Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project

The art of teaching

Beal saw the call for graduate students to teach in APAEP posted on a friend’s Facebook page. Though he didn’t think courses outside of the arts would be accepted, he wrote a proposal for an electronics course and sent it to Stevens.

“Kyes said my class needed to be accessible,” Beal says. “It’s difficult because my students have diverse educational backgrounds. Some people have graduated high school and some have a GED, while others have taken a semester or two of community college.”

After meeting his students, Beal developed a course to introduce science using a fun, question-and-answer approach while utilizing electronics problems and demonstrations as examples. For many students, this was their first science class.

“I reinforced remedial mathematics by sneaking topics into the electronics problems, so they had a motivation to add, subtract, use exponents and understand algebra,” he says.

“I have talked to the students about the fundamentals, as well as the advantages of using the binary number system in machines and circuits,” he added.

But Beal quickly learned that making concepts accessible did not necessarily mean making them easy.

“At first, I made the mistake of making the problems too easy, thinking that it would make the material more accessible. Students had to read for them and find them, but the answers were there,” he explains. “There wasn’t a whole lot of critical thinking; it was basically whether they could fish through the material, and give me an answer on an assignment easily.”

Beal was not getting thorough homework submissions, although the assignments were easy. He began reading about adult education and found that the material does not need
to be easy. If it is, it is less challenging and less valuable to the students.

“Part of making it accessible was helping them to formulate a good question,” he says. “I’d say, ‘Let’s reword your question so you get more out of your answer.’ Your answer can only be as good as your question.”

Because of the varying educational backgrounds, Beal was often challenged with explaining concepts in different ways to meet everyone’s needs.

“Someone asked me, ‘So why is it that whenever you multiply a positive number times a positive number you get a positive number, a positive times a negative is a negative, a negative times a positive is a negative, but a negative times a negative is a positive?’” Beal recalls.

“If you want to teach that to somebody without much math background, and you have this rule of why that is true, the rule doesn’t mean anything to them,” he explains. “You can tell them to just remember the rule, or show all these theories and ways to prove that it’s true, but that gets too complicated for teaching remedial mathematics, so I just used a circuit to show them. I have to have so many examples ready for each lecture and concept.”

Then . . . Beal started giving his students the hard problems.

“I saw results from that, which was counterintuitive to me,” he says. “I thought I was making it less accessible, but they weren’t coming to class to learn something easy. I almost underestimated the students.”

Pushing the limits more, and proving what he found to be true, Beal gave his students a hard take-home test — and one student scored better than he did. “I was so proud,” he says.

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