Tufts University: new “gap year” service initiative!

Tufts University is starting a new program for incoming first-year students where they can spend a year after high school doing a year of service domestically or internationally before starting their freshman year of classes the next year!


Update (2-24-14): Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks this is pretty exciting! Alan Khazei (co-founder of City Year) has a Huffington post article on this. He also points out the brand new 4+1 year of service program at Tulane in which students spend a 5th year on campus serving in the local community! HT: Nicki

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Giving Tuesday: three suggestions

In the spirit of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving is designated Giving Tuesday–a day set aside for supporting non-profits that are doing important work in the community.

Here are three non-profits that particularly inspire me with their ongoing work that is innovative, important, and well-executed.

I’d encourage you to explore these non-profits further and, if you like what you see, consider following them on Facebook or Twitter to stay informed about the work they are doing. By following them, you spread awareness about these organizations, which can be a form of giving just as potent as the financial kind…an easy way to impact many organizations on Giving Tuesday! That being said, feel free to make a donation, too, if you so choose and if you are able to do so.  : )

Sustained Dialogue Campus Network

Sustained Dialogue seeks to bring diverse groups of people (and sometimes people in direct conflict) together to learn from each other, mutually broaden their perspectives, and develop relationships that allow them to solve important problems in innovative and lasting ways. The SD Campus Network works to grow these programs on college campuses and develop a community of people empowered by their new-found connections with others and dialogue skills.

Reach Incorporated

reachLed by Mark Hecker, Reach Incorporated empowers low-performing high school students by training them to tutor and mentor low-performing elementary school students, to benefit the tutees AND the tutors! Recently, the tutors wrote, illustrated, and published several children’s books!

The Future Project

The Future Project places a “dream director” into schools to work with students and staff to develop their dreams and work to transform those dreams into reality. Students Logo(“fellows”) are supported by mentors as they work to bring about the changes they wish to see in their schools and communities. Together, these people transform the culture of a school into a place where people are empowered to pursue their passions and creatively make a positive impact in the world (not just pass tests)!

Note: these three non-profits and several others are included year-round (not just on Giving Tuesday) on the Zack’s favorite thinkers and doers page.

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(Positive) Actions Have Consequences (Too!)

When working in a high-needs school (or, I’d guess, any school, for that matter), educators are trained to help students connect actions to consequences: “Well, you chose to make that rude comment in the middle of class to your classmate, and, as you know, the consequence of that action is a detention, so I will see you right after school.”

It is indeed valuable to help students learn to connect their actions with the negative outcomes that will result from those actions. However, in the schools I’ve worked in, this connection between negative actions and negative consequences is much more emphasized than the parallel connection between positive actions and positive consequences.

Many 6th-8th graders at my school simply do not realize that they are able to do things that will positively impact themselves and those around them. Many 6th-8th graders at my school do not realize that they are able to do anything that has any impact on anything (except maybe getting themselves in trouble).

During the course of the school day, students are not permitted to make any decisions about themselves or their environment. Upon getting off the bus, they are escorted directly to various holding areas around the school where they are picked up by their teachers and led in single file lines to their classrooms. During each class, they are told precisely what they need to be doing at each moment to avoid getting in trouble: where they should be looking, what they should be writing, who they should be talking to (usually no one). At lunch they are escorted to the cafeteria and told what table to sit at, then they are called up table by table and told what lunch line to get in. They are provided certain times during the day when they are escorted to the restroom. At the end of the day, they are escorted back onto the buses.

One of my goals in my current role as a City Year team leader is to help students understand that they have the ability to make decisions which can positively impact their own lives and the lives of other people.

One way we do this is through our 50 Acts of Leadership program. Students are selected for this program based on their teachers observing that they have significant leadership potential (which the students may sometimes choose to channel in counter-productive ways–such as disrupting class). The students meet biweekly with City Year corps members during lunch to learn about leadership and, most importantly, to review the “acts of leadership” they have completed since the previous meeting.

These acts can be small (holding doors open, assisting a classmate) or large (organizing a service project). By the end of the year, the goal is for students to have completed at least 50 Acts of Leadership, enough so that they can start to see the good that they are capable of doing and the positive impact they can have on those around them and hopefully enough so that this starts to become a habit for them!

Who are we, if not measured by our impact on others? That’s who we are! We’re not who we say we are, we’re not who we want to be – we are the sum of the influence and impact that we have, in our lives, on others. –Carl Sagan


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“Knowing about” vs. “engaging with” people with different income levels

The Washington Post released an article this weekend about “super zips”–zip codes with very high median incomes and education levels–with a particular focus on super zips in the D.C. area.

Having grown up in an affluent and very well-educated community myself (though not near D.C.), this read provided an interesting description of the perspective of people (including kids) living in such areas.  According to the map in the article, the zip code I grew up in is a few percentile points below the threshold for being termed a “super zip.”

While categorizing entire zip codes each as a single entity may remove some of the precision about individual communities from these findings, there are still some valuable descriptions of people’s lives in the more affluent (on average) zip codes.

In particular, I appreciate the attempts by people in such communities to expose kids to “the other 95%.”  A church sponsors mission trips to “impoverished places such as Appalachia.” Kids report doing home repairs and encountering people living in “flimsy house trailers and converted chicken coops.”

These trips are great–I have participated in or led (secular) service trips to various places throughout the country several times. Trips such as these provide a great opportunity to explore unfamiliar parts of the country, unfamiliar cultures, and unfamiliar lifestyles, all while trying to do some good while you are there.

However, while experiences such as these lay great foundations for further exploration, reflection, and service, they are not themselves sufficient in truly educating people about what it means to live in non-affluence.

My fear is this: a high school senior is quoted as saying, “I don’t usually encounter people who aren’t like us.” If these trips are a one-time opportunity (maybe repeated a few times) for students to interact with people at other income levels, I worry about what students start to think about “those people.” Are they just unfortunates who need to be helped? Are they just living in faraway places? Is fixing up their houses really the best way to support them? Are people living in trailers in Appalachia really the only other people besides those in super-zips (what about people with moderate incomes, or in other situations of poverty that look very different)? Why do we keep saying “they?”

I hope the trips can be used as a stepping stone towards actually engaging with people who are different, not just “going to help the poor people.” If the students can channel the learning from these trips into forming lasting relationships, as equals, with people who aren’t exactly like them, maybe in their very own community, only then will they be sufficiently out of their super zip bubble.


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There is an online initiative for math educators to connect more closely online and share ideas and successes and failures: ExploringTheMathTwitterBlogosphere.

I am no longer in the classroom as a math teacher, but I’ll participate anyway!

I currently work for a non-profit called City Year, which places young adults in high-needs schools to do targeted tutoring and mentoring to keep kids on track to graduate. City Year “corps members” are partnered with a teacher whose students they work with full time as a second educator in the classroom.

In my position, I coach and support a team of City Year corps members within one particular school (across all subject areas). I also coach and support all of the City Year corps members throughout the city who are placed in math classrooms.

In the first prompt, in ExploringTheMathTwitterBlogosphere, educators are asked to share either our favorite open-ended/rich question and how it is or will be implemented OR to share what makes our classroom environment uniquely ours.

I struggle to answer either of those questions.

I’d love to help my corps members expose students to lots of rich questions. However, this is a struggle due to our role in support of the (heavily scripted and very fast-moving) curriculum which leaves no room for most deep learning. I’ll work on trying to find time out of class (after school?) for our corps members to work with students on these types of thought-provoking questions, but I’m certainly open to additional ideas, as well!

Since our corps members each serve within another teacher’s classroom, the question about how to make the classroom environment uniquely their own is particularly intriguing. Without stepping on the teachers’ feet, I’ll challenge my corps members to figure out what makes their service distinctive and personalized (different than their teachers and different than their fellow corps members).

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State class-size requirements: unintended consequences

There is a voter-approved constitutional amendment in Florida that limits the number of students in (core) classes. Districts are fined for each class that is over the limit. For middle school, the limit is 22 students per class.

On the surface, this seems like a great policy–who wouldn’t want smaller class sizes?

However, the way this is calculated leads to some not-ideal outcomes for students. The fines are based on the number of classes that are out of compliance with this policy. Thus, imagine a middle school which has enrollment in a particular grade level which is a few students above 22 per class. Since the district is incentivized to minimize the number of CLASSES which are over the threshold, it is in the (monetary) best interest of the district to place all of the extra kids into one class that goes higher over the limit, instead of into several different classes which would each only go one or two students over the limit.

For example, imagine a school in which enrollment is such that each section of a class in a particular subject is at 22 students each plus 4 extra students overall. In order to minimize the fine from the state, all four of those extra students should be assigned to the same section of the class, bringing that section up to 26 students, while all the rest are at 22.

This doesn’t make sense educationally. If assuming that smaller class size leads to better educational outcomes which is reasonable and seems to be the premise of this state policy, then it is extremely difficult to argue that adding four students to a single class (26, 22, 22, 22, 22, …) will create a better learning environment overall than adding a single student to each of four classes (23, 23, 23, 23, 22, ….).

There are some interesting things to think about regarding the extent of the educational “damage” done by adding each subsequent student to a class depending on how many students are already in the class: how does the “marginal damage” of moving a class from 25 to 26 compare to the “marginal damage” of moving a class from 22 to 23? Conclusions can also change a bit depending on whether school-wide learning is assumed to be optimized by maximizing the number of students in “small” courses while dumping the rest in giant classes (what this law incentivizes) versus minimizing the largest class size by keeping all classes at the same enrollment (which makes more sense intuitively and meets a higher threshold of perceived fairness).

Through all of this discussion, one might wonder whether schools really actually place lots of kids into one much larger class to keep the rest of the kids in classes that are below the threshold. The answer is “yes.”

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“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing ….”

The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems. — Mahatma Ghandi

Here is a venn diagram that summarizes my thinking about this quote. Imagine another large circle, a hair bigger than the yellow one which contains “most of the world’s problems.”

There are lots of interesting things to think about here. I challenge you to think through each overlapped or non-overlapped section and consider how many things in your own life may indeed fit in each section of the Venn Diagram.


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Scholars and “outreach”

This summer, the American Mathematical Society released an article arguing for mathematicians to focus only on academics and research while in graduate school and post-doc programs.  Essentially, the idea is that outreach (defined in the article as increasing representation of women and minorities in math research or working to improve K12 math education) is a distraction from the real work of math research. The article doesn’t discourage outreach entirely, but rather argues that becoming an influential researcher can allow one to be more effective in the outreach areas you care about later on.

Interestingly, this line of reasoning seems to resemble an academic version of the monetary claim that earning tons of money and donating it carefully can have a larger impact on issues you care about than by working on those issues directly–your impact can be more potent if you don’t directly use your work to address important issues now, but rather focus on growing your income which, when donated, will have a greater impact.

While I always appreciate a careful and thoughtful examination of how to actually have the most impact in any context, I’m also skeptical of any argument that discourages (albeit temporarily) pursuing things one is passionate about.  If for no other reason, taking some time out of one’s “serious” work to spend time on something personally considered to be important may actually improve the quality and originality of the “serious work” and, in fact, lead to new and important insights.


Unrelated: Thanks to the Science Refinery for the recent shout-out! It is always great to learn more about why people value the Having New Eyes blog! For my scientist/academic friends out there, I’d encourage you to check out the Science Refinery page and explore the services they provide to help you communicate your research most effectively (and least time-consumingly)–freeing up more of your time for research AND outreach! ; )

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Looking like you are helping vs. actually helping

I recently finished reading Nickel and Dimed, which describes author Barbara Ehrenreich’s experience spending a year (trying to) live on income only earned through minimum wage jobs.

For part of the year, she worked for a housecleaning service.

During her training and her work as a housecleaner, she is surprised by the extent to which the company focuses on making houses seem clean, while sometimes neglecting to make houses actually clean:

We scrub only to remove impurities that might be detectable to a customer by hand or by eye; otherwise our only job is to wipe. Nothing is said about the possibility of transporting bacteria, by rag or by hand, from bathroom to kitchen or even from one house to the next. It is the “cosmetic touches” that the [training] videos emphasize and that [supervisor] Ted, when he wanders back into the room, continually directs my eye to. (75)

Image: www.cleaningservicesslo.com

People pay to have their house cleaned, but are only able to judge how clean their house is by relatively superficial measures of no visible dirtiness and the scent of a quick spritz of “the cleaning service’s signature floral-scented air freshener, which will signal to the owners, the moment they return home, that, yes, their house has been ‘cleaned’ (76).”

I worry about the extent to which many organizations, particularly in education, succumb to this same trap of rejoicing in making things look better, without actually accomplishing as much as they appear to have accomplished.

Certainly, in cleaning, there is indeed value to living in a place that seems clean and tidy. However, my guess is that much of this instinct to try to live in a “clean” place emerges from evolutionary and social pressures to live in a place that is less likely to cause disease–precisely the germs Ehrenreich’s cleaning service did not focus on.

image: www.photos-public-domain.com

Similarly, in a school context, yes, there is certainly value in helping a student improve her attendance or grades. However, in doing so, people must keep in mind that these measures are stand-ins for other more important things (the things an education system should actually care about): deeper learning, personal growth, etc.

I’ve written before about false proxies and that thinking certainly comes into play here.

It is certainly possible for a particular intervention to temporarily raise student attendance, grades, etc. without impacting the student’s attendance, grades, etc. in the long run.

It is also certainly possible for a particular intervention to temporarily raise student attendance, grades, etc. without really having much of an impact on a student’s actual learning, the student’s self-image as a successful student and person, or the student’s likelihood to stay on a healthy academic and personal track in the long run.

This is where the scariness comes in: just as a kitchen that smells and looks clean may not actually be very clean, a student’s somewhat higher grades may make it look like he is on the right track, though maybe he isn’t.

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Airplanes and objectivity

My most recent flight was at nighttime. I was sitting in a window seat a bit behind the wing. On the rear side of the wing almost at the tip was a very bright flashing light–the light you might see by looking up at an airplane viewed against a dark sky.

As I was mindlessly staring towards the now-distant ground, something odd caught my eye: several of the brighter lights on the ground where flashing exactly in sync with each other.

At first, I thought they must be part of the same system on the ground, a tall cell phone tower, a runway, a series of traffic lights flashing due to the late hour….

As I watched, I noticed the lights were slightly different colors, in no clear geometric pattern and very far spread out over many, many miles.

I wondered if maybe I was seeing a reflection of a single light, maybe being reflected off of a bunch of lakes, for example–maybe even the flashing light on the plane being reflected.

Upon closer observation, something else very strange became apparent. Instead of the lights on the ground being exactly in sync with the flashing light on the plane, as would be expected if I was just seeing a bunch of reflections, the lights on the ground were instead perfectly OUT of sync with the flashing light on the plane: when the light on the plane was on, the lights on the ground were dimmer; when the light on the plane was off, the lights on the ground were brighter.

Very puzzling.

With a chuckle, I realized that in fact the lights on the ground were not flashing at all. Rather, my pupils were dilating and contracting each time the bright light on the wing flashed–when it turned on, my pupils contracted, making the lights on the ground seem dimmer; when it turned off, my pupils dilated, making the lights on the ground seem brighter.

The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.  —Bertrand Russell

Update: Neither the flashing light on the wing nor any of the “flashing” lights on the ground were green or “across the bay at Daisy’s house”–thanks for asking.

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