Guest professor shares stories of teaching English to inmates
Published: Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 01:02
A professor at a Mexican university has been teaching English to prisoners for the past four years, and Tuesday she shared with UNC students some of her experiences.
Angeles Clemente got her doctorate at the University of London and began teaching at the Universidad Autonoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca in Mexico shortly after.
During her time at the university, Clemente was required to observe in a venerable community. To fulfill this requirement, she got in touch with a man named Javier, an English teacher at a prison in Oaxaca.
Javier wanted to bring in a native English speaker to talk with the prisoners, and because Clemente was not a native speaker, she brought her husband, Michael Higgins, with her. Higgins is a native English speaker and is a University of Northern Colorado professor emeritus.
"He wanted to ask the inmates what they were in prison for," Clemente said. "When he told me this, I made him pull over and gave him all my reasons that we couldn't do that,"
Clemente said her husband didn't listen to her wishes.
He asked the prisoners what they were in for, and she said she was mortified. She said that contrary to her expectations, the inmates wanted to talk about the crimes they had committed.
Her research began there. Since their first exchange with the prisoners, Clemente and Higgins have gone back to the prison on a weekly basis for the past four years.
The focus of Clemente's research is post-colonial studies and teaching English as a second language. She and her husband have been given a lot of opportunities to work with prisoners in all aspects. They visit the prison as much as possible, especially when they have special events or celebrations.
The couple has been given a chance to work with the students to help them with their English, as well.
Clemente and Higgins assumed because the prisoners had the opportunity to receive an education and had a lot of free time, they would know how to read. They soon found their assumption to wrong, though.
A big part of their teaching is helping prisoners learn English without an accent. Clemente said that having an accent is an issue because of people's fears of foreigners.
Much of the presentation was colored with Clemente's anecdotes and stories of exchanges she and her husband had with the prisoners. One thing she really tried to make her audience understand was that she was more than an English teacher.
"We are not going to change their lives, and we are lying to them if we say we are," Clemente said.
To these inmates, English means a new life and success, but Clemente and Higgins can't promise any of that. Clemente said that they feel like they're really doing something meaningful if they just find a way for these prisoners to be heard.
That's her biggest goal. In fact, she and Higgins are talking about publishing a book full of the works the inmates speak and write. They currently have more than 200 poems and at least 50 narratives.
Students said they learned a lot through listening to Clemente's experiences in Oaxaca prisons.
"I came for the Spanish aspect of it," said Danielle Bloyer, a freshman elementary education major. "I learned a lot about the correlation between language and the community."