Books Behind Bars unites U.Va. students, prisoners

Behind the scenes of a U.Va. professor’s education initiative

Out of all the courses students can take at the University, one of the most community-oriented choices is Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Community Leadership.

In this Russian in Translation class, students take literary analysis to the next level by teaching Russian literature to college-aged prisoners or residents. After reading the books for the course and preparing their lessons for several weeks, students go to Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center to share what they have learned with the residents.

Prof. Andrew Kaufman, the creator and teacher of Books Behind Bars, first came up with the idea for the class after teaching a prison workshop in 2009.

“[Teaching the workshop] was the first time I’d been in an environment like that,” Kaufman said. “It was an incredibly powerful experience, not just for inmates, but also for me.”

Kaufman said he started the course because he wanted to see if students and inmates would have a similar experience.

Books Behind Bars does not have explicit course expectations, Kaufman said. Instead, he expects students to learn from their own unique experiences working in the prison.

“People who have the opportunity to speak about literature with people in a prison environment can speak powerfully and intimately to human beings from all backgrounds,” Kaufman said. “I hope [the students] recognize what they learn in the classroom connects to the community.”

In addition to the positive experiences both the students and the residents gain from participating in the class, Kaufman said Books Behind Bars has had a profound impact on his teaching methodology and philosophy.

“It’s shown me what’s possible in a classroom and what can happen when a group of people get together and decide to do something different, take a risk [and] take on a community experience we never knew was going to be successful,” Kaufman said. “It’s given me confidence in the possibilities of education.”

Filmmaker Chris Farina of Rosalia Films has been working with Kaufman for the past three years to create a documentary of the class. According to Farina, Kaufman teaches Books Behind Bars in such a way that he and the students equal both as teachers and as students.

“He creates a situation where there’s a real feeling of trust and everyone is equal,” Farina said. Kaufman, he said,“sits back and allows the education to happen through experience and the relationship between these two groups … [It] makes the learning deeper and so much more impactful.”

Farina’s interest in Books Behind Bars arose when he first heard about and sat in on the class.

“I was really very moved and inspired by what I saw in that class, almost to the point of tears, by what change can happen,” Farina said. “When I have that sense of emotion and inspiration, I feel like that is something that should be shared with the wider world.”

Farina brought the cameras into the classroom last spring to film the documentary. During the semester, the cameras had a positive effect on the room’s environment.

“Cameras became like students in the class who sat still and never talked,” Kaufman said. “If anything, it just created a heightened sense of importance in what we were doing.”

Farina hopes viewers of the documentary will see how Kaufman has changed the University’s view on education and the community. He wants to encourage others to take similar steps in enhancing their own communities.

“[I want the viewers to] realize that their lives are enriched from being in a community they’re not necessarily aligned with,” Farina said. “[I want to] inspire people to go to their own communities. It’s a takeaway to inspire, but it’s also a takeaway to say what can you do.”

By developing Books Behind Bars, Kaufman hopes to connect his love for literature with the Charlottesville community.

“I didn’t develop the course because I was a social activist,” Kaufman said. “I was a teacher trying to reconnect with what I love about literature. Any one of us can find what we love and we can find ways to use it to help make the world a better place, in places that are very immediate and right in front of us.”

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