, former YUPP copresident and current tutor in Manson.
Tutors primarily work one-on-one with high school and college-aged inmates, which allows tutors to better gauge their students’ interests and tailor the lesson to subjects relevant to their lives, said Aria Thaker ’15, YUPP activism chair.
“We try to work with the same people each week so you can know their strengths and their weaknesses,” Portman said. “We try to do one-to-one so you can chart [their] progress and design a curriculum for them.”
Because many of the inmates have televisions in their cells and keep up with sports and politics, tutors will often engage inmates by finding relevant topics to modify their lessons, Portman said.
Portman said he used Warren Buffet’s $1 billion bracket challenge — which offers to pay anyone $1 billion who picks a perfect college basketball bracket — to teach probability after learning that the inmate he tutored was interested in March Madness.
In addition to its tutoring program, YUPP also runs a mentoring program in the Manson Youth Institution and the York Correctional Institution.