Teaching Incarcerated Youth Of Color – And What They Taught Me


Looking back at my time at UCLA, one experience that stands out is an education course I took where I developed curriculum for teaching incarcerated youth of color language arts, then implemented my lesson plans with the young men at BJN Juvenile Hall. (Incarcerated youth are disproportionally minority youths.)  My lesson plans focused on using poetry and theater, teaching them how they can use their experiences to critique issues that are important to them and their communities.

On the final day of class, the boys read their favorite poem or song that they had been working on out loud. I was blown away by the amazing pieces the students put together. When they came on the stage, they lit up the room. One boy’s poem/song particularly stood out to me as he shared painful stories from his childhood and the complex way in which these memories impacted his life. The prison guard said that the work these students did represented “hope,” highlighting the immense potential of each student.

There is no doubt that each boy was smart. So why had they been performing below grade level almost their entire academic careers? That is a complex question that definitely can’t be answered in one blog post. But one explanation is the “Pygmalion effect.” The Pygmalion effect indicates that when teachers hold certain students to low-expectations, these students do not perform well. What this means is that when teachers look down on certain students as having no potential, these students internalize their perceptions by looking at themselves this way, consequently becoming disengaged in school.

Male students of color are particularly vulnerable to the Pygmalion Effect because teachers often project negative racial stereotypes onto them. The negative racial stereotypes that educators hold against male youth of color contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline because they lead these students to believe that they are intellectually inferior to their white counterparts. In doing so, this often pushes them out of schools. In fact, according to Child Trends, approximately 717,800 young men were placed behind bars halfway through 2010, and 37 percent of these young men were black and 23 percent were Hispanic. Moreover, when these youth are behind bars, prison school teachers continue to hold them to low expectations, disengaging them from learning and keeping them in the school-to-prison pipeline cycle. 

One of the biggest lessons I learned from my experience is that just because a student isn’t performing at grade level, doesn’t necessarily mean he/she isn’t smart. It often means that there needs to be a change in the way the student is being taught. For instance, many of the incarcerated youth were just flat out board out of their minds at school. That’s why I wanted to implement art’s education as a way to increase engagement.

Now that I have been working at 7 Generation Games, I wish I had access to our games at the time. Educational technology seeks to change the traditional way students are being taught and focuses on making learning fun and engaging. Something that makes our technology particularly special is the culture aspect. The boys that I worked with shared that it wasn’t just the lesson themselves that they found disengaging, but the fact that they couldn’t relate to them. It can be really hard growing up and not seeing yourself represented in school.

In a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she explains that when she was a child in Nigeria, she read British and American story books where all of the characters were white and blue eyed. As a result, the stories that she wrote herself featured these same white characters. Continuously teaching students lessons that only relates to the mainstream culture also contributes to the Pygmailion Effect because it suggests that their culture is less valuable. That’s why most of our games feature characters of color and use Native American and Latin American story lines. 

If I were to take the class again, I would definitely pitch using our games for incarcerated youth because they don’t only offer an alternative approach to the way students learn, but they are culturally relevant.

Want to donate our games to students who are particularly vulnerable to the school-to-prison pipeline ? Click here

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