Small class size really helps, as does the freedom to design a program that encourages students to respond to their feelings by communicating creatively.
"We always go back to incarceration, sharing personal stories, learning empathy, meeting it head-on." Some of her kids have been incarcerated themselves; most attend her Roots class because their parents have recently been or are currently incarcerated. Control of her curriculum means Kiefer can account for the academic and emotional complexities of her classroom and adjust, midstream if necessary, to the needs of a group of 9th to 12th graders of varied ages, from diverse backgrounds, and with different personalities. Kiefer tailors her lessons to make room for all types of learners.
Curriculum design, creative writing, learning and teaching empathy these happen to be Kiefer's experiential strengths. "I've never not designed my own curriculum," she says. How many teachers, at 26, can claim such autonomy? How many teachers, at 26, have already worked for years inside correctional facilities? The public school system has placed Kiefer perfectly, in exactly the right circumstances, with kids who respond to her sense of responsibility, her gift of honesty, and her desire to challenge them.
In fact, there is something of a university feel to her classroom dynamic, and she is well aware that her MFA qualifies her to be a college-level instructor. However, neither tweedy aspirations nor hubris figure into Kiefer's seeming raison d'être. Instead, it has everything to with finding those places where "the need is so transparent," she said. Kiefer's life path seems so clearly marked as to appear predestined.
At the age of 20, during summer break from Tulane University and entirely of her own volition, Kiefer contacted the Cobb County Jail in Marietta, Ga., asking to be let inside to teach. When someone at the jail returned her call, offering her an administrative position at the facility, she politely insisted, "I already have a job. I just want to teach creative writing." She took the $8 per hour position then offered to her and started showing up about eight hours per week, as much as she could.
She spent her senior year of college editing the school's literary magazine, the Tulane Review, while volunteering with adult literacy programs in New Orleans. She graduated with a double major in religious studies and English in 2003 and immediately afterward embarked on a yearlong Josephine Louise Newcomb Fellowship.
With the acceptance of her proposal, a plan involving a three-month stint teaching inside three institutions, Kiefer found herself first at San Quentin, then at Noriega, a federal institution in Miami, and finally at the Dale Women's Facility in Vermont, implementing her curricula, sharing her love of the written word, and saddling her students with rigorously academic assignments. She always stresses the importance of word economy and limitation and is notorious for teaching entire sections around somewhat esoteric poetic forms e.g., the villanelle and the sestina. "Society doesn't expect much from [prisoners]. I sure as hell was going to," she said.
The same uncompromising, formal approach has helped Kiefer earn a reputation at Balboa for sticking to her guns, but her firmness comes with the deepest, most genuine regard for those around her.
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