FLORENCE — Now in her 16th year as a math lecturer at Arizona State University, Naala Brewer is used to teaching big classes with an overhead projector, calculators and computers.
But once a week, she drives 112 miles round-trip to teach small classes of 15 or so students in a setting where the internet is forbidden, using textbooks the university has discarded. If that sounds like a chore, Brewer said it’s not. A volunteer instructor at Arizona State Prison in Florence for just over a year, she was recently named Education Services Volunteer of the Year at the Florence Complex.
She started teaching precalculus at the prison and is now teaching those students taking Calculus 1. After another volunteer had to quit, Brewer started teaching a GED math class in prison as well.
Prison isn’t the typical venue where a professional woman volunteers, but Brewer said she had no reservations.
“I’d actually been praying about some meaningful volunteer work. … A day or two later our department chair sent out a message requesting volunteers for this outreach teaching. And I thought, ‘Oh this is perfect,’” Brewer said in a phone interview.
Years earlier, she had volunteered with fellow church members at the women’s side of Maricopa County jail’s former “tent city.” She knew from that experience what safety and security precautions would be in force, and it was nothing to be afraid of.
“I realized after going there (to tent city) four or five times that it’s probably safer while I’m in there than walking out on the street,” she said. “Because you have a lot of people watching you and they’re very careful about who comes in and who goes out. So I knew it wasn’t anything to be afraid of and I knew how rewarding it was.
Brewer said she was the only instructor to volunteer for the position, though many graduate students applied as well. She is one of almost 40 volunteers teaching subjects including math, English, biology and theater through the ASU Prison Education Initiative.
In the beginning it was hard to give her students assignments with no computers or books, but soon ASU donated a full set of outdated books, and she taught from those. Not long afterward, a professor emeritus donated many of his books as well.
Brewer teaches a wider range of ages in prison than is typical at ASU. Her prison students range from their late teens to middle age, and one who’s “right around 80, and he’s really enjoying it.”
Brewer, likewise, enjoys having a class so eager to learn.
“It’s a volunteer class and they all want to be there, which is really nice,” she said. “In that respect it’s nicer than ASU classes, because a lot of them may just be taking a class because it’s required. So all these students, they want to be there.”
With no internet or computers, the students have to write up all of their homework problems, which hasn’t been done at ASU for perhaps five years. The good side to that is, “I get to see how their organization and their critical thinking is really improving. … I showed some of their work to my department chair and the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) director and they were really impressed.”
Rather than take credit for that herself, Brewer said, “I think it’s more peer pressure — good peer pressure — among themselves” and a willingness to help each other succeed.
Not long after she started teaching at the prison, a couple of students were struggling and were almost ready to give up.
“I really encouraged them that through hard work and perseverance, as long as you have average intelligence, you can learn this.”
They took that advice, “and they’ve got a lot of confidence now and they’re starting to keep up with everybody else.” The prison education staff reported to Brewer these students were working hard on the weekends and worked with volunteer tutors.
Others have stood out as well. One is writing a book to help former inmates prepare for their living expenses on the outside and plan for retirement. He’s now putting the final touches on the 170-page book, which he plans to send to ASU’s math department chair. This student has a bachelor’s in business from ASU and used to be a 401(k) adviser.
“I’ve never actually had an undergraduate student write a book, based on financial advice and investing,” Brewer said. “That’s something everybody needs, whether they’re incarcerated or not. And it’s really well-written, very readable. The math is not too complicated but it’s accurate, and it shows the power of investing consistently and doing it early.”
Another student who makes triangular dice believes he discovered a mathematical constant.
“I said, ‘Let’s try to prove that.’ … It turns out there is a constant,” Brewer said. “It was a constant ratio, no matter what size the triangle is, the ratio always holds true as long as it’s an equilateral triangle.
The student’s name is Hollenback, and his classmates suggested his discovery should be called the Hollenback Constant. A proof has already been written and Brewer is going to help submit it to the Southwestern Undergraduate Mathematics Research Conference.
Brewer would now like to see him and her other students earn college credit like any other ASU student. She and her department chair have been working toward that goal.
She also asks anyone interested in volunteering to consider the prison.
“I would encourage anyone thinking about volunteering and teaching out there to definitely take it on,” Brewer said. “I feel like I get more out of it than they do. It’s one of my most energizing and rewarding things to do each week.”