Why Taiwan? (Part 1: An Educational Perspective)

I was born to be a teacher. For as far back as I can remember, I have always loved school and valued education as one of life’s most valued treasures. While I have always had a passion for education, teaching has lit a fire in me; I truly feel alive when leading instruction in front of a classroom. Though I love what I do, I take my role as an educator seriously, as I fundamentally believe that we are teaching the future leaders of our world. As it has been said, we are currently preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve a wide variety of complex problems.

During the 21st century, our international community will need to respond to these critical global issues, including food security, public health (and the so-called “death gap”), and world peace. To solve these obstacles, we will need a new generation of creative leaders: people who appreciate diversity, can think ethically, strategically, and divergently, and refuse to be satisfied with the status quo.

To create these transformational leaders, we arguably need an education revolution in this country. The achievement data is clear: a significant opportunity gap exists between middle- and upper-class students and those living in poverty. As our schools slowly become re-segregated, many of our most vulnerable communities are being left behind (Frankenberg, Lee, and Orfield 2003; Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley 2012). Although we have made some progress over the years, I must ask: how can we live in the richest country in the world and continue to allow the opportunity gap to be so wide?

Over the past six years, I have had the absolute privilege of serving the students and families of the Newark Public Schools. During this time, I have learned so much about the unique challenges facing urban communities and the incredible resolve of Newarkers fighting for a better tomorrow. Between the city’s inspirational residents, delectable cuisine, and exceptional transportation options, Newark has genuinely become one of my favorite places in the world. As it has been said, Newark, like ancient Rome, is “a living reminder of a glorious past, a predictor of a possible future, and a lesson in the persistence of the individual and of the human spirit.”

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Newark, affectionately known as the “Brick City,” at dusk.

While I have a deep admiration for the “Brick City” and the people that live there, I have also witnessed first-hand the educational inequality that has plagued our country for decades. I have previously written about the unacceptable transportation issues within our district bureaucracy, but busing logistics is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, the Baltimore City Public Schools made national headlines when the press learned that some of their schools had broken heating systems and children needed to wear their jackets to  class. Year after year, I have watched students fight an uphill battle within a system that, arguably, was not designed with their success in mind. If I have learned nothing else over the course of the last six years, it is that we have a long way to go until every young person has the opportunity to attend a great public school.

To re-think education in the United States, we need to look critically at a number of issues both within and outside our current system. While we still have a great deal to learn from ideas, research, and innovation carried out from universities, think-tanks, and scholars in the states, there are also many creative developments underway in schools throughout the world. Over the course of the past decade, Finland’s unique educational philosophy has become a worldwide sensation. Although Finland has plenty of progressive schools, efforts to replicate their instruction model has had its fair share of challenges, and students living in Asia perform better in higher-level mathematics, especially in Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. U.S educators and policy makers alike have only recently begun looking towards the far east in search of best practices beyond the primary school level. Though several white papers, policy positions, and research projects have tried to expand this effort to high school mathematics instruction, little success has been realized.

Taiwan leads the world in mathematical performance among all students in their country. The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, colloquially known as the PISA, are clear: for the most recent year in which data is available, Taiwan was ranked as the 4th best country in the world for mathematical performance. The United States finished 36th.  The OECD (who organize the PISA) also uses a so-called “snapshot of equity in education” to determine how equitable the education system is in any given country. In this category, the U.S. currently ranks 25th, while Taiwan ranks 4th. It is worth noting that the Republic of China’s success in education stretches beyond the area of mathematics, as Taiwan currently ranks 8th internationally in reading comprehension and 13th in science, too.

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Using another standardized metric, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), eighth graders in Taiwan ranked 2nd internationally in science and 3rd in mathematics. Taiwanese students also achieved outstanding results in the International Mathematics and Science Olympiad. The Ministry of Education also has a plethora of current initiatives that are aimed at increasing creativity through art and music programs. If you put any faith in these standardized metrics (which, to be fair, are inherently controversial), it is clear that Taiwan is doing something special when it comes to educating its youth.

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During my time abroad, I will have the opportunity to observe hundreds of educators teaching at dozens of schools, learn more about their pedagogical approach, and work to apply as much of it as possible to my work with under-resourced students back home. Although a few ideas in this area have emerged from Japan and Singapore, the approach taken in Taiwan has received little public exposure despite the tremendous success on international benchmarks. This Fulbright project looks to change this paradigm once and for all.

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Stock photo of Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan.

As we look forward towards an ever-changing global economy, we as educators need to do a better collective job preparing our students for the complex world in which they will live and work. Commenting on the results of the 2015 PISA, the report’s authors noted that, “while changing how teachers teach is challenging, school leaders and governments should try to find ways to make teaching more effective.” Perhaps I am hopelessly optimistic, but I do believe success is possible.

I have worked hard the last six years to ensure that all of the students whom I taught received a great education, but I must confess that I have learned far more from my students over the years than I have ever taught them. While I am truly excited for the year of personal and professional growth that lies ahead, I also want to ensure that my time abroad actually makes a difference for our most vulnerable students. I hope that my studies in Taiwan can be part of the revolution that is committed to giving all students the chance to attain a truly excellent education.

 

This post is the first in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The second essay, focused on a “cultural perspective,” will be posted next week.

 

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 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!

Ideologies to Live By

During my senior year at Marist, I was very fortunate to receive great advice about life and leadership from many brilliant people. Taken with this, I developed a short list of important ideas and ideologies that I wrote down and kept in my desk as a sort of reminder. I read this list daily, and I strive to achieve all ten every single day. In addition to my Three Laws of Success, I feel that this list will do just about anyone in just about any position vey well. I hope you enjoy.

1. Calm down and slow down! Rome wasn’t built in a day.


2. Be a leader… today!


3. Keep a Positive Mental Attitude.


4. Doing what is popular is not always right; doing what is right is not always popular.


5. Do not take anything personal.


6. Do not ever let someone tell you that you cannot do something. Prove them wrong!


7. Play on your strengths; work on your weaknesses. 


8. Embrace change.


9. Be Transformational: Worry about tomorrow more than today, today more than yesterday.


10. Define the “new thing.” Leaders get things done and work through other people.



The Three Laws of Success

     No matter who you are or what type of company you work for, I believe that there are three general rules that you can apply (rather liberally) to get ahead in any organization. These are three laws that I have learned over the years, and have followed habitually with moderate success. 

I also want to be clear that the following advice is neither original nor complex; contrarily, it is extremely simple, but inordinately powerful.
     Rule #1: Show up. Life is about showing up. Take full advantage of every opportunity you are given, no matter how big or how small the chance seems to be. I promise that you would not believe how far “showing up” will get you. For me personally, no matter which organization I was with, it was always rather disconcerting to see the majority of people doing the bare minimum to get by. Seldom do these types of people see opportunities as pathways to their future. I can tell you countless stories about how I got ahead simply by “showing up.” Is there an upcoming professional development class that your boss told you about? Take it. Are there any leadership opportunities that may involve a substantial amount of work and seemingly no immediate reward? Do it. Is there a guest lecture that is coming to your area? Show up.
     Rule #2: Show up, on time. If you have ever worked in any organization I have ever led, you have undoubtedly heard me say that “being early is being on time, being on time is being late, and being late is unacceptable.” Whether you are going to a high-end political fundraiser, a special event, or even something as simple as a college class, get there early. Get there early every single time. One would not believe how many people I have met and relationships I have fostered just by getting somewhere early and taking advantage of the fact that I was one of the first people there. By doing so, you get to know the speaker/professor/leader on a semi-personal level, leading to potential networking opportunities that will drastically increase your contact portfolio.
     Rule #3: Show up, on time, and dressed to play. I don’t care what field you work in or what “clients” you serve; be the best dressed every single day. People notice when a person dresses professionally. I personally subscribe to the belief that how serious one dresses is how serious one is about their professional responsibilities. Also, when you are one of the younger members of an organization, dressing up adds to both your perceived level of experience and your level of respect from other co-workers. 
     So there you have it. I promise you that if you show up, on time, and dressed to play,  every single chance you get, you will have so many advantages and opportunities that no one else will have. Your pathway to success starts today, will you take it?

Making a Difference the Starfish Way

     For this post, I want to share a letter I wrote for The Circle (the student newspaper of Marist College) during my last week as Student Body President. It addresses the concept of “making a difference:” 

     Last summer, I had the privilege of attending freshmen orientation and meeting the Marist Class of 2015 before their first day of college. Everyday began with an amazing video put together by the First Year Programs staff that helped give the newest members of the Marist community an idea of what college was all about. The video ended with a few lines that read, “Life doesn’t last forever. Neither does college. Make the best of both. Make a difference at Marist.”
     But what does “make a difference” exactly mean? For those who know me well, they would say I am a big believer in the “Starfish Poem.” In short, the “Starfish Poem” talks about how everyone can make a difference to the world, no matter how big or how small that difference may be [note: see below for a full text of the poem]. The idea is that, if everyone helps out a little, we can accomplish a lot as a whole. I think this poem relates perfectly back to our students and Student Government.
     You see, people often think that you need to win a major election or have a big, fancy title to make a difference. Don’t get me wrong: Student Government, in my opinion, has done some amazing things this year. From Zip Cars to the emergency texting notification systems, new ATMs around campus to discounted taxi rides; I feel that we have done a lot to push Marist forward. Truthfully, though, these aren’t the “differences” that make Marist the place it is. The things I am talking about – the differences I see on a daily basis – are from the people who go out of their way to help another out in any way possible. These people stay up late to help their friend with a difficult assignment. These people help pick up a friend who is having a bad day. These are the people who make a difference at Marist every single day, and although they seldom get any recognition or credit for what they do, they are the people that make Marist a true community.
     In closing, I am extremely humbled and honored to have had the chance to serve as your student body president this past year. I want to thank all of the students, administrators, faculty, and staff that have helped me out so much this past year; I cannot thank you enough for everything you do for this school. And to all of my amazing friends –you all know who you are –you personally have made a difference to me in more ways than you probably know. I am going to miss Marist College immensely when I graduate in a short 8 weeks, but the memories and friendships I have made here will last forever. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read this, God Bless and Go Red Foxes!

The Starfish Poem

Once upon a time there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing.
He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day he was walking along the shore.
As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer.
He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day.
So he began to walk faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn’t dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer he called out, “Good morning! What are you doing?”
The young man paused, looked up and replied, “Why, throwing starfish in the ocean.”
“I guess I should have asked, why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?”
The boy responded, “You see, the sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”
The confused man thought for a second, and replied, “But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked up another starfish, and said “for this one,” as he threw another starfish into the sea,
“It made a difference.”