Episode 50: Visiting with Dr. Lauren Miller of St. Louis, MO and her story, “My Favorite Students”
ANNOUNCER 00:00 Raising women’s voices one story at a time. Welcome to The She Said Project Podcast.
[music: The She Said Project Podcast theme]
JENETTE JURCZYK 00:28 Welcome to a very exciting episode of The She Said Project Podcast. I’m your host Jenette Jurczyk, National Director. Sitting by my side, in person, and I’m so grateful to be back in person.
KERRY ROSSOW 00:38 Right! Right.
JENETTE 00:38 What’s up, Kerry Rossow?
KERRY 00:40 Kerry Rossow, Co-Founder, number one Jenette fan.
KERRY 00:43 So happy to be next to you,
JENETTE 00:45 OOOHH!
KERRY 00:45 You gotta watch it… I’m so happy to be together that I’m just gonna like lean over and smooch ya!
JENETTE 00:49 It’s been fascinating, amazing, magical things happen when you and I get together. There’s a reason we don’t do it that often, because I think it would just mess up the alignment of the cosmos, it’s a whole thing…
KERRY 00:58 Drink! True!
JENETTE 00:59 Electrical energy. But here today we’re in the amazing studios at WILL radio, I need to give a shout out. We’re here back in-person, but I think our listeners need to know that we have a beautiful partnership with Illinois Public Media and we get to record The She Said Project Podcast live in their studios on the University of Illinois campus.; And that’s a pretty amazing thing that new podcasters get this really cool experience. You know what else is really cool, we get to talk to the ladies who have been on the stage.
KERRY 01:28 It doesn’t get much better than this all the way around WILL from the very beginning, people who had more knowledge than we do willing to step out and help us, and open doors for us to be able to shine a light on women and their stories. And here we are!
JENETTE 01:44 Speaking of women and their stories: we’ve got a good one for you guys today. So thanks for joining us. Our guest today is from a new That’s What She Said show. In 2022 we launched the very first show outside of Illinois, outside of our flagship Champaign, Illinois and Bloomington, Illinois shows. And this was the first show produced by a new producing partner in St. Louis. We’ve already met Jenny Miller Pratt, who brought that show to St. Louis. But today, joining us is Dr. Lauren Miller, who stood on that stage that fateful night. Hi, Lauren.
DR. LAUREN MILLER 02:19 Hi, good afternoon.
JENETTE 02:21 Thanks for being with us. Or should we call you Dr. Miller?
[‘British’ accent] Doctor [Dr. Lauren Miller chuckles]
LAUREN 02:25 Lauren, Lauren is fine. Thank you.
JENETTE 02:27 So Lauren, you shared a beautiful story on the stage. And I don’t want to give too much away. But talk to us a little bit about not only being asked to be in the show, but standing up there in front of a couple hundred amazing people and being first.
LAUREN 02:43 Well, being part of the inaugural class of That’s What She Said in St. Louis was fantastic. I did a lot of theater growing up, I’ve done a few pageants. So like being on the stage again, was really nice. But I never really considered myself much of a writer, because I’m a math professor, don’t get a lot of time to write [Jenette chuckles lightly] paragraphs or poems or stories. But I knew I wanted to talk about a specific group of students that are near and dear to my heart. And I’m just so grateful I had the opportunity to do so.
JENETTE 03:13 Yeah, you get some really unique experiences in the places you get to teach. That’s what I took away from your performance that night.
LAUREN 03:21 Yes, yes! And it’s going to continue to grow and grow.
KERRY 03:25 Lauren, before we hear your piece and talk about that, how did you get roped into this? How did you wind up on the stage that night?
LAUREN 03:32 A friend introduced me to Suzanne, who was helping with the marketing for this production. And I was having a few drinks with Suzanne just met her and told her my story about being a high school dropout, and now I have a doctorate; And my goal is to support non traditional students like myself, who were older women went to college, got their GED instead of a high school diploma and have all these extrinsic factors that make it just harder for them to complete higher education. And she was like, I need you to meet Jenny Miller Pratt, and we had a phone call one day when I was driving home from teaching; I have to drive very far to get to the special places where I teach. And we had a chat and she asked I’d love to be involved. And I said, yes, I was so excited just to be a part of this and raise awareness to the non-traditional student population that I work with.
JENETTE 04:26 That is so cool. I’m so glad you were asked to be in the production. Let’s share with our audience a little bit more about the students that you teach and how you got there. Please enjoy this performance by Dr. Lauren Miller at the premiere performance of That’s What She Said onstage in St. Louis, Missouri in March of 2022. And here is her story, My Favorite Students.
(originally recorded March 4, 2022 at The Sheldon, St. Louis)
DR. LAUREN MILLER 04:48 [Applause and woops with excitement] My job instills fear in the hearts of millions [chuckles]. I’m a math professor [laughter and clapping]. Now, I’m not here to quiz you. I promise there’s no math involved [chuckles]. But I do hope you’ll learn something. I want to share with you the characteristics I look for in my dream [drawn out for emphasis] students, in my favorite students.
05:21 Now, I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but come on. We all do. My favorite students aren’t the ones who get all A’s. They aren’t the ones who have all the right answers. What I look for are students who show up, pay attention, strive to become better, and push me to be a better educator. I’m excited to share with you that I have found this group of students [audience woops] and I’ve been working with them for over two years. They may just look a little different than you’re expecting. My favorite students are incarcerated [applause].
06:10 It was a gray January morning when I first arrived at the prison. The moisture in the air brought the cold deeper and deeper into my bones. Was I shivering or was I shaking. I was cold. I was nervous. And I was a little scared. I was willingly entering a place that no one wanted to be. And my first and most pressing concern was that I wouldn’t be let in [chuckles]. Had I done everything right to make it through security did my outfit pass a strict dress code. I enter the prison under the watchful eye of the guard tower. I am searched and scanned. I sign in, scan my ID show, my ID. I’m handed a body alarm affectionately called a screamer, I scan my ID again and enter the airlock. I show my ID for a final time and enter the yard. An acre and a half of dry brittle grass lay before me with snaking sidewalks that appear to have been an afterthought. To the left of me are four large cream brick houses with tiny barred windows, each separated by barbed wire and a guard stationed outside each one. In front of me is what appears to be an abandoned strip mall that I later learn contains the cafeteria, library, laundry, GED school, and my final destination, the education wing.
07:44 I enter my classroom and I’m being watched through a camera aimed directly at my whiteboard by the CO of the next room. I begin to set up my classroom and learn 21 new names as quickly as possible. Today is the first day of a new semester, and I am normally so excited but, today, I was more nervous.
08:07 This was different. These students were different. But it would take me time to realize not just how truly different but remarkable they were. My favorite students are incarcerated. In prison. every hour on the hour is movement. The only time incarcerated persons can move about the prison. At 8am My students came into the classroom, boisterously a group of men aged 26 to 68; all in matching khaki jumpsuits given to them by the DOC, all with a college algebra textbook in hand and excited to meet a new professor. Once I saw their faces, learned their names, got a smile the nerves were gone and only excitement remained. I was excited to share something I love with others. My favorite students are incarcerated.
09:09 Outside of prison I teach at one of the top universities in the United States. I am a math professor. I teach the class that you have to take you don’t want to you have to [laughter]. I know this. I’m not naive. So I try my best to make my class as approachable and engaging as possible doing things I cannot do in prison. We have polynomial division relay races and graphing Olympics. We play factoring bingo.
09:48 But these classes outside of prison silence, crickets, no questions are being asked. No one answers when I ask the question. Sometimes the silence can be draining. In prison, my classroom is vibrant. It is full of voices sharing connections I had never made before. Everyone has a question they’re not afraid to ask, and everyone has an answer that they will shout confidently even when they’re wrong [laughter] outside of prison, I teach some of the most privileged students in America and my favorite students are incarcerated.
10:40 My favorite students want to be PhD astronomers, engineers, computer scientists and poets. My favorite students want to revitalize their neighborhoods, save the planet and inspire others. My favorite students are incarcerated. in prison, my class is made up of entirely non traditional students. Some have been in prison since before I was born. Many of them did not graduate high school and completed their GED while incarcerated. This is where I can relate. I did not graduate high school. I dropped out my junior year, got my GED two years later, and three years later, finally enrolled in college full time. Now I [applause] thank you.
11:29 Now I have a non-traditional student who was finishing her doctorate [applause]. Minus one [Lauren chuckles] was teaching a class of entirely non-traditional students. This was the first of many classes I would teach in prison. I often get teased that I smile too much when I’m in prison by COs and the students, they’re like, ‘You’re too happy’ [laughter]. I’m just happy to see some of my favorite people. Since then, a few of my students have been released [applause].
12:27 I have got to meet them for coffee, watch them grow and take their knowledge with them. Many of my students have graduated [applause].
12:41 Some have a date set. They know when they’re getting out [applause]. I imagine that they are a mixture of nerves and excitement to enter an outside world that has changed around them. But they have changed too [applause]! [Lauren’s voice cracks] Horace Mann said that, “education then beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of men.” That has never been more true than for my justice impacted students. This semester, for the first time, I’m teaching in a women’s prison [applause].
13:26 This is the inaugural cohort, meaning that now 100% of women prisons in Missouri have access to quality in-person higher education [applause].
Currently, there are over 370 Prison Education programs across the United States supporting associate’s degrees through master’s degrees for incarcerated men and women. The work is not for everyone. But if you’d like to get involved, I’d love to introduce you to my favorite students [applause]. Thank you [applause continue then fade].
JENETTE 14:14 Oh, Lauren, the big reveal, that your favorite students are incarcerated.
LAUREN 14:22 And it’s a true statement. It’s true today. And I’ve just finished my class that I was teaching at that women’s prison and it went amazingly, everybody passed [chuckles]. So, it’s always bittersweet, though, because when you teach in prison, the classes are on a rotation. And they don’t need math every semester. So it’ll actually be another year and a half to two years before I get to go and teach another course up in that prison and I do still volunteer for the programs. I’m helping with the summer book club. I’m going to run the tutoring center a couple days over the summer, so I’ll get to see them but just not as much as I’d like.
JENETTE 14:57 And this is in addition to you teaching on a regular campus?
LAUREN 15:01 Yeah, so I’m actually full-time faculty at St. Louis University. I started working in prisons back in 2020. Before I was full time faculty, and when I got hired, I told my department chair that I needed to at least adjunct one course of semester in a prison, and would that be okay? And he said, ‘Oh, sure.’, because he knows this is the group of students I’m most passionate about.
JENETTE 15:23 And that was so clear in your performance, the passion in your voice, the passion in your eyes, I loved when you said, this group of students, they show up prepared, they show up excited, they engage, there’s interesting conversation. And you wouldn’t expect that.
LAUREN 15:39 I think we get a lot of stereotypes from the media about what it’s like, inside a prison. And at least in my education ways, it is never like that. It’s invigorating, and a place for collaboration and new ideas. And I think being an educator in a carceral setting has made me a much better educator than if I had never taught in prison before.
KERRY 16:04 Wow. Wow, I bet, I bet. I think that’s what’s so struck me was how deeply, and passionately you clearly are as an educator. As soon as you started talking, I sort of started guessing who you were going to be talking about. And, and I was I was way off, I was way off. But But, I was really moved by your passion and your clear dedication to being an educator.
LAUREN 16:27 Oh, thank you so much.
JENETTE 16:29 And you revealed as well that you consider yourself to be a non-traditional student, as well! Tell us a little bit about your journey to find your calling.
LAUREN 16:38 So I dropped out of high school, my junior year, and then I got my GED at 19 and didn’t really know what it was I wanted to do. I started taking classes at a community college to just get some credits under my belt. And at the time, I was working as an optician at an eye doctor’s office for two very strong, one woman optometrist and a manager who was also a woman. And they were both you know, you’re so smart, you could be an eye doctor. And I was like, That’s a great idea! I got glasses, I can’t see a thing I can help other people see, I always knew I wanted to have a job that was kind of social and where I help others and share something I’m passionate about. And at the time, I was passionate about being an optometrist. So, 23 I enrolled in college full time, that makes me by definition, a non traditional student, right? Non-traditional students have gaps in their education, or got a GED, students like me. And I started out as a Chemistry major. But I realized my favorite part of my chemistry degree was all the math classes I was required to take. So I switched teams, and I went over and became a mathematics major, but I had no real plans for what I was going to do with a math degree. I was like, Oh, I don’t think I should be an optometrist anymore. So I went to grad school, at SLU for my Master’s degree in Mathematics. And I realized something while I was there, the lack of support for non traditional students like me. It was my first time teaching. I had a couple of non-traditional students in my class, and I didn’t have the tools or the resources to help them.
LAUREN 18:14 So, this led me to change paths again, and I was adjuncting so much, I’ve adjuncted into Lindenwood, and Fontbonne, and almost everywhere. But that led me to Fonbonne where I was part of their inaugural cohort for their Doctorate of Education. So, my Doctorate of Education is in supporting non traditional student populations, and having culturally-responsive and trauma-informed tools to bring into my classroom that doesn’t just help my non-traditional students, but helps all of my students. And now full circle. I work at SLU [Jenette gasps] in the math department. So, high school drop out [Jenette chuckles] to now I’m the one who teaches your kids college algebra and precalc.
JENETTE 19:02 My favorite subjects!
LAUREN 19:03 Really?
JENETTE 19:04 No! [Jenette and Kerry laugh]
LAUREN 19:07 You don’t think so?
JENETTE 19:08 So I was a theater major.
LAUREN 19:11 Oh! My sister was a theater major!
JENETTE 19:12 So, but, when I, back in the day when I went to college, because I was in the arts, we were not required to take any math classes. That wasn’t part of the requirements at the time. And when I graduated college, my last math class was Algebra Two junior year of high school, because, you know, I was a theater major, but Oh, no, it gets better. Fast forward. 10, 12, 13 years, I went back for an MBA, and now I’m taking graduate level finance and economics classes and accounting classes.
LAUREN 19:42 Oh, God.
JENETTE 19:42 Bggggggggut I did it!
LAUREN 19:43 But, I don’t know if I can help you with that. I know it’s not most people’s cup of tea and I tell people I’m a math professor it tends to be like, ‘ew,‘or, ‘I hate math’, or ‘why?’ those are the responses I get.
JENETTE JURCZYK 19:55 What are the games that you share that you play with your non traditional students? There was bingo, and I want to know more. I want to play those games with you,
LAUREN 20:03 I would be happy to play those games. So my office is a very fun space. I always tell my students like, hey, my office is the one with all the stickers on the door. And that’s a true statement. And I’ll have students walk into my office and they’ll be like, ‘this looks like a kindergarten teacher’s office’. And I’m like, okay, cool. I did a good job to make my office approachable, right. It’s nerve wracking to go your professors office in the first place, especially if you’re struggling in a course. And especially if it’s not your favorite subject. I think the best compliment I ever got on a teaching evaluation was math is my least favorite subject, but this was my favorite class.
JENETTE 20:40 Oh, wow!
LAUREN 20:40 So just making a space that’s welcoming for all I’ve got lots of games, I always have a big box of granola bars. It’s more like a basket. It’s a very large basket of granola bars [Kerry laughs] for whoever wants to stop by. But I would happily play factoring bingo with you are some of the games I’ve made up myself. We’re still working out the kinks for beta testing. But I’m really excited because now I get to teach that class with all the games again,
JENETTE 21:05 I love this. You have such a great approach. You make math fun, and you engage your students with fun, creative games. That is so not what I envision when I think college math class.
LAUREN 21:21 You think about it, people learn through games, they learn through games, they learn through rhymes, right? That’s how we teach our littlest people through middle school, high school, and then they just talk when they get to college. Oh, we can’t have a song to remember the difference between Mean Median and Mode, right? We can’t have tune to remember the quadratic formula. We have to keep it serious because it’s college math. No, we don’t need to do that.
JENETTE 21:47 We need to play!
LAUREN 21:48 Make it approachable and make it like less scary. I mean, 17% of the population has high levels of math, anxiety. And if I can alleviate math anxiety by coming in with snacks and buzzers and today, we’re playing review jeopardy for our exam, which students are like stressing about. But we can do a review that’s a game, we’ve got snacks; like we bond like I want my class to kind of feel like a community. Everybody should know everybody at the end of the class. It makes it less cary.
KERRY 22:18 Yep. Yep, to loop it back. That’s sort of the intent of our show, too, is to have everybody hear things that it might be the first time they’ve heard that perspective; and hearing it in such a fun and safe environment where everybody’s there to support you. It’s easier to hear when you’re feeling relaxed and appreciated, and that your perspective is valued. What was the feedback that you got after the show?
LAUREN 22:40 Oh, I got a lot of positive feedback. Quite a few of my coworkers came a bunch of my friends, I sent the video to my parents, my mom said she cried. And I was like, that’s okay, I was crying too. So I got a lot of really good, positive feedback, I hope to continue to talk more bravely about issues or involved in mass-incarceration, and how these students deserve an education and how we can support them and eventually get in on the policy side of policies that affect incarcerated students
JENETTE 23:14 Lauren, this work that you’re doing and then sharing your experiences on the She Said stage, you’re not only raising your voice with your story, but you’re creating space for all of these other women. We believe everyone has a story and these non-traditional students of yours, these women in particular that you’re teaching; I bet they are chock full of stories. And so thank you for the work that you’re doing, because you’re going to open doors for these women to share their stories as well.
LAUREN 23:43 Thank you so much for having me. It’s really been an honor. I can’t wait till next year.
JENETTE 23:47 I know the show must go on, right?
LAUREN 23:49 I’m so excited.
JENETTE 23:50 I have a feeling That’s What She Said is going to have a long, healthy life in St. Louis. There’s just so many amazing women to talk to.
LAUREN 23:57 They really are. And we as a community keep growing and becoming more of like a tech hub and a restaurant hub and a theater hub. I really hope that That’s What She Said has a really long history here..
JENETTE 24:09 Thank you
JENETTE 24:10 How about a math hub? Should we make it a certified math hub? Is that a thing?
LAUREN 24:14 I don’t know if it’s a certified math hub. I mean, there’s a lot of universities in St. Louis, like the mathematician density is high [Kerry and Jenette laugh]. I don’t think there’s any kind of math hub yet and in all honesty, I am a mathematician. I’m a math professor, but I consider myself more of an educator. And when I go to math conferences, it’s not my cup of tea [Kerry laughs.]
JENETTE 24:37 Math conferences, you certainly make math fun, and you breathe fresh air into education. And so that’s what we try to do. breathe some fresh air into new communities, share some stories, raise up some women’s voices. That’s what we do.
KERRY 24:53 Thank you for being part of it, Lauren, so much.
LAUREN 24:55 Thank you for having me.
JENETTE 24:56 We appreciate you so much, and we appreciate our friends, and fans who join us each and every week to hear our stories, to meet these women, to just celebrate with us. We’re here to raise up women thanks for listening to The She Said Project Podcast
Over and out
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ANNOUNCER 27:11 Thank you for listening to The She Said Project Podcast, in partnership with Illinois Public Media. All materials contained in the podcast are the exclusive property of The She Said Project and That’s What She Said, LLC. For more information on our live shows, go to shesaidproject.com. This podcast was made possible with support from Carle and Health Alliance and presented by Sterling Wealth Management, empowering women to live their best lives.
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Dr. Lauren Miller is an outstanding educator, who learned that her "Favorite Students" are not the typical students you would think of. Hosts Jenette and Kerry enjoy hearing from Dr. Miller who appeared on stage in the first That's What She Said show in St. Louis in 2022.
The She Said Project Podcast is recorded in partnership with Illinois Public Media. All materials contained in this podcast are the exclusive property of The She Said Project and That's What She Said, LLC. Learn more at shesaidproject.com.