Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project

The appreciation of knowledge

As Banu and Beal describe their teaching experiences in their respective facilities, you would not know that their students were state prisoners unless you asked. Both spoke of their hard-working, excited, eager-to-learn students with smiles on their faces as they told of their successes.

“It is so important to teach in prisons, specifically because you are enabling graduate students to teach in an atypical setting,” says Stevens. “Think about students at Auburn. Some are a little distracted because they have a lot going on in their life, or some may take for granted that they are here in college. Prison students don’t take [APAEP] classes for granted. They see education as a mechanism to turn their lives around.”

Sometimes, APAEP truly does ignite a spark for learning. Banu tells of a student who let her know that he hated trigonometry and math. But, through her class, he was challenged and is eager to go back to trade school and take a math class because he saw the practical applications of math.

Banu recalls another student who could hardly wait to solve the next problem or attend the next class. “He would just understand everything,” she says. “He would take the assignment I gave the class that was written for two weeks, and I would tell them to do only half of it, and he would do the whole thing. He wanted more work.”

Students have asked Banu if there is going to be a part two of her class. “I was surprised!” she says. “It took them a long time to get used to the math and learn to focus on the concepts, so now that we have taken that barrier away and they are comfortable with the material, it’s a huge victory for them. They used to get discouraged during the math part and I would give them the ‘don’t quit’ speech, and they would tell me ‘I’m not going to quit! This is too fun!’ Now they compete with each other to answer questions.”

In Beal’s classroom, huge strides have been made with his students, and the vocational electronics class is the highlight of their week.

“They really look forward to coming to class and learning more, and they come with a lot of great questions,” Beal says. “They think about the concepts and there’s a lot of discussion. There seems to be a different type of enthusiasm about the material than the undergraduate labs that I have experience assisting. Students at a university have more distractions and take mandatory classes in contrast to prison students who have an entire week to work with the material and treat it more recreationally,” Beal says.

“The APAEP students ask different types of questions, more for the sake of the material and the science as opposed to a means to an end,” he adds. “An excited amateur has very fruitful work whereas an adult professional may be a little jaded because it’s mandatory. Any time something’s mandatory, I think people may tend to lose interest.”

Beal’s students are hoping for a follow-up course as well, in addition to the same course, so their friends who could not enroll can have the same opportunity they had.

“There was a high demand for this class, and I think it’s because it’s from Auburn University. Auburn’s name seemed to carry weight, and they appreciated that it was from Auburn,” Beal says. “We have a positive reputation and it gave a lot of value to the material.”

Stevens hopes to find funds to support more engineering courses taught by the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, so more graduate students can have the same opportunity as Banu and Beal.

“Teaching with APAEP has transformed the lives of graduate students, as well as the students they educate,” she says. “We want to make this teaching opportunity available for other gifted graduate students.”

As Banu and Beal saw in their classrooms, and as Auburn engineers have experienced for generations, there are hurdles in life that can be overcome, no matter what barriers stand in the way.

Click here for more information on the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project

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