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Teaching a math course inside of a prison is surprisingly unremarkable. Once we get into the classroom and starting doing mathematics, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a prison. We’re just a bunch of people learning mathematics together.

There are only several real complications I’ve encountered so far: (1) logistics, (2) limits on what we can learn about each other, and (3) much greater heterogeneity in my students’ prior experiences with and attitudes toward mathematics.

There are some significant logistical issues to figure out. My “outside students” and I have to drive from our campus to the prison each week (costs covered by Harvey Mudd College), make sure we’re dressed accordingly, don’t have cell phones or any other contraband, have proper identification, and follow any rules dictated by the prison.

There are some limits on what we can learn about each other. My outside students and I never ask for sensitive information from our inside students: the length of their sentences, what they did to wind up in prison, etc. It’s wonderful if an inside student choose to share that kind of information, but we don’t inquire. Both the inside and outside students are asked not to use their last names in this class. This is so that outside students aren’t tempted to look up information about the inside students, and the inside students don’t continue having a personal relationship with the outside students after the course is over (a rule of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program).

This past week, I was reminded about the great heterogeneity of mathematical experience that exists in our classroom. As you can imagine in any group of adults, there were are some people with positive attitudes toward mathematics, and some with negative views. Some of these stories came out during our first class meeting when we shared our experiences with each other about mathematics.

This past Friday, I got a bit of a shock. A student asked me, “What’s that little number next to that number?” He had not seen an exponent before. I was taken aback, not by his lack of experience with exponents, but that I had been so oblivious to that up to this point. There have been some exponents that have appeared in the course materials so far, but this question didn’t come up yet. We quickly talked about exponents and the student was fine and continued working. But, I was a bit shocked and still am a bit unsettled.

In the description for this number theory course, I wrote that some fluency with high school algebra would be required. It could be that some people are taking the class anyway, even if they aren’t fluent with high school algebra. Or it could be that some students have taken high school algebra in the past but have forgotten it. Either way, the reality is that there are students in this course that have very different experiences with mathematics. Some are just (re)learning about exponents and others are making sophisticated connections about what they’re learning. It’s my job as the instructor to make sure that we are all learning mathematics together regardless of our prior experiences; that is a pretty big challenge, however.

Other complications I’ve experienced so far are not germane to teaching Inside-Out. For example, if a student misses a class, I have to find ways to help them find out what they missed so that they can participate in class. My outside students and inside students have both missed classes for various reasons. Outside students have missed class due to illness or travel. Inside students sometimes cannot come to class because their dormitories are on “lock down” during our class.

There is one more significant difference between teaching courses at the Harvey Mudd and teaching through the Inside Out program. The pedagogy that we use in this course is quite different. As I mentioned in the first part of this post, I am not lecturing in this course. We do mathematics together through carefully sequenced problem sets that take into account what we learn during each class meeting and what students are wondering about. I do enjoy teaching in this way and wish that more of my Mudd courses could be taught this way. The pressure of having to “cover” a pre-determined body of material in a prescribed amount of time prevents me from fully teaching in this problem-based approach. One day, I would like to figure out how to teach in this humane way in my Mudd courses.

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