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Stephen Kemp spent his summer teaching a math course for inmates at Minnesota Correctional Facility – Faribault.

Class focuses on different math theories

Stephen Kemp has been an educator for nearly a decade.

He has nine years of experience teaching high school students and two years as an adjunct university professor. Over the summer, he had the chance to lead a classroom of students who were not the type Kemp was used to interacting with.

For eight weeks, Kemp, a math teacher at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, was busy teaching a liberal arts mathematics course offered through Inver Hills Community College to a group of 25 male inmates at Minnesota Correctional Facility – Faribault. They ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s.

“It was eye-opening both in terms of being in a prison, but also what really matters in education. Are we doing the right things in K-12 education as well as traditional undergrad education? I go back and forth,” Kemp said.

Kemp, a Bloomington resident, grew up in Eden Prairie. He got his undergraduate degree at Concordia College and a masters in mathematics at Emporia State University.

He taught at a St. Paul charter school for three years before coming to Eastview, where he’s now working for his sixth year. He’s also in his second year of teaching a night undergraduate mathematics class at the University of St. Thomas.

Kemp said in the spring, Steve Strom, the dean of STEM at Inver Hills Community College contacted him with an unusual job opportunity. He was looking for someone to teach an accelerated and condensed math course for offenders in Faribault. Kemp works with Strom’s spouse at Eastview.

“The Department of Corrections offers offenders the chance to earn an associate of arts degree through the (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) system,” he said, adding that the inmates have to pay for the courses, which are offered at a reduced cost to them.

He thought about the offer a while and decided to accept the job. One of his initial hesitations about taking the job was that he knew there would be a wide ability range with his students and he didn’t know what he would be walking into.

However, he decided not to look up the offense background records of his students before starting the class. “I didn’t want to enter with any preconceived notions,” he recalled.

Kemp said he was nervous the first day, but from the beginning he found the participants eager to learn and grateful for the chance to take the class. “They were welcoming,” he recalled.

The class Kemp taught was not the traditional mathematics class where students crunch numbers, he said.

This class focused on graph theory – the study of points and edges, and connecting them. This is used in application to create conflict-free schedules. The class also delved into voting theory, which is the study of the voting system and how to make it fair and equitable, Kemp said.

The class met for two hours, twice a week, which allowed Kemp to dive deep into the subject area with the students and encourage discussion.

“I think one of the frustrations that I even have as a math educator in the K-12 system as well as many students complain about it, is math is so computational. I was able to show true mathematics to these students,” he said, adding the class the inmates were taking was not computational. “It’s focusing on true mathematics, which is noticing and discovering patterns and understanding concepts.”

Kemp said the class also allowed him to teach the lessons differently than at the high school level. In this class, he presented the problem first then let the students attempt to work out a solution on their own before presenting possible ways to solve it.

The class participants were also surprised to get a reading assignment in a math class when Kemp asked them to read portions of the book “Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea” by Charles Seife, he said.

“They were so appreciative of the different perspectives of mathematics,” he said.

Kemp said he would like to find ways to apply this teaching style to his high school classes and get better at individualizing instruction for different students.

“I think I’m learning depth over breadth in content and curriculum. I think there’s a lot more value on focusing on one and spending time on it, having them troubleshoot, problem solve and then begin showing them how to do something,” he said.

When asked if he would teach a class like this again, Kemp said he would. By the end of his class with the inmates, he noticed his students were more confident in math than they had been at the beginning.

“It was just a great experience, the men were very grateful,” he said.

Patty Dexter can be reached at patty.dexter@ecm-inc.com.

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