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!


Ideologies to Live By

During my senior year at Marist, I was very fortunate to receive great advice about life and leadership from many brilliant people. Taken with this, I developed a short list of important ideas and ideologies that I wrote down and kept in my desk as a sort of reminder. I read this list daily, and I strive to achieve all ten every single day. In addition to my Three Laws of Success, I feel that this list will do just about anyone in just about any position vey well. I hope you enjoy.

1. Calm down and slow down! Rome wasn’t built in a day.

2. Be a leader… today!

3. Keep a Positive Mental Attitude.

4. Doing what is popular is not always right; doing what is right is not always popular.

5. Do not take anything personal.

6. Do not ever let someone tell you that you cannot do something. Prove them wrong!

7. Play on your strengths; work on your weaknesses. 

8. Embrace change.

9. Be Transformational: Worry about tomorrow more than today, today more than yesterday.

10. Define the “new thing.” Leaders get things done and work through other people.

Making a Difference the Starfish Way

     For this post, I want to share a letter I wrote for The Circle (the student newspaper of Marist College) during my last week as Student Body President. It addresses the concept of “making a difference:” 

     Last summer, I had the privilege of attending freshmen orientation and meeting the Marist Class of 2015 before their first day of college. Everyday began with an amazing video put together by the First Year Programs staff that helped give the newest members of the Marist community an idea of what college was all about. The video ended with a few lines that read, “Life doesn’t last forever. Neither does college. Make the best of both. Make a difference at Marist.”
     But what does “make a difference” exactly mean? For those who know me well, they would say I am a big believer in the “Starfish Poem.” In short, the “Starfish Poem” talks about how everyone can make a difference to the world, no matter how big or how small that difference may be [note: see below for a full text of the poem]. The idea is that, if everyone helps out a little, we can accomplish a lot as a whole. I think this poem relates perfectly back to our students and Student Government.
     You see, people often think that you need to win a major election or have a big, fancy title to make a difference. Don’t get me wrong: Student Government, in my opinion, has done some amazing things this year. From Zip Cars to the emergency texting notification systems, new ATMs around campus to discounted taxi rides; I feel that we have done a lot to push Marist forward. Truthfully, though, these aren’t the “differences” that make Marist the place it is. The things I am talking about – the differences I see on a daily basis – are from the people who go out of their way to help another out in any way possible. These people stay up late to help their friend with a difficult assignment. These people help pick up a friend who is having a bad day. These are the people who make a difference at Marist every single day, and although they seldom get any recognition or credit for what they do, they are the people that make Marist a true community.
     In closing, I am extremely humbled and honored to have had the chance to serve as your student body president this past year. I want to thank all of the students, administrators, faculty, and staff that have helped me out so much this past year; I cannot thank you enough for everything you do for this school. And to all of my amazing friends –you all know who you are –you personally have made a difference to me in more ways than you probably know. I am going to miss Marist College immensely when I graduate in a short 8 weeks, but the memories and friendships I have made here will last forever. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read this, God Bless and Go Red Foxes!

The Starfish Poem

Once upon a time there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing.
He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day he was walking along the shore.
As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer.
He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day.
So he began to walk faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn’t dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer he called out, “Good morning! What are you doing?”
The young man paused, looked up and replied, “Why, throwing starfish in the ocean.”
“I guess I should have asked, why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?”
The boy responded, “You see, the sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”
The confused man thought for a second, and replied, “But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked up another starfish, and said “for this one,” as he threw another starfish into the sea,
“It made a difference.”