2017: A Year in Review

It has been a few years since I had the opportunity to write a year in review. Between graduate school, teaching, and trying to maintain some semblance of a personal life, the last few years have been busier than I would care to admit. As usual, this year has been filled with ups and downs, and a plethora of memories that I will cherish for some time to come.

During the 2016-2017 school year, I taught two sections of Geometry and one section of Algebra II. Although I had taught Geometry dozens of times in the past, I never taught Algebra II for an entire year. Further complicating matters was the fact that there were 35 students enrolled in my Algebra II class! My students, many of whom I taught previously, worked relentlessly the entire year, and I was so proud of them when we found out that more students in that class passed the rigorous PARCC exam than the New Jersey state average!

One of the personal reflections that I made on “Wednesday Morning” after the 2016 presidential election was that I needed to make community service a larger priority in my life. As such, I resolved to start teaching at a local prison after school on Thursdays and volunteer my time as the Academic Coordinator for Hockey in New Jersey. Hockey in New Jersey is a local non-profit that inspires low-income youth to develop life skills, succeed academically, and create positive relationships through the sport of hockey. After months of planning, we launched our Brick City Scholars Academy in February at the Prudential Center. In addition to pairing students with mentors and providing college visit trips, our academic initiative focuses on college preparedness, character development, and standardized test preparation. It was definitely a lot of work, but it was time well spent.

In March, I had the pleasure of attending the Agile Mind Professional Services Advisor Academy, which was one of the best professional development experiences I have ever attended. In addition to being surrounded by some of the most innovative math educators our country has to offer, we were also presented with the latest research from the world-renown Charles A. Dana Center. After leaving the University of Texas at Austin, I flew directly to Philadelphia, where I was a chaperone at the Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend. Willie O’Ree, who was the first black player in the National Paulsen Pic - 1 (4)Hockey League, holds a skills weekend for student-athletes throughout the country participating in the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative. Hosted by the Snyder Hockey Foundation, the weekend-long event helps student-athletes with tremendous potential develop critical leadership skills. As Matthew Atehortua pointed out to the NHL, “it was just a surreal experience how someone who was the first [black] hockey player is still around and can share his experience with the youths and the aspiring African-American athletes.”  It really was a special weekend for all!

After returning home from Philadelphia, I was back off to Texas (this time in San Antonio) for the 2017 NCTM Annual Conference & Exposition. I really have come to love these conferences, as attendees learn about new pedagogical approaches and have time to reflect about their teaching practice. I then flew straight from Texas to Mexico for Spring Break, where I explored several Mayan ruins (including the famed Chichén Itzá), scuba-dove in an underground cenote, and even took a Mexican cooking class. April was one of the busiest months of the school year for sure, but what really made the month so special was when I found out that I had officially been awarded a Fulbright grant to study education in Taiwan!

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Exploring the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá

Later on during the Spring, I officially graduated from Columbia, which ended up becoming one of the most memorable days of my life. I was finally able to see Hamilton, too, which somehow exceeded my crazy-high expectations and is the best Broadway play that I have ever seen. As May turned into June, I knew that the time with my beloved seniors at East Side was slowly coming to a close. I was particularly close with this group of seniors, including four specific students that I have been privileged to share so many great memories with. Graduation was a day filled with mixed emotions, as we officially bid farewell to the Class of 2016.

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At graduation with Lucas, Natalie, Diana, and Vitor

During the summer, I started consulting as an Advisor through Agile Mind. Through this opportunity, I had the responsibility of leading professional development sessions and coaching teachers at dozens of schools throughout Philadelphia and New York City. Having the opportunity to work with teachers at so many different schools further pushed my thinking in ways previously thought unimaginable, and gave me great experience for my new role as an instructional coach at East Side in the fall. I also attended two incredible weddings this summer: It was surreal watching Eric Vander Voort, one of my best friends in the world, get married, and I also had a blast hanging with my #TCSPA friends at Kristen’s wedding, too. The summer ended with traveling to D.C. for my Fulbright Orientation run by the State Department, which you can read more about here.

As the new school year started in September, I was excited to commence my new role as an instruction coach for the math department. In addition to coaching teachers, I also taught one Algebra I class, which I have grown very close with over the course of the last four months. In the fall, I chaperoned my last two college visit trips with the East Side High School Student Council, where we visited Diana, Jeury, and Wilian at TCNJ and Vitor at Swarthmore College, and visited Columbia with our Brick City Scholars. As I alluded to in a previous post, it really is special having the honor of being shown around college campuses by former students.

By the time November came around, the first marking period was already over. During the so-called “no-school November” week, a bunch of my co-workers and I had the opportunity to visit Cuba, a country that has always been high on my bucket list. Cuba was, without question, the most interesting place that I have ever visited. Contrary to popular belief, I have never felt so safe and so welcomed in a foreign country, and could not believe how many Cubans came up to us on the street and just wanted to talk with Americans. Several people offered us friendly recommendations, and the entire country could not have been more welcoming. After watching literally every documentary about Cuba on Netflix, it was also surreal being able to explore paces like the Hotel Nacional (where infamous gangsters Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky set up the famous meeting to discuss business plans and policies with crime families across the United States) and the Plaza de la Revolución (where Fidel Castro gave many of his speeches and Pope Francis held his mass in Havana last year). Perhaps most interesting was the Museo de la Revolución, the former Presidential Palace, where Castro’s cabinet worked and where the government has remnants of American planes on display like trophies. Oh, and did I mention that we got to see the granma, too? What an incredible trip!

 

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Toward the end of the month, I had the chance to attend the NCTM INNOV8 Conference in Las Vegas. In additional to an informational conference that pushed my thinking about increasing access and equity for all students, we also watched two incredible magic shows (Chris Angel and David Copperfield) and ate dinner in the dark (which one of the most unique dinners I have ever had in my life). We also paused and reflected about the terrible tragedy that happened in Vegas only a few weeks earlier.

Before I knew it, we were in December. Our Brick City Scholars were able to squeeze in one more college visit trip to Princeton, and we were able to attend the Harvard/Princeton hockey game, too, which was a lot of fun. I was able to get to my mentor Seán Sammon to come down to East Side to visit and talk to our new future medical leaders club. I also went to a bunch of hockey games before shipping off to Asia, and I was happy that I was able to watch my mentee score his first high school goal on both J.V. and Varsity after transitioning from goalie. Towards the end of the month, I started to get a little anxious about the unknowns of the next couple of months. As of this writing, my plane ticket has still not been booked, but I am looking to leave early next week and return home in early August. Whereas I know that this Fulbright experience will be a transformational opportunity for me, I will surely miss the incredible students at East Side High School that I have come to love over the course of the past six years.

 

It is hard to believe how much things have changed this year, but I can only imagine what 2018 has in store for me. I have read over and over and been told by dozens of people how transformative a Fulbright can be, but rarely is that personal growth sensed on a daily basis. Perhaps Bill Watterson said it best in the famous cartoon strip Calvin & Hobbes: “You know what’s weird? Day by day, nothing seems to change. But pretty soon… everything’s different.” Here’s to a life-changing 2018!06817329b95e621e9b317ef261038fcb

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

For the past six years, I have had the privilege of teaching at East Side High School in Newark, NJ. Founded in the early 1900s in the Ironbound, the school first served the many German, Polish, and Italian immigrant families that made the neighborhood their new home. This tradition continued as subsequent waves of new peoples settled in Newark and worked to realize the American Dream. East Side was built over a three-year period and opened in 1911. Interestingly enough, the resolution from 1908 “originally planned to erect a community high school of the traditional type, but it opened, finally, as the East Side Commercial and Manual Training High School—the first in the city of its kind.”

In a similar way, Columbia University’s Teachers College was built in the late 19th century. Started by Grace Dodge in Greenwich Village as a “kitchen garden” school, it aimed to “teach cooking, sewing, hygiene, and other practical arts to poor, immigrant women. By 1887, with the help of philosopher Nicholas Murray Butler and a site donated by the industrialist George Vanderbilt, Dodge’s kitchen garden school had evolved into something much greater: an entirely new kind of institution devoted to teacher education.”

Teachers College was the first graduate school of education in the country, and was created to prepare its students to teach the overwhelming number of immigrant children who were flocking to New York City. My beloved grandfather was one of these kids; his mom had come to America at the turn of the century. When Teachers College opened, the front entrance (formerly known as the Household Arts Building) had six mosaic panels installed on the theme of “home industries and home work of the Colonial housewife: sewing, spinning, churning, candle dipping, weaving, and cooking on an open fire.” Although well-intentioned, teachers at the time had profoundly low expectations for immigrant students; they wrongly believed that their only way forward was through a glorified form of home economics.

Teachers College has come a long way since its foundation. Outgoing President Susan Fuhrman recently stated that people like “John Dewey had ideas about how young people learn—and conceived the modern American classroom. Maxine Greene had the idea that the arts could help students make meaning of their world. She turned aesthetic awareness into a central tenet of modern education and the pursuit of social justice. Lawrence Cremin and Edmund Gordon helped us think about the community’s contribution to education. Learning occurs everywhere, and community context deeply affects the learning that happens in schools.” Today, TC leads by example, as it is setting the standard for next-generation EdTech. Professors like Christopher Emdin are nationally-recognized leaders in the field of culturally responsible pedagogy. Simply put, TC has raised the bar: ensuring that all students have access to a transformational education.

While I am proud of the steps that Teachers College has taken to increase the expectations that we have for our most vulnerable students, the same cannot be said, unfortunately, for many of our U.S. public schools. At the 91st annual convention of the NAACP, President George W. Bush had some strong words for those who fail to believe in our amazing students. Bush said that, “Discrimination is still a reality, even when it takes different forms. Instead of Jim Crow, there’s racial redlining and profiling. Instead of separate but equal, there is separate and forgotten. And I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations… we have come so far in opening the doors of our schools. But today we have a challenge of our own. While all can enter our schools, many-too many, are not learning there. There’s a tremendous gap of achievement between rich and poor, white and minority. This, too, leaves a divided society. And whatever the causes, the effect is discrimination… Equality in our country will remain a distant dream until every child, of every background, learns so that he or she may strive and rise in this world. No child in America should be segregated by low expectations, imprisoned by illiteracy, abandoned to frustration and the darkness of self-doubt.”

Profound words from our 43rd President, but what does the research say? One of the most famous pieces of educational research is psychologist Robert Rosenthal’s Pygmalion in the Classroom Study. Its results demonstrated that teachers with high expectations for students consistently had students perform significantly better over time. In fact, Rosenthal suggested that “the results of the experiment further evidence that one person’s expectations of another’s behavior may come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers expected that certain children would show greater intellectual development, those children did show greater intellectual development.” These findings are also consistent with the more recent work of Carol Dweck. Her research on growth mindset suggests that those with a growth mindset significantly outperform those with a fixed mindset over time. Other studies have found that teachers that have a high locus of control for student learning outcomes are more effective than teachers that tend to externalize their students’ performance.

In 1911, the Newark Board of Education opened East Side Commercial and Manual Training High School with the aim of preparing immigrant students for work in the factories and service professions found in abundance in the Ironbound.  During the intervening years, institutions such as Teachers College have challenged society’s ideas about what students from places like Newark can accomplish. Unfortunately, schools like East Side still find themselves struggling with setting high expectations for ALL students.

Paulsen Pic - 1.jpgI have heard, more often than I would care to admit, comments from some school faculty that unfairly question the potential of many of our exceptional students. I have also witnessed first-hand what those low expectations look like in front of a classroom full of young adults hungry to learn. Making ignorant comments about students, starting class twenty minutes after the bell has rung, and using outdated teaching methods do little to motivate students and challenge them to live up to their potential. I have even heard teachers talking about how little potential some of our students have, especially compared to their own children. Perhaps the fact that East Side’s original name still graces the entrance of our building is a testament to the soft bigotry of low expectations that permeates our school’s culture today.

That being said, I am constantly inspired by many of my colleagues, some of whom graduated from East Side and have returned to teach at their alma mater so as to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education. While many similarly talented educators are at work in schools across the country challenging students to achieve new heights, too many other teachers working in urban and rural areas continue to doubt the ability of their students. The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow, and we must re-think this paradigm if we are serious about moving our country forward.

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Talking with surgeon Dr. Lee-Kong at the Herbert Irving Pavilion at Columbia/New York Presbyterian

If there is anything that I have learned over the course of the last six years, it is how much potential and resilience our students truly have. Last week, I had the privilege of taking a bunch of students to Columbia University’s Medical School at New York Presbyterian Hospital. That day, a plethora of doctors reinforced the virtues of sacrifice, perseverance, and giving back to the greater community. Their stories were profoundly inspirational. One doctor in particular shared his story of attending a high school with low expectations, and the major challenges he faced during his first year of university adjusting to college-level work. For me, his story further emphasized how important our work as educators really is, and how chronically-low expectations can severely affect a student’s educational trajectory. Working with teenagers can be innately stressful, but these stories reminded me that we must reject the soft bigotry of low expectations. They reminded me of the importance of having high expectations – for every single student.

 

Can We At Least Get The Transportation Right?

The landmark court case of the 20th century, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka [347 U.S. 483 (1954)], famously ruled that the “separate but equal” clause (originally established in Plessy v. Ferguson [163 US 537 (1896)]) was void. In the unanimous 9-0 decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren authored the opinion of the court, including the notable phrase, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” making school segregation unconstitutional under the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution.

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Whereas most are aware that the Supreme Court took the case on appeal from the United States District Court for the State of Kansas, some are surprised to hear that the Brown case was actually a compilation of segregation cases throughout the south, including Briggs v. Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (filed in Washington D.C.). One case in particular, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County [103 F. Supp. 337 (1952)], was unique in that it was the only case born through grassroot student activism. This case was also of particular note, as it dealt with the issue of school facilities, curriculum, and busing, and argued that students from a segregated black school were not getting the same opportunities as those from the white school in the neighborhood.

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The cover of the New York Times the day after the Brown ruling

In the Brown ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the District Court’s ruling in Davis, and found, “the Negro school inferior in physical plant, curricula, and transportation, and ordered the defendants forthwith to provide substantially equal curricula and transportation and to ‘proceed with all reasonable diligence and dispatch to remove’ the inequality in physical plant.” Footnote 10 in the Brown ruling further explained that these systemic inequalities “results in the Negro children, as a class, receiving educational opportunities which are substantially inferior to those available to white children otherwise similarly situated.”

Today, I feel keenly aware of these specific words in Warren’s opinion of the court: “substantially equal transportation.” More than 60 years after the Brown decision, I ask: what constitutes “substantially equal transportation” in 2017? While our schools today may not be legally segregated (although modern scholars and trends may disagree), our schools are undoubtedly segregated by socio-economic status. In the spirit of Warren’s opinion, I argue that many of the amazing students that attend the Title I school that I teach at in Newark, objectively receive transportation that is substantially unequal to that of their peers in Millburn or Livingston.

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Our Student Council visiting Dartmouth College this past Spring

As a chaperone on Student Council trips, I have been afforded the incredible opportunity to attend many college visits over the years. Of the dozens of field trips that I have helped lead, I can count on one hand how often our bus has been punctual. Time after time after time, I find myself calling a random bus company, asking why our bus is late, and what time the bus will arrive at our school. After getting on the bus (often hours after the scheduled pick-up time), I then have to call the college we are scheduled to visit, and apologize profusely that our group is going to be two or three hours late for our appointment, which typically means less time on campus for our students (many of whom are aspiring first-generation college graduates). Even once the buses do arrive, they are often outdated, not clean, and smaller than modern buses, with unknown safety records. On one trip in 2013, the bus company “mistakenly” sent only two of the three buses back to the Museum of Natural History in New York City, forcing a group of teachers to take the subway back to Newark in order to make it possible for all our students to cram onto the other two buses.

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Our Robotics team hard at work

Our Robotics Students have also had their fair share of issues with transportation problems. One of the more infamous stories include an overnight robotics trip in 2015. During the second day of the field trip, the team was waiting for the bus at the hotel, when they found out that the engine could not start. Since the competition had strict rules and regulations, the teachers on the trip had to pay for an “Uber” out of pocket for some of the members, while the rest of the team had to wait for an airport van to cram 8 people in it. After getting the bus working again, the driver claimed he was not aware that the trip was a multi-day event, and returned to Newark during the competition without notifying any of the teachers. This meant that our entire robotics team was stranded in another city hours away from Newark with no viable transportation options. After several demanding phone calls and hours after all of the other teams went home, another bus finally showed up. The next day, on the way back to Newark, the bus could not go faster than 15 miles per hour, and ended up breaking down in the middle of the highway. The bus started smoking, and students were forced to evacuate and stand on the shoulder of a busy highway; the chaperones on the trip immediately called the police and filed a report. A few hours later, a “rescue” bus showed up, and got the students home hours after their scheduled arrival.

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Our Student Council, led by Ms. Naparano and Mrs. Wiseman, visiting TCNJ this past Monday.

As it has been said, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This story played out yet again on our college visit to TCNJ two days ago. Our contract (see below) was approved for the bus to pick us up at 7:45am, but after twenty-three (23!!) phone calls and being disrespected and lied to over and over again, the bus finally showed up in front of our high school at 9:13am. On top of everything else, the driver had no directions to our destination. What was at one point a simple mistake that was disconcerting and frustrating, became yet another example of the perpetuation of inequality facing our most vulnerable students.

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These are just three stories regarding busing issues of literally hundreds that I could have shared that directly impact the students of the Newark Public Schools every single week. As someone who personally rode the bus to middle school daily, I can only remember one ‘freak incident’ that we had. For three full years, I took the public-school bus back and forth from school, almost always without a hitch. Truth be told, it would be forgivable if a school vehicle occasionally got a flat tire or caught in traffic. What my students contend with is not a couple of ‘freak incidents,’ but rather a broken system that clearly does not value the students of the Newark Public Schools and does not allow them access to the quality of transportation that students in more affluent areas take for granted. From my figurative seat on the bus, I am made acutely aware of the inferiority in transportation every time we have a field trip. I have tried everything at my disposal, including calling bus companies, sending e-mails, filing grievances, and even attending school board meetings; nothing seems to ever change. Perhaps it is time we finally “proceed with all reasonable diligence and dispatch to remove all inequality in transportation,” as Earl Warren put forward more than sixty years ago. In 2017, there remains a plethora of adaptive challenges and deep-seated systemic racism and inequalities that persist in our public-school system that are going to require significant resources and innovative leadership to overcome. But seriously, can we at least get the transportation right?

Teaching at Northern State Prison

Last October, Netflix released an original documentary directed by Ava DuVernay called 13th. As originally put forward by the NY Times, this full-length feature film is “powerful, infuriating, and at times overwhelming,” and “will get your blood boiling.” The film takes a close look at the 13th amendment, which was originally passed in 1865 and “ended” slavery in the United States of America, with one major caveat. Here is the text taken verbatim from section one of the 13th amendment to our constitution:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Ava DuVernay’s documentary then goes on to show how much those fourteen words, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” have been systematically abused in this country for decades. I honestly cannot recommend watching the movie enough. That being said, watching the film seriously challenged my previous notions and ideas about the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States. For me, it was the second time in my life a documentary shook me to my core, and I knew that I needed to do something – anything, to stop these systems of oppression from moving forward. (The other movie being the highly controversial Waiting for Superman, which pushed me to apply to Teach For America). In Michelle Alexander’s terms, I needed to stop standing still on the moving walkway once and for all.

While having a conversation about the movie with my student teacher at the time, he told me about an incredible nonprofit called the Petey Greene Program. The mission of the organization is to supplement education in correctional institutions by preparing volunteers, primarily college students, to provide free, quality tutoring and related programming to support the academic achievement of incarcerated people. The Petey Greene Program “is named after Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr., a TV and radio talk show host and community activist who overcame drug addiction and a prison sentence to become one of the most notable media personalities in Washington, D.C. history.  While incarcerated for armed robbery, Greene became the prison’s disc jockey and subsequently a role model for many other individuals incarcerated in the facility.  Greene’s close friend and mentor, Charlie Puttkammer, was inspired by Greene’s life, and founded the Petey Greene Program in his honor, to strengthen correctional education services and offer college students the opportunity to pursue meaningful and valuable work in the criminal justice system.”

For the past year, I have been privileged to teach adjudicated adults at Northern State Prison through the Petey Greene Program. After two months of paperwork, background checks, and an intense DOC volunteer training, I received my approval, and have subsequently volunteered at Northern State Prison every Thursday afternoon for the past year. Northern State Prison is a mixed security prison, meaning that the facility detains people with different levels of custody, including general population, special needs, administrative close supervision unit (adults who have incurred serious disciplinary charges) and therapeutic community (addictive behaviors). I normally arrive at the correctional facility at around 3:00, as the prison is less than ten minutes from the high school that I currently teach at. After about 20 minutes of processing, including signing in, verifying clearance status, going through airport-style security, and getting frisked down, we are escorted by a corrections officer to the secured area through the prison yard and then to the library.

Once we arrive, our students are typically waiting for us at large tables in the library (see picture below). The students range in age from early 20’s to late 50’s, and  are all working relentlessly to pass the T.A.S.C. (test assessing school completion), formerly known as the G.E.D.  Almost universally, the students are hungry for knowledge, and are always appreciative of the time we spend with them. I found out recently that Northern State also has a pilot program with Rutgers for those that are looking to attain a college education after they get their high school equivalency.

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The library at Northern State Prison

It is one thing to read about mass incarceration in The New Jim Crow or watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th, but it another altogether to experience what a prison is like first hand.  As officials at Petey Greene often say, for many of the incarcerated adults we are working with, we are not giving them a second or third chance at an education, but rather a genuine first chance. Study after study shows the effectiveness of prison education programs. This NY Times article point out that “every dollar spent on prison education translated into savings of $4 to $5 on re-imprisonment costs down the line.” An NPR report put forward research that shows that “when inmates get a college education, they are half as likely to end up back in prison.” I think we as a country need to do some serious soul-searching about mass incarceration; we must look to other countries that use their system as a legitimate corrections system, as opposed to a mundane punishment system. After all, isn’t the point of prison to rehabilitate people, not make their lives worse? Can we honestly say that the corrections system we currently have in America is achieving that vision? (Recommended video: Bill Whitaker of 60 Minutes reports on the German prison system, which emphasizes rehabilitation rather than punishment and allows convicts an astonishing amount of liberty.)032017_6895_Tutors-at-Northern-State-Prison

This entire experience has truly been transformative in ways previously thought unimaginable. For me, volunteering has brought up dozens more questions than answers, such as why we deprive thousands of people of their liberties, often for nonviolent crimes, and why some states permanently take away voting rights from former inmates even after they have paid their “debts” back to society. From a financial perspective, it costs more than $40,000 to incarcerate one inmate per year in New Jersey alone. To put that in perspective, we spend less than half of that on each of our public-school students annually. As a teacher, I am of the belief that an excellent education is the only true inoculation for mass incarceration, yet we still cannot get policy makers to vote for common-sense legislation, such as universal pre-K. As Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times points out, the “growing mountains of research suggest that the best way to address American economic inequality, poverty and crime is early education programs.” In another study, there was a 59 percent reduction in child arrests at age 15 among students who had gone through an early childhood education program. In a way, universal pre-K is one of the best interventions we have to fight the school-to-prison pipeline.

To quote Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I have seen weekly how we systematically remove the humanity and dignity from incarcerated people, and it begs the question as to who we are as a society. I often hear people proclaiming how the U.S. is the “home of the free,” yet we have the highest imprisonment rate per person in the world, including oppressive places like North Korea. As it has been put forward, ending the era of mass incarceration while simultaneously increasing the funding and attention paid to our public schools AND correctional education programs is the only way that will prove that the United States still stands for liberty, opportunity, and an inextinguishable chance at individual achievement.

Every Thursday evening at 5:00pm, a corrections officer comes into the library, gives us the signal to wrap things up, and escorts us out of the prison. As I walk through the prison yard each week, I cannot help to wonder about what all of the incarcerated people are thinking about, many of whom have never held a smartphone or even used the internet. As I wait for the control tower to open the stereotypical series of electrically-locked steel doors, I question how far we have come as a society, and reflect about how much progress we still need to make. For at the end of the day, at 5:00 p.m. every Thursday, I ultimately get my liberty back. Shouldn’t everyone?

Interested in learning more about or applying to the Petey Greene Program? Click here 

 

Fulbright Orientation

“I am at a particular point on my journey. I have no clue if anything I think is right, but it’s the truest answers I have found thus far” –Tom Rademacher, It Won’t Be Easy

Fulbright swag!

I started to write this post on the Amtrak down to Washington, D.C. As I sat on the train, I could not help but be contemplative about the next major step in my life while simultaneously being reflective of the incredible journey thus far. This Fulbright orientation has been over a year in the making – I applied almost a year ago today, and found out that I was accepted into the program in April. As I read through the list of Fulbright grantee’s from around the world and their inquiry project proposals, I became increasingly excited to meet some of the best educators our world has to offer.

The orientation itself was genuinely one of the most inspirational weeks of my life. I was able to network with teachers from Morocco, principals from India, and counselors from New Zealand. It was surreal having the opportunity to discuss educational policy with teachers from Finland, talk about math pedagogy with educators from Singapore, and learn about the unique challenges of education in Botswana first-hand. And it turns out that I am officially the youngest member of this year’s cohort, too…

Sitting with educators from Singapore & Taiwan during the opening reception

During the orientation, we learned about intercultural discovery, communicating across cultures, and the extensive logistics of the program. Senator J. William Fulbright, who sponsored the landmark legislation that later became known as the Fulbright Program in 1946, had this vision that if we knew people from other countries, we would be less likely to go to war with those countries. In 2017, we are constantly confronted with serious and legitimate challenges in the modern world. I am of the belief that no one country can solve these issues alone; people from around the world must come together to solve increasingly complex problems such as climate change, global poverty, or even violent extremism.

Listening to Anthony Koliha, Director of Global Education at the U.S. Department of State

I am beyond excited about spending 2018 abroad in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. As I alluded to in an earlier post, once I arrive in Taiwan, I will be researching eastern pedagogical approaches at National Kaohsiung Normal University, and consider how to implement best practices in sustainable and culturally responsible ways. During the orientation, I was able to spend a lot of time with Michelle Nien-Ching Chuang, a Fulbright Teacher from Taiwan that is studying the American education system at Indiana University this fall. She taught me all of the ins- and outs- of the Taiwanese education system, the delicate challenges facing students in Taiwan, and how to pronounce Kaohsiung correctly (it is pronounced “gow – shuung” and is written in Mandarin as 高雄).

Skyping with Michelle and Jessica

Although I have had the opportunity to travel abroad many times in my life, I have never spent more than a month overseas. It will be hard saying goodbye to many people, but I am definitely looking forward to the extended time away from everyone that I know and away from western culture, too. I also wonder if I will experience culture shock, and, if so, to what extent. The Fulbright commission did a really great job explaining the various stages of culture shock that most people go through when they are abroad, including the “honeymoon” stage, initial culture shock, adjustment, adaptation, and re-entry shock.This week-long orientation was unequivocally the marquee event of my summer, which has truly been special. This has also been the first summer in which I have not had any graduate studies to worry about, meaning that I have had a significant amount of down time to recharge and reflect about life. I have been fortunate to have the time to read a plethora of books and spend a lot of time out on the golf course, too. I have also spent a considerable amount of time working as a teacher coach and educational consultant, which has been an incredible learning experience. I have spent a majority of my time this summer leading professional development and coaching teachers in the Philadelphia Schools, the Newark Public Schools, and the NYC Department of Education. In NYC, I was excited to help support the mayor’s “Excellence for All” Initiative, specifically in the DOE’s Algebra for All program throughout the city. My experience varied daily, as did the teacher quality from school to school. It is one thing to talk about educational policy on the 30,000 feet level, and another altogether to actually see the achievement gap being closed or expanded depending on which school I was at.

Some of the best educators our world has to offer. It truly was a pleasure working with them!

Just last week, I was honored to be featured on the closing panel of the annual conference of CMSM in Scottsdale, Arizona, which explored the future of religious life in this country. The panel, moderated by my friend and mentor Marist Brother Seán Sammon, explored what the leaders of religious congregations across the country need to better connect with the next generation. I lead a provocative discussion about the need for an inclusive church that truly looks out for the most vulnerable and those on the margins on society. I look towards the leadership of people like Cardinal Joe Tobin, who strives to build bridges, not walls.

 

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During the closing session at CMSM with Brother Seán, Ryan, and Duffy.

Anyone that remotely knows me understands just how much I love teaching, which I personally consider a vocation that means infinitely more to me than just a job. For me, there is no greater feeling than standing in front of a classroom of our future leaders, or helping a student learn something they previously thought they never could. I love serving the students and families of Newark, NJ, and know that I will miss them immensely when I travel abroad in less than five months. Many people have asked me what will I do when I return, but I am not sure yet. The State of New Jersey issued my principal certification a few weeks ago, but I honestly do not know where I will find myself when I return stateside at the end of next summer. As it could be said, I am at a particular point on my journey. I have no clue if anything I think is right, but it’s the truest answers I have found thus far.

 

Columbia Graduation and a Special Announcement

This past May was my official graduation from Columbia University. Even though I finished SPA last summer and officially graduated in October, Columbia only has one graduation each year, so here we are! As it has been said, “the hardest things in life are the most difficult to say, because words diminish them;” it is honestly hard to articulate how incredible these last two years have been. I feel like it was just yesterday I was packing up to move to Teachers College for Summer I. These past two years have arguably pushed my thinking more than at any other point in my life. I am so honored to have made so many lifelong friendships, obtain some awesome memorabilia for my future office, and even design a new school!

We were only given three tickets for graduation (or convocation, if you want to get technical), but I was able to get two additional tickets through my Columbia network. Invited were my parents, my sister, my mentor Marist Brother Seán Sammon, and my mentee Matthew Atehortua (who aspires to become a doctor in the future and has so much potential). I met up with my family briefly before the ceremony, and then head over to meet my friends and fellow SPA graduates.

The graduation itself was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is a stunning place to have a graduation ceremony. We heard from Teachers College President Dr. Fuhrman, who encouraged us to go forth and set the world on fire, and our graduation speaker was Madhav Chavan, the co-founder & President of Pratham working to achieve educational equity in India. During the ceremony, I had a chance to catch up with many of my friends whom I had not seen in months.

After the ceremony, we took a plethora of pictures around campus, and then went to a brief reception at Teachers College. After saying goodbye to all of my friends, my family headed over to my favorite restaurant in New York City – Smith and Wollensky’s. I absolutely love the food there, and it was a lot of fun being at a table overlooking the kitchen. It truly was surreal having my entire support network be together for the first time. The food really was fantastic, but it was the people that really made that night so memorable.

Truth be told, my graduation was honestly one of the most meaningful days of my life, and a lot of people have been  asking me what is next on this incredible journey we call life. I am extremely humbled and honored to officially announce that I have been named as a Fulbright ‘Distinguished Awards in Teaching’ Scholar, and will travel to Taiwan next year to study eastern mathematics pedagogy. In Taiwan, I will be a visiting scholar at National Kaohsiung Normal University, where I will research eastern mathematics pedagogy and consider how to implement best teaching practices that are culturally responsible. I am really excited to learn, research, and become a cultural ambassador for the United States.
Presented at the NTU Hall of Fame Dinner

This was such an awesome year, and I was so honored to have been named as a National Finalist for the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Performance and be recognized by the Newark Teachers Union, too. I am proud of all these accomplishments, but I am honestly even prouder of my amazing students who work relentlessly on a daily basis to learn and receive the education they deserve. Before you know it, I will be sitting on a plane heading off to Taiwan! I do not leave until January, though, and will be transitioning to an instructional coach position in the fall at East Side High School. Although I am super excited about living abroad for six months, I sure will miss the marvelous students of Newark, New Jersey. If I have learned anything over the course of the last six years, it is that my students are some of the most resilent people on the planet, and I honestly believe they have the collective power to change the world. As iconic Teachers College Professor John Dewey alluded to in his 1897 publication of My Pedagogic Creed, “Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” Now, I resolve to work voraciously until every child has the opportunity to obtain a truly excellent education.

 

New School Design

As I alluded to in my last post, three months after finishing, I am not sure that if it has hit me yet that we are officially graduates of the Summer Principals Academy (which we often nickname as SPA). Our degrees were conferred last month, meaning that we are all officially alumni of Columbia University! Even though we finished our program at the end of July and got our diplomas in October, Columbia only has one graduation a year, so we will “walk” this upcoming May.

To earn a Masters from Columbia, one must either write a thesis, pass a cumulative test, or complete a capstone project, depending on the specific requirements of the program one is enrolled in. For members of SPA, we needed to complete the famous New School Design Project. Taken from the SPA website, New School Design teams are “challenged to develop a new school that reflects the domains of knowledge, skill, and habits of mind, and is relevant to the challenges faced by children seeking a 21st century education in an urban school setting. The event offers the larger educational community of leaders the opportunity to share their insights and expertise regarding how to close achievement gaps effectively through the design of innovative and high-performing schools.”

Working hard or hardly working?

For anyone that it vaguely familiar with SPA, it is well known that the New School Design (NSD) is by far the most stressful part of the entire program. During the fall, we had to complete an individual leadership diagnostic, and the SPA staff then uses those results to organize us into NSD groups. During winter call backs, we all find out who we are going to be working with for the first time. After the Associate Director of SPA showed us all of the NSD teams, she called our group up individually, and told us that our group was the last group formed. She casually let us know that we had the least in common with one another; some group members wanted to open a public high school, while others wanted to start an elementary charter school, etc. She told our group that we could change our assignment if we wanted to, which was our first conflict with our newly formed NSD team (Side note: If this ever happens, please do not tell the group that they are the leftovers).

We collectively decided to keep the assignment as given, and we hit the ground running. We did some preliminary work during the Spring, but many of us had no clue what to expect come the summer. During our first day of summer II at Teachers College, we went on a city-wide photo scavenger hunt with our NSD group. Although we did not win, we had an absolute blast! We also got to know each other really well and grow as a team, which was extremely important. Here is just a sampling of pictures from that day:

As the summer progressed, we became more and more of a tight-knit family. Our NSD proposal was due a week before we had to “defend” our new school, and our final paper ended up being over 125 pages long. One of the most memorable nights was going to Columbia Copy to print our entire NSD proposal at 11:00 at night. We all grabbed a quick drink after, as the major deliverable was out of the way!

Looking at our completed NSD proposal for the first time!

We then focused all of our attention on our presentation. During the NSD closing ceremonies, each group essentially defends their school in front of a panel of educators, including professors, assistant superintendents, and nonprofit leaders. That panel essentially decides if your capstone “passes” or not, so it is a really stressful day for all of the NSD groups. If your capstone does not pass, you need to do it all over again the following summer, and you do not graduate.

Everything seemed like our group was heading in the right direction. We were hitting every self-imposed deadline, our preliminary presentation got great feedback, and our Keynote was looking fantastic. With less than one week to go as members of the Summer Principals Academy, we felt like we were in good shape.

During the last week of SPA, we present our New School Design to the entire group twice to get feedback from each other and make our presentations even better. The first time we presented, our group did not get any major feedback; things like, “this slide needs to look better” or “maybe include an example here?” Our NSD group met up on Tuesday night, and made the small suggestions that we were given. We were all feeling really good about Saturday.

On Thursday, we ran through our NSD presentations one last time, and tried to catch anything else that everyone may have missed. Our presentations needed to be submitted by 8:00 Friday morning, so this was our last opportunity to change anything before the gauntlet on Saturday. We were one of the last groups to go that day, and we were excited to see what everyone thought of the changes we made. Through our presentation, we felt great about how everything was going, and the other members of SPA seemed to like our presentation. Which is why everyone in the room was completely blindsided when the Associate Director of the Summer Principals Academy tore our presentation to shreds.

We were all in disbelief.

Why did this person wait until the very last minute to give such drastic feedback? Some of the members in my NSD group were angry, others were sad, but I was personally upset. I set up a meeting with her that night, and she explained to me that if we did not make “serious changes” to our presentation, we would not be given the opportunity to present on Saturday. My heart sunk. I texted our group chat what I just heard (and asked my team not to shoot the messenger). We had to get together ASAP and overhaul our presentation.

It is worth noting that nobody (like literally not one person) I talked to thought that our presentation needed this serious of an overhaul. Most of my friends and acquaintances were shocked about this entire ordeal, but none of us wanted to be the group that did not have a chance to present our New School Design and be forced to come back the following summer. Around 8:30pm or so, we all met up, divided up the work load based on the Associate Director’s “recommendations,” and got to work. 

We worked frantically as a team to get our new presentation done. Since we were so pressed on time, we no longer could work collaboratively; each person was responsible for a different part of the presentation. By that point, we had so much trust in one another, and even though we were all perturbed working on this major presentation the night before it was due, it was truly incredible watching this well-oiled team get to work.New School DesignFor me, that included putting the final touches on the Keynote, which I could not do until I get everyone else’s information. As such, I was the last person to fall asleep that night. I finished putting the final touches on our presentation at 4:08am. I ran upstairs to my room, feel asleep for two hours, and had to be up by 7:00 for our last day of class.

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A screenshot of a SnapChat I sent to my NSD group after finishing our presentation at 4:08 am.

That Friday – my last day as a full-time college student – was miserable. I had less than two hours of sleep, and I actually fell asleep during the NSD walkthrough at the end of the day (which was literally the first time in my life that I feel asleep during a college class). I used to tell my high school students that, in college, you never need to pull an all-nighter if you plan ahead and do not procrastinate. I guess I can no longer share that piece of advice…

Our incredible NSD group (L to R) – Adam, Megan, Jenn, me, Alisha, and Myke

I went to bed early on Friday night so I could semi-recover for our big presentation on Saturday. We were scheduled to go towards the end, so we watched other NSD teams go before us. Although many groups were asked tough questions by the panel, every group before us seemingly passed. Before you know it, they were announcing the Birney School, and we walked across the stage and started our presentation.

I was still so incredibly tired from the day before, but we all did our best. I had the added responsibility of running the presentation, so I needed to know everyone’s lines, too. I thought our team absolutely killed it, and I was happy to help answer a question about college readiness from one of the panelists. Based on the questions they were asking, the entire panel seemed to love our New School Design. After we finished, we walked off stage and went to another room. We all started cheering and had a giant group hug, and that is when it all hit us: We did it!

Although the Summer Principals Academy was started in 2006, we found out that this year was going to be the first year that the panel was going to give out awards to the best New School Design. We were all sitting together, and the panelists came on stage and announced that our school won a New School Design Implementation Award for being the most innovative new school. I cannot put into words the emotions we felt when our group won. Outside of Student Government elections during my junior year at Marist, I am not sure if I have ever felt so vindicated in my entire life.1ed9e-screen2bshot2b2017-07-022bat2b9-29-432bam

After the NSD presentations, Teachers College had a small reception for us, we took some photos, and went to the closing ceremony. We heard from three incredible speakers, which was so powerful, too. My family then helped me move out of the residence hall, grabbed a quick dinner, and started heading back to Newark.

So that’s a wrap, folks. One hell of a story, if you ask me. I am so proud of our entire 2015 SPA cohort, and know that I am going to miss them immensely next summer. Now, I honestly cannot wait until graduation!

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