For inmates, a new hurdle in education

  • Kim Piper teaches inside the New Hampshire State Prison in May 2019. (Monitor file photo)

For the Monitor
Published: 10/11/2020 1:51:13 PM

Kimberly Piper, an English teacher for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, is a staunch advocate of the Socratic method.

“I firmly believe in a discussion-based pedagogy,” she said.

She finds a collaborative approach helps students connect more deeply with the books they’re reading. On a typical day, they might start by reviewing passages together – then, students take the reins: Piper will offer up a handful of questions for them to mull over, hoping to spark a lively conversation.

But this year, Piper has had to shift away from her favorite teaching strategy, and largely, away from conventional teaching methods altogether.

Like schools everywhere, the Corrections Special School District, which serves New Hampshire’s state prison system, has been forced to modify classes to protect students and staff against the coronavirus. Even though incarceration is a far cry from the freedom of the outside world where an abundance of caution has altered school instruction, teachers inside the bubble of the prison walls only see their students for one class period a week at most.

It’s been over six months since the district’s students have regularly met for instruction. For the time being, most of the classes follow a sort of hybrid schedule: students attend each of their in-person classes once per week, and no more than one a day. A handful of classes do not meet in person at all.

But unlike their counterparts on the outside, inmates are not allowed access to the internet, and technology use is tightly controlled. Using digital learning platforms or video communications to bring students and teachers together from afar is out of the question.

Instead, instructors assemble packets with lessons and assignments students can do from their cells. Most of the time they would be spending in the classroom has turned into independent, pencil-to-paper studying.

For many of the students, the Corrections Special School District serves as an important stepping stone for life after prison. In it are two separate institutions: Granite State High School, and the Career and Technical Education Center. Together, they offer opportunities for prisoners to pursue a high school or high school equivalency diploma, and to learn vocational skills.

But with far less one-on-one attention from teachers, it’s uncertain how students’ quality of learning has been affected.

The transition away from in-person instruction has not been easy for anyone, Piper said. For one, refashioning lessons into work packets is no small task – especially for classes that don’t use textbooks.

“For most of our English classes, we generate our own curriculum,” she said. “So trying to transfer that into something that students can read in a packet, as opposed to hearing the lesson in class, was a challenge.”

Figuring out what students do and don’t understand about readings and assignments they do on their own is also tricky, she added.

Overall, reception among students has been mixed.

“Some students really thrive on doing independent work and are very disciplined and organized,” Piper said, “and others struggle and kind of need more support on a regular basis.”

To help bridge the gap, staff have been providing extra help to students on Fridays, Corrections Special School District Director of Education Laura Hardwick said in a statement to the Monitor.

Inside the classroom, instruction looks a bit different, too. Sanitation is now part of the routine, of course – students and teachers are required to wear masks and stay six feet apart, and contact surfaces are disinfected before and after each class, Hardwick said.

But classes have also split up into smaller sections when necessary to ensure social distancing. For her women’s literature class, Piper taught just a few students at a time.

She said she misses seeing her students together everyday.

“We want to have those rich discussions, we want a back-and-forth,” Piper said. “And it’s just very different to be trying to cram in everything we need to tell them in one block per week.”

The hybrid schedule is still an improvement from earlier in the year, she said. In-person classes were suspended for the entire spring quarter – for 11 weeks beginning in late March, students were learning exclusively through lesson packets.

With the classrooms closed, Piper did most of her teaching thorough handwritten feedback.

She would see her students in passing when she stopped by to deliver their packets every week. They were usually eager to see her, she said.

“It gave an opportunity to have some quick conversations about the topics that they were learning,” she said. “And students were just glad to have something to do – some way to break up the monotony of the day.”

Hardwick did not say if the department of corrections had a contingency plan for classes should there be an outbreak at any of the prison facilities.

On the whole, the state prison systems appears to have been spared from the coronavirus. As of Friday, just 12 staff members and one prisoner had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the department of corrections’ website. Still, of the 2,000-odd incarcerated individuals behind their walls, only about a hundred have been tested.

Regardless, classes will stay on a hybrid schedule, at least for the foreseeable future – Hardwick said “no changes” to were planned for the fall quarter.

For Piper, the makeshift arrangement is tough, but a “step in the right direction.”

“We’re moving back towards something closer to normal, and that’s a good feeling,” she said.

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