Celebrating Chinese New Year in Asia

Xīnnián kuàilè! (Happy Lunar New Year!) I just got back from celebrating the start of the annual Spring Festival. The Lunar New Year is one of the most important holidays throughout Asia (in Vietnam, the holiday is referred to as Tết; in Korea, it is called Seollal), and is based off of the Chinese Lunisolar calendar. 2018 is the year of the dog, and according to the Chinese Zodiac, “those born in the Year of the Dog are considered to be loyal, honest and selfless. But they can also be stubborn, cold and critical.”

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Celebrating the Chinese New Year in Tainan!

The history of celebrating the Lunar New Year goes back centuries to the Shang Dynasty in mainland China, where “oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that the [lunisolar] calendar existed as early as the 14th century B.C.” This holiday was originally celebrated to commemorate a fable in Chinese mythology about the Demon Nián, an evil Asian version of the Greek God Poseidon. Worried that Nián was going to attack a village during the Lunar New Year, a prophet appeared, and informed the villagers that, “The beast is easily scared. He does not like the color red. He fears loud noises and strange creatures. So tonight, spread red across the village. Hang red signs on every door. Make loud noises with drums, music, and fireworks. And to protect your children, give them face masks and lanterns to protect them.” The villagers did as the old man instructed, and Nián never returned again.

During the Chinese New Year in modern day Taiwan, it is customary to have a large reunion dinner with your extended family. I was so excited when Michelle invited me to Tainan (the former capital) to celebrate the occasion with her family, which was truly one of the most memorable experiences of my time abroad thus far. I quickly learned that “Chinese New Year’s Eve” in Taiwan is much more similar to our Thanksgiving and is a holiday meant to enjoy time with family, to cultivate luck, and to extend wishes of prosperity in the coming year. Michelle and her sister-in-law cooked an incredible dinner that was absolutely delicious! After the traditional New Year’s Eve meal, the entire family started to get ready for the famous red envelope ceremony.

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Family members offer red envelopes filled with money as a sign of respect and to wish the other members of their family a healthy and prosperous year ahead. The red envelopes get distributed in reverse chronological order (i.e., the person that is oldest gets their red envelope first). I also learned that one should never give money in denominations of four—because the Chinese word for the number four (sì/四) is a homophone for the word for death (sǐ/死). Yes, Tetraphobia is alive and well in East Asia…

Once all of the red envelopes were given out, we all sat together and watched a movie. We also played other traditional games, ate a bunch of snacks, and drank oolong tea. Later during the evening, we facetimed my students back in Newark; it was a lot of fun involving them in our holiday festivities, too! Unlike New Year’s celebrations in the west, there is no countdown clock to midnight or crazy celebrations once the clock strikes twelve. The party does not end on the first night of the lunar calendar, though: the Chinese New Year celebration actually lasts 15 days!

The final day of the Lunar New Year is known as the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated with a variety of cultural dances and music (and has also become commercialized as the equivalent of Valentine’s Day in Taiwan and Hong Kong). I really appreciated getting the opportunity to experience this unique holiday, and I really loved being a part of my adopted family in Tainan. It really was such a special night, and one that I will forever hold close in my heart. Talk about true cultural exchange!

I do want to take a moment on this joyous occasion to offer my condolences to all those who were impacted by the 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Hualien last week. This natural tragedy was my first time experiencing a vicious earthquake; I woke up in the middle of the night, shaking uncontrollably. At first, I thought I was having a seizure or other medical situation, and it was not until after the earthquake ended did I look on Twitter and realize what had happened. If I have learned anything in the last two months, it is how incredibly resilient the Taiwanese people are, and we can only hope that these earthquakes stop affecting a country with such hospitable residents.

In Taiwan, many people have off during the Lunar New Year celebration. I used this time to conduct research into the Chinese imperial examination system that originated from Confucianism, and how those ideals have permeated contemporary Taiwanese educational culture. I am starting to put these ideas together for my next blog post on the history of standardized tests, which will be incorporated into my inquiry project. Stay tuned for more information!

Learn Chinese!

English                                    Chinese

Red Envelope                        紅包 (Hóng bāo)

Happy New Year!                 新年快樂 (Xīnnián kuàilè)

Wishing you happiness & prosperity.   恭喜發財 (Gōngxǐ fācái)


Reflections from my first month in Taiwan

What an incredible month it has been! After spending a week in Japan, I arrived safely in Kaohsiung City and quickly settled into my new home for the next six months. In between filling out a stack of paperwork and several trips to the immigration office to secure my Alien Registration Card, I was able to explore the largest city in Southern Taiwan. I had a great time visiting the former British consulate, checking out the famous “dragon and tiger pagodas,” and traveling through one of the most beautiful subway stations in the world.

After my first week in Taiwan, I had lunch with a group of Fulbright alumni at a restaurant in the northern part of Kaohsiung. Michelle, Jhenyi, and Sandy (and her husband Andrew) were so welcoming, and I really appreciated the opportunity to have an in-person conversation after traveling by myself for a few weeks. In fact, we ended up talking for over three hours! I was also excited when Michelle invited me to her house to celebrate the Chinese New Year with her family next month. I cannot wait to experience this major cultural tradition here in Taiwan! Michelle is in the midst of writing her dissertation on professional learning communities; during her Fulbright to the states last fall, she researched the manner in which American teachers work together.

After lunch with my new Fulbright family

Later that day, I had a chance to meet my advisor, Dr. Ping-Huang Chang, a professor at National Kaohsiung Normal University. This institution will host me as a visiting scholar throughout the spring semester. Dr. Chang and I worked out some logistics, including my observation schedule, and identified several possible classes that I might audit. He also organized a meeting and dinner with the principal and a few teachers from Kaohsiung Girls High School, the place where I will be conducting a lot of my exploratory research. I was particularly interested in the discussion we had about culturally relevant pedagogy and the math teachers’ interest in a new curriculum. The group also gave me copies of their government-issued math textbooks, which will be a helpful resource moving forward. Everyone was so welcoming and I could not be more excited to have the opportunity to learn from this exceptional group of educators.

My advisor Dr. Chang (far right) and school team

It has also been intriguing to work through some cultural differences and misunderstandings. Although I had read a great deal about Taiwanese culture before coming here, I quickly discovered that it is one thing to understand something intellectually but quite another to actually experience cultural differences first-hand. For me, one of the biggest cultural differences that I have noticed between Taiwan and the U.S. is the way in which people view personal space in public. In this part of the world, people will often stand and sit very close to you on a fairly regular basis, and even sit next to you in an empty subway car.

Most restaurants also offer tea instead of water, and when they do offer water, it is often served steaming hot (I guess drinking “ice water” is an American thing?). One of the funniest examples of cultural differences that I encountered thus far is the way in which tomatoes are classified. In the U.S., tomatoes are often the focus of a somewhat whimsical debate over whether they are fruits or vegetables. Though tomatoes have seeds, the American taste palate often judges them to be a vegetable. Well, in Taiwan, tomatoes are always sold in the fruit section of a store; they are even found in fruit salads!

During my second week, I took the Taiwan High Speed Rail up to Taipei for the Fulbright Midyear Conference. I traveled with a group of ETA’s (Fulbright English Teaching Assistants) who have been living in Kaohsiung since August. During our trip, they shared some of their favorite things to do throughout the city and offered some nuanced advice, too. Many of the ETA’s are close in age to me, and I am looking forward to getting to know them better once we are all back in Kaohsiung at the end of the month.

The Midyear Conference was held at “The Great Roots Forestry Spa Resort,” which is a 45-minute bus ride from downtown Taipei. The hotel was built on top of a natural hot spring, which provided a relaxing way to wind down at the end of each day. During the conference, we learned about the history of Taiwan, received cultural adjustment advice, and listened to updates from scholars in the middle of their research.

As I alluded to this past summer when I was at the Fulbright Orientation in Washington, D.C., it is truly inspiring to be surrounded by thoughtful leaders who are eager to change the world in every field imaginable. We heard from researchers studying public health efforts, North Korean deterrence, and even water flood policy. One of my favorite presentations was given by a professor who was translating Buddhist chants into western-style music for his students in Utah. There were also two professors studying the Taiwanese legal system, with an emphasis on the legal rights of indigenous people. Each ETA group also gave a quick presentation that highlighted fun activities in their host cities, many of which were given through a humorous lens. I was one of three scholars that recently arrived in Taiwan; our presentations were more focused on our research plans moving forward.

Several sessions really challenged me intellectually, including a provocative address on Indo-Pacific policy chaired by Dr. Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang. Dr. Huang served as a Taiwanese diplomat in Washington, D.C. for 15 years and, consequently, has a unique perspective to offer. His presentation helped me realize how much I have to learn about the far-reaching politics of Asia and the increasingly important role China, Taiwan, and India will play in global affairs moving forward.

After the conference ended, I explored Taipei on my own for a couple of days. During my first night in the capital, I ran into fellow Fulbrighter Chris Upton, who is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate that is researching the rights and rule-crafting processes in Taiwan’s indigenous rights framework. He grew up in Taipei, the son of two Baptist missionaries. He graciously showed me around the 228 Peace Park, the controversial Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, and took me to dinner at his favorite hóngshāo niúròu miàn (braised beef noodle soup) restaurant in the entire country. It was a memorable evening. The next day, I visited the National Palace Museum, had lunch at the famous Din Tai Fung, and took the fastest elevator in the world to the top of the Taipei 101 building.

As I look forward to the month ahead, I am excited to start visiting schools. The concept of time remains quite disorienting for a multitude of reasons. Even though I am 13 hours ahead of Daylight Savings Time on the east coast, I feel as though I am a day behind on the news. For example, when I am going to bed on a Tuesday night, I am often getting the news from Monday in the United States (I have been watching the international version of CNN, which is noticeably more worldwide in its scope when compared to the largely domestic programming found in the states). In addition, the major holiday break in Taiwan falls over Chinese New Year, meaning that I have heard a lot of people talk about their break as we often talk about our winter break during the last week of December. In other words, it feels more like late November here than February!

The beautiful, albeit controversial, Cheng Kai-shek Memorial

To close, I am looking forward to celebrating the biggest American sporting event of the year: Super Bowl Sunday! Well, maybe I should refer to it as Super Bowl Monday while in Taiwan. Who knows? Anyway, I found a local British pub that will be offering a “Super Bowl breakfast” for expats that are interested in watching the game. It should be interesting celebrating this uniquely American “holiday” in Taiwan. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em I suppose: Let’s Go Eagles!!


Learn Chinese!

English                              Chinese

Hello                                  你好 (Nǐ hǎo)

Thank You                        謝謝 (Xièxiè)

Nice to meet you            很高兴认识你 (Hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ)

Why Taiwan? (Part 2: A Cultural Perspective)

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” -David Foster Wallace, This is Water

At the end of World War II, many world leaders realized that they needed to take steps to prevent another great war from ever happening again. One of these people, Senator J. William Fulbright, set an ambitious goal: he believed that if potential leaders could learn about one another’s cultures and build strong relationships with people abroad, they would be less likely to support future wars against those countries.

To achieve this end, Senator Fulbright introduced a bill in 1945 that called for the “use of surplus war property to fund the promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” On August 1, 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the bill into law, and officially created the Fulbright Program, the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Government.

While I have long considered applying to the Fulbright Program, teaching a diverse population of students in an urban public school for the last several years has truly piqued my interest in learning about different cultures. Having previously had the opportunity to travel abroad, I have come to realize that my interest in visiting different countries centered on much more than tourism: I wanted to meet the people of other countries and come to genuinely understand their customs and way of life.

In the course of traveling, I have come to realize that you never really know where life will take you. I remember the friendliness of Patagonia’s indigenous people on my journey throughout South America and can recall the great conversations I had over dinner with locals while in Portugal two summers ago. When traveling through Havana last year, I listened to dozens of Cubans share their affection for the American people while at the same time respectfully disagreeing with U.S. government policy, particularly the failed embargo. I also have fond memories of my last night in Madrid, when six people from six different countries communicated using their newly acquired Spanish.

It is through these experiences that I have come to appreciate more fully the power of diversity. I also believe that traveling is one of the best ways to get to know the world, and perhaps more importantly, to get to know yourself. There is something about the serenity of traveling alone and the personal growth that comes about because of it that helps you look at life through a completely different lens.

Although I have been incredibly privileged my entire life, and have had multiple opportunities to travel throughout the America’s and Europe, I have never visited Asia before this trip. In applying for a Fulbright, I looked to study in a country whose customs are completely different from those with which I was familiar, a place that I ordinarily would not have thought to visit. I wanted to get to know the culture of a place to which few Americans have traveled to and come to appreciate the subtle nuances that make eastern culture so special.

As such, I was excited to see Taiwan, the Republic of China, on the list of Participating Territories for the 2017-2018 Fulbright ‘Distinguished Awards in Teaching’ Program. I was equally thrilled last April, when I received an e-mail letting me know that I will officially be spending 2018 abroad in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. Once abroad, I will be hosted as a visiting scholar at National Kaohsiung Normal University in Kaohsiung City, the third largest city in Taiwan.

Kaohsiung City at night

I am looking forward to conducting research and living in Taiwan, a country with a fascinating history. An island nation of 23.4 million people, its sovereignty has been hotly contested for over 500 years. After claiming Taiwan in 1895, the Japanese granted the land back to the Republic of China after being defeated in World War II. However, when Mao Zedong assumed power over the Chinese mainland in 1949 and renamed it the People’s Republic of China, the deposed government established a new seat of power in Taiwan. Currently, the mainland People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, while Taiwan claims sovereignty over the entire mainland as the original Republic of China. Most international organizations, including the United States, do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Although a founding member, Taiwan is currently the most populous state and largest economy that is not a member of the United Nations. Taiwan’s government represented the entirety of China until 1971, when the People’s Republic of China assumed China’s seat. Geographically, Taiwan is a few hundred miles to the east of Hong Kong, and is roughly twice the size of New Jersey (and with 23 million people, has almost triple NJ’s population).

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New Jersey overlaid on top of Taiwan for comparison

I also look forward to experiencing Taiwan’s universal healthcare system first-hand after having read so much about it over the course of the last several years. Other interesting facts about Taiwan: the country competes in international competitions as Chinese Taipei, was the first democratic country in Asia, and was nicknamed Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island) by Portuguese explorers passing by the island en route to Macau as early as the 16th century.

As we move forward in a world that is increasingly changing and globally connected, the essential role each of us must play in fostering cross-cultural exchange becomes more apparent. For how else will we achieve a better tomorrow? If we can learn to listen attentively to one another, appreciate the wealth to be found in diverse cultures, and develop a stronger sense of the many different lenses through which one can view life—what Senator Fulbright referred to as “mutual understanding”—we might just start to care for one another in unprecedented ways. My only hope is that I can help contribute to Fulbright’s vision of creating a world with a little more knowledge and a little less conflict.

Perhaps David Foster Wallace said it best: “It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: This is water, this is water.” Maybe in Taiwan, I will actually be able to see the water once and for all.


This post is the second in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The first essay, focused on an educational perspective, can be found here.

Why Taiwan? (Part 1: An Educational Perspective)

I was born to be a teacher. For as far back as I can remember, I have always loved school and valued education as one of life’s most valued treasures. While I have always had a passion for education, teaching has lit a fire in me; I truly feel alive when leading instruction in front of a classroom. Though I love what I do, I take my role as an educator seriously, as I fundamentally believe that we are teaching the future leaders of our world. As it has been said, we are currently preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve a wide variety of complex problems.

During the 21st century, our international community will need to respond to these critical global issues, including food security, public health (and the so-called “death gap”), and world peace. To solve these obstacles, we will need a new generation of creative leaders: people who appreciate diversity, can think ethically, strategically, and divergently, and refuse to be satisfied with the status quo.

To create these transformational leaders, we arguably need an education revolution in this country. The achievement data is clear: a significant opportunity gap exists between middle- and upper-class students and those living in poverty. As our schools slowly become re-segregated, many of our most vulnerable communities are being left behind (Frankenberg, Lee, and Orfield 2003; Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley 2012). Although we have made some progress over the years, I must ask: how can we live in the richest country in the world and continue to allow the opportunity gap to be so wide?

Over the past six years, I have had the absolute privilege of serving the students and families of the Newark Public Schools. During this time, I have learned so much about the unique challenges facing urban communities and the incredible resolve of Newarkers fighting for a better tomorrow. Between the city’s inspirational residents, delectable cuisine, and exceptional transportation options, Newark has genuinely become one of my favorite places in the world. As it has been said, Newark, like ancient Rome, is “a living reminder of a glorious past, a predictor of a possible future, and a lesson in the persistence of the individual and of the human spirit.”

Newark, affectionately known as the “Brick City,” at dusk.

While I have a deep admiration for the “Brick City” and the people that live there, I have also witnessed first-hand the educational inequality that has plagued our country for decades. I have previously written about the unacceptable transportation issues within our district bureaucracy, but busing logistics is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, the Baltimore City Public Schools made national headlines when the press learned that some of their schools had broken heating systems and children needed to wear their jackets to  class. Year after year, I have watched students fight an uphill battle within a system that, arguably, was not designed with their success in mind. If I have learned nothing else over the course of the last six years, it is that we have a long way to go until every young person has the opportunity to attend a great public school.

To re-think education in the United States, we need to look critically at a number of issues both within and outside our current system. While we still have a great deal to learn from ideas, research, and innovation carried out from universities, think-tanks, and scholars in the states, there are also many creative developments underway in schools throughout the world. Over the course of the past decade, Finland’s unique educational philosophy has become a worldwide sensation. Although Finland has plenty of progressive schools, efforts to replicate their instruction model has had its fair share of challenges, and students living in Asia perform better in higher-level mathematics, especially in Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. U.S educators and policy makers alike have only recently begun looking towards the far east in search of best practices beyond the primary school level. Though several white papers, policy positions, and research projects have tried to expand this effort to high school mathematics instruction, little success has been realized.

Taiwan leads the world in mathematical performance among all students in their country. The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, colloquially known as the PISA, are clear: for the most recent year in which data is available, Taiwan was ranked as the 4th best country in the world for mathematical performance. The United States finished 36th.  The OECD (who organize the PISA) also uses a so-called “snapshot of equity in education” to determine how equitable the education system is in any given country. In this category, the U.S. currently ranks 25th, while Taiwan ranks 4th. It is worth noting that the Republic of China’s success in education stretches beyond the area of mathematics, as Taiwan currently ranks 8th internationally in reading comprehension and 13th in science, too.

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Using another standardized metric, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), eighth graders in Taiwan ranked 2nd internationally in science and 3rd in mathematics. Taiwanese students also achieved outstanding results in the International Mathematics and Science Olympiad. The Ministry of Education also has a plethora of current initiatives that are aimed at increasing creativity through art and music programs. If you put any faith in these standardized metrics (which, to be fair, are inherently controversial), it is clear that Taiwan is doing something special when it comes to educating its youth.

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During my time abroad, I will have the opportunity to observe hundreds of educators teaching at dozens of schools, learn more about their pedagogical approach, and work to apply as much of it as possible to my work with under-resourced students back home. Although a few ideas in this area have emerged from Japan and Singapore, the approach taken in Taiwan has received little public exposure despite the tremendous success on international benchmarks. This Fulbright project looks to change this paradigm once and for all.

Stock photo of Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan.

As we look forward towards an ever-changing global economy, we as educators need to do a better collective job preparing our students for the complex world in which they will live and work. Commenting on the results of the 2015 PISA, the report’s authors noted that, “while changing how teachers teach is challenging, school leaders and governments should try to find ways to make teaching more effective.” Perhaps I am hopelessly optimistic, but I do believe success is possible.

I have worked hard the last six years to ensure that all of the students whom I taught received a great education, but I must confess that I have learned far more from my students over the years than I have ever taught them. While I am truly excited for the year of personal and professional growth that lies ahead, I also want to ensure that my time abroad actually makes a difference for our most vulnerable students. I hope that my studies in Taiwan can be part of the revolution that is committed to giving all students the chance to attain a truly excellent education.


This post is the first in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The second essay, focused on a “cultural perspective,” will be posted next week.


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 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: “You know what’s weird? Day by day, nothing seems to change. But pretty soon, everything is different.” Here’s to a life-changing 2018!


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.

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.


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.

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.

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?