Meet Kate Schapira: Poet, Teacher, Program Developer

April 21, 2010

Kate Schapira

Camp Beacon Women’s Correctional Facility is not surrounded by a fence, and there is no barbed wire. Rather, the women serving in this minimum security prison wear ankle bracelets, which set off an alarm if they pass the boundary. It was here at this atypical prison that Kate Schapira, a 2002–03 AAUW Community Action Grant recipient, taught poetry and women’s history courses for work-release program inmates.

At first Kate worked on a team of five other women studying at Bard College to develop a poetry workshop for eight women at Camp Beacon. Through the women’s interest in the workshop, Kate was inspired to apply lessons learned to develop a course with more relevant content. She asked the women inmates about their interests, and their responses helped her design the women in U.S. history course that was awarded an AAUW grant in 2002. The class offered incarcerated women “a chance to explore the history of the country where they grew up and to see themselves in the context of that history and also as makers/creators of that history,” explained Kate.

Each week after arranging the plastic chairs in a circle under the glowing florescent lights in the large basement room, the women would participate in a class discussion led by Kate about the readings related to the lives of women in U.S. history. Kate reflected on a few students who stood out during her time at Camp Beacon:

R. was one of the best students I have ever had in any setting — the kind of student teachers dream of — passionate, quick, determined, with a strong sense of proportion and the ability to stand her ground.

P. joined the class because she was bored, she said, and was looking for something — anything — to do. Prison is boring. The qualities P. brought to our class were reflection, thoroughness, and certainty. If she spoke, it was because she was convinced of what she said.

B. went home halfway through the class. Voluble, a talented and devoted singer (she did her biography assignment on Billie Holiday), extroverted, and opinionated, she was the only one in the class who volunteered information about her crime — something I under no circumstances asked prison students about.

Although Kate is no longer working with Camp Beacon, she has transferred the insights she gained through this project to many new teaching endeavors. The idea that Kate developed to help incarcerated women see themselves as makers and creators of the history around them is a theme that has been carried throughout all of her subsequent teaching.

She said, “In all my writing classes I strive to show students the connection between themselves and the world they live in, to help them develop their own understanding of and commitment to those connections. … I encourage them to use writing to question and investigate why they think what they think and feel what they feel.”

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