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.