Teaching at Northern State Prison

Last October, Netflix released an original documentary directed by Ava DuVernay called 13th. As originally put forward by the NY Times, this full-length feature film is “powerful, infuriating, and at times overwhelming,” and “will get your blood boiling.” The film takes a close look at the 13th amendment, which was originally passed in 1865 and “ended” slavery in the United States of America, with one major caveat. Here is the text taken verbatim from section one of the 13th amendment to our constitution:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Ava DuVernay’s documentary then goes on to show how much those fourteen words, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” have been systematically abused in this country for decades. I honestly cannot recommend watching the movie enough. That being said, watching the film seriously challenged my previous notions and ideas about the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States. For me, it was the second time in my life a documentary shook me to my core, and I knew that I needed to do something – anything, to stop these systems of oppression from moving forward. (The other movie being the highly controversial Waiting for Superman, which pushed me to apply to Teach For America). In Michelle Alexander’s terms, I needed to stop standing still on the moving walkway once and for all.

While having a conversation about the movie with my student teacher at the time, he told me about an incredible nonprofit called the Petey Greene Program. The mission of the organization is to supplement education in correctional institutions by preparing volunteers, primarily college students, to provide free, quality tutoring and related programming to support the academic achievement of incarcerated people. The Petey Greene Program “is named after Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, Jr., a TV and radio talk show host and community activist who overcame drug addiction and a prison sentence to become one of the most notable media personalities in Washington, D.C. history.  While incarcerated for armed robbery, Greene became the prison’s disc jockey and subsequently a role model for many other individuals incarcerated in the facility.  Greene’s close friend and mentor, Charlie Puttkammer, was inspired by Greene’s life, and founded the Petey Greene Program in his honor, to strengthen correctional education services and offer college students the opportunity to pursue meaningful and valuable work in the criminal justice system.”

For the past year, I have been privileged to teach adjudicated adults at Northern State Prison through the Petey Greene Program. After two months of paperwork, background checks, and an intense DOC volunteer training, I received my approval, and have subsequently volunteered at Northern State Prison every Thursday afternoon for the past year. Northern State Prison is a mixed security prison, meaning that the facility detains people with different levels of custody, including general population, special needs, administrative close supervision unit (adults who have incurred serious disciplinary charges) and therapeutic community (addictive behaviors). I normally arrive at the correctional facility at around 3:00, as the prison is less than ten minutes from the high school that I currently teach at. After about 20 minutes of processing, including signing in, verifying clearance status, going through airport-style security, and getting frisked down, we are escorted by a corrections officer to the secured area through the prison yard and then to the library.

Once we arrive, our students are typically waiting for us at large tables in the library (see picture below). The students range in age from early 20’s to late 50’s, and  are all working relentlessly to pass the T.A.S.C. (test assessing school completion), formerly known as the G.E.D.  Almost universally, the students are hungry for knowledge, and are always appreciative of the time we spend with them. I found out recently that Northern State also has a pilot program with Rutgers for those that are looking to attain a college education after they get their high school equivalency.

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The library at Northern State Prison

It is one thing to read about mass incarceration in The New Jim Crow or watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th, but it another altogether to experience what a prison is like first hand.  As officials at Petey Greene often say, for many of the incarcerated adults we are working with, we are not giving them a second or third chance at an education, but rather a genuine first chance. Study after study shows the effectiveness of prison education programs. This NY Times article point out that “every dollar spent on prison education translated into savings of $4 to $5 on re-imprisonment costs down the line.” An NPR report put forward research that shows that “when inmates get a college education, they are half as likely to end up back in prison.” I think we as a country need to do some serious soul-searching about mass incarceration; we must look to other countries that use their system as a legitimate corrections system, as opposed to a mundane punishment system. After all, isn’t the point of prison to rehabilitate people, not make their lives worse? Can we honestly say that the corrections system we currently have in America is achieving that vision? (Recommended video: Bill Whitaker of 60 Minutes reports on the German prison system, which emphasizes rehabilitation rather than punishment and allows convicts an astonishing amount of liberty.)032017_6895_Tutors-at-Northern-State-Prison

This entire experience has truly been transformative in ways previously thought unimaginable. For me, volunteering has brought up dozens more questions than answers, such as why we deprive thousands of people of their liberties, often for nonviolent crimes, and why some states permanently take away voting rights from former inmates even after they have paid their “debts” back to society. From a financial perspective, it costs more than $40,000 to incarcerate one inmate per year in New Jersey alone. To put that in perspective, we spend less than half of that on each of our public-school students annually. As a teacher, I am of the belief that an excellent education is the only true inoculation for mass incarceration, yet we still cannot get policy makers to vote for common-sense legislation, such as universal pre-K. As Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times points out, the “growing mountains of research suggest that the best way to address American economic inequality, poverty and crime is early education programs.” In another study, there was a 59 percent reduction in child arrests at age 15 among students who had gone through an early childhood education program. In a way, universal pre-K is one of the best interventions we have to fight the school-to-prison pipeline.

To quote Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I have seen weekly how we systematically remove the humanity and dignity from incarcerated people, and it begs the question as to who we are as a society. I often hear people proclaiming how the U.S. is the “home of the free,” yet we have the highest imprisonment rate per person in the world, including oppressive places like North Korea. As it has been put forward, ending the era of mass incarceration while simultaneously increasing the funding and attention paid to our public schools AND correctional education programs is the only way that will prove that the United States still stands for liberty, opportunity, and an inextinguishable chance at individual achievement.

Every Thursday evening at 5:00pm, a corrections officer comes into the library, gives us the signal to wrap things up, and escorts us out of the prison. As I walk through the prison yard each week, I cannot help to wonder about what all of the incarcerated people are thinking about, many of whom have never held a smartphone or even used the internet. As I wait for the control tower to open the stereotypical series of electrically-locked steel doors, I question how far we have come as a society, and reflect about how much progress we still need to make. For at the end of the day, at 5:00 p.m. every Thursday, I ultimately get my liberty back. Shouldn’t everyone?

Interested in learning more about or applying to the Petey Greene Program? Click here 

 

Reflections From My First Year of Teaching

When one becomes a teacher, there is an often told piece of advice given from veteran educators that encourages a new teacher to “not smile before Christmas.” The idea is that, if you show your students that you are happy and having fun, you are indirectly showing them that you are “weak.” I thought long and hard about what I was going to be like as a teacher, especially since I was very young and had little experience. Sure, I student taught during college and worked in Harlem the summer leading up to my first year, but this was different. For the first time, I was on my own. 
Teaching an algebra class earlier in the year

And there I was, in September, standing by myself in front of a class of freshman ready to learn. I was a recent college graduate, I just moved to Newark a few weeks prior, and, at 21 years old, was the youngest member of the faculty by over a year. As an extremely young, new and inexperienced teacher, it was initially a challenge to gain the respect of the students and ever other teachers, some who had lived in Newark their entire lives. It was an interesting dynamic, but once people started to see who I really was and what my intentions were, things started to fall into place. My first semester had its ups and downs, and my teaching career had officially begun.

With the ESHS Student Council in DC for the
2013 Presidential Inauguration 

In addition to teaching, I was very fortunate for all of the amazing opportunities I had as a first year teacher. Perhaps most notably, I was able to chaperone three overnight trips with the Student Council, including college visits to Washington, D.C. and Boston and a trip to the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. As a result, I really got close with some of the Student Council members, mostly upperclassmen whom I otherwise would not have had a chance to work with and get to know individually. These students gave me tremendous insight into their lives and what it is really like growing up in Newark.
With the ESHS Student Council at Harvard University in Boston.
When I reflect back on my first year of teaching, it is the stories and conversations that stand out to me that are the most memorable. I have been so lucky to have had such amazing conversations with so many students this year, with discussions ranging everywhere from college life to immigration reform to living in poverty. I really enjoy having lunch with students and getting to know them on a more personal level. I often say that I feel that I learn more from them than I could ever teach them in a million years; I sure do hope that the ‘learning’ is mutual. I could go on and on about so many conversations I have had, like one about college with a rising junior till 5:00pm on a random Friday or standing on the national mall in DC listening to undocumented students from Brazil explain their struggles with things we all take for granted every day, like applying to college or even working a summer job. As I have stated previously, it is one thing reading about deep social issues such as the achievement gap or institutionalized racism, but experiencing it first hand is surreal.
With the 2013 NPS Math Olympics Pre-Calulus Champions!
Loved working with this team and these students so much. 

I also helped coach the Math Olympics Pre-Calculus team, which won first place in the Newark Math Olympics. I couldn’t be prouder of such a great group of hard-working students that gave up so much of their free time to learn math. It was also interesting taking this team to the Essex County Math League Competition, where our East Siders faced much more affluent districts such as Livingston and Milburn. It was interesting to watch the achievement gap unfold right in front of me, as these two school districts seemingly swept away the rest of the competition. Also in April, I went to Denver for the 2013 NCTM Conference, where I was able to network with so many educators from all across the country. To close the year, I chaperoned two additional field trips to the Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo. Oh, and we may have also organized a few teacher-student kickball games after finals, as well…
With some other [awesome] teachers at the Museum of Natural History


I wish I could articulate every lesson I learned from my first year of teaching, but I would probably need to publish a book to do so. This has undoubtedly been the biggest life changing and eye-opening year of my life; my perspective of inner cities and social classes has changed tenfold. I wish everyone at some point in their lives has the chance to work at or visit an inner-city high school, as I think it offers great perspective into different people’s lives. It is an absolute privilege (and a unique challenge) to work with teenage students, and I promise you I never have a boring day at work! Sure, there were many times that I put in 12 hour days or stayed late to watch a game or advise a public speaking club, but it is these moments that really make it all “worth it.” I can honestly say that I love coming to work every single day. 
In May, the students voted me as Teacher of the Month.
I couldn’t have been more honored and humbled by this award,
especially since it was the students that selected it. 

Well, year one of teaching is in the books, folks. Almost exactly a year ago today I was heading into Newark for the first time, really unsure of what to expect from a city and school district I have heard so many negative things about. Looking back, moving to and working in Newark was perhaps the best thing that has ever happened to me. I love where I work, the students I work with, and many of my colleagues with like-minded attitudes that really care about our students. I have learned a lot from year one (including the fact that, against popular opinion, it is extremely important to smile before Christmas), and I am already thinking about what can be done better next year. 


I could not have asked for a better first year of teaching. Now let’s see what’s in store for year number two.

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.”