The Shifting Landscape of Math Education in Taiwan

With a traditional culture that has generally emphasized standardized testing and the Confucian ‘sage on a stage’ model of instruction, there is a lot of controversy regarding Taiwanese education reform. In fact, “the fundamental purpose of education has long been debated in Taiwan. This ongoing debate has led to a learning system that over-emphasizes academic performance and neglects other dimensions of learning. But recently, the Taiwanese government adopted the use of a constructivist approach to teaching mathematics. This new approach to teaching and learning focuses on the whole child” (Eisenhart, 2011).

Contemporary education reform in Taiwan started during the late 1980’s, when a team led by Dr. Fou-Lai Lin “gradually began to investigate mathematics teaching through research and literature studies instead of only through their own experience. As a product of these occurrences, mathematics teacher education in Taiwan moved towards a new realm, combining practical experience with mathematics education research” (Hsieh et. al., 2009). In 1996, “in-service and pre-service math teachers throughout Taiwan began to deeply consider the way students think, shifting the view towards teaching from teacher-centered to student- oriented” (Hsieh et. al., 2009). The following year, the Ministry of Education implemented a new national curriculum for junior high school students. Many of these changes “centered on students; the links between mathematics and life; the cultivation of students’ creativity, thinking, as well as reasoning abilities; and on an active attitude towards learning mathematics and appreciating mathematics (Hsieh, 1997).” The intent of these reforms “means that in mathematics education the emphasis will shift to problem-solving and process-monitoring and away from memorizing and plugging into formulas. Problem solving through which one can learn the methods of acquiring knowledge is one aspect of mathematics education that has been more or less neglected in Taiwan, but is now gaining attention alongside the emphasis on mathematics education for lifelong learning” (Hoyles, Morgan, & Woodhouse, 1999).

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Liu Mong-chi presenting a session on how to design questions that test students’ core competence: “If the only metric we use to determine the effectiveness of our education system is PISA, we will not have an effective education system.”

In modern-day Taiwan, the Ministry of Education is currently piloting a new national curriculum that will be rolled out during the 2019-2020 school year. One of the Ministry’s noted goals is to “progressively implement the 12-Year Basic Education program, incorporating development of adaptive learning and completely non-exam-based secondary school admission” (Ministry of Education, 2017). Policy makers are are planning to adapt the Taiwanese curricula to encourage creative problem solving (Hoyles, Morgan, & Woodhouse, 1999). The Ministry has also put forward that “teachers are required to pay closer attention to the learning process and children’s conceptualization of content and ideas rather than focusing on simply attaining the correct answer” (Eisenhart, 2011). These proposed reforms look to address the pitfalls of  current educational practice and intends to inspire students to collaborate through project-based learning and standard-based grading. During one interview, a teacher noted how these changes will take the future generation of Taiwanese students onto a positive new path that will prepare them for the adaptive challenges of our increasingly globalized world.

As the vision of Taiwan’s new 12-year basic education program is developed, its ideas of “spontaneity, interaction, and common good” are synthesized with reference to the educational ideas of John Dewey (1938), postmodernism, and complex thought (Morin, 1999; 1993). These instructional shifts encourage Taiwanese teachers to let students drive their learning and take ownership of their thinking with an aim to inspire rather than to control (Fan, 2016). After all, “if we continue to ignore the power of students’ own ideas and conceptions, we will only perpetuate the notion that mathematics and science (among other subjects in our school curricula) are irrelevant, uninteresting, and difficult to learn” (Sahlberg, 2018).

These progressive changes are not unique to Taiwan, either: “China, the leading economic competitor of the United States, is decentralizing its curriculum, diversifying assessment, and encouraging local autonomy and innovation. Meanwhile… Singapore is promoting a creative environment characterized by ‘Teach Less, Learn More’” (Finnish Lessons 2.0). In other Asian countries, schools “are limiting direct instruction and mere recitation of facts and looking for more innovative pedagogies and encourage students to design and make things” (Wagner & Dintersmith, 2016). When observing classrooms throughout Taiwan, it is apparent that lesson structure plays an important role both during class and when a teacher is preparing for a lesson. This idea was featured prominently in Elizabeth Green’s critically-acclaimed book Building a Better Teacher:

“One striking example was the way teachers structured their lessons. American teachers rarely talked about lesson structure – the way class proceeds from a beginning to a middle to an end – and yet, watching each individual teacher at work, Stigler felt as though they’d all read the same recipe. ‘A cultural script,’ he called it… Some American teachers called their pattern ‘I, We, You.’ The Japanese teachers, meanwhile, turned ‘I, We, You’ inside out. You might call their version ‘You, Y’all, We.’ They began not with an introduction, but a single problem that students spent ten or twenty minutes working through. Next, the teacher brought them back to the whole group, asking students to present their different ideas for how to solve the problem on the chalkboard. Give the answer and the reason for the answer. Finally, a teacher led a discussion, guiding students to a shared conclusion – What did you learn from today’s problem, or what new questions do you have, if any?” (Green, 2015)

To fully capitalize on harnessing student’s own ideas and conceptions, many schools in Taiwan (and throughout the world) are recognizing the importance of teaching students how to work collaboratively, create viable arguments, and critique the reasoning of others. Student voice is featured prominently within many Taiwanese math classes, often for students to share their strategy on how to solve a complex problem. Unlike in the U.S., most Taiwanese high school math classes only complete a few rigorous problems during each period, as opposed to drilling a few dozen scaffolded problems over the trajectory of a lesson. This means that students spend more time thinking deeply about a few hard problems, which enables them to reflect critically about their solution strategy. When students are solving these problems, the types of questions that Taiwanese teachers ask their students are noticeably different than the types of questions often posed by American teachers:

“In comparisons of mathematics teaching in the United States and in high-achieving countries, U.S. mathematics instructions has been characterized as rarely asking students to think and reason with or about mathematical ideas. [American] teachers sometimes perceive student frustration of lack of immediate success as indicators that they have somehow failed their students. As a result, [American math teachers] jump in to ‘rescue’ students by breaking down the task and guiding students step by step through the difficulties. Although well intentioned, such ‘rescuing’ undermines the efforts of students, lowers the cognitive demand of the task, and deprives students of opportunities to engage fully in making sense of mathematics” (NCTM, 2014).

To this end, some Taiwanese teachers are moving away from rigid algebraic algorithms to flexible divergent thinking. For an algebraic example that highlights this phenomenon, consider the simplification of the following expression, which was recently given to an 8th grade class at a junior high school in Taiwan. How would most American students go about simplifying such an expression?

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Most American children would follow “PEMDAS” (the rigid algorithm commonly used for order of operations), and start by multiplying 6 times 14 times 21, and then dividing by 42 OR simplifying the 21 and the 42 to ½ first. Look instead what one Taiwanese 8th grader wrote on the board:

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Before jumping immediately into the problem, the student reflects for a second and sees that by re-grouping the six, she can attain 42, which allows for a more straight forward simplification. The student then had to only multiply 3 times 14 to get the correct answer.

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Another example was seen during a 9thgrade geometry class. After deriving the ‘interior angle’ formula of a polygon, a student worked a problem down to the following expression:

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Again, most American students would start by distributing the 180 to the parenthesis, or by simplifying 360 times five equals 1800. Instead, consider what one Taiwanese 9th grader wrote:

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Because Taiwanese students were encouraged to think divergently about the algebra at hand instead of rigidly following an algorithm, the students could regroup certain terms to make the complex expression simpler. In many classroom observations, different students were solving algebra using a multitude of different strategies, allowing them to think more concretely about the algebra and open up the world of mathematics.

Another exemplar aspect of Taiwanese math pedagogy is how teachers prominently feature multiple modalities in their pedagogy, as well. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has put forward that “effective mathematics teaching includes a strong focus on using varied mathematical representations” (NCTM, 2014). In fact, multiple studies have found that “when students learn to represent, discuss, and make connections among mathematical ideas in multiple forms, they demonstrate deeper mathematical understanding and enhanced problem-solving abilities” (Fuson, Kalchman, and Bransford, 2005). Taiwanese teachers in particular focus heavily on different visual representations of abstract mathematics, which help students “advance their understanding of mathematical concepts and procedures” (Arcavi, 2003).

Creating arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, on the other hand, is a pedagogical shift that Taiwanese teachers are struggling to implement. In one classroom observation, a teacher in Kinmen repeatedly told students that, “we cannot work independently anymore; we need to work with others and learn to cooperate more.” Although this teacher had strong messaging, they struggled to give students concrete strategies to help facilitate meaningful groupwork.

During another school visit, several educators in Kaohsiung have asked how teachers in the United States facilitate rigorous discussions and Socratic seminars with their students. In Newark, the Office of Mathematics argues that “mathematical discourse should be well-planned, intentional, and embedded in whole-class and small-group settings.” Classroom discussion is one of the most important levers in student success: when educators “decrease the teacher talk and increase the student talk by providing them with learning intentions and success criteria, and a deeper understanding of how to have a discussion with the class” (DeWitt, 2017). In fact, “students who learn to articulate and justify their own mathematical ideas, reason through their own and others’ mathematical explanations, and provide a rationale for their answers develop a deep understanding that is critical to their future success in mathematics and related field” (Michaels, O’Connor, and Resnick, 2007). These shifts are most profound when teachers view themselves as a facilitator of knowledge instead of a giver of knowledge, a shift that will be enduring for many teachers (NCTM, 2014). In a country with a strong culture that has many roots in Confucianism, this instructional shift will inevitably take time to fully implement.

While these are just some of the pedagogies that Taiwanese math teachers use throughout their practice, we still have a far way to go as a global math community until every school has implemented research-informed best practices that will help students learn better. Perhaps NCTM summated this global shifting landscape most succinctly: in math classes in 2018, “students must rethink what it means to be a successful learner of mathematics, and teachers must rethink what it means to be an effective teacher of mathematics” (2014). Let us now resolve to work relentlessly to achieve this end and share the innate beauty of mathematics with everyone.

 

Works Cited

Arcarvi, A. (2003) “The Role of Visual Representations in the Learning of Math” Educational Studies in Mathematics, 52, no. 3 pg. 215-241

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education.NY, New York: Kappa Delta Pi.

DeWitt, P. (2017). 3 ‘Simple’ Ideas Every Educator Should Work on in 2017. Retrieved from http://wps.greenwichcsd.org/superintendent/2017/01/06/3-simple-ideas-every-educator-should-work-on-in-2017/

Eisenhart, C. (2011). Why do Taiwanese Children Excel at Math?. The Phi Delta Kappan. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/987689/Why_do_Taiwanese_Children_Excel_at_Math

Fan, H. C. (2016). Education in Taiwan: The Vision and Goals of the 12-Year Curriculum.Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/education-in-taiwan-the-vision-and-goals-of-the-12-year-curriculum/

Fuson, K., Kalchman, M., and Bransford, J. (2005) “Mathematical Understanding: an Introduction” in How Students Learn History, Mathematics and Science in the Classroom., edited by Donovan, S., & Bransford, J. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Green, E. (2015). Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and how to teach it to everyone).New York ; London: Norton et Company.

Hoyles, C., Morgan, C., & Woodhouse, G. (1999). Rethinking the Mathematics Curriculum. doi:10.4324/9780203234730

Hsieh, F.-J. (1997). 國中數學新課程精神與特色. [The essence and features of new mathematics curriculum in junior high school]. Science Education Monthly, 197, 45-55.

Hsieh, F.-J., Lin, P.-J., Chao, G., & Wang, T.-Y. (2009).
Policy and Practice of Mathematics Teacher Education in Taiwan.

Michaels, S., O’Connor, C., & Resnick, L. (2007). Deliberative Discourse Idealized and Realized: Accountable Talk in the Classroom and in Civic Life. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 27(4), 283-297. doi:10.1007/s11217-007-9071-1

Ministry of Education (2017). Ministry of Education Objectives for 2018 (January-December)  released 7/19/2017. Taipei, Taiwan: Ministry of Education.

Morin, E. (1999). The Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future. Helsinki, Finnish: UNESCO. Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency. (n.d.). National Curriculum. Retrieved from http://curriculum.qcda.gov.uk/index.aspx

Morin, E. (1993). 複合思想導論[Complex Thought](施植明,譯)。臺北市:時報文化。

NCTM (2014) Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success For All. Reston, VA: NCTM, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Sahlberg, P. (2018). FinnishED Leadership: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2016). Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. New York, NY: Scribner.

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.”

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

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.

March Madness, East Side Style!

As Steve Politi of the Star-Ledger has pointed out, the group of high school students that made up the East Side High School Basketball team this year was “a group that decided that the road less traveled was the one to take, and that they would take it together to the old brick building on Van Buren Street in Newark,” instead of choosing to attend an exclusive private high school on a basketball scholarship. As such, we spent a lot of time in March driving all over the state watching our Red Raiders upset team after team, all the way through the state championship and to the final game of the Tournament of Champions.

A sign we made for our last home game of the season

Although we ended up coming up exactly two points short of being the first public school in nearly 20 years to win a tournament of champions trophy, you would be hard-pressed to find a Newarker that couldn’t be prouder of a team that worked so hard to get as far as they did. For as our own Jamar Gilbert has said, “growing up, you [would] only hear the bad things about Newark. We [wanted] to do something good for the city.” And doing something good for Newark is exactly what the East Side High School Boys Basketball team did in the March of 2014.

Our team. 
After basketball season was over, I was again fortunate to chaperone the East Side High School Student Council trip to colleges throughout the Northeast, including UCONN, The University of Rhode Island, and Providence College. At UCONN, I had the privilege of walking on the floor of the Gampel Pavilion, a ‘Mecca” for college basketball aficionados like myself. After leaving UCONN and taking an obligatory picture with Jonathan the Husky, we departed for Newport, R.I. for a few hours, and then proceeded to get the students all settled into the hotel. At night, I had so many great conversations with different students about just about everything you could think of from college to jobs and everything in between. To me, it is these conversations that make these trips so worth it. 

Posing with Jonathan the Husky at UCONN

The following day, we toured U.R.I. (which was another nice school) and then head over to Providence for the rest of the day. Perhaps most excitingly, at Providence, I was able to go into the student government office and I met many of the current student government officers. After telling them about some of my previous experience, it brought me right back to college; it was fun talking about student-government related issues again. I also brought two all-stars from East Side (Kevin and Austin, who are pictured below), to give them a taste of what Student Government is like at the collegiate level. To me, PC (a term I have never heard Providence referred to before this trip, but all of the students seemingly like to call it that) had a very similar vibe to my beloved Marist; needless to say, I enjoyed Providence College very much.

In the Student Government Office at ‘PC’

On the way home, we drove past Brown University quickly, and then departed back to Newark. To me, even in the stressful moments associated with taking 32 high school students on an overnight college visit, it cannot be more empowering. As I wrote on Twitter on the bus ride  home, if visiting colleges with 32 high school students doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what would.

How about a simple solution?

In recent times, in seems as though everyone talks about how complex and controversial education reform is and how many elements need to evolve for schools to become better. While many solutions put forward push for massive institutional change and heavy financial commitments, I ask, “How about a simple solution?” 

This post is exactly that. 

Let’s start with an even simpler question: What science classes did you take in high school, and in what order?

If you are with the overwhelming majority of people who graduated high school in the last few decades, you undoubtedly took Biology first, then Chemistry, followed by Physics, if you chose to take it. Most high schools in America, whether an elite private school in Westchester or a public SIG school in Chicago, offer these three science classes in that order.

Perhaps the better question is, why do schools sequence science classes in the way that they do?

Most people, myself included, would probably give a reason involving math, putting forward an argument that Algebra I is required for Chemistry and Geometry is required for Physics. Since most students only take Algebra I freshman year and Geometry during their sophomore year, they would not be qualified to comprehend the higher levels of science without the strong backing in math. Another often-held thought is that Biology is an easier course than Chemistry or Physics, so students will be more likely to pass that class during freshman year. These sounds like reasonable arguments, no?

Here’s the kicker: It turns out that, the real reason why high schools sequence their classes as Biology-Chemistry-Physics has nothing to do with math, student achievement levels, or even teacher certifications. Originally, some school administrator somewhere ordered these classes like so because they were in alphabetical order (B-C-P).

Yes. I know it is hard to believe. If you doubt that claim as I did, look up some historical information, and you will be just as surprised as I was. 

But what’s the “so what?” factor here? This past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Michael Kuchar, Superintendent of Bergenfield Public Schools in New Jersey. Explaining the background of a Physics First curriculum, he flopped the order of the science classes in his district, so that all students, including honors and classified special education students, took Physics before Chemistry and then finished with Biology. 

How did Bergenfield High School do, you ask? In one year, proficiency rates on the Algebra I EOC test skyrocketed from a 36% passing rate to an 80% passing rate. That is an increase of 46% in one academic year!

My question: If such an easy fix can drastically improve student achievement in one year, what are other basic changes that we could make that could help transform our school system? 

Education Reform is often heralded as this massive beast that involves complex ideas and ideologies to completely overhaul the system. Switching Physics and Biology seems easy enough to me. 

Now, how about another simple solution?