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!

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.  

Crisis Management 101

It is kind of hard to believe that it has been a year since Hurricane Irene hit landfall last summer. For many people, Hurricane Irene was just another terrible storm, affecting some more than others. Hurricane Irene hit Marist pretty badly- power was lost to many buildings, areas were closed off to students due to severe flooding, and infrastructure was heavily damaged because of all of the water.
Marist students rescue a car from a flooded parking lot during Hurricane Irene

The day after Hurricane Irene ended, I received an intense crash course in crisis management that I will never forget. I woke up to a phone call at 7:00 in the morning, and it was an unknown number. I answered it, and it was the President of the college, Dr. Dennis Murray, asking me if I could come to a makeshift command center in the student center as soon as possible for an emergency meeting. About a half hour later, I got to the student center, and the entire senior administration alongside the student affairs staff was there. Our first task was establishing a direct line of communication with students, parents and staff.

            It never seeks to amaze me how important social media can be in communication during a crisis. I was fortunate enough to be sitting next to Tim Massie, then Chief Public Affairs Officer of Marist, who is a twitter master and knows the ins and outs of how to use social media in just about any situation. Tim says that, “during a crisis, social media is invaluable in keeping people informed and squelching rumors.” During the meeting, we had a twitter page up on a screen displaying the most up to date tweets with the #Marist hashtag. Every time someone would post something that was fabricated or exaggerated, we would confirm that the tweet was a rumor, than squash that tweet using social media. (I strongly recommend reading Tim’s perspective of the Hurricane Irene ordeal, which can be found on his blog here.)

            After President Murray gave everyone their tasks for the day, he asked me to go with him to visit the affected areas. We jumped into his car, drove and walked around to the worst hit areas of campus, assessing the damage first hand. After a few hours “in the field,” we reconvened with the entire group. Late in the afternoon at this point, each administrator had a POA (Plan of Attack) for what the next steps were going to be for getting Marist back to normal. It was great seeing how so many different departments came together to make the best out of a potential terrible situation, and it reminded me once again just how great the leadership team at Marist is.
A clip of the memorandum from Marist President Dr. Murray  

            The following day, Dr. Murray sent out a memorandum to the college community, which can be found in full here. As one Vice President told me early that morning, “you are going to learn more today than you will in an entire semester of college.” And he couldn’t have hit the nail on the head any better. 

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.”

Keep a PMA…today!

     Everyone has someone in their life that always cheers them up, no matter what kind of mood they are in. I am fortunate to have several people like that, but the story I want to share today is about my friend Steve Townsend. Steve is one of those people that can make your day, even when he is 300 miles away (literally). Steve offered me some great advice throughout my college career, but the best advice he gave was ironically written in a note taped under my desk. When Matt Lubrano was cleaning out his desk during my first day as SBP, Matt found a note from Steve written for a future Student Body President. It read:

     Steve was right- time certainly did fly by. College went so fast, to be honest. But let’s focus on that last word for a second: Smile (We’ll save the “stay humble” line for another blog post).

      I am happy that I had someone that would write a note under my desk and occasionally call and remind me to smile and look on the bright side of things. I read a book once called “Change the Way You See Everything,” a super-quick read (maybe an hour at absolute tops) that I strongly encourage everyone to check out. It talks about how, everyday, you can choose to look at the glass half-full or half-empty, and that decision dictates your entire day. This positive, optimistic outlook on life is called ABT, short for Asset-based thinking. The book argues that to live a life of ABT, you must always keep a Positive Mental Attitude, or PMA.

     Of course, keeping a PMA is, at times, hard. There are many situations when it is hard to think of the positives in a given situation; it is those toughest moments in life when we see who the real optimists are.

     Why should you keep a PMA? I want you to read the story below. I know it is a little long, but it is well worth the read. In the following story, it is clear why people want to be like “Michael,” who is a clear believer in ABT and keeps a PMA even through the toughest of situations.  And you can be just like Michael, too. I know it is hard, but at the end of the day, being positive is one of the best attributes anyone can have. Just remember to “Smile.” 

Michael is the kind of guy you love to hate. He is always in a good mood and always has something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, “If I were any better, I would be twins!”

He was a natural motivator.

If an employee was having a bad day, Michael was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation.

Seeing this style really made me curious, so one day I went up to Michael and asked him, “I don’t get it! You can’t be a positive person all of the time. How do you do it?”

Michael replied, “Each morning I wake up and say to myself, you have two choices today. You can choose to be in a good mood or … you can choose to be in a bad mood.

I choose to be in a good mood…..

Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or…I can choose to learn from it. I choose to learn from it.

Every time someone comes to me complaining, I can choose to accept their complaining or… I can point out the positive side of life. I choose the positive side of life.”

“Yeah, right, it’s not that easy,” I protested.

“Yes, it is,” Michael said. “Life is all about choices. When you cut away all the junk, every situation is a choice. You choose how you react to situations. You choose how people affect your mood. You choose to be in a good mood or bad mood. The bottom line: It’s your choice how you live your life.” !

I reflected on what Michael said. Soon hereafter, I left the Tower Industry to start my own business. We lost touch, but I often thought about him when I made a choice about life instead of reacting to it.

Several years later, I heard that Michael was involved in a serious accident, falling some 60 feet from a communications tower.

After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, Michael was released from the hospital with rods placed in his back. I saw Michael about six months after the accident. When I asked him how he was, he replied, “If I were any better, I’d be twins. Wanna see my scars?” I declined to see his wounds, but I did ask him what had gone through his mind as the accident took place.

“The first thing that went through my mind was the well-being of my soon-to-be born daughter,” Michael replied. “Then, as I lay on the ground, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live or…I could choose to die. I chose to live.”

“Weren’t you scared? Did you lose consciousness?” I asked.

Michael continued, “The paramedics were great. They kept telling me I was going to be fine. But when they wheeled me into the ER and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared. In their eyes, I read ‘he’s a dead man’. I knew I needed to take action.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Well, there was a big burly nurse shouting questions at me,” said Michael. “She asked if I was allergic to anything. ‘Yes, I replied.’ The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply. I took a deep breath and yelled, ‘Gravity’.”

Over their laughter, I told them, “I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead.”

Michael lived, thanks to the skill of his doctors, but also because of his amazing attitude… I learned from him that every day we have the choice to live fully. Attitude, after all, is everything.

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” ~Matthew 6:34.

After all, today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday!

Introduction


     I want to thank you all for stopping by and reading my blog. I am not entirely sure where exactly this project is going to go, but I do have some ideas for starters: I hope to share some of the great stories and lessons I have learned over the years with the world wide web. I have always found the concept of a blog interesting, and I love reading the blogs of others, as well. But why did I choose to start a blog now?

     During my last Board of Trustees meeting at Marist College, I was sitting with my normal “pre-meeting” crew, which included Justin Butwell (Director of Physical Plant), Sean Kaylor (Vice President of Enrollment) and Connie McCaffrey (Director of Housekeeping). We were talking for over an hour and laughing hysterically as usual. We started to talk and reminisce about the past year, and how crazy the last two semesters of my college career have been. Connie, who has been a dedicated employee of Marist College for the past 32 years, said that I should really start writing everything down so I would never forgot some of the stories I have heard and lessons I have learned over the course of the last year. She was kind enough to get me a journal for my graduation so I could remember everything years from now. I started writing some things in it, and I said to myself, “geez, I wish I could share some of these awesome stories with other people.” Then it hit me: start a blog, and here I am today!

     For a quick disclaimer, I do not know how often I am going to update this blog. I am hoping to post bi-weekly, although we all know how life sometime gets in the way of planning.  (More on that topic in a future blog post.)

     One last thing- you might be wondering why I chose to name this blog Don’t Pump the Brakes. Now, some people out there probably already know exactly what this title refers to, but I really want everyone else to figure it out. I think it is pretty straightforward, but there is a great story behind the title that I will share at some point down the line.

     I have a lot more to share with you all, but I did not want my first blog post to be too long. As my friend Tim Massie would say, you should always leave your audience wanting more…