Cover Image: Our Class

Our Class

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Chris Hedges has been teaching in prisons in New Jersey since 2013. This book is mostly about a drama class where he gets his students to write a play about their experience in the prison system. It’s not an easy book to read, the dehumanisation and degradations that these men suffer is appalling. Prison conditions, the individual stories of his various students, the plays they study and discuss, made this an emotional read for me (yes, I cried quite a few times). Hedges is always worth reading.
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I debated between 3 and 4 star because the story is important and the writing is clear and fast-paced, but there are quite a few places where the author repeats content. 
I did enjoy getting to know the prisoners. Through their stories, I learned that even innocent prisoners suffered trauma as youth. Yet, we have reduced prisons to warehouses where prisoners are marginalized, endangered and labeled for the rest of their lives. Prisons are basically 21st-century plantations. This is unacceptable.
In this book, the author tells how prisoners in one of his classes drew together and wrote a play that tells the story of the streets and prison. The play is moving and heartbreaking.
I’m walking away from this book with a better understanding of the prison system and a greater compassion for prisoners. And I remain committed to working to reform the system and love prisoners and their families well.
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3.5 Stars - ARC Copy received via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

This book is unique look into our (USA) criminal justice system.  As someone who works with those on parole or coming out of prison I was extremely interested in this book.  It was hard at times to read due to the heavy subject matter.  There were moments of joy and perseverance also, but there was a lot of heartbreak in and throughout this book, both with the inmates stories and Hedges detailed descriptions of prison cells and life.  This book should make anyone who reads it think twice about judging those in prison and see them for who they are, people.  

I will admit that the large amount of quoted text was disinteresting at times but I do understand why the author did so.
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In this book, author Chris Hedges writes about teaching a literature class at the East Jersey State Prison.  He begins with an explanations of his personal background in religion studies and his writing experience. The text is heavy with his own personal opinion.. The book seemed more like an extended essay about his view of the prison students. There’s some rambling about topics related to the prison. Midway through the book, Hedges’ essay takes a turn toward the class assignment for the prisoners. They are asked to write a dramatic dialogue to ultimately create their own play or drama. At this point, it was more interesting to me because of my background as a teacher.  This book was provided by Net Galley as an advanced reading copy.
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I wrote a 1200-word review for this work that I will be pitching to a variety of is the introduction:

While reading Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison, written by Chris Hedges, I kept on thinking of a Roger Ebert movie review for the 1990 classic, Glory.  Most of the review is positive and at the end of the piece, Ebert writes that Glory is a “strong and valuable film” about the Black soldiers’ experiences during the Civil War; however, he was deeply concerned by the film’s skewed and misguided point of view.  Ebert writes: “I didn’t understand why it was told so often from the point of view of the 54th’s white commanding officer.  Why did we see the black troops through his eyes—instead of seeing him through theirs?  To put it another way, why does the top billing in this movie go to a white actor?”  Although Ebert’s review is about a film, I had the same sentiment while reading Our Class, a work about the convicts’ experience at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey, while taking a creative writing class with Hedges as the teacher.  Although Hedges provides many, many musings and monologues and writings from the prisoners throughout the book, and his intentions are presumably good, most of the work is devoted to Hedges’ commentary about how proud he was that these convicts were able to use their powerful writing skills (in the form of a play) as an outlet to express their emotional states of mind as well as their past experiences with poverty, drug dealing, abuse, broken families, and various forms of criminal behavior.  Ultimately, the work, although meant for readers to recognize how problematic the United States’ justice system is, becomes more of a stereotypical illustration of the teacher/reluctant student of color relationship, very much presented to audiences in books and films like Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, and The Principal.
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Hedges details his experience teaching literature and writing in the prison system, advocating for prisoners and their just treatment.
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This book is a heavy and important read. I was distracted by how often it quoted other authors or bodies of work - for large sections, pages even. It did not hang together in a way that made it easy for me as a reader to follow. 

It did make me care about the men in his class and see them in another dimension.
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I didn't get very far in this book. As Hedges went through the material he taught his class, starting with The New Jim Crow, it felt a bit like reading White Fragility again. I wondered if he was trying to indoctrinate his readers or tell a story. I kept waiting for the story to get started. 

The material Hodges shared about prison rape was very disturbing. Again, I wondered at the point. 

I won't be posting any reviews because I didn't complete the book.
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Could you walk into a maximum-security prison in America and treat the prisoners without regard for their crimes. Chris Hedges did just that Following the rules set forth by the prisons, he took some of the toughest, most feared, prisoners and taught them to write, to read literature especially lays, and then help them use their life stories to create and produce a play based on these writings. He allowed them to be who they are and used this fact to help them believe in themselves when no one else cared. For the first time in their lives, they saw and felt that they mattered; that what they said and believed were facts they could draw on in their writings. They played the characters in their play, which gave them strength to continue in the class and begin to change their lives.

Chris Hedges may be the first person who showed them that their lives mattered. His recounting of these classes and the prisoners who wrote, is a story worth reading. Sometimes it only takes one person to believe in you to make a difference.
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Hedges speaks of prison with great detail, such as the size of the cells, the day-to-day living conditions, and schedules of the inmates, whom he refers to as his students. He talks about his interactions with them as though they are his friends. This is a reminder that those incarcerated are indeed human beings, just like the rest of us. 

Although he had his choosing of where he could have taught, having worked at NYU, Columbia, Princeton, and The University of Toronto, he had found his calling by working in the prison system. 

As he mentions in the book, he was inspired by James Baldwin, also the son of a preacher, and George Orwell, and wanted to use his writing as a weapon. He had decided early on that he would amplify their voice, document their suffering. He would name the many injustices being done to them. 

This is felt in the book, Hedges campaigning for those incarcerated, at first using this book as a platform to, using his voice for those who are voiceless and living in cages, and secondly, by offering forth a second lease on life, educating those kept behind the walls and bars of a maximum security prison. 

A rare, incredible, but devastating glimpse into the justice system in the United States. I was utterly blown away by this book, and the work that Chris Hedges continues to do, despite all that seems to go against him and his work. 

At parts of this book, I found myself with chills. One moment in particular stays with me. Students are handing in various assignments and papers, “One of the most gifted students in the class, and who I could sense was a talented writer, handed in dramatic passes that read like bad television scripts. Subsequently, I learned that he had been framed for his crime, had little experience on the streets, and based his portrayal of violent thugs on popular culture and prison lore, which invariably romanticizes gangsters. He wrote, in all capital letters at the bottom of each of his papers, “I AM INNOCENT.”

I cried many times reading the essays, poems, plays, and course assignments worked on by these incarcerated individuals, as they discussed their histories, deep, raw, and unspeakable traumas, it wounded me greatly as a reader. They did not speak of their crimes, murders, rapes, and other unspeakable felonies, so I didn’t see that side of them. What I saw was a side that was deeply affected and impacted, and a side that was still human, with a heart that beats just like mine. 

Full review coming soon to:
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It has potential but lacked development. I never felt like I knew the class dynamics. He provided lots of titles and plot summaries (too many for me) but didn’t talk about the responses to them. What did the class think? I also wanted to know more about the actual writing process of the play. How did students respond to his feedback? What were the challenges? What was the student response to the performance?
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It doesn’t matter how much I research into the American prison system I never fail to be blown away by the the extent of its injustice, but also by the vocal clarity of those trapped within it. The social and penal experiences of Chris Hedge's students are emotionally exhausting to read, especially knowing that those experiences are replicated in prisons across America, but it’s so important to listen to these narratives and remember that they represent real people. 
Although it didn’t have the emotional impact of some similar books I’ve read, 'Our Class' ensures that the students are the driving force behind the reading which makes it particularly powerful - hearing these men tell their stories in their own words is what makes books like this so important. There are references to relevant literature and historical information throughout, including discussions of key figures in racial/justice movements and the way they inspired the students’ desire to learn. I finished the book feeling so grateful that they were able to express and share their most honest selves with each other. 
Our Class is a testament to the power of education in all contexts, but also to the human capacity for resilience and integrity in the face of state-sanctioned injustice.
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Reading this book is the one thing I never thought I needed, for I always took it that a prisoner was a criminal, serving time for something they did and it serves them right. However, reading this book and the sessions the author has with inmates on writing, reading and social issues related to the penal code in the US, it gave me more of an insight on the people behind those bars. 
The people that bias, prejudice and a flawed criminal justice system failed and continues to fail and it hurt reading about it.
Thanks Netgalley for the eARC.
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