Listening to learn: Why ‘Ear Hustle’ stories about prison life is so engaging to students

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 (Radiotopia, from PRX)

When the podcast Ear Hustle first launched in 2017, Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods explored the largely invisible stories inside San Quentin State Prison. While the word “prison” might make one think of felonies, violence and hardened criminals, any listener could clearly hear that the heart of the podcast is about humanity, early life choices and confronting mistakes. 

For example, their first episode “Cellies” is about seeking a person to safely share one's limited space. Other episodes cover topics like parents working through challenging conditions to be present in their children's lives and nurturers who care for unusual pets in a medium security facility

Podcast fans also got to hear incarcerated people reflect on what their lives were like growing up long before they ended up in San Quentin, including stories about their relationships with family and community members. Listeners, including teachers, heard this connection and reached out to Ear Hustle’s creators to share. 

“We got a lot of letters from teachers and their students talking about what they learned from the episode,” said Woods. He met Poor, a visual artist and educator, while serving a 31-years-to-life sentence at San Quentin. He served 21 years before having his sentence commuted by the governor in 2018. Educators were drawn to using Ear Hustle episodes as springboards for multimodal activities in their classrooms. 

And now there is “This is Ear Hustle: Unflinching Stories of Everyday Prison Life,” their new book about uncovering and amplifying stories about prison life and how they came together to co-host the first ever podcast produced within a prison. They also write about their experiences in school, how it shaped their lives and how it informs what they do today.

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“I was one of [those] kids that learned to read way later,” said Woods. “I was the class clown to avoid being in the situations of reading, being in the situations of math, so I would just act out.”  

Similarly, Poor writes about how she had dyslexia and undiagnosed learning disabilities that made school difficult even though she was naturally curious. “I've carried that with me. That idea of being told that I wasn't smart, that I couldn't do things, that I was bothersome because teachers had to explain things to me over and over again,” she said. 

With a podcast that is already rich with activities for young learners, “This is Ear Hustle” provides more accounts from incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people that students can explore in the classroom.

How podcasts build writing skills

Benjamin Bush, a Kentucky-based high school English teacher, started using Ear Hustle in his class because he was looking for a new way to engage his students. “The biggest problem that I think that it addresses is apathy. Getting someone to just start working on something is the hardest,” said Bush. 

Ear Hustle drew in his learners because it allowed them to listen to voices other than his. They could hear from a wide range of people featured on the podcast and relate to their experiences. “We got to know the backgrounds of their lives and the things that they had struggled with through poverty and trauma, which affects a lot of our kids,” he said. 

After each episode, Bush’s students did a related writing assignment. “It allowed me to reimagine what a text is in a classroom and how multimedia exists in a classroom in the same way that a novel or a play would.” For example, “Cellies” examines the size of a typical prison cell (Woods’ was five feet by ten feet at San Quentin) and how to negotiate the space with a cellmate. “We all have roommates at some point in our lives,” writes Woods in his book. “We also wanted the subject to be something that everybody could relate to—whether they were in prison or in society.” In class, Bush and his students used rulers to measure out the size of a cell and did creative writing about what it would feel like to inhabit the limited space with another person.  

For another assignment, Bush brought in additional articles about solitary confinement, sentencing guidelines and parole rules for students to fuel their classroom conversations about prison systems. Later, students could choose to write a persuasive argument piece about one of the issues they talked about. 

After listening to “Catch a Kite,” an episode about receiving letters, students had the opportunity to write a letter to someone in the podcast. In one letter, a student talks about how he identifies with how his letter recipient needed to commit crimes to support his family. Another student wrote about how “Thick Glass,” Ear Hustle’s episode about parenting, helped her understand dynamics within her own family. “Her father had been in and out of prison,” Bush said. “She wrote in her letter that Ear Hustle allowed her to envision her father as a good father. She was able to see him as redeemable in a way that maybe she hadn't before.”

Connection and a sense of not being alone in hard situations are key feelings that Woods hopes to leave with young people who listen to Ear Hustle’s stories. He also thinks these connections help young people become better learners. “You can benefit from someone's story,” he said. “You can have a different insight on something that will help you navigate through your life.” 

Kinetic learning and listening

Ear Hustle co-host Nigel Poor has brought the podcast into her photography classes at California State University, Sacramento, saying its focus on storytelling primes students to slow down and build important skills in observing. “I use it to talk about storytelling and compassionate listening and building empathy, which I think are tools anybody needs no matter what they're studying.”

For her class, Ear Hustle is the basis of a kinetic learning experience to help students pay attention to other invisible stories. She’ll tell students to go for a walk outside and find something discarded on the ground that draws their attention. Picking up abandoned bits and pieces is part of Poor’s art practice, and when she first started volunteering at San Quentin, she would collect things from the prison’s parking lot. In the book, she describes the lot as her “hunting ground.”

In class, she’ll invite students to bring back their found object and share a story they’ve created about it. “It sounds weird at first, but it gets people to connect with their creativity and the associations that they make with objects and experiences. And that's, to me, where stories start.” She’ll then move into playing clips from Ear Hustle and discussing what people hear in them and how she and Earlonne put episodes together.

“There's so much [emphasis] put on the end result,” said Poor about education. “Listening and thinking is actually a valid activity. So I like to talk about that, and I like to talk about ways to pull stories out of people and give people the confidence to talk about themselves.”

Using hands-on learning to understand systems

Danielle Devencenzi, assistant principal at St. Ignatius College Prep high school in San Francisco, begins her criminal justice class by looking at major legislation that shaped the U.S. justice system such as California's Three Strikes Sentencing Law, the 1994 Crime Bill and landmark US Supreme Court cases. “Twelve years ago, I started to take my students to San Quentin to really understand the social justice issues facing our prison system in California, specifically mass incarceration,” she said.

Hearing firsthand from incarcerated people and seeing the environment adds more depth to the books and articles they discuss as part of the class, according to Devencenzi. “I'm a firm believer that if you don't really see what's happening and really talk to the people who are impacted by our systems, then you can't really be an informed agent of change.”

Devencenzi gives each of her students a notebook that they’ll use to write down their reactions, observations and notes from conversations with the people they meet on their tour of the prison. In a debrief, after visiting the prison, Devencenzi has students circle up their desks to share one thing from their notebook while she takes notes that she’ll later send to San Quentin. “They always talk about the humanity of the guys and how brave they are to tell their story in front of a bunch of complete strangers,” she said.  

When Ear Hustle first came out, her class was able to see the recording studio and meet some of the people featured in the episodes during their visits to San Quentin. “The podcast just became humanized when they met Curtis,” said Devencenzi about connecting with Curtis Roberts, who shared his story in “Left Behind.” Like Woods, Roberts had his sentence commuted in 2018. “It was just a month later when Curtis actually came to my classroom and visited my students again after they had met him in the prison yard," said Devencenzi. 

As a culminating project, students in Devencenzi’s criminal justice class create a podcast based on in-depth interviews. Students explore their communities looking for trends and topics that – like their favorite episodes of Ear Hustle – require a little digging to uncover. 

Woods and Poor have dreams of creating an entire Ear Hustle curriculum that includes the expanded stories and deeper dives from “This is Ear Hustle.” At Woods’ request, Poor stands up to show that she’s wearing a black one-piece jumpsuit as part of her work for an episode about a 30-day Ear Hustle challenge. “We're asking listeners to come on this journey with us where we are eating the food that's eaten in prison during the same time and wearing three select outfits,” said Poor. “Not because we think we can replicate life in prison, but as a way to just build awareness and empathy about some of the things you give up when you go to prison.”

They think the Ear Hustle challenge, which draws on themes surfaced in the “Prison 101” chapter from “This is Ear Hustle” and an episode from season two called “The Workaround,” would be a worthwhile activity for high school students.

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While stories from behind prison walls may seem to be an unlikely place to find education materials, Ear Hustle shows that there are several entry points into learning where storytelling is concerned. “There's learning through reading. There's learning through experiencing. People who don't necessarily think they're educators actually can be educators,” said Poor. “I would love for that to be a lesson of  'This is Ear Hustle': that voices really matter and that there's surprising stories everywhere that are worthy of being heard.”