Rikers Island Literacy

Support Rikers Island Literacy

The Rikers Island Oral History project combines oral history and narrative therapy as a framework for students to recite their own lives, and through intensive, supported reflective practices, re-envision possible futures, all while developing critical literacy skills imperative for reintegrating into society.

This project has produced 10 unique volumes—compelling stories of struggle, strength and learning—that are now used as core texts is middle and high school classrooms around the country.

You Can Support the Rikers Island Oral History Project:

  • $100 for digital recorders: providing SPI staff and Rikers students the opportunity to develop their skills as oral historians
  • $225 for a classroom set of SPI incarcerated youth publications: providing a local high school with the chance to read, learn from and celebrate the oral histories of Rikers students
  • $1200 to sponsor a student author: providing all necessary funding for staffing and material support of one student over the course of six months in developing and publishing their student text
  • $6000 to sponsor an SPI intern: providing training, transportation, and a small stipend to help an intern prepare for future work with traditionally disadvantaged and underrepresented students

History: Speaking Writing, A Unique Methodology

In the fall of 2004, Erick Gordon and classroom teacher Dr. David Iasevoli devised a unique methodology to support literacy and learning with incarcerated youth. Iasevoli, then a classroom English teacher at Horizon Academy, the Department of Education/Department of Correction public high school at Rikers Island, marveled at the strong oral and narrative skills the students brought to his classroom, while conventional literacy skills were often greatly lacking. He teamed up with Gordon—whose proven record in developing project-based literacy curricula had much success in some of New York City's toughest public schools. Together, they created an approach to writing that inspired these reluctant writers to invest themselves completely in the power of their words.

Each year, SPI's literacy programs on Rikers Island have expanded, now serving both bilingual students and the women at Island Academy's Rose M. Singer Center. There is even a newly piloted family literacy program that works to build the reading and writing connections between incarcerated mothers and their school-age children on the outside.

The project begins with the SPI team recording and transcribing students' stories. Student and mentor then work collaboratively throughout the year to revise, edit, and transform the transcript into cohesive drafts, and finally, publication-worthy narratives. Letting the men and women begin by telling their stories is a powerful way to value the multiple forms of literacy the students bring to the classroom.

While language is alive in the classrooms at Rikers—in stories, discussions, and even highly skilled rhyming—conventional reading and writing skills vary greatly. Since students begin by telling, rather than writing their stories, they launch into the writing process with success.

Reflective Processes:

Student-writers have an opportunity to re-imagine themselves, telling stories that help them consider a new chapter and the possibilities their lives might offer. It gives the students an opportunity to study their own personal stories, reflecting on their life's history. While they go back and try to correct editorial aspects, they also go through a process of making their story socially correct, leading to inevitable reflection. This is the most redemptive facet of the project: the possibility to learn through reflection. We're not simply transforming their stories from oral to written form. We're also helping students learn from experience—allowing jail to be a place to make sense of a life.