Started work properly at the prison today. The facility and any people involved shall remain nameless, to protect the innocent, and otherwise. This is a public site after all, not that I expect anyone much reads it.
Last week I went in on the first day of the Construction course, with ‘R’, the VET teacher. As a ‘literacy and numeracy support’ teacher, I really like to go in on the first day of a course and introduce myself, as a normal and expected part of that course – just another teacher. Usually I frame it as ‘study support’, if ‘literacy and numeracy’ may seem threatening (as in, people may be embarrassed or unwilling to admit to wanting/needing help with these). Having said that, it is usually only the case in terms of literacy; people are usually quite willing to put their hand up to admit numeracy gaps and ask for help in this area.
I’m glad ‘R’ and I organised this, as a few days later it became apparent that the guys would like some help. Full credit to ‘R’ and the rapport he establishes really quickly with this cohort, that they were happy to put up their hands and ask for help. Not always easy in the blokey, ‘saving face’ culture in the prison.
This was in fact the first issue that faced me in teaching. (OK, the second. The first being having to arrive at work at 8am not yet fully caffeinated. These darn early-morning tradies!). So, after the belt, shoes, keys off and scanned, in through the metal detector doors, wand scanning and hand biometrics, and the seemingly endless succession of doors, I was ready to teach.
It’s a pretty good set-up in there, with a classroom area off from the good-sized workshop. On advice from R, who has been running these courses a while now, we offered the maths help as an option to whoever wanted it. There were 4 takers to start with, the rest opting to get straight into the workshop.
I started with asking the guys what they had been doing in terms of calcs (ie calculations, maybe a more user-friendly term than ‘maths’). It seemed most had been doing areas and perimeters, and there was a fair bit of confusion between the two. This is a very common area of confusion. Perhaps it’s because of how its taught in schools? Perhaps because of reliance on remembering procedures rather than understanding concepts. Luckily, I could see the remains of R’s explanation, showing area as blocks of square metres, exactly the concept I try and get across.
I would have preferred just to stick with areas, but when some of the guys started talking about adding the sides, it was time to try and clear up the confusion between area and perimeter. At this point, a couple of the guys had really lost interest in my whiteboard explanations and were ploughing ahead in the workbook.
Just like so many of us (myself included!) these guys were most interested in doing the work that has to be done, and passing the assessment. Fair enough.
Unfortunately they were all working on slightly different things, so the next approach was just to go around and help individually. However, attention spans and patience were such that if these guys didn’t get help immediately, their coping strategies weren’t great. Also, there was one fellah in particular who had some serious misconceptions, and was asking questions. It was pretty apparent quite quickly that this guy wasn’t going to take too well to being told he was wrong – not in front of the others, in any case. In fact, he was pretty convinced he was right, and all my diplomacy skills are being stretched, trying to point out the areas he was getting right, and trying to steer him in the right direction, without telling him he was on the wrong track and causing him to lose face. At the same time as gauging the comfort levels of the others with admitting what they don’t know and accepting help, and juggling everyone wanting help RIGHT NOW.
Sometimes working with 4 people can be more difficult than working with 24 people.
I was actually really glad when one bloke asked if it was ok if we could work 1-1, as the noise of other people talking about their questions was too distracting. This sounded better to me, so the rest went out to the workshop, and I just sat with one person at a time and worked though problems with them.
As expected, most of the guys were much happier to open up and ask questions and admit to areas of misunderstanding etc than in a group situation. In any class, these kind of social dynamics are important. In the prison, understanding this is vital.
As is often the case, one of my roles was just to shut up and listen as people told stories about their negative experiences with maths (especially at school). People need to talk about this. To see where the blocks and barriers come from, before they can move on.
One of the problems I saw was the way this workbook is set out. To his credit, R doesn’t rely on the standard books and paperwork in there. However, he wants the guys to be able to work through all the measurements and calcs. I think this is worthwhile. And I really believe that by the end of the course, the guys will have a huge sense of achievement to see that whole book completed. But, the book needs revamping. It jumps around, and isn’t scaffolded correctly, jumping to really hard questions, before the foundation is laid. I ended up skipping thought the book saying – ok, try this one, now this one, and now I reckon you’re ready to go back and have a crack at this one…(R, if you’re reading this, remind me to talk to you about this. I know it’s hard to change a resource that the team has been using for 1000 years, but I think it’s time!)
We ended up having a few wins, and even a few laughs. Because maths shouldn’t be so damn serious all the time!
Several asked that I was coming back next week, so presumably they saw some benefit out of it and I earned my wages today.
After lunch was my first ever straight-up maths class in the prison. In women’s. To be honest, I wasn’t all that confident of getting ANY takers, and had brought along a book to read, just in case.
So when I turned up, a bunch of women were hanging out chatting (not smoking!). And the correctional officers asked who was signed up for maths….the answer was pretty much a unanimous ‘eff that!’.
There was one person who had actually signed up, but there was no way she was coming on her own. Eventually she got a mate to come. And somehow they convinced 3 others. Wow, a maths class of 5, I wasn’t expecting this!
I’d had NO idea what to prepare. I didn’t know if they were going to be at the level of ‘what’s this button on the calculator called? or wanting to do year 10 or year 12 or even higher maths.
Luckily I’m quite happy with winging it! (Shhhhhh….no-one mention lesson planning!)
What I had brought in was some practice NAPLAN tests from the ACARA website. Not that I’m a massive NAPLAN fan. However, one thing I know from experience in the women’s prison is that many have children. So I thought going in with the angle of ‘you might want to have a look at the kind of things your kids are doing’ might work. And it did! I took in the years 3, 5, 7 and 9 tests. The ‘kids’ angle is quite a good non-threatening way for people not to have to admit their own numeracy skills are at a primary school level. Instead, they can say they want to see what their kids need to know.
Most actually took the whole set. Something to do back in their cells, they said. Can you bring us more next week, they said. Bring heaps, we’re really bored, they said.
So, a couple worked through the grade 9 test, and a couple worked through the grade 7 test. One in particular was really excited about it (the one who had actually signed up for class, but was reluctant to join in at the start). She was having breakthroughs and epiphanies all over the place, and the others were getting caught up in her enthusiasm too.
Oh, and I had the atlases out as well, and a few were quite happy, in between maths questions, looking things up in the atlases. Good learning tools to have around!
So, I was scheduled in for 2 hours. But seriously, who can do maths for 2 hours straight? After about an hour and a quarter, it was pretty obvious it was time to pull the pin. So I did.
All in all, I think that was quite a successful day.