Teaching Math at Sing Sing

I spent a year teaching high school math at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison some 20 miles north of New York City. I was a graduate student in an M.Div. program, focusing in psychology and theology. Before graduate school, I had taught high school math for several years. I chose to teach math at Sing Sing for my fieldwork requirement.

My students were 24 inmates, all men. Some could have been as young as their late 20s; at least one was in his 50s or maybe 60s. Of the 24 students, 23 were nonwhite. They were predominantly African American, but there were several Latino students, one Asian, and one Native American.

They had all received their high school diplomas or GEDs, and had to take a precollege program to move on to college classes. Some had not sat in a classroom in 20 years.

On the first day, when I asked them to describe their experience with mathematics, most would talk about the last schooling they had. They said things like: “I got my GED inside,” or “I got up to 8th grade on the streets.” At first I thought the latter comment was a boast (as in, “I was educated on the streets”), but I came to realize that the streets actually meant the whole outside world. And inside meant right there.

Early in the course, I was talking about a homework assignment, and one said to me, “that is not my home.” I don’t know where his home was, but it wasn’t inside.

Getting inside as a visitor is a lengthy process. Electronics are deposited in the armory outside the front door, which is also where visiting cops will store their handguns. After a metal detector, ID check, and a thorough search of your possessions, you shuffle at varying speeds through a succession of locked gates to wait for a bus that carries you 200 yards to the school building. Walking across the grounds is not allowed. At any point in this process, you can wait for a while. Maybe the bus isn’t working, or a large group came in right before you, or a high-ranking officer is visiting and using the bus to conduct a tour.

I usually arrived at my two hour class at least 15 minutes late. Once, I arrived an hour late.

The wait gives you time to think. I would usually reflect on my lesson or some classroom matter, but I’d also gaze blankly about the space and grounds. It looked like any other older government institutional space, but with guard towers.

That is to say, it looked like a public school. With guard towers.

The similarity between our public schools and our prisons works on a few levels.

It’s not just the school-to-prison pipeline that’s a problem (though that is a big, big problem). It’s that public schools are explicitly modeled after systems in which control is prioritized as a prerequisite for any other activity.

That is to say: it’s not just that schools fail to prepare students, giving them few prospects and making them more likely to fall into a life of crime and eventually prison.

It’s that school successfully prepare students for prison, by acculturating them to deference to authority, to being policed and disciplined. The public schools can prepare them to frame themselves as somehow wrong, different, and bad — not worthy of anything good.

Especially when those public schools serves low-income African-American and Latino students. Then the comparison becomes more stark, and the systemic forces of racism, poverty, education, and mass incarceration come into sharp contrast. I often mulled over Dostoyevsky’s observation,

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

I only stayed in the school building, and only knew my class, so my viewpoint was not comprehensive.

But I will note that I had 24 students, 23 of whom were men of color. Black lives matter, indeed.

What of the men themselves?

My students at Sing Sing were the most motivated, curious and grateful students I have ever taught.

Many came with an explicit desire to do something they could be proud of, to “make something” of their lives. Many wanted to finish college so they could be better positioned to find a job after they got out, but most simply expressed a desire to “better themselves” or make their families proud — even to atone for past wrongs.

One said he wanted to be able to help his children with their math homework when they visited — so that they knew that learning was important, and they knew they could rely on him as good role model.

The stakes were high. This was math that mattered.

I was there as a math teacher, and never mentioned my graduate work in theology to the clas. But in my personal reflections, I did not have to search long to find the theological themes. My students, confronting a violent and isolated context, spent four hours a week struggling over math, a subject most people with much more comfort and opportunity keep at an arm’s length. Their gratitude, hope, and effort were palpable.

A casual observer in our room would see a normal adult education class with an easy rapport between students and teacher. The men all wore the same shade of green — some in sweatshirt or hoodies, others in work jackets and jeans. They called me professor and apologized for the gruffness of the guards. They wanted to share their work and were excited to answer questions (like motivated students do), but they also had the easy manner that comes when learning is appreciated and not just endured. Some of this came with their age, but maybe they also felt lucky to be there.

I enjoyed teaching the class.

I was also uncomfortable about my power relationship with my students.

My students saw me as the bearer of objective knowledge that they could only learn by my communicating it directly. They were very receptive to what teachers commonly refer to as the “chalk-and-talk” method of teaching, which is exactly what it sounds like. In such a classroom, knowledge is constructed exclusively by the teacher; the student’s participation is limited to passively absorbing that knowledge.

If you’re of the opinion that learning math is a creative and collaborative activity, then this approach is pedagogically problematic. Paolo Freire says, “…teaching cannot be a process of transference of knowledge from the one teaching to the learner. This is the mechanical transference from results machinelike memorization.” 

This conformity and coercion is another expression of the prison model of education. No surprise it was so popular at Sing Sing.

The pedagogical critique had a theological component as well. At the college graduation ceremony a year or two before my time, the valedictorian of the class gave a speech in which he reflected on his gratitude for the program. He said,

We deserved nothing. But we received mercy.

This was a play on Mercy College, the institution that provided courses at Sing Sing. It was also an explicit and strong theological statement. No doubt he spoke this word from his heart, and that it flowed from a source of unexpected redemption he found in his life and in the college program.

But I suggest that a black inmate in America in 2016 should not look upon himself as undeserving of self-knowledge and self-development in a higher education curriculum. In fact, he deserved it much earlier than he found it.

If we were committed to actually providing for this — eliminating poverty, educating the youth, acknowledging and atoning for our violent and racist history — if our nation were one in which black lives already mattered — then he would have received not mercy for his undeservedness, but grace that corresponded to his original nature and vocation. I find these words from theologian Christopher Morse:

Christian faith confesses that what justifies our existence is finally not our own efforts or behavior…and not the dominant powers of the present age, which may variously view us with favor or disfavor, and not even the way we look upon ourselves. Faith in justification is faith in the way God looks upon us…as Paul explains to the Galatians, a faith in how we are known by God (Gal 4:9). God sees us as no one else does, as being within the relationships of ultimate love and freedom.

My role called for more than the skillful communication of math content. My task was to develop critical, collaborative, and free learners, to help these men cultivate the Good within themselves and in each other.

Through math! And journal-writing! And having them go to the board and explain their work! And encouraging them to question and help one another!

Whether I was able to successfully achieve this is hard to say, like any question of authentic assessment. How do we measure growth? or autonomy? or healthy skepticism?

The students took their placement test a month after I finished working with them. Of the original twenty-four students, twenty-one sat for the test, (two had been transferred away from Sing Sing; one had his cell-leaving privilege revoked for reasons unknown). Of these, eighteen passed. They continued to their undergraduate work the following fall.

So they learned some math. In fact, they knew a lot of math already. I hope they learned more. At least one mentioned he’d like to end up as a math teacher.

In the last class, the guys shuffled out before I left, and each shook my hand and thanked me. I spent the moment enjoying their warmth and gratitude.

Before they left, I asked them to write letters to their future selves — imagining a time after their placement test, when they officially began they college courses.

One student wrote: “I accept the challenge ahead because…my choices are my own.”

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