After spending years in different classrooms observing, student teaching, tutoring and volunteering, I was both very anxious and excited to actually have a class of my own this year. Last week signaled the end of the first marking period; what an interesting first quarter it has been.
A week before school started, I finally received the keys to my classroom. When I walked in for the first time, the room was nothing like I had envisioned at all. I had six desks in my class, there was graffiti on all of the walls, everything was dirty, and to say I was disappointed would be an understatement. But it the midst of all the ruble, I saw the layout of a great classroom. I knew I only had a few days before school started, so I got to work right away trying to make the best classroom with the materials I had. I started by throwing away all of the broken furniture, ripped posters and frog dissection kits (you read that correctly) that were clogging up the room, and began wiping down everything covered in dirt and dust. I re-did the bulletin boards (which came out very well thanks to my experience from my RA days), found some new inspirational posters to hang up, and strategically hung them to cover gaping holes in the walls.
Another aspect of my classroom that was rather disconcerting was the presence of a blackboard in my room. I never liked teaching with chalk, as my clothes always got very dusty and the chalk made me cough a lot as well. I decided that I needed to somehow turn the blackboard into a whiteboard, but I didn’t know how. I started by calling some companies that professionally installed white boards, but the cost was way too high (a couple of thousand dollars). As I was telling my co-workers about my idea of getting a white board, another TFA corps member told me about special white-board paint that I could buy that would easily turn my blackboard into a whiteboard. I went to the store and, for $50.00, I bought two cans of white-board paint, some paint brushes and other painting supplies. I asked some of my students to help me out, and we stayed around, ate pizza and painted for a few hours after school on a Friday. The board came out so great! Seeing my students want to stay late after school on a Friday to help me paint was one of the most memorable moments in my teaching career so far.
After the whiteboard was done, I felt that our class would benefit from a projector so that I could show powerpoint presentations and clips from Youtube, helping make math class more fun and engaging. Once again, we had no money for a $600.00 projector, but I knew how beneficial it would be to my students. After talking to many people about possible fundraising ideas to raise money, I went on Donors Choose and asked for an LCD projector for my room. Nine donors funded the $684.48 project in less than 48 hours, and the projector was at East Side a few days later. With the projector in hand, the white board ready, and my room starting to actually feel like a classroom, I knew that I was going to be able to drastically improve the effectiveness of student learning in the coming weeks.
People are often surprised when I tell them how much I am enjoying working in an inner-city high school in Newark, NJ. Is everyday a great day? No. Are there many frustrating moments and days when I go home with a splitting headache? Of course. But there are so many small victories day to day that makes it all “worth it.” Last week, for example, one of my students said to me: “Mr. Paulsen, you have a gift. We walk into your class and we are so excited because you are the only teacher we like.” Now who knows how true that may be, but it made my day regardless.
Every week I walk into school and I am inspired by the stories of my students and the struggles they face everyday. The more I walk the halls and the more students I get to know, the more potential I see in these students that, born into different circumstances, would be competing with the top students our country has to offer. After working in an urban district for three months and seeing what is possible, I believe that every student can learn and be successful if they went to a school that valued the importance of school culture and had great teachers. I believe now more than ever that “One day, every child in this nation will have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education.”
I just got back from Washington D.C. with the East Side High School Student Council. After being surrounded by 9th graders for the first seven weeks of school, it was very different being with the brightest 11th and 12th graders East Side has to offer. When I was first asked to chaperone the overnight trip to our nation’s capitol, I was so excited, as I really enjoy the D.C. area and I have been involved with student government for as long as I can remember. I expected to have a great time touring Georgetown and American University and all of the historical artifacts in D.C. What I did not expect, however, was just how powerful these two days were going to be.
Students waiting outside the 4D movie at the Newseum
I first want to mention how appreciative the entire group was from when we first boarded the bus until we got home. From going to the 4D movie at the Newseum to the many rounds of candy given out on the bus, everything we did was greeted with a “thank you,” and the students were so grateful for everything. Three of the students had never been out of the Newark-NYC area in their lives, and a few had never stayed in a hotel. On Thursday night, I was walking around the hotel lobby, and saw that they were all working out in the hotel’s gym. Perplexed as to why they all wanted to work out on the one day they had off, I decided to go into the gym and ask them. They told me that they were so excited that the gym was free and that it was open 24 hours, and it was a great place to hang out. Our students were so happy to do things that others take for granted every single day, and it was humbling to say the least.
Students working out in the gym at the Hotel
On the flip side, what surprised me the most perhaps was how other people viewed and looked at these students at almost every place we visited. Seemingly unbeknown to a majority of the students, almost everywhere we went, people looked at these students as if they were out of place. On Friday morning at the hotel, for example, a table of other hotel guests literally got up and left breakfast early because our students were eating breakfast. Many times, complete strangers would give glancing looks at these students, almost as if they wanted to ask why these students were in D.C. or visiting college campuses. The weird thing is that most of the students didn’t even seem to notice, and even the ones that did weren’t bothered by it, possibly because they are all used to living in a world with so many ignorant people. It was eye-opening to see this first-hand, and although we have made tremendous progress over the last 50 years, we still have a long way to go.
The ESHS Student Council at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
The most powerful moments of the trip, hands-down, were when we were at the two colleges we visited: Georgetown and American University. It was so unbelievably inspiring seeing so many students from Newark interested in college. During the tours, they asked brilliant questions about college life, admissions procedures, and financial aid. It was interesting hearing them worry about things that I took so much for granted for when I was a senior in high school – like how to get into a school without a social security number or how to fill out a mandatory FAFSA form if their parents are undocumented. For many of these student leaders with high GPA’s, the admissions process and financial aid procedure itself is a hindrance to going to college. Although I have read about it many times, actually experiencing institutionalized classism first hand is one of the most opinion-changing events that I have ever stood witness too.
The ESHS Student Council excited to be walking around D.C.!
Throughout the trip, I was fortunate to have had many amazing conversations with these great students about their future and how they plan on getting there. One of the best conversations I had was with a bunch of seniors about the notion of going to a community college for two years to save money before transferring to a four-year university. Some of these students may have faced tremendous adversities and obstacles in their life, but it is not stopping them from expecting the best out of themselves and attempting to get the best education that they can. After spending two days with this bright, articulate and inspirational group of people, I have tremendous faith that these students are going to be successful in whatever field they want to after college and finally break the “vicious cycle” for their families. I have no doubt that the kids I got to know the last two days are going to be the next great leaders of our country.