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.

 

048f3-img_1078
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.

 

Columbia Graduation and a Special Announcement

This past May was my official graduation from Columbia University. Even though I finished SPA last summer and officially graduated in October, Columbia only has one graduation each year, so here we are! As it has been said, “the hardest things in life are the most difficult to say, because words diminish them;” it is honestly hard to articulate how incredible these last two years have been. I feel like it was just yesterday I was packing up to move to Teachers College for Summer I. These past two years have arguably pushed my thinking more than at any other point in my life. I am so honored to have made so many lifelong friendships, obtain some awesome memorabilia for my future office, and even design a new school!

We were only given three tickets for graduation (or convocation, if you want to get technical), but I was able to get two additional tickets through my Columbia network. Invited were my parents, my sister, my mentor Marist Brother Seán Sammon, and my mentee Matthew Atehortua (who aspires to become a doctor in the future and has so much potential). I met up with my family briefly before the ceremony, and then head over to meet my friends and fellow SPA graduates.

The graduation itself was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is a stunning place to have a graduation ceremony. We heard from Teachers College President Dr. Fuhrman, who encouraged us to go forth and set the world on fire, and our graduation speaker was Madhav Chavan, the co-founder & President of Pratham working to achieve educational equity in India. During the ceremony, I had a chance to catch up with many of my friends whom I had not seen in months.

After the ceremony, we took a plethora of pictures around campus, and then went to a brief reception at Teachers College. After saying goodbye to all of my friends, my family headed over to my favorite restaurant in New York City – Smith and Wollensky’s. I absolutely love the food there, and it was a lot of fun being at a table overlooking the kitchen. It truly was surreal having my entire support network be together for the first time. The food really was fantastic, but it was the people that really made that night so memorable.

Truth be told, my graduation was honestly one of the most meaningful days of my life, and a lot of people have been  asking me what is next on this incredible journey we call life. I am extremely humbled and honored to officially announce that I have been named as a Fulbright ‘Distinguished Awards in Teaching’ Scholar, and will travel to Taiwan next year to study eastern mathematics pedagogy. In Taiwan, I will be a visiting scholar at National Kaohsiung Normal University, where I will research eastern mathematics pedagogy and consider how to implement best teaching practices that are culturally responsible. I am really excited to learn, research, and become a cultural ambassador for the United States.
Presented at the NTU Hall of Fame Dinner

This was such an awesome year, and I was so honored to have been named as a National Finalist for the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Performance and be recognized by the Newark Teachers Union, too. I am proud of all these accomplishments, but I am honestly even prouder of my amazing students who work relentlessly on a daily basis to learn and receive the education they deserve. Before you know it, I will be sitting on a plane heading off to Taiwan! I do not leave until January, though, and will be transitioning to an instructional coach position in the fall at East Side High School. Although I am super excited about living abroad for six months, I sure will miss the marvelous students of Newark, New Jersey. If I have learned anything over the course of the last six years, it is that my students are some of the most resilent people on the planet, and I honestly believe they have the collective power to change the world. As iconic Teachers College Professor John Dewey alluded to in his 1897 publication of My Pedagogic Creed, “Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” Now, I resolve to work voraciously until every child has the opportunity to obtain a truly excellent education.

 

When Ed Reform Goes Too Far

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

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

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

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

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

2014: A Year in Review

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

2013: A Year in Review

It is hard to believe that it has been a full year since I wrote last year’s ‘year in review.’ 2013 has gone by so incredibly fast, and since there have been so many great moments along the way, I sure hope I did not forget any here!

With the ESHS Student Council at the 2013 Inauguration

In January, I started off the year by attending the 2013 Presidential Inauguration with the East Side High School student council. It was so surreal to be standing on the national mall, listening to our president get sworn in and give his inaugural address. It was also great having higher level political conversations with some of our all-stars from East Side. Obama gave such a great speech, and I will never forgot when our students cheered like crazy when Obama mentioned immigration reform. Besides Obama, Kelly Clarkson perhaps unintentionally stole the show with her fantastic rendition of “My Country, Tis of Thee,” which is linked below. Attending the Inauguration was an experience I will undoubtedly never forget. 


In February, I officially started my masters program at Seton Hall University, which I was extremely excited about. The masters will be a M.A. in Educational Leadership, Management and Policy, with a concentration in educational administration. I also had the privilege of meeting Bobby Marks, a Marist alum who is currently the assistant GM for the Brooklyn Nets, before watching a game at the brand-new Barclays Center with Meaghan and Brian. 
In March, I had many TFA-related activities, and was able to visit Marist one weekend as well. After Easter, I geared up for April, which was one of the busiest and most fun months of the year. In April, it felt like just about every weekend I was in a different city. Between Boston, Denver, Newark and Poughkeepsie, I sure had a fantastic journey going across the country for everything from NCTM conferences to high school college visits. I would strongly recommend reading my full post on my adventures in April here.
Playing some kickball to end the school year
May was a graduate-filled month, as my first set of graduate classes were coming to a close and my next semester was already beginning. June went really fast as well, especially since we spent so many of the last days of school playing kickball with students and attending our high school’s graduation. I also experienced my first Portuguese Festival which was, well, one of the most interesting nights of the year. During the second weekend in June, my cousin Danny and his beautiful wife Elisabetta got married on Long Island! The wedding was so much fun, and one of the best I have ever been to. 
The Wedding Party!!!

A week after school was over, I went on a family vacation to St. Maarten. It was, quite frankly, one of the nicest islands I have ever been on. Between amazing food, breathtaking views and an unbelievably relaxing atmosphere, it was the best way to wind down after a busy year. Perhaps most notably, I decided to get my open water scuba diver certification, and I went diving four times, including two deep dives to a coral and an old wreck. It was one of the coolest activities I have ever done.
With my family in St. Maarten
When I got home from the Caribbean, I worked summer school for a few weeks. In between teaching summer school, I had the opportunity to visit many places, including Princeton (as one of my good friends Kassie was staying there for the summer) and the floor of the New York State Exchange. I also squeezed in a boat tour of NYC sponsored by the Marist Alumni Association and a quick trip to Philadelphia and Boston before the summer was over. (I finally was able to get to the Sam Adam’s brewery, as well, which was something I really wanted to do for a while.)
With Kassie at Princeton University

And just like that, August was winding down, which meant school was just around the corner. After a few weeks of cleaning up my room and setting up my class, I went up and visited my beloved alma mater for one last time during Labor Day weekend. The end of the summer means the annual Brazilian festival comes to Newark, which of course means lots of great food, drinks and music to be had by all!
At the annual Brazilian Day Festival in Newark
September and October flew by, as we had so many different things going on. Between so much controversy in the Newark Public Schools and new laws being passed seemingly daily, it was hard to not get overwhelmed in all of the commotion brought upon by education. There was even more controversy in November, when the district and the union fought over teachers going to the annual NJEA conference held in Atlantic City. Unfortunately, no matter whose side you were on, the only people that lost at the end of the day were our students. We need to stop putting adults in front of education in our schools, and continue to work hard to a day when all of our students have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.
Also in November, the East Side Student Council visited two colleges in Pennsylvania, including the University of Scranton (where my sister currently attends) and Penn State. As you most likely have come to expect by now, it was another great trip that always helps to reset my perspective on life. I wrote a longer debrief of the trip on a previous post, which can be found here.
With Danny watching the Packers/Giants at Metlife Stadium
To end the year, I celebrated with some of my teachers friends (Nick and Karina) on board the Turks & Caicos Aggressor II. It was my first live-aboard, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone that is interested in Scuba Diving; It was honestly one of the best weeks of my life. And hey, what better way to start the New Year than be scuba diving fifty feet underwater?
Hanging out with the Delgado’s during Christmas Time
Well folks, that just about does it for 2013. Who knows what 2014 will have in store for us, but if the past is any indication for the future, I think I’m in for a really great year.

Here’s to 2014!

Touring Pennsylvania Colleges with ESHS

As I alluded to in my last post, I once again had the opportunity to chaperone the annual student council trip to visit different colleges in the northeast. This year, the students wanted to visit Penn State University and the University of Scranton (where my sister is currently a junior), so that is exactly the two colleges we went to go see. 

In front of the Old Main building at PSU
After leaving before the crack of dawn on Thursday, we arrived at Penn State at around 10:00am, giving us plenty of time to visit the bookstore and eat lunch before our campus tour at noon. Having spent a few days at Florida State University, I was expecting Penn State to feel more like a city than a college, but I was (admit-tingly) very surprised at how Penn State managed to have a small-school vibe. 
The East Side High School Student Council
at Penn State University 
Thursday night was one of my favorite moments of the trip. After teaching students how to play some card games, I explained to them the math behind blackjack (as portrayed in the movie 21). Later, we played Taboo in the hotel lobby until 1 o’clock in the morning. I would be lying if I said it didn’t bring me right back to my college days, running programs as an RA. Once the clock hit 1am, it was officially lights out, as we had another long day ahead of us on Friday. 
With Kim overlooking the University of Scranton
After eating breakfast and departing from State College, we headed for the University of Scranton. Once at Scranton, we met up with my sister, who gave us our meal vouchers. We then had an information session, and I was able to see my sister give an outstanding tour of her school. (Note: My sister and I often have a rivalry over which school is better – Marist or Scranton. The U.S. News & World Report often ranks the schools pretty evenly, but they are both tremendous academic universities that are slowly growing onto the national stage). I have been to Scranton many times (mostly to help my sister move-in and move-out), but I was still impressed by how nice the University was.
The East Side High School Student Council
at the University of Scranton
And then we left to go back to Newark. It was such a great trip, and I once again learned so much in every way possible. When I got back on Monday, I found out that my fourth block, which is typically a great class, wasn’t well behaved for the substitute teacher during the trip on Friday. I was very disappointed in them, and explained this to the class the following Monday when I got back. After talking with them in a very quiet voice for a few minutes, I had every student sit in silence and write a letter of apology to the substitute and my vice principal (who had to come to my class to calm everyone down). I have never had to do that as a teacher, but you could most definitely tell how bad the entire class felt. After they started writing, not one student said one word for close to forty minutes. That period, there was such a profound feeling of respect, and I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t one of the most surreal experiences of my teaching career to date. 
My board when I walked in on Monday. 

Last side note – my birthday was last week, and the amazing students of East Side High School once again outdid themselves and couldn’t have made my birthday any nicer. Between signing my board, decorating my door, and singing “Sapo Verde” to me countless times (including five times in my last class alone), they honestly made my day. Below is a photo of some of the remnants of my birthday, and I honestly cannot thank them enough!

¡Muchas gracias por un cumpleaños fantástico!
Muito obrigado do por um aniversário grande! 

A New Room, A New Program, & A New Opportunity

These last few months have been busy, very fast, and quite exciting. Between subbing summer classes, working on random projects and tutoring SAT prep sessions, I honestly feel that I started school a month early this year! In August, I found out that I would officially be changing rooms, and was going to be teaching in room 301. I was really excited to get a new classroom. Just like my experience last year, it took a lot of cleaning to get my room in order. After spending about two full weeks cleaning up the room and making everything look nice for the first day of school, I was ready to start year two at East Side. 
Panorama of Room 301 before the first day of school
On my first day of school, I tried out an activity my Vice Principal told me he used to use about working hard and achieving goals. In essence, I had a student jump as high as they could, and mark their jump with a marker. After leading a conversation with the class, I got a chair, and taped a $5 bill an inch above the mark on the wall. Each student then had a chance to jump up and get the bill. After all of the students were successful, we talked about how this related to life. Intrigued? I guess you’re just going to have to sit in on my class next year to find out…
East Side vs. Central football game at School Stadium in Newark
This year, I was appointed the school’s head academic coach, allowing me to run team eligibility reports, identify at-risk athletes, tutor them, and help council them on a wide variety of issues. I consider this a tremendous opportunity not only for myself and my personal ambitions, but for student athletes that often use sports as a coping mechanism for a wide array of issues they may be going through. Although this is my first year in this position, I see the potential this role has to really improve the school, and it should be interesting to see how this plays out.  
Working Breakfast Duty in the morning
In addition to being the head academic coach, I also started an official SAT preparation program this Fall. After privately tutoring a student this summer, I realized how much SAT prep classes were needed at East Side. After pitching my idea of starting this program, the administration loved it, and gave me the green light. Originally, we had over 65 students sign up for free SAT prep classes (that met on Saturday mornings)! To me, this is yet another indication of how hard our students want to work to attain success, loosely defined. This also reinforced my personal idea that many students want to do well, but are unsure of exactly how to get there and what to do to get them to their next steps in life. 

Early in October, I found out that I won a contest to take four students on a shopping spree at American Eagle. After randomly picking four students (and some hectic organization along the way), we all met up at the American Eagle in Jersey City; it was quite an exhilarating experience. I think it is safe to say that all of the involved parties were extremely grateful for this opportunity, and I personally cannot thank Teach For America and American Eagle enough for providing it to them.
In front of American Eagle after the shopping spree

My classes are going very well, also. Often times, my classes keep me laughing, especially when we are talking about sports teams, “growing corn,” yelling “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble,” or even using an exuberant amount of Lysol during class. Whether it is a student going back and forth in my first block about how funny I am (or not) or blasting songs to end the week in my fourth block, I recognize how fortunate and blessed I am to teach such a talented, amazing and fun group of students that truly make my day every day.
Halloween in the Math Office at ESHS
Between going to Marist, grad school at Seton Hall, running SAT Prep sessions on Saturdays, countless football and soccer games, and even going to my first Bar Mitzvah, I cannot believe how fast the first two months of school went this year. This upcoming week, I am once again privileged to join the Student Council on their annual college visit trip, which I expect to be just as powerfully moving as the previous trips I went on. There have been plenty of “new” things to start this year, but it seems as least one thing is the same: We barely have any school in November. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em I suppose, so: Here’s to No School November!