Picture Book Curriculum Report
EMTC – Rikers Island, New York
Nov. 29, 2004 – June 20, 2005
Prepared by Joan E. Porcaro, MS Ed.


In September 2003, plans began for the piloting of The Picture Book Curriculum by Molly Barker, to be used as a tool for helping incarcerated youth at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility develop and/or improve their literacy skills, with the objective of enabling more of these youth to successfully complete the requirement for obtaining a General Education Diploma (GED).

The plan was for a small number of faculty members to volunteer to use the curriculum either as part of their regular subject area curriculum, or as a special project for student to participate in on a weekly basis. Participating faculty, staff and students were pleased with the program, which resulted in many students seeing their work, both in art and writing get published and distributed within the community.

For the second year of the project, the number of returning faculty participants and new volunteers were offered a series of workshops twice a month, which would allow for dialogue and hands-on practice with various technologies which would enable them more options for assisting the students in refining their Picture Books.

Year 2 – A Bumpy Ride

There were several “bumps” in the road of progress this year. First there was the faculty – some were “veterans” of the program and were looking to explore ways of expanding the Picture Book Curriculum’s possibilities. Then there were the new-comers who were willing to use the curriculum with their students, but were not sure if the curriculum would work with their particular discipline, e.g. mathematics. This was the easiest “bump” to smooth out. The “veterans” shared their fears and trepidations, and encouraged the newcomers to have patience with themselves.

The next hurdle was technological; e.g. scheduling time for using the computer room, limited computer experience on the part of some faculty, and, of course, all the little glitches that pop up when you’re trying to do a demonstration lesson for a group – the software doesn’t run in some computers, people “getting lost,” limited number of available computers for the group to work with, trying to give everyone the individual attention they need.  As dire as it sounds, it really worked out quite well, and the group was happy to learn about available software that will allow them and their students more options when producing the picture books.

The next “tree in the middle of the road” was a personal one for me, the Observer. On at least three meeting dates, although the school secretaries had copies of security clearance requests submitted, the Dept. of Corrections personnel denied having received the requests.  I was not allowed to enter the prison and therefore could not attend the workshops.  I had to rely on the feedback from the facilitators, and any recollections of the session the participants shared with me the next time I attended.  

Having said all this, let us move on and see what was accomplished in this, the second year of the Picture Book Curriculum project.

Phase Two

One of the main objectives for this year was to get the participating teachers to find ways of using the Picture Book curriculum to serve as a learning tool for subject content as well as a vehicle for student creativity and strengthening reading and writing skills so that more students would be better prepared to take the GED exams at the end of the academic year.

To this end, many of our discussions centered around criteria, that is, what are the standards that we would use for deeming the work submitted as worthy of publication. Were there certain topics that would not be acceptable? How much editing should there be, and by whom, the students or the teachers?  

There were several issues that were cause for concern among the teachers. These included the fluctuating student population in any given class; dedicating specific time to the picture book project; correlating the activity with subject matter. These issues were discussed at length, and became an opportunity for the teachers to find ways to create more stable groups to work with. The teachers also became resources for each other, offering suggestions and sharing materials with each other.
How do we and the students address “prison culture” was a very key point. Not all of these young people want to use these books as a chance to express their creativity or knowledge of academic subjects, but rather as a vehicle to tell the “dark side” of the prison experience.  How would the teachers deal with submitted work that talked about and illustrated graphically what these incarcerated youths see as the “real” Rikers Island?  

A prime example of this was when a young man did a picture book in which he expressed a seeming contradiction: if prison is supposed to change/reform you, why do so many people keep coming back?  He answered his question, How does prison change you, in extremely negative terms.  The teacher took his original work and asked the class to come up with answers to his question.  What emerged were answers that said that change was within the individual.  If you didn’t want to be like the returnees, then you had to change how you lived your life both in prison and more importantly outside of prison.  You had to move on, you couldn’t go back to the life you led that got you into prison.  They stressed the importance of getting the GED, going to college, learning a trade, get away from the old friends, trust your family for help, etc.

We were also anxious that students should learn to critique their work and reflect and offer feedback to one another in a positive, constructive way.  Several teachers would have the class read and comment on their publications.  Some would have them write their comments and then discuss them.

As the program progressed, it became evident that more hands-on experience with computers is more than a “nice” idea – it’s a critical issue.  The discussion about technology for all was a lively one, with complaints about inaccessibility to praise for the computer instructors.  The outcome was to designate at least two workshop session for hand-on computer work for the teachers.  The group worked with Adobe Photoshop Primer for Creating Picture Books prepared by Ten Penny Players.  They learned basic loading of pictures; how to work the program to edit or draw pictures.  There was a great deal of interaction and helping hands, and quite a bit of laughter.  Copies of the program were made available to the teachers to use for the Picture Book curriculum.

As I Sat There

I thought one of the hardest things to do this year would be to keep the veterans excited about the program, and to reassure and assist the newcomers.  Actually, they became a cohesive, supportive group, and their students produced some very good work.

One of the things that surprised me when reading the student reflection pieces, was the indifference/apathy of some of them.  It made me wonder whether the Picture Book curriculum should be an optional activity rather than a whole class activity.  In other words, should students be able to choose to do a book as an individual or group project in lieu of doing a book report or writing a paper as a term project.  Or, should subject matter and related themes be the focus of the books, and therefore required of everyone.  Ideally, it should be both, but given the circumstances and constraints of the setting, a choice would have to be made.  In that case, I would say it  depends on what the teachers want the students to learn from the experience.

While I was surprised by the apathy/indifference, I was also heartened by the positive reflections of most of the participants.  There were students who wrote to thank their teachers for giving them the opportunity to produce a published work.  Some told of renewed self-esteem, encouragement from teachers, and praise from fellow students.  Some even expressed a desire to continue writing and creating art upon their release, and some even wrote of hoping to study journalism, creative writing or art in college.

As for the teachers – they continue to be a source of inspiration for me.  They continue to seek ways of reaching these young people.  They support each other’s efforts, and work as partners with a common goal.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Our goal for next year is to increase the number of participating faculty.  At the same time, we intend to develop a group of turn keys, teachers who have worked with the curriculum, who serve a mentors and resources for teachers new to the program.

We hope to collaborate with subject area teachers in developing subject specific picture book curricula so that in addition to helping students improve reading/writing skills and express their creative side, they will also find a creative way to demonstrate mastery of various subjects.