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!


Scuba Diving in the Turks & Caicos!

Last month, I had the absolute privilege of diving aboard the Turks & Caicos Aggressor II in the British West Indies with my friends Nick and Karina to issue in the New Year. Undoubtedly one of the best weeks of my life, I figured instead of talking about what made the trip so great, I would let this little video I put together tell the story. As we say in the scuba diving community, the pool is always open!


P.S. Here is a copy of the captains log for our trip, which can also be found here.

Log Date: Saturday, Dec 28, 2013
Entry By: Turks & Caicos Crew

Welcome aboard the Turks and Caicos Aggressor II! This week we are pleased to have Audrey & Frank Begun, Micheal Farrell, Stan Stojkovic, Lela Smith, Jean Jones, Blair Thetford, Blaire Walsh, Nicholas Timpone, Anna Moteiro, Erica Begun, Robert Veenstra, Jennifer Kearns, Danna Begun, Laura Schafer, Safinaz Elkadi, Andrew Paulsen and Timothy Mason. Welcome one welcome all. We have a full boat this week and with beautiful weather forecasted its bound to be a great week of eating, sleeping and diving. Almost everyone has been on an Aggressor more than once and from what I gather Erica and Danna were the first non-diver kids to come on the boat many years ago. Welcome back ladies, it’s great to have you all here with us! Mike and Jennifer have been with us many times before and everyone’s glad to have them back onboard. Mike brought with him a hard-drive full of Films which definitely made the crew very happy!

Water Temperature: 78-80F

Thermal protection: 3mm long – 5mm long
Visibility:  100+ feet
Due to the tides we spent Saturday night in Turtle Cove Marina and everyone on board either got to know each other or shared stories of their adventures since the last time they’d dove together. The sundeck was buzzing and our guests began to relax.

Sunday morning bright and early we made our way to North West Point where we dove two beautiful sites; Eel Garden and The DomeEel garden was bustling and divers came up excited about the sharks and rays that they’d seen on their very first dive! Oh yeah, and a Humpback whale!! The whale was seen from the surface and seemed to be engaged in a ‘valentine’ (the term given to their courting dance). The season is starting and everyone, guests and crew were thrilled to see one of these majestic creatures, even if not close up (join us in the Silverbanks for guaranteed whales!). ‘The Dome’ is the remnants of a large metal dome that was created as part of the French TV show; Pago Pago. The idea was that contestants free dived down into the dome where a large pipe was spitting out pearls to collect. Whilst down there you could trade in one of the bracelets you’d won on previous missions for air. If you were lucky enough to run into a good mermaid she’d give you a breath of her compressed air, if she happened to be a bad one though she’d simply make off with your bracelet and you’d have to find another siren to barter with. Of course breathing compressed air and then bolting to the surface whilst holding your breath isn’t the best plan, and although no one was seriously injured, this show can be accredited for bringing a recompression chamber to the island.

Early Monday morning we moved to Stingray Bay, our newest sight where return guests were delighted to dive a brand new site! It deserves its name as one guest counted not 4, not 5 but 6 stingrays swimming over the sand. We did one dive on this site as it is quite deep, but Rob and his two Advanced students went down and we all had a good laugh when once back on the surface when Rob asked Andrew what he had eaten underwater. A black olive was the suggested answer, and both Andrew and Karina were shocked when Rob told them it was a Cherry tomato! We then moved on to Driveway and Rock Garden Interlude (R.G.I) where we had another 4 fantastic dives. During the dive briefing the word ‘Dolphins’ was shouted and everyone was once again delighted to have 2 of these graceful animals jumping along the side of the boat! Whales and dolphins! What a great start to the week. From Hawksbill turtles toCaribbean Reef sharks to little guys like Peterson cleaning shrimp the reef was alive and bustling. Our night dive at R.G.I most certainly got great reviews from everyone.

Tuesday was a fantastic day with 5 more beautiful dives out at West Caicos. Our dive sites for the day were Elephant Ear Canyon and Spanish AnchorElephant Ear Canyon was a delightful dive as the group went out on the search for the infamousBatfish that tends to live near the mooring pin. We found him but not only him. As a group of us swam over the wall to look at a Hawksbill turtle gliding through the water, a massive spotted Eagle ray swooped in from the blue over us and the wall before doing a 180 and soaring back towards the deep. The rest of the dives that day continued in much the same way with sharks, rays and turtles seen on almost every dive. Aluminous Peacock flounder was also up and about, scurrying from coral to coral and changing colour as our Video Pro filmed it. New Years Eve is a special night here on the Aggressor (every night is special really, but this night was unique) as we had our “dive in the New Year midnight dive”… 6 of our most iron willed, determined divers got out of their beds at 11:30 on the 31stJanuary, suited up and jumped in to celebrate the new year underwater. Nick, Karina, Andrew, Jean, Mike and Sofie brought in the New year in style and were greeted with bubbles and warm towels after their dive. Congratulations guys, not many people get to say they spent the countdown underwater!

We started 2014 with a bang and dove Brand wine and Magic Mushroom, two popular sites around West Caicos. Our photographers tried their hand at capturing the elusive Yellow headed Jawfish which although isn’t particularly difficult to see, these shy creatures will disappear into their enclaves as fast as they come out if someone (or something) swims over them. The epitome of macro photo in this area is to capture theJawfish aerating their eggs, a beautiful gesture where they spit out a pod of eggs and then just as quickly suck them back in. Captain Amanda with her amazing eyesight found some great little critters to delight guests with such as Slender Filefish, Headshield slugs, Glass shrimp and Skeleton shrimp. For the discerning diver who likes the little guys diving with Amanda is always a treat.

Thursday saw us move to a site called Gullies at West Caicos where we did 3 fantastic dives. This site is always fun as we challenge our guests to find the garden gnome that lives in a small grotto near a massive Barrel Sponge. Aside from the gnome the dives here are gorgeous, a wall with several gullies cutting down through it leading to an array of thriving hard corals and encrusting sponges. More Eagle rays, sharks and turtles were seen as well as few mating Parrot fish. That afternoon we headed towards North West Point to slowly make our way back to the ‘mainland’ and moored up at a site called Ampitheatre. This turned out to be one of the most popular sites of the week as it is not only topographically interesting with a massive ‘stage’ where different players come out to perform for their viewing audience. Crabs, lobsters, shrimp feed amongst the sponge as sharks swim past in the blue.

Friday morning we moved over to Shark Hotel for our last two dives. They did not disappoint and everyone enjoyed these dives to the max. There was a slight air of sadness as guests began packing away and drying their gear but we had a smooth ride back to Providenciales and after we docked at Turtle Cove Marina a few people chose to go out and explore the island a little and do some shopping. That night at 6pm we had our weekly cheese and wine party where Amanda made the Aggressortoast and Rob handed out the certificates of achievements for the week.
All in all another fantastic week aboard the Turks and Caicos Aggressor II. Thank you for bringing in the new year with us and we hope you had as great a time as the crew.
Till next time, have a fantastic 2014!