The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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BTR Selection Day Debrief

So, BTR Selection Day was amazing. Took a bus into Dorchester, a very working class neighborhood in south Boston. Here I am obviously lost and wearing a suit. People were very friendly though, struck up some great conversations.

Checked in at the Burke High School, during a normal school day so wading through a sea of students, and found my pod… Pod 6, HS Science candidates. I was very impressed by the caliber of my podmates… a computer scientist with a minor in math from Harvard… a U Michigan neurobiology major… a rising biomedical researcher… you get the idea. A very humbling meet-and-greet.

The founder/director of BTR greets us, a former math teacher in BPS himself. A bit rambling, but very motivational speech.

Group activities are up first, where we are given a sets of incomplete personal and academic information on a student case study… as a team of teachers it is our job to debate and conclude on what is going on and what our pathway forward should be. All the while the observers are hovering and scribbling notes… no pressure.

Then sample lessons. Pod 6 is invited into the classroom, 11th grade chemistry, urban public high school….  The lessons go well though, and I think mine did very well. I had restructured my Kepler lesson to be more student-inquiry-based and participatory, drawing multiple analogies to similar systems, and designed to guide the students to forming their own conclusions. They got it. And more, they seemed really hooked by the end. It felt so good.

20 minutes for lunch. Brief socializing with potential future colleagues while wolfing down sandwiches.

Two separate interviews, one focused on on personal qualifications related to the application/resume, and the second apparently on philosophy of education and awareness of contemporary issues in American public education.

A content assessment, testing basic knowledge of the subject and a 30-min free response: “Design an experiment to teach the principle of conservation of linear momentum. Identify the equipment, process, data to be collected, analysis procedure, and learning outcomes.”

Finally, a writing assessment, asking us to use information from the pre-reading to write a persuasive essay defending one of several approaches to teaching science. Essays will be evaluated on structure, logic, use of data available, and indicators of strong integrated thinking and leadership potential.

So, a very exhausting but exciting day… overall impression was that it went very well for me, but we’ll see… I’ll hear back in a week, January 20th.

Made sure to sample the local cuisine, particularly what the natives call “cuppachawdah widda beah”. Delicious of course.

Icing on the whole trip: the following day I didn’t have to get to the airport until early evening. I made it to the JFK presidential library and museum… among other inspirational points, the multiple exhortations to service of an ideal, a social good, a higher calling… definitely put a cap on it. Bought three books, and flew home.

Dear Profile First Name,

Dear <<Profile First Name>> ,

Congratulations on behalf of the BTR Admissions Committee! You have been selected as a Finalist for the 2012-13 Cohort of the Boston Teacher Residency.

We invite you to interview at Selection Day on Thursday, January 11th at the Burke High School for the following content/grade: Science – HS Physics

Brief Overview of Selection Day:

Selection Day consists of a set of performance activities including group problem-solving, mini-lesson, and individual interviews as well as content and/or writing assessments. It is also an opportunity for you to spend a day in one of our host schools and meet members of the BTR community. Based on feedback and ratings from Selection Day, the Admissions Committee will select the residents for BTR Cohort 10. Final Decisions after Selection Day will be sent to you by 9pm on January 20th.

What happens next?

On or before December 21st, please use the following link to respond to our Selection Day Invitation (to log in, use the same username and password you used to log in to the online application).

On December 22nd, BTR Admissions will send an e-mail to registered finalists with instructions and more detailed information about what to expect and what to prepare for Selection Day.

Please do not hesitate to contact Kate Diedrick, BTR Admissions Associate, at [] or [], with any questions or concerns.

Please note:

BTR actively seeks to create an inclusive service environment and will make reasonable accommodations to ensure that facilities are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. Qualified individuals who would like to request reasonable accommodations at Selection Day may contact Cassandra Pagan at [] or [].

We are excited to pursue your candidacy for the Boston Teacher Residency and look forward to meeting you soon.


BTR Admissions Team

Quick Update: TFA Final Interview

A quick update from Wednesday’s adventures. I can’t give too much detail on the format and content, due to a non-disclosure agreement, but here were some qualitative observations.

It was a very rigorous process for the final interview day. First up was the sample lesson.

The revised lesson plan went fantastically well, thanks to those who provided feedback. Making the geometric (instead of the mathematical, as I had originally intended) argument for Kepler’s 2nd law was much simpler to explain and much more intuitive. Everyone got it, and by my own (possibly biased) judgement I would say I was one of the top two lessons in the room.  Thanks for helping me to make that as strong as it could be!

We then went to a group activity, in which they set up scenarios for everyone and we were observed for our team interaction, leadership, and conflict resolution skills… after NASA FIRST this was a comfortable challenge.

Next up were two former corps members who spoke very frankly and openly about their experiences in TFA, after which there was a Q&A session. As usual I asked some pretty blunt questions (who invited *this* guy?) and was pleasantly surprised at how forthcoming and honest the answers seemed.

Lunch. Got to know the fellow “subjects” a little better. All very talented, motivated, positive, and idealistic. I felt kind of old though… the majority were undergrad freshouts, and a couple were masters students nearing their degrees.

Final one-on-one interview lasted about forty-five minutes. It was mostly asking me to expand on responses I had given to the online activity a few weeks back, clarification and expansion on my letter of intent and experience, and also a role play testing what I would have to term “improvisational persuasion under fire”. Kind of fun actually.

All in all, about a 5 hour process… ended exhausted but feeling great. My impression was that it went very well for me.

What’s next:

The TFA process is done, but they take quite awhile to process the whole ordeal. If accepted, they will let me know of assigned region, subject, and grade level on January 17th, after which I will have until January 30th to accept or decline. I did go in and change my assignment preference form to indicate that teaching physics or chemistry was more important to me than my geographical preferences. I hope that this action will further ensure that I am placed in a region of actual and high need should I choose to take the TFA route (if accepted).

I am still under consideration for the early admissions track into the Boston Teacher Residency. I will find out on December 14th if I made it to what they call Selection Day, which will be a similar day-long interview, sample lesson, team/leadership observation, reflective writing, etc on January 11th in Boston. A final decision will be sent out January 20th. BTR is without question the better alternative teacher preparation program, so I am still holding this as the preferable option.

I still haven’t decided completely on whether to do either, but I can say I’m very excited about the prospect of both. It’s been a strange and life-changing journey, often dipping into the highly personal in terms of what I value and my beliefs on the nature of education and society. The whole thing would be impossible without the support, feedback, letters of reference, and advice from several close friends, mentors, and colleagues throughout this whole process.


Dear Nalin,

Congratulations! I am pleased to invite you to Teach For America’s final interview day. We enjoyed learning more about you during your recent phone interview and would appreciate the opportunity to meet you in person.

As you plan for the next steps of our application, log on to the Applicant Center now to complete the required actions and forms by the specified deadlines:

    • Sign up for your interview date and location by 11:59 p.m. ET tomorrow, November 17. Dates and locations are available on a first-come, first-served basis and go quickly, so we strongly encourage you to schedule your interview now!
    • Request an official transcript from your registrar as soon as possible so you can upload it by 11:59 p.m. ET on November 25. For more information about our transcript upload process, check out our blog.
    • Mark your calendar with the required forms and documents deadlines found on your Status page.

We are excited to learn more about you and your interest in joining our corps. If you have any questions, please contact us at


Sean Waldheim
Vice President, Admissions

Warm Regards

Dear Nalin,

Congratulations! We have received your online application and supplemental materials. Your application is now complete and under review.

Your application will be reviewed by the Admissions Committee and email notifications will be sent to all candidates regarding invitations to attend Selection Day.

By tomorrow afternoon you will receive a follow-up e-mail with additional information about the timeline for the next steps in our Early Admissions Process.

Thank you for applying to the 2012-13 Boston Teacher Residency program. We will be in touch soon.

Warm regards,

BTR Admissions Team

The TFA Conundrum

Well, I had my TFA phone interview on Saturday morning, and I thought it went very well indeed. The interviewer, herself a TFA teacher in New Orleans, seemed friendly, engaged, and very interested in me. I had ready responses with detailed examples to all questions, and the feeling was very much relaxed and conversational.

To be honest, I’m second-guessing TFA quite a bit. On the one hand, there is a lot of great press and commentary out there on the organization. On the other… some fairly virulent criticism. The TeachForUs independent blogging network has provided both types of accounts; on the whole it is a confusing blend of the inspirational and insidious.

As I indicated in an earlier post, I do not harbor much concern for the anti-TFA sentiments that are really directed at individual motives and behaviors of TFA corps members themselves. For example, deciding to stay in teaching as a “service project” for only two years before leaving, or declining to pursue further training and education. These are decisions that anyone entering teaching could make, TFA or not. In fact, from what I read anyway , the retention rate for any teacher in an urban or low-SES school is pretty atrocious, TFA or no. Does TFA encourage a revolving door by only putting a 2-year minimum on recruits? Maybe. But I bet that a lot of people end up staying in teaching that never would have considered it as a career otherwise too. How long I stay in teaching and what my motives are for entering it are up to me, not TFA, so I find that criticism personally irrelevant.

What *is* concerning for me, however, is that I might end up being associated with an organization that is tied to much less substantiated, but far more worrisome, tactics. Gary Rubenstein, the (in)famous ex-TFA TFA critic, has written extensively on his blog about such tactics, and lately posted his most scathing yet . For example, expanding into districts that are laying off teachers? If TFA purports to send teachers with only five weeks of training into schools, they had better be filling slots that could not otherwise be filled by any qualified candidate. Are districts, under ever-tighter budgetary and political pressure, laying off experienced, unionized teachers in favor of politically backed, inexperienced, cheap fresh-outs? For the specific case of STEM subjects, I really doubt this is the case, so perhaps this doesn’t really apply to me either. But again, do I want to be associated with an organization that might/would do that?

Another big picture concern: the “Education Reform” movement. I am vehemently opposed to privitization of the public school system, just as vehemently as I have been opposed to the contracting out of RDT&E (Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation) at NASA. Without tangenting too far into all the ways that private money has our federal and state governments by the cojones, I will simply say that TFA appears to be firmly on the side of those who would use wildly inaccurate quantitative metrics to force in private charter control (or vouchers or what have you) of a public system, shortchanging students and laying off those damn lazy unionized teachers along the way. Not sure I like that either… While I’ve definitely had some lazy and/or ineffective teachers, blaming an already strained profession for systemic racial and socio-economic divides is scapegoating at best, and harmful at a long-term genocidal level at worst .

I guess what it comes down to is the basic question: Is it ok to use a possibly less-than-ethical organization as a means to an end of doing greater good individually? Or does any association with an ethically questionable (not conclusively bad, just questionable) organization negate/taint any good that may come of it?

These questions and others led me to diversify my options. I am proceeding with the TFA application – I should hear in a week if I advanced to the final day-long interview session that takes place at the end of the month. I will be notified of the final admissions decision and placement school/subject on January 17th.

However, in addition, I am also applying to the early admissions track for the Boston Teacher Residency . BTR places admitted members into a year-long, intensive Masters program at UMass Boston, combining urban teacher preparation with four days a week of student teaching. Upon completion of the Masters, residents are placed in the Boston Public Schools, and receive a full waiver of the tuition of their training upon completion of three years of service.  BTR is also clearly committed to community development and long-term teacher retention for what seems like truely transformative change. Making the November 15th deadline means a possible Selection Day interview invite in mid December, an interview in early January, and a final notification of acceptance on January 20th.

I guess I’ll have to figure this out by then. I have a feeling though, that like other significant forks in the road in my past, one path is just going to seem intuitively right, and I’m going to just take it and be too busy kicking ass at whatever challenges lie around the corner to ever look back. I just don’t know which it will be yet.

Expanding the Options

Whew, ok TFA application was submitted successfully on the 26th… I should find out on the 3rd (day after tomorrow) if I advanced to the phone interview phase. No time for details at the moment, since I’m in the middle of tech week for a play that is opening this Friday (yeah I know, busy enough?)… but due to ever-growing philosophical differences with TFA, I’ve decided to pursue other routes into teaching as well, at least so that I have a few options to consider.

I have started an application to the Boston Teacher Residency program, which looks amazing. The early application deadline (just two weeks away… eeep) results in an admissions notification at about the same time as TFA (third week of January), so I will be able to compare the opportunities if I happen to get both. I’ve filled out the basic app, ordered transcripts, and uploaded my C.V. and relevant course listing. Remaining: see if my two TFA recommenders will also be willing to fill out the online forms for this one too, and also to add at least one more. Also, the essays… should be similar to my TFA ones, but I want to tailor them specifically for this program.

Also in work, but with much less progress (and less clear deadlines): the Chicago Teaching Fellows. More later.

Letter of Intent, Draft 3

Here is another take on my previously posted draft letter of intent. Thanks to Vihangi, Amy, Aleks, and Julia for the proofreads and feedback.

I seek to join Teach for America in order to directly address our nation’s most dire of inequities: the disparity in the quality of accessible education across social demographics. I know that through Teach For America, I cannot directly ease poverty or fix broken families. I can, however, enable these students to break out of the prison of social class, to which they have been relegated by fate and forgotten by their nation. In a world of systemic racial and socio-economic divides, quality education is the only equalizer – the only pathway that can empower individuals of any background to reach their potentials.

As the successful child of immigrants to this country, I have truly lived the American Dream. Yet, I know that I was fortunate to have been born under two very serendipitous circumstances. My parents were educated and were likely headed for successful careers before coming here; and while my family has never been what I would term wealthy, neither have I ever been in need of the foundations on which individual merit can actually build success. Many students across our nation lack even these basic elements – such as stable families, freedom from hunger and violence, and a supportive community. As my awareness of these injustices has grown, my individual success has taken on new context: I realize that it is time for me to pay it forward, in return for all that this country has enabled me to achieve.

As a NASA research engineer, I have been honored to work with some of the world’s most creative, passionate, and intelligent people on the cutting-edge engineering challenges of today: energy, environment, transportation, and exploration. Addressing these challenges requires viewing science as something much grander and more beautiful than a dry sequence of memorized facts. Science is applied curiosity – powered by wonder, and expressed through the language of mathematics. I intend to instill this perspective by setting a personal example of hardworking grit and a curious mind. I would also make full use of my experience to bring an array of practical applications to the forefront of my pedagogy.

As an engineer, I know that any credible metric of success must be rooted in quantifiable results. However, in addition to increasing performance on standardized exams, there are qualities which are far more critical to our nation’s scientific competitiveness. The true test of the scientist is to apply creative innovation to solving challenging, integrated problems. Evidence of these qualities in my students would be my personal metric of success. I would strive daily to cultivate them in my students by incorporating critical thinking, oral and written communication, and creative design in my lessons and grading metrics to the greatest degree possible. I know that an integrated, creative, and applied approach to science and mathematics will inspire the individual success of my students and provide them with opportunities to meet the local, national, and global technical challenges of tomorrow.

And… Steve Jobs for the Tipping Point

The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Why Not? Apply Anyway.

So… that’s basically what I’m thinking. Criticisms of TFA as an organization aside, from the research I’ve done, it does seem to be the most direct path from working professional to teaching in a high-need area. Going the “traditional” route means going back to school and doing a degree in education. And further, going the alternative route to certification by directly hiring on with a school district seems to be a non-starter… as cold as it sounds, it seems like programs with the political clout of TFA are the only way to get into districts that are laying off on the whole.

There are similar programs, such as Math for America or The New Teacher Project, but I’m not sure either of these is a better choice. For one thing, I would want to teach science, not math necessarily (and anyway my grades in pure math, while good, would probably not compete in a program focused exclusively on the subject).  MFA also requires at least a year of going back to school and a five-year commitment. TNTP appears to be the exact same organization as TFA, except with a different name and a focus on particular cities over a national program. (Probably not-so-incidentally, TNTP was founded by notable TFA alumna Michelle Rhee.)

Hey school districts: If you are so hurting for experienced STEM professionals to consider teaching as a career, but don’t like the incursion of external non-profits, then how about a nice “STEM PROFESSIONALS: CLICK HERE FOR OUR FAST-TRACK ENTRY PROGRAM!” button that would help this along?

So, I started a TFA application. I’m going for it. Haven’t decided yet if I truly want to do it, but there is no harm in going through the application process just to see what will happen. Initial online application due October 26th, several follow-up steps come after depending on how far you get, and I would know my admission status and where/what I would be teaching by January 17. I would then have until January 30 to decide whether or not to accept.

IF I accept, I see this going one of three ways:

  1. I love it. Well great, now I have a teaching credential and experience in the classroom, I could take my credential and go to another school or stay put and keep fighting the good fight where I end up. This would be the intended outcome of accepting: long-term teaching career.
  2. I hate it, or at least don’t love it, and want to return to engineering or a technical field. Well great, 2 years of teaching isn’t going to erase my Bachelors and Masters in Aerospace Engineering, 5-year research stint at a NASA center, and 8 publications.
  3. I hate it, or I at least don’t love it, and want to do something else entirely different. Well, the above technical qualifications, former civil service, leadership experience, teaching credential and experience. and a Masters in Education (possible in most TFA deployments)… sounds like I could go many places with that. Education policy? Research/science policy? Run for public office? Work for a think tank? Lead somewhere else in civic engagement?

I mean, why not, really? Life is short… I’ve got one shot to experience the world and make a lasting positive impact on it. Is spending the next 40 years in engineering the best use of what I have to give?