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 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 America 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!

2012: A Year in Review

     For me, 2012 was a huge transition year. I finished an amazing four years at my beloved alma mater, Marist College, and started my teaching career in Newark, New Jersey. 2012 was full of ups and downs, and had many adventures along the way. So here is my personal review of 2012:
Marist Graduation
     2012 started out for me in Boston, hanging out with Dylan, Josh and Garrin. It was the first time that I was in a city to celebrate the New Year, and I think we did it right: After walking around Boston and watching a Chinese parade, we ate at the Salty Pig (which I highly recommend) and counted down the end of 2011 in Copley Square with a few thousand other people. It was a great way to start such a great year.
With my fabulous SGA team at President Murray’s annual SGA  dinner. 
     In January, Marist mourned the loss of three members of the Marist community in a terrible off-campus fire. It was a sad week and a tough time for everyone in such a tight-knit community. We held a memorial service for Kerry Fitzsimmons, Eva Block and Kevin Johnson, and I will never forget the lines of Professor Sand uttering the words, “Kevin, Kevin, Kevin; skateboard into heaven.” Chills fire down my back just thinking about it.

     At the end of January, in stark contrast to the first two weeks of the semester, I received some great news: I was accepted into Teach For America. From their website, Teach For America (TFA) “is a national teacher corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to teach and to effect change in under-resourced urban and rural public schools.” I was one of the lucky 17% of the over 34,000 people that applied to Teach For America in 2012. I was placed in Newark, NJ, and although I was a little disappointed at the time, I couldn’t be happier to be teaching in Newark right now. I accepted the offer within three days, and I had a full-time job lined up four months before graduation.
In NYC for a taping of an upcoming Demetri Martin special
     In February, I was student teaching at Marlboro High Schoolin Marlboro, New York with Mr. Koonz. I taught 9th grade algebra and college algebra (mostly juniors and seniors). After working for seven weeks in a high school, I student taught at Wappinger’s Junior High School under Mrs. Knight (a Marist alumna), teaching 7th grade math. One of my favorite classes was the last period of the day, which made me laugh many times about “bomb shelter drills” and other middle school jokes. At first I thought I was going to hate teaching middle school, but I loved it so much.
With one of my 7th Grade classes at Wappingers JHS
     In March, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to fly down with the Women’s Basketball team to Florida for the NCAA tournament during Spring Break. Since we needed to get there a few days early, I took advantage of the time and explored Tallahassee and Florida State University. To say that we had a blast would be an understatement. I will never forget all of the fun adventures we had walking around the FSU campus, meeting up with their SGA leaders, and going to our favorite spot in town, Tomahawks. We won the first game, upsetting 4th-seeded Georgia, in one of the best basketball games I have ever seen. 
Cheering on our Red Foxes in Tallahassee 
     April capped off a great run I had as Student Body President, which concluded with a beautiful transition dinner in the Cabaret of Marist College. I gave what I thought was a fitting outgoing address that discussed the notion of making a difference, something I am very passionate about.  And what felt like just a short few weeks later, I graduated from Marist. Looking back on my college career, I feel as though I took advantage of every opportunity I had at Marist, and I loved almost every single second of college.
Before the Transition Dinner with Josh, Dylan, Ferg, Rob, Jeff and Nick
     Then, the summer came, which came and went so fast. After a few weeks off, I headed off to TFA training, called “Institute” (or “Boot Camp,” as we liked to call it) first at Rutgers-Newark for a week, then at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. It is during this summer that I first worked in an inner city, teaching summer school to 9th graders at St. Hope Leadership Academy in Harlem, New York. During all of this learning and teaching, I somehow found time to visit a lot of my friends (Josh, Rob, Kassie, Nick, Ferg and Emily), who were all leaving to study abroad for the semester. I truly had a great experience in Harlem, and was surrounded by a great group of teachers that helped make the summer so memorable.
The famous “bus crew,” Eli, Ryan, myself and Honore
     After six weeks of getting up at 5:00am every single day, I literally had no time off: The day after Institute was over, I moved into my first apartment in Newark, New Jersey. Located in the Ironbound section (East Ward) of Newark, I really enjoy the area, having a lot of Portuguese, Brazilian and Central American influence. The people are so friendly, there are always families walking around the neighborhood, and soccer is followed like a cult here. Oh, and did I mention that there are so many amazing restaurants around that are out of this world? Oh well for losing some weight…
Volunteering at a Foster Home in Newark
     In September, I was excited to start teaching at my placement school, East Side High School, which is only a short walk from my apartment. After cleaning my classroom like crazy, it was great to meet my students and co-workers for the first time. My first semester definitely had its ups and downs, but I love working at East Side so much. (For a full overview of my first semester, read my post on it here)
Visiting Columbia University with Brian and Meaghan 
     October 2012 will always be remembered as the month Hurricane Sandy hit landfall, causing billions of dollars worth of damage. While Newark lost power for about a week, we were very fortunate compared to some of the other harder-hit areas that suffered much more damage. I will never forget walking around the streets and seeing so many people having impromptu street fairs, cooking all of their frozen meat before it went bad. It was great seeing so many people make the best out of a bad situation-something that I think more people need to do. Also in October, I had the absolute privilege of going to Washington, D.C. with the East Side High School Student Council. It was such a powerful weekend seeing so many kids from Newark interested in college. 

     November was one of my favorite months, as it was the first time I went to Europe. Going to Italy was, hands-down, one of the best experiences I have ever had in my entire life. I would definitely check out my full post I put up about Italy, which can be found here.

     And then December came and went, and it was gone before I knew it. My half brother Steve and his family moved to New York from Arizona in October, and it was great having my four-year-old niece Bella and her seven-month-old brother Vinny around for the holidays. After seeing the Christmas Spectacularin New York City, I spent a few days up in Boston and Albany before ringing in the New Year.

      And so that was my 2012. Looking back, it was such a great year, and it is kind of hard to believe that it is 2013 already. As John Lennon would say, “Another year over, a new one just begun.” Here’s to 2013!

My First Marking Period is in the Books!

After spending years in different classrooms observing, student teaching, tutoring and volunteering, I was both very anxious and excited to actually have a class of my own this year. Last week signaled the end of the first marking period; what an interesting first quarter it has been.
One of my students working on a problem at the board
A week before school started, I finally received the keys to my classroom. When I walked in for the first time, the room was nothing like I had envisioned at all. I had six desks in my class, there was graffiti on all of the walls, everything was dirty, and to say I was disappointed would be an understatement. But it the midst of all the ruble, I saw the layout of a great classroom. I knew I only had a few days before school started, so I got to work right away trying to make the best classroom with the materials I had. I started by throwing away all of the broken furniture, ripped posters and frog dissection kits (you read that correctly) that were clogging up the room, and began wiping down everything covered in dirt and dust. I re-did the bulletin boards (which came out very well thanks to my experience from my RA days), found some new inspirational posters to hang up, and strategically hung them to cover gaping holes in the walls.
 

A before and after shot of my classroom in September

 

Another aspect of my classroom that was rather disconcerting was the presence of a blackboard in my room. I never liked teaching with chalk, as my clothes always got very dusty and the chalk made me cough a lot as well. I decided that I needed to somehow turn the blackboard into a whiteboard, but I didn’t know how. I started by calling some companies that professionally installed white boards, but the cost was way too high (a couple of thousand dollars). As I was telling my co-workers about my idea of getting a white board, another TFA corps member told me about special white-board paint that I could buy that would easily turn my blackboard into a whiteboard. I went to the store and, for $50.00, I bought two cans of white-board paint, some paint brushes and other painting supplies. I asked some of my students to help me out, and we stayed around, ate pizza and painted for a few hours after school on a Friday. The board came out so great! Seeing my students want to stay late after school on a Friday to help me paint was one of the most memorable moments in my teaching career so far. 
An action shot of my students painting the blackboard
After the whiteboard was done, I felt that our class would benefit from a projector so that I could show powerpoint presentations and clips from Youtube, helping make math class more fun and engaging. Once again, we had no money for a $600.00 projector, but I knew how beneficial it would be to my students. After talking to many people about possible fundraising ideas to raise money, I went on Donors Choose and asked for an LCD projector for my room. Nine donors funded the $684.48 project in less than 48 hours, and the projector was at East Side a few days later. With the projector in hand, the white board ready, and my room starting to actually feel like a classroom, I knew that I was going to be able to drastically improve the effectiveness of student learning in the coming weeks.
One of my classes thanking the donors for the LCD Projector
People are often surprised when I tell them how much I am enjoying working in an inner-city high school in Newark, NJ. Is everyday a great day? No. Are there many frustrating moments and days when I go home with a splitting headache? Of course. But there are so many small victories day to day that makes it all “worth it.” Last week, for example, one of my students said to me: “Mr. Paulsen, you have a gift. We walk into your class and we are so excited because you are the only teacher we like.” Now who knows how true that may be, but it made my day regardless.
Teaching my Block 4 Class
Every week I walk into school and I am inspired by the stories of my students and the struggles they face everyday. The more I walk the halls and the more students I get to know, the more potential I see in these students that, born into different circumstances, would be competing with the top students our country has to offer. After working in an urban district for three months and seeing what is possible, I believe that every student can learn and be successful if they went to a school that valued the importance of school culture and had great teachers. I believe now more than ever that “One day, every child in this nation will have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education.”