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.

 

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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You don’t do the right thing every once in a while…

It is hard to believe that we are officially graduates of Columbia’s Summer Principals Academy! It has been such an incredible two years, as I have learned so much and made friends with some of the most transformational educators our country has to offer. The last week of our program was exhilarating to say the least, but more on that to come in a future post…

Two weeks ago, in my Ethical and Legal Issues in Education Leadership class (ORLA 4033), we had to develop a personal code of ethics. We were instructed to consider the ethical principles that will guide our work as educators and reflect on how we can apply the concepts from this class to make morally, ethically, and legally-sound choices regarding future decisions. One of our professors, Dr. Mario Torres (a visiting professor from Texas A&M), encouraged us to start our assignment with a quote that resonated with us, and I immediately thought of a story from three years prior.

The famous photo of Jerrmy Kramer lifting Vince Lombardi after Super Bowl II

A full year before I even applied to Columbia, I had the opportunity to intern in the superintendent’s office of the North Brunswick Township Public Schools. During that time, I noticed a signed autograph on the wall of a famous picture of Jerry Kramer holding up Vince Lombardi after winning Super Bowl II. As a huge Green Bay Packers fan, I recognized the photo immediately, and noticed one of Lombardi’s famous quotesinscribed on the picture alongside Jerry Kramer’s autograph. The quote read, “You don’t do things right once in a while… you do them right all the time.” The autograph was given to Dr. Zychowski by two teachers a few years before, and I thought it was the perfect quote to start with for this assignment!

As I was brainstorming my personal code of ethics in class that day, I remembered that Lombardi quote. As I sat in class, I started thinking about that picture, and I thought it was the perfect way to remind myself about my personal code of ethics while supporting my favorite NFL team. I started looking on ebay and on Google to see if I could find any similar pictures signed by Jerry Kramer and inscribed with the famous quote, but I couldn’t find anything; I lost hope that I would ever to be able to acquire this particular signed photo.

Grainy photo from my first visit to Green Bay

The ironic part of this whole story is that I actually met Jerry Kramer on my lone trip to Green Bay almost ten years ago. My dad brought me to Lambeau for a game, and the day before we met him at a book signing before we went on a stadium tour. Although I was disappointed about the signed photo, I searched the internet relentlessly, and eventually landed on Jerry Kramer’s personal website, http://www.jerrykramer.com. Although it was a huge shot in the dark, I decided to e-mail the webmaster, thinking that I would never hear back from anyone.

A few hours later, I received a cryptic e-mail that I thought was junk and almost deleted, but something made me read it. Here is the e-mail I got:

I excitingly e-mailed her back right away, but I never heard back from her. I e-mailed her again, and figured that something went wrong and that I was once again out of luck. Anyway, I was planning on visiting my family before I left for my trip to Portugal when my mom told me that my poster arrived in the mail. Poster? I didn’t order any posters… Perplexed, I had no clue what to expect. When I got to New York, I almost ripped the picture, as I had no clue what it was. This is what was inside:

 

Inscribed with the famous Lombardi quote

 

Apparently, there are still good people out there. Thank you, Jerry Kramer, for making my year. I hope you know that this picture will be hanging in my office one day, reminding me of my personal code of ethics while I work to ensure that all students have the opprtunity to attain a transformative education.

In case you were interested, here is my personal code of ethics that I completed for that assignment:

Andrew Paulsen’s Personal Goal of Ethics for Professional Work

 “You don’t do things right once in a while… you do them right all the time.” -Legendary Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi

Caring I will: give tender attention to the people and things that matter to me personally; listen with compassion and help with kindness; have a deep empathy for others; act as a zealous public servant that cares tremendously about our students’ future and well-being; believe that, “to teach children, you must love them all, and love them all equally” (St. Marcellin Champagnat).

Courage: I will: share my convictions that I believe strongly in; transform fear into determination; embrace life fully, without holding back; transcend self-doubt; be filled with spirit; act wholeheartedly, with zeal and eagerness while holding nothing back; be assertive and do what must be done, even when it is difficult or risky.

Generosity I will: give fully and share freely; trust that there is plenty for everyone; give freely, free from judgement or prejudice; always look to support those less fortunate; be generous in multiple modalities, including time; believe that to whom much is given, much is expected.

Humility I will: accept praise with modesty and gratitude; be open to every lesson life brings, trusting that mistakes are often my best teacher; have self-respect and quiet confidence; never be arrogant; be thankful for our gifts instead of being boastful; being humble in all aspects of my life; always look, “to do good, and do good quietly” (The Marist Brothers).

Intellect I will: have a discerning mind, based on experience and mindfulness; make wise decisions based on established knowledge and deep-rooted intuition; reflect on well-held beliefs; read and engage in academic discourse to push my thinking; crave the “truth”; be on a perpetual quest for knowledge; be excited about life and open to the wonders each day holds; seek to understand; continuously question why things are; use creative, logical,  and divergent thinking to challenge the status quo; believe that “there are those that look at things as they are and ask ‘why?’; I dream of things that never were, and ask, ‘why not?’”

Loyalty I will: have unwavering faithfulness and commitment to the people and ideas I care about, through good times and bad; be steadfast in allegiance to my ideas, morals, and passions; be faithful to specific people, ideals, customs, and causes; be loyal to the process, as “the hardest things in life are the most difficult to say, because words diminish them” (Stand By Me).

Responsibility I will: be accountable for my choices and also for my mistakes; take on my responsibilities with strength and reliability; have control over and accountability for appropriate events; follow through on all outstanding commitments; believe that doing what is right is not always popular, and doing what is popular is not always right. As Nelson Mandela has said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Trustworthiness: I will: be worthy of the trust others place in me; stand by my word when I give it; keep my agreements faithfully; be trusted and depended upon; be reliable; be my most true and genuine self; always be willing to lend a listening ear; feel comfortable taking an emotional risk on the behavior of those whom I trust.

Reflections from Summer I

Wow. I honestly cannot believe that we are already finished with Summer I of Columbia University’s Summer Principals Academy (SPA). These last six weeks have been such an incredible learning experience, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some of the best educators across the country. It was a much-needed break from the horrendous end of the school year I just went through. Between all of the student walkouts, teachers quitting daily, and (in my perspective) terrible leadership, I asked myself for the first time in my life whether there is a point when education reform goes too far. To be honest, the last four months of this past school year were the hardest four months of my career, and I was ready to put this year behind us.

During our orientation in May, I genuinely did not know what to expect. They definitely tried to scare us, if nothing else. I knew from the very beginning that I was privileged to be able to join such a prestigious graduate school program with such an incredible group of people. Our cohort is diverse in a plethora of different ways, including race, age, and experience; we have teachers from public schools, charter schools, and private schools, and educators that hail from across the country.

 

This July, we took 14.5 credits in five weeks, meaning that we were busy! We took Introduction to School Leadership and Decision Making, School Leadership for Adult Development, Supervision of Teaching and Learning, Basic Practicum in Conflict Resolution, and Program Development: Teaching, Learning and Assessment. We also took a 1-credit equity series class, which features classes such as emotional intelligence, culturally relevant pedagogy, and examining the district/charter schools debate. I made the decision to stay on campus this summer, so that I could devote all of my time to school. I recognize that I am extraordinarily privileged to be able to do that, and have so much respect for my peers that had to leave behind their families this summer to attain a transformative school leadership experience.

 

 

The last day of 5018 Adult Development

Our first class on our very first day was 4001: School Leadership. This class was run very similar to the way a Harvard Business School class would be run, with a heavy focus on case studies. We started our course with a discussion about Machiavelli’s The Princeand then took a Values-Based Leadership diagnostic. This tool helped us conceptualize answers to broad leadership questions, such as, “What are we trying to accomplish? Who is leading this work? Why do I lead? How do I lead?” We learned about research from Joel Murphy that turnaround schools are not effective (which was particularly meaningful after the spring I just went through). We learned about Research form Eric Schmidt of Stanford that suggests that if a school exits the lowest 33.3% of teachers, student achievement will increase by 25%. We also learned about a plethora of decision making models, and Jack Welsh’s philosophy that “meetings are for leaders who don’t trust their subordinate’s ability to get things done” (Our professor also told us that Welsh apparently never lead a meeting that was longer than 15 minutes). During 4001, I got really lucky in that I was put in a group that quickly became my best friends at Columbia. Every day in that class we had a case study to analyze, and it was due at 9:00pm sharp – even though we had days in which we did not get out of class until 7:00pm! This group of people really means a lot to me, and quickly became my support network throughout this summer.

Our cohort presented Dr. Drago-Severson with a pillow so that she can always be “well held.

The two classes that had the biggest intellectual impact on me was, without question, adult development and conflict resolution. As I wrote in my reflection paper, it is hard to believe how much I have grown as a leader, and perhaps more importantly as a person, over the course of the three weeks in 5018: Adult Development. Going into that class, I was excited to learn about adult developmental psychology, as it was something that I had neither previously considered nor studied. Although I knew that everyone had their own lenses in which they observed and made meaning of the world, I never had the academic language to fully articulate my feelings towards adults that make meaning of life in different ways. This course pushed my thinking in multiple aspects, both personally and professionally. Perhaps most prominently, I left that class with renewed feelings of optimism and excitement, and personally feel that the practical applications of the theory from 5018 has the potential to really make a transformational impact in the lives of others. One of the most important lines that Dr. Drago-Severson has repeated throughout the course is that, although you can never force an adult to develop, “you can create an environment in which adult development is possible.” This is something that will stay with me for a long time. I also sense the urgency in this course; in the globally connected and ever-changing 21st century, where we are faced with challenges that are highly adaptive in nature, true leadership not only takes true courage, grit, and perseverance, but some level of self-authoring capacity. In synthesis, adult development is something that is not simply ideal but is rather an ideology that must be studied and practiced if we are serious about pushing our country and thus our world forward.

Jacklyn and Arianne looking for the infamous owl

In our conflict resolution class, I read on the syllabus that we were actually going to run a prisoner’s dilemma on the first day of class. Having read about the prisoner’s dilemma (including having had the opportunity to write a paper on the topic during undergrad), I was personally very excited to hear that we were going to be acting out the prisoner’s dilemma on the first day of class. Although I was ready for the challenge, the nature of separating the two groups and placing us into two different floors made this much more realistic than I ever could have imagined by simply reading theory. When the two groups first separated, my outlook was to maximize both teams’ returns and fully “cooperate;” after coming from a transformational adult development course that literally ended the day before, I thought that most of my peers were thinking in similar ways. In hindsight, I found that I could not have been more wrong. As previously mentioned, during these heated debates with my colleagues about what the best course of action should be, I learned very quickly that it is one thing to study the prisoner’s dilemma and another entirely to actually participate in it. Reflecting back on the activity, I thought that I had originally convinced my group to cooperate early on in the activity, and since the other group was willing to cooperate, I wrongly thought that the adaptive challenge was completed. As we kept going back and forth, and both teams picked “blue” (to cooperate), I felt that we had sealed the deal. Unfortunately, many of my teammates’ values were seemingly thrown out the figurative window during the last round when our group decided to vote for “red.” I tried my best to persuade my group to go along for the greater good, but in the end, my efforts were fruitless. Even though I felt as though I did the right thing, I was still upset because our group ended up looking out for our own interests exclusively, screwing over the other group in the process. It was rather disconcerting to hear some of my peer’s rationales and opinions about why they choose to “get ahead at the cost of others.” I feel that, looking at the greater picture here, and as we all are aspiring school leaders, we need to be open and willing to collaborate together by constantly looking out for the best interests of all of our children. During this experience, we had an opportunity to let both groups win, and our group chose to be selfish and take advantage of the situation. Even though this was just a game, it was clear that many people had a deep and emotionally charged reaction to the activity. For me, the prompt also had me beg the question, “at what point does this game become reality?” Although it was an interesting exercise and a great way to start a conflict resolution class, I felt that this gave me tremendous insight into certain people’s true personalities while bringing me closer to other individuals, as well. Regardless, it was a fantastic learning experience that will always serve as a personal reminder about why we should always be looking to “do the right thing.” I really feel as though this basic practicum in conflict resolution has given me both the intellectual rational and technical skills needed to truly make a difference when involved in a conflict situation.

My incredible TC SPA #squad

The only class I was particularly disappointed with was our Program Development: Teaching, Learning and Assessment class. I was originally really excited when I heard that one of the former deputy chancellors of the NYC Department of Education (under Joel Klein) was going to be one of our professors. I learned very quickly that although he might have been a great #2 person running the DOE or he understood the NYC bureaucracy incredibly well, he did not know much about effective teaching. This was made evident when he showed us an “exemplar” math classroom that really was nothing special. I also did not appreciate how he treated graduate students like middle schoolers, but perhaps that is a story for another day…

Overall, it was such a transformational summer; one that I really needed. I am so excited to shadow some awesome school leaders in the fall, start my New School Design project, and get ready for the fall semester. Now, I am off to Buenos Aires! ¡Hasta la próxima vez!

When Ed Reform Goes Too Far

As all of my friends and co-workers would attest, I am extremely passionate about the field of education. I fundamentally believe that our students and thus our schools are essential to the future of our great nation. I also believe that every student can be pushed onto a track towards future success; Stanford Professor Dr. Jo Boaler pointed out during a recent conference in Boston that 95% of our current students have the mental and physical capacity to attend a post-secondary institution if they are taught in the right way. It promptly follows that we must make our schools better if we are serious about the lofty goal of putting every student on the road to college and career readiness.
Over the course of the last five years, I have read almost every book I could get my hands on that examines various theories about so-called education reform. I have considered a wide range of diverse opinions, ranging from Diane Ravitch to Michelle Rhee to Joel Klein. More recently, I have become immersed in the work of Elizabeth Green and more specifically the notion that we need to move away from the vicious ‘accountability vs. autonomy’ arguments that permeate the discussions surrounding education reform today.
One may be wondering where all of this incredible passion comes from. Over three years ago, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime as one of the 17% of applicants accepted into Teach For America’s 2012 corps, and was subsequently placed at East Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. Although there have been many emotionally draining and stressful occurrences over the course of the past three years, my experience working in Newark has shown me the potential our astonishing students really have. I think of my many students who are first generation immigrants, excelling at school while struggling to learn a language and grow accustomed to a new culture that is so very different from the one in which they have grown up. I think of students like Melissa, a junior who is poised to become the first person in her family to attend college, and has led the Robotics team to the first ever district finals. And then I think of students like Austin, a senior that has become like a little brother to me, who, through unimaginable stress and tremendous adversity, has persevered and risen to the top of his class, being named Salutatorian while being elected President of the Student Council and serving as captain of the varsity soccer team. Austin has also won some of the most competitive scholarships (including the prestigious Coca-Cola Scholarship and the NHL’s Thurgood Marshall Scholarship) while being offered admittance into some of the most elite universities our country has to offer (including Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell). And they have all done well in part because of the opportunities they have had while attending East Side High School.

East Side is the largest high school within the governance of the Newark Public Schools. It is one of the few Newark high schools with high demand as enrollment has skyrocketed over the course of the past three years due to more families wanting to enroll their children at East Side High School. As a designated Title 1 School, 81.9% of our students are considered economically disadvantaged, 15% of students are classified with special needs, and 18.3% are English Language Learners (Source: The New Jersey Department of Education state report card for East Side High School). While our school has had and will continue to face many difficult and sensitive challenges in the road ahead, one thing that no one can argue is which direction East Side is headed. As many “Data-Driven” educational leaders would say, let us look at the data. Star-Ledger Reporter Naomi Nix has recently put forward that, “the share of students considered proficient in language arts increased from 67 percent during the 2010-2011 school year to 79 percent during the 2013-2014 school year, while the number of students considered proficient in math has increased from 63 percent during the 2010-2011 school year to 75 percent during the 2013-2014 school year.”

It sure seems as though there are many great things going on at East Side High School. I am not sure anyone would consider East Side a great school – yet – but we are definitely in the process of becoming one. Any reasonably coherent person would see the overwhelming positive trajectory that East Side High School is on.

Which is exactly why our entire building – teachers, administrators, and students alike – were shocked to discover that the Newark Public Schools has designated East Side High School as a turnaround school for the 2015-2016 school year.
Huh?
When pressed with any possible rationale as to why a state-appointed administration would aim to turnaround one of the brightest beacons of hope in the Newark Public Schools, they responded with saying that the incoming 8th graders are achieving at a significantly lower rate than last year’s cohort, and it is those students that truly need to be “turned around.” I am not sure I follow this argument; if this is true, why not turn around the K-8 schools first? For me personally, I already get to school by 7:00 am and leave at around 5:00 pm everyday. If these reforms are to go through, I would lose about 90 minutes of daily lesson prep time (40 minutes from a shortened prep and 50 minutes from the extended school day) in addition to gaining a 6th class. Until what time does the Newark Public Schools want me to work? Do they want me to put in 12-hour days on a consistent basis? I need at least two hours to plan a highly effective lesson that is culturally relevant and engaging for our students. This is in addition to all of the extremely important extracurricular activities, extra help, and empowering conversations that I have with students on a daily basis. I am worried that I will burn out even earlier next year, and that I will not be as mentally ready to give it my all during class day-in and day-out.

This past Saturday, in protest of this decision, our school community held an inspirational #WeAreEastSide rally to showcase some of the great things that are going on at East Side High and to highlight everything that would be lost if these changes go through. As our fearless principal Dr. Mario Santos has said, “East Side has been on a road to greatness and the results have shown it! The key ingredient of any great school is great teachers, and my focus and my goal is not to lose any great teachers. The term turnaround…can affect that. Obviously, I don’t want to lose any great teachers.” As our vice principal (and TFA alumna) Meg Murray said during the rally, “East Side IS a turnaround; we are a great school and constantly getting better!”
At the #WeAreEastSide rally 
I worry that some of our educational leaders have lost touch with reality, and that we are starting to lose focus of the bigger picture. I resonate strongly with Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece in the NY Times, which put forward the notion that improving our schools is essential, but at what cost? While working in an inner-city school for the past three years, I agree with him that we must “support education reform. Yet the brawls have left everyone battered and bloodied, from reformers to teachers unions.”
Our principal Dr. Santos speaking at the #WeAreEastSide rally
To my peers and fellow educators: let us keep showing the world what Newark and East Side High School is capable of doing. Let us keep pushing ourselves to improve our craft and become the very best teachers that we can be. And let us keep up with the biggest responsibility we have – to pass down knowledge onto the next generation of leaders while preparing them for the dynamic and globally connected world that is the 21st century.
And to the Newark Public Schools: as a Teach For America alum, I want to be on your team. I want to believe in what you stand for, but it has become increasingly difficult to support a vision that completely decimates our public schools. I share in your resolve to make the Newark Public Schools a great school district, but I promise you that “turning around” East Side High School would do nothing more than de-stabilize the most stable comprehensive public high school that Newark has to offer. If the turnaround designation stays, many of our best teachers will choose to leave the district in large droves. The fallacy with many of these reforms is that the best teachers – “The Irreplaceables,” as they are often called – will have opportunities in other districts, and that only the worst teachers will be stuck in the Newark Public Schools. At the Partner’s for Excellence reception the district held earlier in the year, district leaders declared how we as a district must do everything we possibly can to retain our highly effective teachers, yet the actions of the district seemingly advocate for the exact opposite. I worry that if these reforms go through and there is a mass teacher exodus as expected, it will take at least a decade to restore the school to anything faintly resembling East Side as we know it today. I urge the district to reconsider this turnaround designation, and instead give our instructional leaders worthwhile professional development that will truly improve our pedagogy. I lobby for new teacher coaches so that my colleagues and I can continue to grow as educators, which will help our students far more than simply extending the school day by an hour.  And please allow for an open and honest dialogue with the people that have the biggest impact on student achievement and the ones who are fighting on the front lines every single day – your teachers.
To close, I must ask: Are we creating conditions in our urban schools such that our best teachers leave and our worst teachers stay? Does urban education go too far when it does more to drive away the irreplaceable teachers to other districts or professions than to keep them in the classroom? And when will we learn that education reform must be done WITH schools and communities and not TO them?
As for me, I still have tremendous hope for our future. Perhaps I am an eternal optimist or a hopeless romantic, but I am a teacher because I fundamentally believe that education has the power to change the world. I know that our schools can do better and that many things in the K-12 system need to change. But is there a point when education reform goes too far?

2014: A Year in Review

2014 was the year of traveling and the year of weddings, and it was definitely a year to remember. As I mentioned in last year’s year in review, I rung in 2014 sixty-feet underwater in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on an amazing dive trip with two of my teacher friends, Nick and Karina. It was my first live-aboard, and it was an absolutely incredible experience that I will always cherish; I already cannot wait to go diving again! Later in the month, Matt, Victoria and I flew down to Louisville for our good friend Steve Townsend’s wedding. Although we were there for only a few days, we tried to make the most out of the experience, and checked out the Louisville Slugger Factory, ate some delicious Hot Brown’s at the eminent Brown Hotel, and had an Inside-the Gates tour of Churchill Downs, too.
At Steve’s wedding in Louisville
Spring went by so fast. Our basketball team won the state tournament, Teach For America-New Jersey celebrated their 20thanniversary, and we celebrated MIPO’s 35th anniversary in the city, too. In March, I was once again privileged to chaperone another overnight college visit trip to Connecticut and Rhode Island, which was humbling and empowering as usual.
Eric showing me around Turner Sports
April was one of the best months of the spring, as I was able to get to two new cities: New Orleans and Atlanta. In short, both cities lived up to the hype. In New Orleans, we went for the annual NCTM conference, which was just as informative as the conference in Denver. I would highly recommend checking out my full write-up about New Orleans here. After landing in Newark, I had less than 12 hours before I was on another plane bound for Atlanta. It was my first time to visit “Hotlanta,” and I was excited to see my good friend Eric Vander Voort, who I hadn’t seen for a while, and is currently working at Turner Sports. In the five days that I was there, we killed the city, going to just about every famous restaurant and museum the city had to offer. Oh, and did I mention that we ran into Shaq at the Turner Sports building, too? Talk about once in a lifetime!
 
In May, some of my best friends in the world graduated from Marist, and in June, between chaperoning more trips, speaking at Honor Society Dinners and gearing up for the World Cup, I moved out of Newark to Rahway, which is about fifteen minutes south of the city. Speaking of soccer, this was the first year I actually followed the World Cup, and it really got me into soccer.
At the College Summit at Yale University
In July, I was invited to be in Dan Torres’ wedding, which was incredible! It was held in upstate New York, and it was great re-connecting with so many people I hadn’t seen in over a year. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to chaperone a weeklong overnight College Summit visit to Yale, and met some great rising seniors that all had unique stories about their pursuit of their future. The following week, I was able to visit my longtime friend Johnny Delgado in St. Louis, and return to the baseball mecca that is Busch Stadium. In addition to visiting Johnny, it was my second time to the city, although it was my first time seeing the new stadium.
On the field at Busch Stadium
In August, I was so blessed to be able to visit Spain for a month. I went to study Spanish, live with a host family, and experience as much of the culture of España as I possibly could. In the three weeks I was there, I was able to get to four major cities, including Madrid, Toledo, Valencia and Barcelona. I had the best paella I’ve ever had in my life, experienced my first professional soccer game, y aprendí un poco más español. Quite frankly, it was one of the best trips that I have ever taken in my life. I never had the opportunity to study abroad while I was in college, so I felt that this was my chance to study abroad and take in a new culture while learning a new language along the way.
Before I knew it, the summer was over, and a new school year was around the corner. This year, I was appointed to be a lead teacher in the math department, something I was extremely excited about. My classes were awesome, and it is honestly hard to believe how fast the first four months have gone.
At Austin’s last high school soccer game
Just when the leaves were changing colors, we took a busload of students down to Rutgers for the day to check out the New Brunswick campus, and I also saw my first Red Bull soccer game, too. In October, I saw the U.S. men’s national team play Ecuador in Connecticut with Rob and Jeff, which was really cool (even if I did get to the game a little late…). One of the funniest aspects of the trip was that many of my students are Ecuadorian, so it was a lot of fun leading up to the game. At the end, the teams tied 2-2. After getting back, I was able to cheer on our boy’s soccer team and watched them win the Newark City Championship, and go to Austin’s last high school soccer game, too.
At the game that night with Jeff and Rob
During November, a bunch of friends and co-workers went down to Jamaica for my friend Nuno’s wedding. It was my first destination wedding, and it was awesome! In between the wedding festivities, I was able to squeeze in a trip to the famous Dunn River Falls and embark on a scuba diving excursion, too. The wedding itself was picturesque, as shown below. Two weeks later, I had another wedding, and Ryan and DJ got married, too!
Congrats to “Nuna”
In December, I had one of the most memorable days of my teaching career to date when I took almost 50 high schools students to visit my beloved alma mater, Marist. In between working with seniors on countless college and scholarship applications, I was able to go to a soccer scholarship dinner and finally try some authentic Norwegian food, too. For New Year’s, I went up to Connecticut, and had such an amazing time.
Another late night working on college applications
As I said, 2014 was the year of weddings and trips, and it really was quite a memorable year. It seems as though every year goes by faster, but I guess that is to be expected, especially as we get older; maybe that is why we need to make every second count!
One of the most memorable days of my teaching career
 
Here’s to a great 2015!