Teaching Shakespeare behind bars

By Kenna Bruner

Adam Lauver (PhDComm) volunteered to teach prison inmates in Denver to make a difference in their lives. To his surprise, the experience profoundly changed his view of himself as a teacher.

“These are folks who have made mistakes,” says Lauver, who now considers himself a prison activist and educator. “They’ve acknowledged that, and have regret, and now they want to improve themselves. Some of my best classroom experiences have been in the prison classroom.”

Adam teaching inmates.For nearly two years, Lauver has been teaching Shakespeare and creative writing to male inmates in the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, the intake facility for the state of Colorado. Lauver is a communication doctoral student and teaching assistant in the CMCI at CU Boulder.

Lauver says the inmates are highly motivated and fully engaged in the material being presented.

During the eight-to-14-week run of the workshops, Lauver and co-facilitator Jeremy Make, a doctoral student at CU Denver, meet weekly with six to 12 inmates. The format is like a graduate seminar with assigned readings and discussions. Topics have included dialogue and conflict in prisons, creative writing and public speaking, playwriting and forgiveness and communication in drama.

“The workshops are a way for them to express themselves and voice their experiences,” says Lauver. “We think of the workshops as a partnership between us and the inmates, where we can explore these topics together. We call the inmates our co-learners.”

He recalls a particularly gratifying session when he gave the inmates graduate-level reading assignments on the works of philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida, Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. Their classroom discussion that night focused on forgiveness and atonement, themes that hit home with the inmates. Many of them struggled with the reading assignments.

One inmate summed up the experience with this: “The big words swirled, but I hung in there.”

“The way we communicate informs everything,” Lauver says. “Communication isn’t just something that happens inside the world. It constitutes our world and social realities. And the whole purpose of prison is to shut down communication, isolate them and keep their voices from being heard.”

As a result of his experiences, Lauver is more focused in his commitment to communication activism and research for social justice. And while he plans to eventually teach communication at a university, teaching in a prison setting has become a given in his life. He would not have conceived of this prior to his work with inmates.

“This experience has taught me to be more compassionate in how I think about people who society deems are bad and without redemption,” he says. “Those distinctions have become blurred for me. There’s a kind of inspiration that comes from sitting with these guys and hearing about their lives that puts things into perspective.”