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ASU math lecturer named Volunteer of the Year for prison education

Naala Brewer

Photo by Rhonda Olson

December 15, 2017

Every Thursday morning, Arizona State University mathematics lecturer Naala Brewer makes the one-hour plus drive to Florence prison.

“Sometimes I think — oh, I don’t know if I want to drive all the way out to Florence,” Brewer admitted. “But then I get there and by the end of the day I feel more energized. I feel like they really got something out of it.”

Brewer volunteers as a mathematics instructor for the inmates in Florence prison. She started with a pre-calculus class of 15 men ranging in age from 20 to 70 — all different ethnicities, some with college degrees, some with GEDs, some with neither.

“Teaching the class is really enjoyable,” Brewer said. ”The students volunteer to be in that class, and they have to be on good behavior to qualify, so they are really motivated and so appreciative. They always thank me for coming.”

The ASU Prison Education Initiative has nearly 40 volunteer instructors who teach a variety of subjects including math, English, biology and theater.

Brewer was recently recognized as the Education Services Volunteer of the Year at the Florence Prison Complex.

“Naala Brewer was chosen for this distinguished award because she has shown dedication and diligence to the Education Unit at Florence Complex, the Department of Corrections, our instructional staff, and our students who have shown struggle and enthusiasm (yes, all in the same statements!) for math,” said Laura Metcalfe, correctional education program supervisor (CEPS) at the Arizona State Prison Complex — Florence.

“Most importantly, she has opened a door for a previously unknown desire for learning math that our students have not communicated before. It was not until we opened a pre-calculus class, with student suggestion, that the desire to learn and apply this level of math existed. The class is full and more students want to enroll. This is unheard of in our present environment,” Metcalfe added.

“Nearly three years ago, the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences joined this volunteer program, started by English, since it promotes educational access to a sector of our society which needs it the most,” said school director Al Boggess.

“Naala has eagerly jumped into this program with a zeal that has impressed me. She is highly deserving of this award and I am very proud of her accomplishments.”

Before she started volunteering at the prison, Brewer wasn’t sure how the students would do.

“I hoped that I could introduce them to math, and I didn’t realize they would actually move forward and have dreams of their own, for when they get out and what they’re going to do,” she said.

Brewer describes her inmate students as hardworking and appreciative: “I’ll give them a lot of homework to do sometimes and they get it all done. It’s almost like they don’t want a chance of not being in the class, so they make sure and do every single problem.”

ASU emeritus professor Floyd Downs recently donated hundreds of books to his alma mater. Brewer helped to funnel many of those books to the Florence prison, where the students have put them to good use.

“Some students will come up to me after class and say, when I get out I want to go and get my engineering degree. Or one of the older men said he wants to go back for his master's degree.”

One of her students has a college degree from ASU, and used to be an adviser for 401K accounts.

“He was curious how much he would need to earn to make a living, pay his rent, buy his food and pay utilities, and then also how much he would need to save so it would go all the way through retirement,” Brewer explained. “So he used some of the donated books and came up with a formula and is writing a book for an 8-week financial management course.”

Another student was building three-sided equilateral dice. He noticed that there was always a constant relationship between the perimeter of the triangle and the distance from one of the vertices to the base.

Brewer at first thought it was any triangle. She said to her student, “Let’s try to prove this.”

The student insisted, “It’s an equilateral triangle.”

They worked it through and did the proof. The student, whose last name was Hollenback, completed the proof in front of the class. They were all excited and said, “You should call it the Hollenback constant!”

She encouraged Hollenback to write up his theorem so she could help him submit it to the Southwest Undergraduate Math Conference this spring.

The students are looking forward to the future, and Brewer tries to give them a lot of encouragement.

“I give them little anecdotes … 'Here’s something that I may have struggled with, but I came out on top because I didn’t give up. I kept working and kept practicing.'”

One thing she learned in training — be careful what you promise or say you are going to do, because you really need to follow through. You may be the only person in that student’s life that they have ever known that is dependable and follows their word.

“I try to make sure that if I promise them that I’m going to do something next week, that come hell or high water, I make sure I do that,” Brewer said. “It has made me a better person even in my everyday life. I try to watch what I say. And if I say something, that’s my word and I follow through with it.”

Brewer feels that teaching at the prison has been extremely rewarding, and would encourage others to consider volunteering.

“I actually get more out of it then I put into it. I feel like I give, and then I always get more back after I’ve done it."

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