Courtney Rein has been teaching at the Prison University Project since 2015. In 2018, she co-authored a paper with student David “Solo” Bennett for our inaugural academic conference, and worked closely with Program Clerk James King on developing a curriculum about mass incarceration for her high school students. We asked Courtney a few questions to learn more about what brings her to this work and what she has learned from it.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a high school English teacher (20 years this fall!), an East Coast transplant who’s found the California climate much more conducive to living out my hopes and values. From trails in the Presidio, to Green Apple Books in the Inner Richmond, San Francisco has been a generous home to me for the last fourteen years.
What’s been the most surprising thing about teaching at San Quentin?
The depth of critical thinking that takes place in Prison University Project classrooms—and on the Yard, for that matter—astounds me. Prison University Project students bring powerful life experiences and a spirit of self-reflection to their education, and they grapple with ideas and readings in ways that blend their own wisdom alongside intellectual interpretation. The result is a kind of engagement that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. Whether reading bell hooks’ “Understanding Patriarchy” or a short story by Ursula Le Guin, their reactions are remarkable for the profundity and unsettling truths they unearth. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, given the decades of time some of our students have served, but their patience—with themselves and with each other—is also very moving to me. When it comes to conquering essay structure or developing confidence in your written voice, progress can seem slow at times, and our students offer one another incredible support and help along the way.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an instructor?
As a teacher whose “day job” integrates technology, multimodal learning, field trips and outside speakers, alongside lots of community-building, San Quentin’s biggest challenges stem from its isolation. It’s difficult for students to communicate with their instructors outside the classroom, we conduct classes using only paper, pens, and whiteboards, and it can be difficult to build a larger sense of community, given the rules and structures of a prison setting. So many of our students have also suffered trauma and rejection at the hands of the educational system, so another challenge can be helping them develop the trust and confidence necessary to repair their relationships with the classroom.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Much of my joy stems from the incredible amount I’ve learned from my students, and from the Prison University Project communities that have invited me in. Whether talking moral relativism with a student who’s in the ethics class, or investigating the roots of addiction in a James Baldwin short story, Prison University Project students have led me to encounter new questions and new answers. While I may be responsible for putting together the syllabus and the course reader, it’s my students who actually create the dynamic of deep learning. There’s a sense of mutuality between students and instructors that makes for a rich and sustained classroom experience.
How has teaching at San Quentin influenced other aspects of your life?
Teaching at San Quentin has unveiled so many of my own blind spots—about race, class, educational background, and countless other categories. It’s redefined my sense of what education can be, encouraging me to strive to be part of more democratic classrooms, to encourage more shared leadership with students, and to break open my definition of what makes “good teaching.” My colleagues at my “day job” encouraged me to teach a class about mass incarceration to our high school students, so this fall I’ll be working to bridge my experience at San Quentin—and the questions and understandings it’s raised—with the students I work with on the outside. It’s exciting to bring those two worlds closer together, combating the “attention violence” our nation has committed against incarcerated people (i.e. how we’ve ignored and isolated them), by shining some light on first-hand accounts of those who’ve been impacted by the criminal legal system.
Tell us about your favorite memory in the classroom.
One evening we were exploring Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and the discussion led one student to recall his own experience as a child, hearing the news of King’s assassination, and then later of Robert Kennedy’s. His own emotion—and our class’ response to it—made for a powerful moment, locating King’s words and ideas against a background of lived personal history. For many of us who hadn’t been born yet when these leaders were assassinated—myself included—this personal testimony lodged King’s letter in a new place in our hearts and minds.
Anything else you’d like to share?
The Prison University Project nurtures some of the most open, dedicated, and high-striving students I’ve ever taught, and it’s a privilege and a joy to work with them. I often dream that the Prison University Project will be able to offer what it has created to other communities and prison populations across America; its model of investment in each student can help us to change our nation’s problems with harm, as well as how we respond to harm.
In addition to volunteering your time as an instructor, you’re also a donor to the organization. What inspires you to support the Prison University Project with a financial gift?
There are so many valuable currencies we traffic in these days: our attention, our time, our compassion… and yet the age-old currency of the dollar is still king. The incredible full-time staff, the ones who keep the program afloat, need salaries, not to mention health insurance and competitive benefits. Notebooks, pencils, highlighters, course readers–these are essential, tangible tools that the Prison University Project provides as part of its free, accessible education. All these aspects of the program demand continued financial support. And I’m happy to support the Prison University Project with all the currencies I have access to!
Please note that the Prison University Project became Mount Tamalpais College in September 2020.