Viewpoint. The Joys of Reading: Using Children’s Books with Adult Students at a Local County Jail
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The storybooks you read transport me back in time. I had never heard most of the stories, but they took me back to a time where I needed stories, maybe? It’s hard for me to explain, but the stories seem like they fill a void and help me grow.
Where It All Began
Sixty-five years ago. I grew up on the farm with no TV, radio once in a while, wonderful records on a record player, and books—lots of books. Our home was filled with treasured children’s literature. Oh, the joys of reading, reading, reading during the day and into the night until my mother would turn out the light for the hundredth time.
Thirty-three years ago. After discovering our third child was deaf, I started an inclusive preschool in my home. This motivated me to pursue a master’s degree in early childhood education. I discovered that being deaf did not mean my daughter could not read. Oh, the joys of reading, reading, reading with my children.
Twenty-eight years ago. My early childhood teaching career continued in various settings teaching both children and adults. I taught in a university lab preschool and a public preschool–Head Start collaboration. I was a coach for Child Development Associate (CDA) candidates. I spent several weeks in China as a consultant for early childhood teachers, working with both adults and the children in their classrooms or centers. Oh, the joys of reading, reading, reading to children whose home language was different from mine.
Six years ago. During my fight with breast cancer, my oncologist said the best thing I could do was stay busy. I accepted an adjunct professor position at the local university teaching early childhood teacher candidates about the joys of reading children’s literature. Since modeling is a great way to teach, I spent time demonstrating how to read aloud to children. Oh, the joys of reading, reading, reading to college students and having them discover the joys of reading to children.
Three years ago. After retiring again, and beating cancer, I was ready to relax—or so I thought! Instead, I was asked to teach a child development course to incarcerated adults at the local county jail. I found that sharing children’s books with them established positive relationships and helped guide our teaching and learning. Oh, the joys of reading, reading, reading children’s books to students behind bars.
Meeting My Students at the County Jail
In 2018, the state where I lived had one of the highest incarceration rates around, and officials at the county jail near me wanted to make a change. One of the officials had been incarcerated and knew firsthand how education had helped him during his time behind bars. To make a difference in incarcerated peoples’ lives, he submitted a proposal to the sheriff to start a voluntary education program called Chains or Change, in which 14 men and 14 women would participate (classes were separated by gender).
The program was approved. Eligible men and women filled out an application, were interviewed, and made a commitment to adhere to certain requirements before they could participate. After their acceptance, they attended classes four days a week and committed to the following: Rising at 6 a.m., program participants avoided television until their programs were finished; they attended self-led alcohol and narcotics anonymous meetings; they spent time studying and reflecting; and they attended life skills lectures led by volunteer professionals from the community. Two of those volunteer professionals (myself included) had backgrounds in child development and child psychology to show the program’s students how to work with children in the hope of gaining insight about their own family histories and building skills to be better parents.
I was asked to teach child development. It was one of the most inspiring things I have ever done.
I started working on my lesson plans. Finally, the first day of teaching arrived, and I was more nervous than I had expected. I was checked in at the desk, my bag was searched, and I followed the guard to the meeting room. The guard made sure everything was in order before he left the room and the steel doors shut behind us. There I was, standing in front of 14 men who were staring at me in anticipation, and I promptly forgot everything I had prepared.
Things Don’t Always Go the Way You Plan
Instead of giving my planned presentation on the different ways in which children grow and learn, I read a children’s book. Years ago, I went to a workshop where the trainer read I’ll Love You Forever, by Robert Munsch. Hearing her read made me realize the effect children’s books can have on adults. After that experience, I would often add a children’s book to my presentations to adults. This day was no different; I had packed one in my bag.
The book I had with me was Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes. This book illustrates various types of teachers, the importance of supportive families, the effect of bullies in the classroom, and the importance of a name. For many adults, the name they have can be a source of joy or frustration. After I finished reading Chrysanthemum, the students slowly began sharing things about their own names. The discussion evolved into which teachers they liked, the teachers they had not liked, and before long, the guard said it was time to end. I wished them well and waited for the women to arrive for the next class. I repeated the same process of reading Chrysanthemum; after I finished, they started talking and engaging just like the men had done.
The second time I went to teach, I was still nervous; after only one class, I was not yet comfortable teaching in a setting like this one. I presented an introductory lesson about the basics of child development. The students were respectful and sat quietly, but I could tell they were not very engaged in my lesson. When class time was over, I breathed a small sigh of relief. The men lined up to go back to their cells, and I fist bumped all the students as they walked by me. One student at the back of the line stopped. “You didn’t read a book this time,” he said in a muffled voice, referring to our first class together. “You made me cry the other time.” Then he quickly moved on to join the other students, and the heavy door clanged shut.
“You didn’t read a book this time,” he said in a muffled voice, referring to our first class together. “You made me cry the other time.”
He taught me so much in that brief encounter: I had connected with the class during my first visit when I read a children’s book. During the second class, I was simply trying to meet the requirements of the program. The response by the class to these two lessons was starkly different.
I spent the next week reflecting. I remembered what I had known my whole teaching career: no matter where or who you teach, relationships are the key to effective teaching. To build relationships with the students, I took the time and effort to show them that they mattered to me and that their lives could be reflected in our class sessions. Among other activities, we had talk time at the beginning of our classes during which they shared family issues, court dates, and other concerns. As they shared, I wrote the details in my own journal so that I could follow up during a later class time.
Building Literacy into Learning About Child Development
In addition to prioritizing relationship building, I also decided to change the way I was going to teach child development. After meeting my students, I discovered many things about the individuals I was teaching. Some of them could not read. Some of them had experienced traumas during childhood, adolescence, and/or adulthood that they carried with them. Some had little contact with children during their life outside of jail. And others who had children may not be able to see them for a long time. Knowing this, the goals and objectives for my lesson plans changed.
Reading Children’s Books Aloud
Remembering the response from the young man during my second visit to the jail, I decided to read aloud to my students. I spent time each week evaluating books to determine which ones I should read. As a retired early childhood educator, I had hundreds of books in my collection, but I began a new journey looking for just the right books to read to connect with my students. I wanted books that would elicit meaningful and authentic discussion after I finished reading. My students related most to real-world life lessons, so I looked for books that I could use to start discussions about what the students had or were currently experiencing. The local bookstore owner helped me; my friends gave me ideas; even my optometrist put together a book bag full of appropriate titles. When I attended NAEYC conferences, I talked to Isabel Baker from the Book Vine and coeditor of The Reading Chair column in Young Children. She gave me wonderful ideas for books to read to my students:
- If You Plant a Seed, by Kadir Nelson (2015)
- Extra Yarn, by Mac Barnett and illus. by Jon Klassen (2012)
- The Rabbit Listened, by Cori Doerrfeld (2018)
- Owl Babies, by Martin Waddell and illus. by Patrick Benson (1975)
- The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown and illus. by Clement Hurd (1942)
- Tell Me a Tattoo Story, by Alison McGhee and illus. by Eliza Wheeler (2016)
Focus on the Positive Attributes of Children
Rather than going over the stages of child development, I decided to focus on some of the positive attributes of children and how everyone can emulate these characteristics. For example, children get angry quickly, but they forgive just as quickly. Children love learning new things. Children often give those around them a second chance. They want everyone to be honest. They believe in justice and want things to be fair. Focusing on these characteristics led to meaningful questions and learning experiences for my students and myself.
As one student wrote in a journal entry, “Why, as children, do we learn to blame ourselves for things we have no control over, and continue to do that into our adult life?” Another wrote, “After being away from my kids because of drugs and jail, will they believe me when I tell them I love them? Will they be able to forgive me?” These were tough but very meaningful questions, and sometimes, I would just have to say that I didn’t have all the answers to their questions.
The jail administrator also reflected on the meaningful learning that arose from having a child development course in the program. He wrote, “I began to understand that these men and women were tapping into a piece of themselves that had long been lost and forgotten . . . We all had someone we could relate to. This had an effect on me as well . . . think[ing] of the children in my life. I could see them better.”
I bought inexpensive, blank journals and encouraged each of my students to write or draw something they could share the following week. During one class, everyone clapped with excitement when a young man who could not read or write copied one word into his journal to share. Another time, a student wrote a quote he had seen in a book into his own journal. He had written: “Definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result” (a phrase most commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, though not confirmed).
Sharing from the journals became an important part of my teaching time. Those journal entries gave students space for sharing their voices and gave me valuable input from my students. I wanted to know, what did they already know about children? What did they want to learn about children? I had them answer these questions in their journals:
What do you know about children?
- “They are trusting.”
- “They are like little sponges, and they absorb everything they see and hear.”
- “I know children are very precious, vulnerable, and impressionable.”
- “You must be patient with children.”
- “Children lie.”
What do you want to know about children?
- “I want to know how to answer my child’s question about why I am here in jail.”
- “How do I get my child to realize I do care when I have been out of their life?”
- “How to regain their trust and love after being out of their lives?”
- “How do I talk to children?”
- “How do I better my relationship with my children?”
Sometimes my students wanted to give me a copy of what they had written in their journals. They would write their journal entries twice and give me the second copies. Those notes were a testament to the relationship we had built, and I treasure those notes to this day. One student wrote for me:
The time in your class helps me to grow a lot. Journaling helps me open up and share more. Child development is interesting to consider. Sometimes I think of myself (and lots of other inmates) as underdeveloped children! The storybooks you read transport me back in time. I had never heard most of the stories, but they took me back to a time where I needed stories, maybe? It’s hard for me to explain, but the stories seem like they fill a void and help me grow.
The young man who wrote this statement will be in prison for the rest of his life. He was at the local jail awaiting trial and was allowed to be in my classes until he was sentenced. I will never forget him.
Using Children’s Books to Inspire Adults
A quote by Vera Nazarian says, “Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.” I believe this is what happened every time I read a children’s book to my students. A door opened, and I observed “light” on their faces. It was an unforgettable two-and-a-half years, and I hope to go back some day—after I retire again! In the following sections, I capture just a few of those meaningful moments that my students and I shared as we read children’s books together.
The Rough Patch, by Brian Lies
The Rough Patch (2018) and its author were introduced to me during a NAEYC Professional Learning Institute in Austin, Texas. Brian Lies signed my copy of the book in response to my request that he personalize it for my new students. He signed: “To Miss Carolene and Chains or Change! Hope is Real, from Brian Lies.” I came home and read it the next time I taught a class.
In the book, life for the fox and the dog was good—until “the unthinkable happened.” My students commented on the fact that sometimes one incident can change your life forever. Because of the grief the fox was going through, he became so angry that all he wanted to do was surround himself with ugly, sad things. He didn’t want to feel better. My students could relate to that: everyone in my class had experienced many “rough patches” in their lives. It was an unbelievably powerful book; a book showing love, loss, grief, and hope. I could hardly finish reading it aloud because of my tears and the responses from my students. As one student described in a note after the reading, “I’m sitting here listening to you read a story, and you are touching the entire group. It is still and quiet. You always get our attention.” Rough Patch particularly resonated with this woman. She continued, “You have touched on a very sensitive topic in my life. My son drowned. I’m a good person—why me?” The unthinkable had happened to her.
The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee
I discovered The Farmer and the Clown (2014) several years ago at a NAEYC conference in Dallas, Texas. The story follows a baby clown who is accidently separated from his circus family and rescued by a reluctant farmer. Because there are only three words in the book, I was able to model how you can read to a child even with little text.
What an interesting discussion that followed! My students and I concluded that sometimes we don’t know what to do with the children around us, just like the farmer didn’t know what to do with the little clown. Even though the clown had a painted smile on his face, it wasn’t authentic, just as our faces sometimes don’t show how we are really feeling. The farmer was lonely at the beginning of the book, but often when we are lonely, we don’t want to admit it. One student wrote, “I’ve never validated my own feelings, so it’s really hard for me to believe others will care how I feel.” It was also very evident that the farmer loved finally having a friend and was sad when the train reappeared to take the clown home.
When we discussed the theme of being separated from the people we love, like the little clown, another student reflected, “Do kids blame themselves when a parent is absent and think it is their fault?” Unfortunately, yes, children may blame themselves or feel shame for a traumatic event, such as a parent’s absence, particularly when the adults in their lives shield them from information or do not to explain what has happened. I always told the women and men in my classes to listen to and acknowledge children’s feelings first (rather than try to fix or deny their feelings), to explain what has and will happen in terms they can understand, and to tell their children the truth about why they are not living at home. One example I offered was, “I made some bad choices and have to be away from other people for a while.” Saying they are on a trip or away at school is not the best way to support their children’s thoughts and feelings during and after this change.
The Biggest Bear, by Lynd Ward
During another one of my classes, I read The Biggest Bear (1952). My aunt gave this book to my son when he was 7. It is written and illustrated using pencil drawings. In the book, a boy is angry because his grandfather will not let him hunt for bears like everyone else. So, he goes to the woods, intent on hunting the biggest bear in the valley. What he finds is a little bear cub, whom the boy befriends and brings home. The bear grows and grows, causing lots of problems for his family and the neighbors. The little boy tries to take the bear back into the woods, but the bear keeps following him home until it is trapped in a cage by men from the zoo.
We talked about how sometimes choosing to do what other people are doing can get us in lots of trouble. Also, seemingly small, irresponsible actions often grow into very harmful situations. The imagery of the bear being caught in a trap was one my students could certainly relate to. Another conclusion we came to was that even though the little boy loved the bear so much, he had to come to terms with the fact that he could not care for it anymore. Someone else would care for the bear when the boy was not able to. Many of my students were in a similar situation with their own families.
No matter where or who you teach, relationships are the key to effective teaching.
How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids, by Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer
I used some props when I decided to read How Full Is Your Bucket? For Kids (2009). I took along a small metal bucket and some marbles to drop in the bucket, duplicating the drops falling into the bucket in the story. The story is about a grandpa telling his grandson that everyone has an invisible bucket on their head, and when someone does something positive for us, our buckets start to get full. But sometimes, we allow others to take drops out of our buckets. One statement from the book is so powerful: “As he watched his classmates walk into the room, he secretly hoped they would trip and fall. That’s what it feels like when you have an empty bucket.”
As I dropped marbles in the bucket and took them out of the bucket, I could tell some of my students’ buckets had not been filled in a long time. Several students started crying when the marbles hit the bottom of the bucket with a loud thunk. Evidently, they could relate to having an empty bucket over their head. The next week, one woman shared from her journal: “Hurt people, hurt people. Just like the boy who wanted someone to trip and fall. When you are hurt, you want other people to hurt too.”
I Wish You More, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld
Another favorite was I Wish You More (2015). On the day I read this book, a young woman sitting on the front row was called out to meet with her public defender. When she came back to class, she said that her favorite place used to be jail because it was a safe place to be, and she didn’t have to worry about anything. Now she did not like it so much. She had decided she was going to work hard to get released and start her life over again, outside jail. In response to her comments, I said, “I wish you more than jail,” then began reading the book.
After reading the book—which lists things such as, “I wish you more hugs than ‘ughs,’ ” and “I wish you more umbrellas than rain”—the students started listing their own wishes. I wish you . . .
- “more hope than despair”
- “more bed than bunk”
- “more picnic than chow hall”
- “more daylight than sky light”
- “more porcelain toilets than metal ones”
- “more silverware than plastic ware”
- “more grass than concrete”
The “I wish you more” lists continued. For several weeks, the students wrote their lists of wishes and shared them with our class. The handwritten notes I took as they read from their journals, and the handwritten notes they gave me, will be treasured forever—especially the thank you note from all the men. Beautifully decorated with hearts, it said, “Thanks for being the highlight of our week. Thank you for being a part of our lives.”
And I stopped being nervous, especially after one young man said, “Miss Carolene, the guards know they don’t need to come in here with you because we won’t let anyone hurt you.”
Oh, the joys of reading, reading, reading to the eager students I met in the county jail.
Children’s Books Benefit Adult Learners
If you mention the idea of reading a children’s book to adults, you may receive questioning looks or disapproving comments. But children’s texts can benefit adult learners, and they can be found in a variety of settings: in adult literacy classes (Bloem & Padak 1994), in classes supporting adults learning English (Smallwood 1992), and during sessions of developmental education courses (Juchartz 2004).
Knowing the educative power that children’s books hold, early childhood teacher educators also integrate children’s books into their coursework. Nancy Freeman, Stephanie Feeney, and Eva Moravcik (2010) outline specific reasons why. Teacher educators employ children’s books that showcase different perspectives, social identities, and difficult family situations to build awareness and responsiveness in current and future teachers (e.g., Escamilla & Nathenson-Mejia 2003; Kurtss & Gavigan 2008). Children’s books also help illuminate and provide concrete examples of key theories or concepts, including about child development (Hansen & Zambo 2005).
As noted in this issue’s cluster articles, reading exemplary children’s books can help novice and experienced teachers to learn about text qualities and features, and teacher educators can model how to incorporate them effectively in the classroom. In turn, adult learners can create learning experiences that enhance children’s early reading and writing development.
For more about this topic and a list of recommended children’s books for early childhood teacher education, see Freeman, Feeney, and Moravcik (2010).
Inspired by Carolene’s story? Check out the resources below to learn more about opportunities to teach adult students in prisons. Consider working with the following resources or see if your local or county jails offer similar programs.
Viewpoint, a periodic feature of the journal, provides a forum for sharing opinions and perspectives on topics relevant to the field of early childhood education. The commentary published in Viewpoint is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the view or position of NAEYC. NAEYC’s position statements on a range of topics can be found at NAEYC.org/resources/position-statements.
Copyright © 2021 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
Bloem, P.L., & N.D. Padak. 1996. “Picture Books, Young Adult Books, and Adult Literacy Learners.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 40 (1): 48–53.
Escamilla, K., & S. Nathenson-Mejia. 2003. “Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers: Using Latino Children’s Literature in Teacher Education.” Equity & Excellence in Education 36 (3): 238–48.
Freeman, N.K., S. Feeney, & E. Moravcik. 2011. “Enjoying A Good Story: Why We Use Children’s Literature When Teaching Adults.” Early Childhood Education Journal 39 (1): 1–5.
Hansen, C.C., & D. Zambo. 2005. “Piaget, Meet Lilly: Understanding Child Development Through Picture Book Characters.” Early Childhood Education Journal 33 (1): 39–45.
Kurtss, S.A., & K.W. Gavigan. 2008. “Understanding (Dis)abilities Through Children’s Literature.” Education Libraries 31 (1): 23–31.
Carolene Jackson, MEd, is currently an adjunct professor at Oklahoma City Community College. “Miss Carolene and Company” enjoy presenting at statewide conferences. Her daughter, a nurse practitioner; her daughter-in-law, a physical therapist; and her third daughter, who is hearing impaired, have a great time giving presentations focused on developmentally appropriate practice and the importance of educating the whole child.