New School Design

As I alluded to in my last post, three months after finishing, I am not sure that if it has hit me yet that we are officially graduates of the Summer Principals Academy (which we often nickname as SPA). Our degrees were conferred last month, meaning that we are all officially alumni of Columbia University! Even though we finished our program at the end of July and got our diplomas in October, Columbia only has one graduation a year, so we will “walk” this upcoming May.

To earn a Masters from Columbia, one must either write a thesis, pass a cumulative test, or complete a capstone project, depending on the specific requirements of the program one is enrolled in. For members of SPA, we needed to complete the famous New School Design Project. Taken from the SPA website, New School Design teams are “challenged to develop a new school that reflects the domains of knowledge, skill, and habits of mind, and is relevant to the challenges faced by children seeking a 21st century education in an urban school setting. The event offers the larger educational community of leaders the opportunity to share their insights and expertise regarding how to close achievement gaps effectively through the design of innovative and high-performing schools.”

Working hard or hardly working?

For anyone that it vaguely familiar with SPA, it is well known that the New School Design (NSD) is by far the most stressful part of the entire program. During the fall, we had to complete an individual leadership diagnostic, and the SPA staff then uses those results to organize us into NSD groups. During winter call backs, we all find out who we are going to be working with for the first time. After the Associate Director of SPA showed us all of the NSD teams, she called our group up individually, and told us that our group was the last group formed. She casually let us know that we had the least in common with one another; some group members wanted to open a public high school, while others wanted to start an elementary charter school, etc. She told our group that we could change our assignment if we wanted to, which was our first conflict with our newly formed NSD team (Side note: If this ever happens, please do not tell the group that they are the leftovers).

We collectively decided to keep the assignment as given, and we hit the ground running. We did some preliminary work during the Spring, but many of us had no clue what to expect come the summer. During our first day of summer II at Teachers College, we went on a city-wide photo scavenger hunt with our NSD group. Although we did not win, we had an absolute blast! We also got to know each other really well and grow as a team, which was extremely important. Here is just a sampling of pictures from that day:

As the summer progressed, we became more and more of a tight-knit family. Our NSD proposal was due a week before we had to “defend” our new school, and our final paper ended up being over 125 pages long. One of the most memorable nights was going to Columbia Copy to print our entire NSD proposal at 11:00 at night. We all grabbed a quick drink after, as the major deliverable was out of the way!

Looking at our completed NSD proposal for the first time!

We then focused all of our attention on our presentation. During the NSD closing ceremonies, each group essentially defends their school in front of a panel of educators, including professors, assistant superintendents, and nonprofit leaders. That panel essentially decides if your capstone “passes” or not, so it is a really stressful day for all of the NSD groups. If your capstone does not pass, you need to do it all over again the following summer, and you do not graduate.

Everything seemed like our group was heading in the right direction. We were hitting every self-imposed deadline, our preliminary presentation got great feedback, and our Keynote was looking fantastic. With less than one week to go as members of the Summer Principals Academy, we felt like we were in good shape.

During the last week of SPA, we present our New School Design to the entire group twice to get feedback from each other and make our presentations even better. The first time we presented, our group did not get any major feedback; things like, “this slide needs to look better” or “maybe include an example here?” Our NSD group met up on Tuesday night, and made the small suggestions that we were given. We were all feeling really good about Saturday.

On Thursday, we ran through our NSD presentations one last time, and tried to catch anything else that everyone may have missed. Our presentations needed to be submitted by 8:00 Friday morning, so this was our last opportunity to change anything before the gauntlet on Saturday. We were one of the last groups to go that day, and we were excited to see what everyone thought of the changes we made. Through our presentation, we felt great about how everything was going, and the other members of SPA seemed to like our presentation. Which is why everyone in the room was completely blindsided when the Associate Director of the Summer Principals Academy tore our presentation to shreds.

We were all in disbelief.

Why did this person wait until the very last minute to give such drastic feedback? Some of the members in my NSD group were angry, others were sad, but I was personally upset. I set up a meeting with her that night, and she explained to me that if we did not make “serious changes” to our presentation, we would not be given the opportunity to present on Saturday. My heart sunk. I texted our group chat what I just heard (and asked my team not to shoot the messenger). We had to get together ASAP and overhaul our presentation.

It is worth noting that nobody (like literally not one person) I talked to thought that our presentation needed this serious of an overhaul. Most of my friends and acquaintances were shocked about this entire ordeal, but none of us wanted to be the group that did not have a chance to present our New School Design and be forced to come back the following summer. Around 8:30pm or so, we all met up, divided up the work load based on the Associate Director’s “recommendations,” and got to work. 

We worked frantically as a team to get our new presentation done. Since we were so pressed on time, we no longer could work collaboratively; each person was responsible for a different part of the presentation. By that point, we had so much trust in one another, and even though we were all perturbed working on this major presentation the night before it was due, it was truly incredible watching this well-oiled team get to work.New School DesignFor me, that included putting the final touches on the Keynote, which I could not do until I get everyone else’s information. As such, I was the last person to fall asleep that night. I finished putting the final touches on our presentation at 4:08am. I ran upstairs to my room, feel asleep for two hours, and had to be up by 7:00 for our last day of class.

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A screenshot of a SnapChat I sent to my NSD group after finishing our presentation at 4:08 am.

That Friday – my last day as a full-time college student – was miserable. I had less than two hours of sleep, and I actually fell asleep during the NSD walkthrough at the end of the day (which was literally the first time in my life that I feel asleep during a college class). I used to tell my high school students that, in college, you never need to pull an all-nighter if you plan ahead and do not procrastinate. I guess I can no longer share that piece of advice…

Our incredible NSD group (L to R) – Adam, Megan, Jenn, me, Alisha, and Myke

I went to bed early on Friday night so I could semi-recover for our big presentation on Saturday. We were scheduled to go towards the end, so we watched other NSD teams go before us. Although many groups were asked tough questions by the panel, every group before us seemingly passed. Before you know it, they were announcing the Birney School, and we walked across the stage and started our presentation.

I was still so incredibly tired from the day before, but we all did our best. I had the added responsibility of running the presentation, so I needed to know everyone’s lines, too. I thought our team absolutely killed it, and I was happy to help answer a question about college readiness from one of the panelists. Based on the questions they were asking, the entire panel seemed to love our New School Design. After we finished, we walked off stage and went to another room. We all started cheering and had a giant group hug, and that is when it all hit us: We did it!

Although the Summer Principals Academy was started in 2006, we found out that this year was going to be the first year that the panel was going to give out awards to the best New School Design. We were all sitting together, and the panelists came on stage and announced that our school won a New School Design Implementation Award for being the most innovative new school. I cannot put into words the emotions we felt when our group won. Outside of Student Government elections during my junior year at Marist, I am not sure if I have ever felt so vindicated in my entire life.1ed9e-screen2bshot2b2017-07-022bat2b9-29-432bam

After the NSD presentations, Teachers College had a small reception for us, we took some photos, and went to the closing ceremony. We heard from three incredible speakers, which was so powerful, too. My family then helped me move out of the residence hall, grabbed a quick dinner, and started heading back to Newark.

So that’s a wrap, folks. One hell of a story, if you ask me. I am so proud of our entire 2015 SPA cohort, and know that I am going to miss them immensely next summer. Now, I honestly cannot wait until graduation!

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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.”

Visiting D.C. with East Side High School

     I just got back from Washington D.C. with the East Side High School Student Council. After being surrounded by 9th graders for the first seven weeks of school, it was very different being with the brightest 11th and 12th graders East Side has to offer. When I was first asked to chaperone the overnight trip to our nation’s capitol, I was so excited, as I really enjoy the D.C. area and I have been involved with student government for as long as I can remember. I expected to have a great time touring Georgetown and American University and all of the historical artifacts in D.C. What I did not expect, however, was just how powerful these two days were going to be.
Students waiting outside the 4D movie at the Newseum
     I first want to mention how appreciative the entire group was from when we first boarded the bus until we got home. From going to the 4D movie at the Newseum to the many rounds of candy given out on the bus, everything we did was greeted with a “thank you,” and the students were so grateful for everything. Three of the students had never been out of the Newark-NYC area in their lives, and a few had never stayed in a hotel. On Thursday night, I was walking around the hotel lobby, and saw that they were all working out in the hotel’s gym. Perplexed as to why they all wanted to work out on the one day they had off, I decided to go into the gym and ask them. They told me that they were so excited that the gym was free and that it was open 24 hours, and it was a great place to hang out. Our students were so happy to do things that others take for granted every single day, and it was humbling to say the least.
Students working out in the gym at the Hotel


     On the flip side, what surprised me the most perhaps was how other people viewed and looked at these students at almost every place we visited. Seemingly unbeknown to a majority of the students, almost everywhere we went, people looked at these students as if they were out of place. On Friday morning at the hotel, for example, a table of other hotel guests literally got up and left breakfast early because our students were eating breakfast. Many times, complete strangers would give glancing looks at these students, almost as if they wanted to ask why these students were in D.C. or visiting college campuses. The weird thing is that most of the students didn’t even seem to notice, and even the ones that did weren’t bothered by it, possibly because they are all used to living in a world with so many ignorant people.  It was eye-opening to see this first-hand, and although we have made tremendous progress over the last 50 years, we still have a long way to go.
The ESHS Student Council
at the Martin Luther King, Jr.
Memorial
     The most powerful moments of the trip, hands-down, were when we were at the two colleges we visited: Georgetown and American University. It was so unbelievably inspiring seeing so many students from Newark interested in college. During the tours, they asked brilliant questions about college life, admissions procedures, and financial aid. It was interesting hearing them worry about things that I took so much for granted for when I was a senior in high school – like how to get into a school without a social security number or how to fill out a mandatory FAFSA form if their parents are undocumented. For many of these student leaders with high GPA’s, the admissions process and financial aid procedure itself is a hindrance to going to college. Although I have read about it many times, actually experiencing institutionalized classism first hand is one of the most opinion-changing events that I have ever stood witness too.
The ESHS Student Council excited to be walking around D.C.!

     Throughout the trip, I was fortunate to have had many amazing conversations with these great students about their future and how they plan on getting there. One of the best conversations I had was with a bunch of seniors about the notion of going to a community college for two years to save money before transferring to a four-year university. Some of these students may have faced tremendous adversities and obstacles in their life, but it is not stopping them from expecting the best out of themselves and attempting to get the best education that they can. After spending two days with this bright, articulate and inspirational group of people, I have tremendous faith that these students are going to be successful in whatever field they want to after college and finally break the “vicious cycle” for their families. I have no doubt that the kids I got to know the last two days are going to be the next great leaders of our country.