A Day in the Life of Folsom teacher Linda Nielsen
(Folsom Prison teacher Linda Nielsen, featured in this story, retired in 2005. Originally published in 2002.)
At Folsom State Prison, more than 500 inmates are assigned to academic education classes, with 23 enrolled in the adult basic education II class run by teacher Linda Nielsen.
Nielsen is one of five academic teacher at Folsom who teach inmates who read at about the fourth and sixth grade levels. A former social worker, Nielsen made a career change several years ago and became a teacher. She’s taught at Folsom for four years.
“At Folsom, I just teach. There are no frills,” she explains – none of the parties, dances, plays and other activities that complicate the jobs of teachers on the outside. “I really like that part.”
It’s Thursday, Feb. 22, 2002, and Nielsen’s class if finally full again now that a six-week lock-down has ended. They’re finally back to their normal routine.
Beginning a typical day at Greystone Adult School
6 a.m. – Nielsen arrives at Folsom’s East Gate well before sunrise to make her circuitous way to the Greystone Adult School, located on the far side of the institution. Her route leads her through the heart of the prison: through the Administration Building where she picks up her keys, through a security gate, past cells, showers and a dining hall in one of the prison’s main housing units, through another security gate, and out around the main yard to the education building in the far corner.
6:10 a.m. – Nielsen unlocks her classroom and turns on the lights, then walks back down the hall to the custody officer’s station to check out a personal alarm she’ll wear on her belt.
Back in the classroom, one of seven in the building, Nielsen arranges her desk and pours herself some coffee from a thermos. Between storage cabinets and bookcases, four tight rows of student desks, a white board along one wall, a television on a cart in the corner, and desks for Nielsen and her inmate clerk, the room is a tight fit. High windows that look into adjacent rooms help make it feel a bit less crowded.
6:35 a.m. – Students begin arriving and Nielsen greets each one by name: “Good morning, Mr. Davalos. Nice to see you again, Mr. Penegar.”
The students quickly take their seats, put away their sack lunches and open yellow folders of schoolwork. Some grab dictionaries from a stack at the front of the room. Others are still trying to wake up.
Nielsen walks to the television and turns on the morning news. Each day begins this way, with the news and an assignment to write a brief description of three stories of interest.
All students must be in their seats by 6:45 a.m. Those who are late, risk losing credit for the entire day’s attendance.
7:22 a.m. – Switching off the television, Nielsen greets the class while her inmate clerk hands out composition books, each with a student’s name on it. The students do most of their writing in the books, which remain in the classroom so that schoolwork doesn’t get lost.
7:39 a.m. – The students hand their news writing assignments to the front of the room. Nielsen collects them and class on students to report on the stories they wrote about.
One after another, students describe a spectacular car wreck in Los Angeles, Vice President Dick Cheney’s fundraising visit to Sacramento, President Bush’s visit to China, terrorist arrests in Italy, a train fire in Egypt, Rep. Gary Condit’s re-election campaign, and the latest tally of medals won at the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
With this last item, Nielsen pulls down a map of Europe and points to Norway, whose athletes have won 18 medals so far.
7:59 a.m. – Nielsen points to six sentences written on the white board. Later this morning, students will correct errors and identify parts of speech in each one, a daily exercise for this class. Nielsen asks for volunteers – she calls them her “experts” – to correct the sentences.
Next, she asks the students to name the vocabulary words they’d like to see on their next spelling test.
“Vehement,” one student calls out.
“What does it mean?” asks Nielsen. Hands go up.
“Strongly felt,” another student readily answers.
“That’s right,” says Nielsen.
Exploring the power of words
For the next 20 minutes, Nielsen and the students go back and forth this way, calling out vocabulary words and their definitions: enigma (mystery), imperative (necessary, mandatory), evolve (grow, change), conundrum (mind puzzle), palatable (tasty).
Nielsen’s main focus is language arts – reading, writing, speaking, listening. She tries to incorporate them into everything she teaches.
“I do practically no science, history or geography,” she explained before class. “If I can team them to read and comprehend, they can read in any subject area.”
8:26 a.m. – “How about we take a break? Is that palatable?” asks Nielsen. No one responds to this bit of vocabulary humor. The students and Nielsen pull on coats and head down the hall to a small yard on the still-shaded back side of the building.
The morning air is fresh and the sky is clear blue. The students sit on benches along the wall or stand, some alone, some in groups. One student tosses bread crumbs through the fence to sparrows that flutter down from a nearby bush.
All classes come out here for their morning and afternoon breaks, as well as after lunch.
8:46 a.m. – Back in the classroom, Nielsen starts calling on her “experts,” those who earlier volunteered to correct the sentences on the white board. One by one, they step up to the board and confidently explain their corrections.
“All of you did a very nice job,” Nielsen says as the last student finishes.
9:50 a.m. – “Put your pencils down, gentlemen,” Nielsen announces as she walks back to the white board. “What do we need to make a complete sentence?”
“A subject, a verb, and a complete thought,” replies a student without hesitation. The class discusses various examples of complete and incomplete sentences.
Nielsen then hands out an exercise in using synonyms. The sheet contains 25 sentences, each containing the verb “get,” an overused word, Nielsen tells the class. The students must replace “get” with a different verb without changing the sentence’s meaning or using the same verb twice. For the next half-hour, they students quietly work. When they finish, Nielsen calls on students to share their revisions.
10:45 a.m. – Four hours into their school day, the class breaks for lunch. Students pull sack lunches from under their desks. One student turns on a video about the history and design of roller coasters. Most watch the video as they eat. Others quietly visit.
Shortly after 11 a.m., an inmate clerk from the office next door ducks into the classroom to announce a daily closed custody count. Some inmates, because of their higher custody level, are subject to more counts throughout the day. Four of Nielsen’s students and her clerk go down the hall to be counted.
As they finish eating, Nielsen’s students head back out to the small yard or down the hall to the restroom.
11:26 a.m. – Back to work. As the students take their seats, Nielsen calls on her six experts to return to the white board to mark the parts of speech in the sentences they corrected earlier. The other students follow along, checking their own work against what’s written on the board.
Noon to end-of-day at Folsom class for teacher Nielsen
12:15 p.m. – Nielsen’s clerk collects the composition books so Nielsen can check over her students’ morning work. She takes about 10 minutes to review and mark all of the books, then returns them.
“What does a check mark and smiley face mean?” one student asks when his book is returned.
“It means you can sleep tonight,” Nielsen replies with a smile. The class laughs.
Nielsen works four 10-hour days and spends almost all of her time with her students.
Nielsen’s clerk works at an adjacent desk. He was among the inmates locked down for six weeks. During his absence, Nielsen did both of their jobs – presenting lessons and leading discussions, collecting and grading classwork, testing new students, writing exercises on the white board, making photocopies next door, emptying trash cans, watering plants. She repeatedly tells her clerk how glad she is that he’s back.
Mind puzzles and analogies
12:29 p.m. – Nielsen points to a question on the white board that demonstrates a conundrum, one of the current vocabulary words: “If I have three rubber balls and one weighs slightly more than the others, how can I determine which one is heavier in just one weighing?”
“This is an example of a mind puzzle,” Nielsen explains. “You can’t look up the answer anywhere. You have to figure it out in your own head.” The class will discuss the answer later.
1:56 p.m. – “What’s an analogy?” Nielsen asks. The class groans. They spent a lot of time on this last week. “It’s when things are similar in some ways and different in others.”
Nielsen reminds her students that analogies will be part of an upcoming test. She then hands out an exercise that demonstrates analogies in visual form. On the paper are sets of three simple geometric shapes, some empty, some divided or shaded. For each set, the students must draw a missing fourth shape to make a good second part of shapes that is analogous to the first pairs of shapes. The class will review the exercise another day.
2:19 p.m. – Teacher Nielsen drills the Folsom prison students on the list of new vocabulary words: flexible, oblivious, extrapolate, implement, frivolous.
Then, she asks her students for their answers to the conundrum exercise.
She calls on one student who may not have been paying attention. He angrily replies that he doesn’t speak English well and doesn’t always understand the words she uses.
“Then raise your hand and say so,” she says firmly but quietly. This is one of the only tense moments during the entire school day.
Finally, a student explains the mind puzzle: by holding a ball in each hand, you’d know whether or not one is heavier, which would imply the weight of the third ball.
Movie leads to writing assignment
2:39 p.m. – For the last 40 minutes of the day, the class chooses to watch the end of a movie they started last Saturday. Nielsen has a lesson plan based on the movie, including writing assignments and discussion topics.
3:19 p.m. – Nielsen’s clerk passes out the students’ ID cards, which they turned in when they arrived this morning. The students put away their school work, return dictionaries to the stack up front, gather up lunch bags, and pull on coats. They’re definitely ready to leave.
End of the day for Folsom teacher Linda Nielsen
Classes are dismissed one at a time. Down the hall, other students file past the custody officer. He signals to Nielsen’s students and they rise to leave. In a moment, the room is empty, quiet and still.
“Normally I would have had them do more writing,” Nielsen explains. “But they’ve been away so I wanted to do a refresher.” Nearly a third of her class has been part of the lock-down.
Gathering up papers and her belongings, she’s also on her way outside. Returning her personal alarm, she heads into the afternoon’s spring-like sunshine.
With the days slowly getting longer, soon enough, she’ll begin her day with the sunshine too.
Photos and story by Jim Brown
Learn more about California prison history.