‘I teach differently now because of teaching in a prison’

Kristie Pfabe and Meggan Hass present on Nov. 22, 2019, on teaching Intermediate Algebra together at the Lincoln Correctional Center in the summer of 2019. Photo Credit: Lindsay Augustyn, UNL CSMCE

Twelve students and two instructors are escorted into a classroom.

There is no internet access. Calculators must stay in the room. The background knowledge of the students in the room is highly diverse; for some, this is the first college class they have ever taken, and for others, they could be math majors right now—under different circumstances.

However, most importantly, they are all ready and eager to learn mathematics.

Thanks to a partnership between the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the Lincoln Correctional Center, inmates at LCC earned college credit in an Intermediate Algebra course in the summer of 2019, taught by Nebraska alumna Professor Kristie Pfabe of Nebraska Wesleyan and Meggan Hass, a UNL mathematics graduate student.

“I have never ever been more convinced that I had made a difference in someone’s life than by teaching this class,” Hass said. “One thing I learned through this process is that it was more important that I was giving the students what they needed, and not what I wanted.”

Not unlike students in math courses across the UNL campus, Hass and Pfabe had to show the LCC students with low self-esteem in mathematics that they were capable. Hass said they were suspicious that the instructors were lowering the difficulty level, but when Pfabe and Hass assured them they were not, it was validating for the students to know they were doing truly college-level work.

“We had some students in the class who were very strong mathematically, and we had some who really struggled. The ones who were strong never made the ones who struggled feel inferior. In fact, they had this strong partnership where the strong students helped the weak students and the weak students felt comfortable asking for help,” Pfabe said.

Teaching in a prison setting also means lesson planning on a whole new level. In an environment with no internet communication between instructor and student, or peer to peer, Pfabe and Hass found that everything had to be planned ahead of time. They had to pick a different textbook from what UNL uses, since it could not be an online open resource. They also decided to carpool together to the prison for each class, so they could use that time to prepare on the way there, debrief on the way home, and plan announcements.

“The students couldn’t just Google what they didn’t know,” Hass said.

To be accepted, students needed a GED or high school diploma, and then they took a standardized test, filled out an application, and were interviewed. Pfabe asked the applicants questions such as ‘Are you willing to put in the time?’ and ‘What is the hardest thing you have ever done?’

Pfabe and Hass held office hours before every class for 45 minutes, and all of the students had to attend, even if they didn’t have questions. That was when the instructors got to know the students.

“At the end of the class, I told them what a great experience it was for me, and they reciprocated that and said, ‘Nobody ever comes here. Thank you for coming,’” Pfabe said. “It’s heart-wrenching to hear those things, but empowering. It makes you want to do it more because they were so eager and excited to learn.”

While this was the first time Hass had taught in a prison, Pfabe had developed and taught an eight-week-long course in combinatorics and probability, for two hours per week, at both the penitentiary and LCC. Pfabe taught Algebra 1 at LCC with a different group of students in Fall 2019.

Inspired by the book “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, Pfabe worked with Wesleyan to invite the author to give a talk in September 2017 and, in anticipation of his visit, reached out to the state penitentiary and LCC to learn how to start teaching mathematics there.

With two instructors this summer, one got to observe the students while the other taught, which was highly beneficial to both Hass and Pfabe.

“There was a lot of frustration but it was visible and because it was out there in the open, we were able to talk about it, we could discuss how they could respond to it, and we could also adjust what we were doing to make things go more smoothly,” Hass said.

Pfabe said she learned the importance of making very few assumptions on their background knowledge. The students had excellent penmanship and meticulous homework. The students for whom English was their second language had outstanding math skills.

“Dr. Pfabe said they were super curious and always wanted to know ‘why,’ and that is awesome. We all want our students to be curious about the ‘why,’ but sometimes it was extreme,” said Hass, who will leave UNL to work at Epic in Madison, Wisconsin, in January. “We couldn’t let anything slide. They won’t let you move on. They will not give up until something makes sense to them, which I think made me a much better teacher and more careful about how I explained things. But, it was not something I was used to.”

Pfabe had a similar experience. She knew that teaching in prison would change her as a person, but she didn’t know it would change how she taught.

“What I wasn’t expecting from teaching in prison was that it would change me a lot as a teacher, but it really did because of the different nature of the students there,” Pfabe said.

“In Calculus, I teach differently now because of teaching in a prison. I talk about how we divide fractions, which to some might think you’re talking down to them, but I know a lot of the students need that. I add a lot more detail, and I think that’s paid off for me with teaching at Wesleyan.”

– Lindsay Augustyn, UNL CSMCE