Teaching math in prison

By: Kristin Pfabe, Nebraska Wesleyan University

“I am sad this class is going to be over,” said one student. “What am I going to do with myself?” asked another during the last week of an Intermediate Algebra class that I taught last summer at the Lincoln Correctional Center (LCC) with Meggan Hass, then a University of Nebraska graduate student.

Meggan and I were sad, too. It’s not often that we hear these types of comments from students, but as I have learned, the unexpected can happen when one teaches in prison.

Here is my story.

It started with a visit by Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, to Nebraska Wesleyan University, where I work. Stevenson is a lawyer who defends incarcerated individuals, many of whom are on death row. In his talk, he urged us to:

“Get proximate. Get uncomfortable. Change the narrative. Have hope.”

I was sold. In the coming months, I put in a request to adjust my Spring 2018 sabbatical.

Get proximate

When Stevenson called for the audience to “get proximate”, he was encouraging us to be closer to those who are suffering or excluded. In response, I arranged to teach classes at the Nebraska State Penitentiary and at LCC during my sabbatical.

The classes were non-credit bearing, so I had liberties in the content. I wanted to pick a topic that wouldn’t require a strong math background but that would be interesting. The 8-week course I developed was “Combinatorics and Probability.”

Not knowing anything about the prison system, I asked basic questions of corrections staff: Will paper and pencils be provided? (yes) Can I move around freely in the class? (yes) Are calculators available? (yes) Can they work in groups? (yes) What can I bring into the facility? (notes, book, pencils, calculator) Can I bring dice and playing cards? (no) How can we determine who is accepted into the class? (basic math proficiency, no recent misconduct)

I was scheduled to meet my students for two hours each week, but the prison staff would regularly let the classes run long. For my students, the longer, the better. The chance to think about something different and be away from the drudgery of the units was welcomed. My students never missed a chance to tell me how much they loved to learn and how education was what they needed more than anything.

Get uncomfortable

Although I had carefully planned the course before it began, I made big adjustments once it started. My students’ backgrounds were quite disparate, creating some unease for me. But I adjusted the material by giving them more time to “count” things using brute force, with the idea that it would facilitate the process of making conjectures. I also asked students with stronger backgrounds to help those with weaker ones. That worked beautifully.

Towards the end of the 8 weeks, one student asked me what surprised me most about teaching them. He wondered if I was scared. No, I wasn’t scared. However, I had a preconceived notion that asking students to participate would make them feel vulnerable; that made me uncomfortable as I walked into class on the first day. The big surprise for me was how willing they were to ask and answer questions. In fact, my main time management issue was trying to address all of their questions. Most questions were about the specific content, but some extended into vocabulary and notation: “Did the question mark first show up in mathematics or in other writing?” (I always researched those questions I could not answer and reported back to them. Incidentally, the history of the question mark is fascinating, and I encourage you to research it.) To cover the main concepts adequately, I occasionally omitted a few examples.

Change the narrative

The centerpiece of Bryan Stevenson’s directive to “change the narrative” is to talk honestly about the historical roots of racism and poverty. For me, changing the narrative was more personal. It was about refocusing where I put my energies; I wanted to continue teaching in prisons.

The following academic year, I taught a course in Algebra 1 at LCC. At the prompting of the assistant warden there, I subsequently co-taught, with Meggan Hass, an Intermediate Algebra course in Summer 2019, through a program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), supported by private funding.

Most of the students who had taken Algebra 1 with me applied to take the Intermediate Algebra course. All applicants needed to have a GED or high school diploma. Beyond that, UNL gave me full discretion in choosing participants, so I created a simple application form and held interviews.

Among other things, I asked about the hardest thing that they had ever done. The responses gave a sense of how varied their backgrounds and perspectives were: “Working at Long John Silver’s,” “Your Algebra 1 class,” “Fitting pipes for an oil rig.” But each talked about these hard things with the kind of conviction that conveyed their seriousness about this educational opportunity.

As Meggan and I began preparing the course, a question we had to answer was how much “discovering math” we wanted to put into our course. For example, we needed to decide if we wanted our students to “discover” the rules of exponents working with others, or if it would be better to offer more guidance. The challenge I had had when letting the students in Algebra 1 spend time discovering math was that some students got distracted or overwhelmed. So, we made worksheets for each section and worked through these as a class, asking students many questions along the way. As an example, to show that 3435=3(4+5), we asked our students to write all of the factors of 3 on the left side of the equation to see why it would be the same number of factors of 3 on the right.

I have a fascination with words and so for each class period, we had a “word of the day.” We delighted in vocabulary such as vociferously, chagrined, vexillology, verisimilitude, polyglot, polymath, apoplectic, belie, ebullient, capacious, and pacific. Riveting discussions ensued with some of the students reaching for a dictionary to uncover the word origins.

Have hope

On the last day of Combinatorics and Probability, we held a certificate ceremony. I prepared certificates with one of my favorite quotes:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”
– President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

I chose this quote because it connected to their eagerness to learn and their willingness to challenge themselves.
The students asked if they could speak. They talked about how important education was to them. One shared that few people are willing to go into the prisons to volunteer and that it was significant when people did. They asked me to tell people about what I was doing so that it would encourage more to do the same. It was emotional.

These thoughts were echoed at the end of the Intermediate Algebra class, too. In this class, there were 26 homework assignments, 3 quizzes, 3 exams, and one final exam. Of these, only one homework assignment was not turned in by one student. In fact, this student had completed it, but accidentally left it in his unit. None of the homework turned in was incomplete and it was done with exceptional care. Attendance was almost perfect; we had one excused absence and no unexcused absences during the entire course.

On the last day of class, the students presented Meggan and me with homemade pop-up cards. They each wrote a personal note of gratitude. We were equally grateful to have been their teachers. In their course evaluations, they talked about the class teaching them much more than math – one said he finally could believe in himself. They shared that the class made them feel like human beings.

It gave them hope.


There are many reminders that you are in a prison when you teach there. But, just like in any class I teach on my campus, each student comes to class with a different history, each student learns differently and each challenges me as a teacher. In my prison classes, I was stretched as a teacher in consequential ways; I had to adjust quickly to different backgrounds, find different ways to explain material and rally around my students to help them build their confidence. I came away seeing the immense value there is in offering incarcerated individuals the opportunity to learn.

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Note from the author: If you think you might be interested in such an opportunity, and you would like an experience you might fit into a summer, I am happy to share my course materials from Combinatorics and Probability (class worksheets and homework sets). Email me at kpfabe@nebrwesleyan.edu. They are imperfect but can serve as a starting place.

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3 Responses to Teaching math in prison

  1. Ana Garcia says:

    I am only a university student in University of Texas at Austin, but I am a third year pursuing a degree in math and secondary education and earning my certificate to teach computer science as well.

    I would like to teach online if possible because I want to provide some type of service to people locked up. I know it will be a challenge and I know many do not have the privileges and resources I had, but demonstrating a sliver of faith and encouragement might help.

    I have taught in underfunded schools and charter schools with at-risk students, and I have worked really well with most students.

  2. Jordan Alexander says:

    Tonight I was wondering what kind of meaningful work I can do with people who are in prison. I was reading James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and he reminded me that the industrial prison complex is in some ways the child of slavery and Jim Crow laws. I’m a math professor, so I decided to Google “teach math to prisoners”, and I was shocked to see a link to AMS!

    I love Bryan Stevenson and EJI, and I loved reading about your experience. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. David Fowler says:

    I helped direct the educational program at the Nebraska Correctional Facilities in Lincoln for Southeast Community College in the early 1980s. We had a large number of teachers at one point, ranging from GED level to the first two years of college. Our experiences were consistent with Professor Pfabe’s — very positive in most cases. There were exceptions, but that’s education, on the streets or behind the walls.

    I was pleased when I heard that Professor Pfabe had been teaching in the Nebraska Prison System, and doubly pleased to see her narrative in a place where other mathematicians will find it. Her final section — Reflexion — is a paragraph I found especially significant, and also quite moving to me. I agree that there is immense value in the opportunity to learn that she offered these individuals.

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