Celebrating Chinese New Year in Asia

Xīnnián kuàilè! (Happy Lunar New Year!) I just got back from celebrating the start of the annual Spring Festival. The Lunar New Year is one of the most important holidays throughout Asia (in Vietnam, the holiday is referred to as Tết; in Korea, it is called Seollal), and is based off of the Chinese Lunisolar calendar. 2018 is the year of the dog, and according to the Chinese Zodiac, “those born in the Year of the Dog are considered to be loyal, honest and selfless. But they can also be stubborn, cold and critical.”

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Celebrating the Chinese New Year in Tainan!

The history of celebrating the Lunar New Year goes back centuries to the Shang Dynasty in mainland China, where “oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that the [lunisolar] calendar existed as early as the 14th century B.C.” This holiday was originally celebrated to commemorate a fable in Chinese mythology about the Demon Nián, an evil Asian version of the Greek God Poseidon. Worried that Nián was going to attack a village during the Lunar New Year, a prophet appeared, and informed the villagers that, “The beast is easily scared. He does not like the color red. He fears loud noises and strange creatures. So tonight, spread red across the village. Hang red signs on every door. Make loud noises with drums, music, and fireworks. And to protect your children, give them face masks and lanterns to protect them.” The villagers did as the old man instructed, and Nián never returned again.

During the Chinese New Year in modern day Taiwan, it is customary to have a large reunion dinner with your extended family. I was so excited when Michelle invited me to Tainan (the former capital) to celebrate the occasion with her family, which was truly one of the most memorable experiences of my time abroad thus far. I quickly learned that “Chinese New Year’s Eve” in Taiwan is much more similar to our Thanksgiving and is a holiday meant to enjoy time with family, to cultivate luck, and to extend wishes of prosperity in the coming year. Michelle and her sister-in-law cooked an incredible dinner that was absolutely delicious! After the traditional New Year’s Eve meal, the entire family started to get ready for the famous red envelope ceremony.

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Family members offer red envelopes filled with money as a sign of respect and to wish the other members of their family a healthy and prosperous year ahead. The red envelopes get distributed in reverse chronological order (i.e., the person that is oldest gets their red envelope first). I also learned that one should never give money in denominations of four—because the Chinese word for the number four (sì/四) is a homophone for the word for death (sǐ/死). Yes, Tetraphobia is alive and well in East Asia…

Once all of the red envelopes were given out, we all sat together and watched a movie. We also played other traditional games, ate a bunch of snacks, and drank oolong tea. Later during the evening, we facetimed my students back in Newark; it was a lot of fun involving them in our holiday festivities, too! Unlike New Year’s celebrations in the west, there is no countdown clock to midnight or crazy celebrations once the clock strikes twelve. The party does not end on the first night of the lunar calendar, though: the Chinese New Year celebration actually lasts 15 days!

The final day of the Lunar New Year is known as the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated with a variety of cultural dances and music (and has also become commercialized as the equivalent of Valentine’s Day in Taiwan and Hong Kong). I really appreciated getting the opportunity to experience this unique holiday, and I really loved being a part of my adopted family in Tainan. It really was such a special night, and one that I will forever hold close in my heart. Talk about true cultural exchange!

I do want to take a moment on this joyous occasion to offer my condolences to all those who were impacted by the 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Hualien last week. This natural tragedy was my first time experiencing a vicious earthquake; I woke up in the middle of the night, shaking uncontrollably. At first, I thought I was having a seizure or other medical situation, and it was not until after the earthquake ended did I look on Twitter and realize what had happened. If I have learned anything in the last two months, it is how incredibly resilient the Taiwanese people are, and we can only hope that these earthquakes stop affecting a country with such hospitable residents.

In Taiwan, many people have off during the Lunar New Year celebration. I used this time to conduct research into the Chinese imperial examination system that originated from Confucianism, and how those ideals have permeated contemporary Taiwanese educational culture. I am starting to put these ideas together for my next blog post on the history of standardized tests, which will be incorporated into my inquiry project. Stay tuned for more information!

Learn Chinese!

English                                    Chinese

Red Envelope                        紅包 (Hóng bāo)

Happy New Year!                 新年快樂 (Xīnnián kuàilè)

Wishing you happiness & prosperity.   恭喜發財 (Gōngxǐ fācái)

 

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.

 

Having Fun in The Big Easy

New Orleans. The Big Easy. N’awlins. NOLA. Whatever you would like to call it, New Orleans is high on the bucket for just about every American I know. When I found out that the NCTM conference was going to be held in New Orleans this year, a co-worker friend and I immediately knew that we needed to attend, and go down south to experience all of what New Orleans has to offer.
This flag flew above the USS Bayfield, and survived both the D-Day invasion in Normandy and a few months later during Iwo Jima. 
On our first day in New Orleans, we went to the National World War II Museum, which was unbelievable. Throughout the four building exhibit, they had so much memorabilia from the Second World War, and it was exhilarating to say the least. After going through the World War II Museum, we had lunch at Cochon (which I would highly recommend!) and then headed back to the hotel to get ready for the conference. Afterwards, we took a quick trip down Bourbon Street, had some delectable Hand Grenades, and had a splendid dinner at The Court of Two Sisters.
Had to get some authentic Louisiana food when in NOLA!

On our second and third day, we had the conference for the greater part of the day, which was extremely informational and interesting. I was also able to meet two of my “math-educator” idols, Dan Meyer and JoBoaler. For dinner on Thursday, we went to Arnaud’s, a famous French restaurant located in the heart of the French Quarter. To top off a delicious dinner, they had a small jazz band come to our table and play “when the saints come marching home.” Talk about having a genuine New Orleans experience!

The Jazz Band playing “When the Saints come Marching Home”
 Saturday was the last day of the conference, and, after attending the Pelicans game the night before, we were all really excited to check out the French Quarter Festival. To say we ‘killed’ the festival would be an understatement. We ate fried alligator, crawfish bread, beignets, and pork chop lollipops, just to name a few. In between all of the amazing food, we listened to some great jazz music, including a samba band from Brazil!
During our last full day, we got up early to have some world-famous beignets at Café Du Monde. Afterwards, we went to mass at the St.Louis Cathedral, which was beautiful. Interestingly, the cathedral has a flag for every country New Orleans has ever been apart of. We also had the opportunity to take a city tour, which included stops at City Park and a cemetery. Now, one may be wondering, why would you want to go see a cemetery when in New Orleans? You see, in New Orleans, everyone is “buried” in a mausoleum-esque above ground vault. It was really interesting to see how much different cemeteries are than the ones I am accustomed to up north. That evening, we had a chance to check out the world-famous “Commander’s Palace” Restaurant, which is where Emeril started his career. If you were looking to go to a place with authentic southern hospitality and food, I would definitely check this place out! Perhaps most notably, Commander’s subscribes to the ‘open kitchen’ philosophy, meaning that guests are allowed to freely roam throughout the kitchen at their own leisure.

 

The Commander’s Palace

 

Inside the Kitchen at Commander’s

 

At the end of the trip, it was clear that New Orleans lived up to the hype, and I already cannot wait to get back. Between all of the food, music, conferences and great people we met, it will most definitely be a trip I will never forget. As the French like to say, “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”

 

Italia!

     During the commencement ceremony at my graduation from Marist, our guest speaker Chuck Todd talked about taking risks and opportunities and offered some other great advice along the way. One of the lines that stuck out to me the most was when Mr. Todd said that, “now’s the time to travel the world; because if you don’t do it now, it will be harder later. I didn’t get to Europe until my late thirties. That’s a regret.”  I started to think about that, and although I was very fortunate to have had many once-in-a-lifetime experiences during my college career, one that I hadn’t was studying abroad and going to Europe. Coinciding with this speech was the fact that some of my best friends from college were studying in Florence for the fall semester. After giving it much thought, the decision was easy: I had to go to Europe while I had the chance.
My first international flight
     Fast-forward to the first week of November, and I was off to Europe for the first time in my life. I was so excited that on my overnight flight over the Atlantic, I barely slept. After having a short layover in Germany, I landed in Florence at 11:00 am, and I was off to Via dei Giraldi to meet up with my friends. Even though I just saw them in August, it felt like I hadn’t seen them in a year. I told myself that I wanted to do something everyday- no matter how tired or exhausted I was. With my new job, I only had one week in Italy, so I had to take advantage of every single hour I had to see the country.
My first view of The Duomo in Florence
     Once I got there, Rob and Tommy showed me around, and we had the best pizza in Florence (Gusto Pizza), amazing Gelato and some of the most delicious prosciutto I have ever had in my entire life. The city itself was amazing – and although I was just getting used to the new culture, language, and money system, I really loved it. I could perhaps write an entire post on the food- the cheeses, the meats, the wines- it was the best food I have ever had in my entire life.
A delicious antipasto course at Gatto
     Since most of my friends were busy with classes on Wednesday, I took advantage of the free time I had and attended some of the museums Florence is renown for. I started by heading over to the Museo Galileo, which houses some of the original telescopes that Galileo used to make his breakthrough scientific discoveries. After spending a few hours learning all about the history of Italian Scientists and Astronomers, I went to see Michelangelo’s “David” at the Accademia di Belle Arti, one of the most famous sculptures in the world.
Overlooking Florence on top of the Duomo at dusk
     On Thursday, Dylan and I went to Pisa to see the leaning tower, and it was such a magnificent day. When we got back to Florence, we met up with Kevin and climbed the Duomo right at sunset for the best views of Florence. The aerial shots from the top of the Duomo were some of the most picturesque scenes I have ever stood witness too. Since it was the last real night I had in Florence, we all ended the day by going to a low-key bar, and I heard all of the great stories from their experience abroad. It was such a fitting conclusion to a great week in Florence.  
Dylan and me overlooking the Leaning Tower at the Piazza dei Miracoli
     Friday was my last full day before heading down to Rome, and I started by taking an extremely informative walking tour of the city of Florence. I was so happy that I went on the tour because I learned so many intriguing facts about Florence that I probably would have never learned. I stopped by the Santa Croce before heading back to my friend’s apartment, and we figured out what to do for my last day in Florence. Although our plans changes many times, we ended up all going to the Orto Botanico di Firenze (the Italian Botanical Gardens), and saw more great views of the city. On Friday night, we went to a steakhouse right down the block from where we were staying, and I had the best steak I have ever had in my entire life. What kind of steak was it you ask? A blueberry steak. I know it sounds crazy, but my mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Overlooking Florence and the Duomo at sunset
     After a great five days in Florence, it was off to Rome for me. I took the Euro Star to Rome, which only took about 2 hours. When I got to the train station, I met up with Marist Brother Enresto, who Brother Sean hooked me up with. Brother Ernesto showed me around the city, and drove me to the Vatican. I toured the Musei Vaticanti, did a quick tour of St. Peter’s Square, and headed over to the coliseum.  After touring the Roman Forum and the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele I (Italy’s memorial of the unknown soldier), I noticed several police cars closing down the streets and helicopters flying low overhead. After eight police vans rolled up, and out came officers in full riot gear, I started to get a little nervous. I turned the corner, and there were several thousand people demonstrating in the streets. I asked a police officer what they were protesting against- and of course they were protesting for Education Reform!
In front of the Coliseum
     After meeting back up with Brother Ernesto and going to mass at the Chapel of the Swiss Guard in the Vatican, we went out to dinner and then went to the Marist General House. The General House was so incredible, and it was great to see the world headquarters of the Marist Brothers that Sean Sammon talked about so much. The next day, I went back to the Vatican and went to see the Pope give his weekly Papal Blessing. Although it was pouring rain the entire day, the rain stopped just before the Pope came out, and resumed shortly after he finished. It was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had in my life. I then toured St. Peter’s Bascilica and decided to climb the cupola, and got to see Rome from a bird’s eye view. To say the view overlooking Vatican City with a rainbow in the distance was breath-taking would be an understatement. 
At St. Peter’s Square during the Papal Blessing
     On my last day in Rome, Brother Alberto took me to a few more places around Rome, and our last stop was at St. Paul’s Cathedral, on the grounds were St. Paul was prisoned and executed. We then went to the airport, and I had one last Italian meal before I went through security and started my long trek home. I said goodbye to Brother Alberto, and went through security. Unbeknownst to me, the Roman airport workers went on strike that day, and my flight got delayed by several hours. As a result, I missed my connecting flight to Newark by an hour, so I got to spend an extra night overseas in Switzerland! In Zurich, I had a delicious dinner consisting of bear and potatoes, finished with some delicious Swiss Chocolate Ice Cream (which was incredible, but not as good as the gelato in Florence). The following morning, I was finally able to board my plane back to the states, and I got home after a long 32 hour trip.
In front of St. Peter’s Basilica 
     Going to Europe was one of the best weeks I have ever had in my entire life. I am extremely fortunate that I have so many people in my life that helped put me up in Italy for a week so I was able to afford the trip. It was my first time to Europe, but it definitely will not be my last as I am already itching to get back there. I am just glad that I didn’t wait till my late thirties to get to Europe like some others I know… 
A beautiful panorama overlooking Vatican City from the top of St. Peter’s

 ¡Ciao!

Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain backwards, you will be back in Rome. Hopefully the legend is true!