Back to High School! Part II

I’m now back at MIT, but I still need to finish writing up part II of my last post, so here goes:

11:25 AM [Lunch]

Students at Nueva have an extremely long lunch period. Part of that time is so students can eat lunch, but part of that time is also for student clubs to meet. I ate a solidly decent lunch of ravioli with Apple. I asked him about his classes, his outside projects, and what teaching is like in general. He asked me a few questions about what I do and what I’m interested in. He mentioned that teaching teaching at private schools often has fewer requirements (no certs required, no test prep required) and more freedoms. Apparently to start as a teacher, you can shadow / be mentored by a more experienced teacher for a bit to prepare for real teaching.

As lunch went on, I was able to take a bit of a mental break from all the activity and interaction. Near the end, I met Donut, a CS teacher and MIT grad. We talked for a bit about MIT, Course 6, and talked some about shared interests. She teaches a machine learning class (that I went to at the end of the day), so we talked about how she runs the class (which I’ll get into later).

Donut is also the new head of Invention Studio (after Connie left), so at the end of lunch, we listened to a team’s dry run presentation for their Design Review event. Along with the two student heads of Invention Studio, we listened to the student’s presentation and gave them some advice to prepare for Design Review (which was in 5 days). Nueva was a school built on design-thinking and a lot of other alternative methods. To Connie Nueva often represents the ideal picture / the extreme bounds that high school education can reach. Despite all of these things aligning, I think I saw the students struggle with lots of the same things students in my high school struggle with and students at MIT still struggle with.

The main struggle I saw was an uncomfortability with uncertainty. If students don’t know how to do something, their mind shuts off or it flounders around. These students in particular didn’t know how to get past an engineering blocker in their product. Rather than trying to take some first steps towards progress, they stalled because they couldn’t see most of the steps to get to their goal. Something about the size and unfamiliarity of the problem puts a mental block on students that they need a mentor to pull them up from.

12:55 PM [Third Block]

In third block, I visited a class that was on the philosophy of science. In particular, the discussion was about usefulness of intractable scientific theories. Before class, students read a reading about string theory and multiverse theory, which are essentially grand physics theories we aren’t really sure how to measure. Packed into this problem comes lots of questions — are these valid theories if we can’t support / deny them? how many resources should we put into these problems? are these theories just mathematical models or are they describing how the universe “actually” works?

Lots of these questions were brought up in students’ pre-discussion questions, so during class we slowly tried to step through a few of them. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get too deep into these questions. Students, while some were happy to contribute, would get distracted from whatever point was being made. They weren’t able to dig deeper into these problems — so it hit me that this was a problem with lots of discussions I had in high school. I’d often feel disengaged because the discussions wouldn’t matter. They would be a bunch of people saying a few surface-level random thoughts about a potentially interesting subject with no actual consequences.

2:15 PM [Fourth Block]

In the last block of the day, I went to Donut’s machine learning class. Class was fairly unstructured work time based on a lab about word vectors and NLP. Through the lab, students were given a brief intro to the subject material and asked to play with the code (potentially in line with some suggested tasks). One super bright side of this structure is that students had the freedom to use these tools for whatever they found interesting. In subjects like ML, this is especially great because these tools can be used for so many things. The downside is that students aren’t necessarily developing a solid understanding. As with all self-studying, students get out however much they put into it and for some students this may not be enough (though it is hard to say what “enough” is).

3:30 PM [End of Day]

After all these classes came to a close, I went back downstairs to pick up my things and Lyft back to work. Before I left, I got to stop by and thank all the wonderful teachers and students I met throughout the day. Nueva truly does seem like an awesome place to work — lots of awesome teachers and students. Reflecting a bit on what it’d be like to work at a private school, I imagine I’d really enjoy it. Each day, I’d get to work with a bunch of bright kids. I’d get to work with and learn with really passionate teachers. I’d also get to face different challenges each day and work on sharing the subjects I love with others.

One drawback that usually comes hand in hand with working at a private school is the feeling of not making a meaningful impact. Why serve the privileged students at the top when there are so many others that need it? If part of the goal of teaching is to make a difference in the world, how much of a difference is working at a private school? Later that night, I ended up talking to Connie about this, and she passed along some insight that I feel like I had started to realize a little bit after teaching in ESP programs and spending the day at Nueva: when you’re teaching at privileged schools like Nueva, you’re directly teaching the next generation of world leaders — the people who need to be able to make the difficult decisions — so hopefully as a teacher, you can rub off on them and prepare them to solve the problems in the world.

Thanks to everyone who read any of my lengthy (and probably confusing) posts! It’s been lots of fun writing these posts over the last month, and I’ve gotten lots out of spending time reflecting on my experiences — hopefully I’ve also helped you learn something new/realize something you didn’t know before!



Back to High School! Part I

Yesterday, I visited The Nueva School and shadowed a student and a couple teachers. This trip was a great opportunity to learn more about what teaching looks like in an alternative independent school like Nueva (and was a nice vacation from my work). Here are some random unorganized thoughts from things I observed:

8:25 AM [Before School]

Arrived at school via a Lyft. I walked up to the front desk and said I was visiting teacher Apple (replacing names with food for privacy). The receptionist called Apple, but he wasn’t there. Despite this, she asked if I knew where I was going and let me in anyway.

This was, to me, the first of many oddities at Nueva. At my middle school or high school, I would’ve been promptly and rudely escorted off school premises with the harsh warning that if I came back, there would be consequences. If you weren’t there with a purpose, you meant trouble. Even if you were an alumnus there to visit a teacher one year after graduation, they assumed you meant trouble. I think there were even times when I was a student when they saw us as troublemakers. I think this attitude from staff / security directly led to less behaved kids. At Nueva, it seemed like none of this existed.

At some point, I met my student host, Barley, who gave me a tour of the school. The school itself has an awesome innovation-lab — makerspace, chemlab space, and art studio space equipped with the materials, tools, and staff to make almost anything! Everything about the school is very open. Students are free to walk anywhere. Teachers have desks at pods out in the open. Almost all classrooms are glass walled. There are lounge spaces everywhere for students to hang out and work.

8:45 AM [First Block]

During my first block, I observed an advanced computer programming class. This class felt a lot like the independent study computer science classes I had in high school. Students were roughly left on their own to work on whatever they wanted. This ranged from learning a new language to working on fairly deep systems or ML problems. For me, this kind of class was super important for furthering my cs knowledge and developing self-study skill, but unfortunately I saw kids struggle with the same problems I did. In particular, this kind of self studying is heavily dependent on the teacher’s knowledge of resources or the availability of “good” textbooks (with the right pace for a HSer). A second problem is self motivation. If kids aren’t internally curious, they won’t learn anything. Luckily for Nueva, most of the kids seem rather curious except for a couple 2nd semester seniors I talked to.

This first takeaway I had from this is that it is important to learn skills. In particular, I’d want to learn enough breadth of topics to be able to help my students at least get started in any area. On the flip side, though, it’s unclear how much knowledge is enough. At what point should I focus less on learning and focus more on teaching? The second takeaway (or rather question) I left with is how can we teach kids to be internally curious? Connie pointed out to me one morning that waking up and directly going into watching econometrics lectures on youtube is something that even kids in higher education don’t have. I’m not exactly sure why people like me randomly enjoy learning things or if it was a learned skill at all, but maybe some answer to this question could help motivate other students.

10:05 AM [Second Block]

In my second block, I followed Barley to linear algebra class. Connie told me the teacher, Cauliflower, changed the way in which she saw math so she was really excited that I’d get to meet her. The linear algebra class was structured with students presenting solutions to problems (which generally asked for some proof). As the student presented their solution, other students, along with Cauliflower, would ask questions and note how ideas could have been explained more clearly. Naturally, the students’ presentations were full of mistakes and confusing explanations, so personally I couldn’t follow the line of questions Cauliflower and other students were asking. They never really led to a better understanding for me, so at some point, I started zoning out the questions until I found a solution. To me, this seems like the main downside — if a student doesn’t think about the problem in the same way (e.g. I saw many of the problem very visually), then the questions asked just add to the confusion.

On the positive side, though, there were so many awesome things the students seemed to get out of the class. Even though it seems like many of their linear algebra knowledge is very jumbled, I think they are developing what people describe as “mathematical maturity” fairly visibly. Students were comfortable with admitting they didn’t understand things. Nearly all of them were comfortable with asking questions or adding comments even though there were ~17 students in the class. Students were also comfortable with going slow and making sure they understood and believed each step before moving on. While they’re not quite all the way there yet (they still miss points and little details), it’s clear that they understand what math is really about (in contrast with classes like calculus). I really admire Cauliflower’s ability to foster question-asking and slow thinking about all the problems.


Deep Dizzying Difficult Determined Discussions

Imagine 5 people whose opinions/advice you value/respect. They can be past teachers, past mentors, various important people or famous people you’ve met. (This works better if you actually take some time to do it so here’s a picture for you while you think.)

Me with a bag, somewhere in SF, under heavy attack from the wind.

Alright, now that you have your 5 people, imagine convening them for 1 hour. The purpose of the hour is to talk about your life — updating them on what you’ve been up to and figuring out what you should do next. How would you plan the discussion?

Yesterday morning, this is roughly the question we asked ourselves with a board meeting looming in the afternoon. We ended up deciding to spend the first half of the meeting n introductions and an overview of our recent work. The second half was dedicated to a couple discussion questions:

  • What are our blind spots?
  • What are exciting/new ideas we could bring to Demo Day?*

Just like you would for any ESP discussion, we started asking ourselves questions like what’s the value of convening all these great minds? how should we structure the discussion to get the most out of it? what actionable decisions do we want to be able to make coming out of the discussion?

Our prep mostly surrounded what question topics would be the most useful to ask about and would there be enough time for 2? 3? 4? questions? Coming out of the discussion, we realized this prep wasn’t enough. The discussion was very low energy — board members didn’t feel too comfortable opening up and giving honest feedback. The questions were much too vague (as I’m sure many of you can tell). Most of the blind spots weren’t actually blindspots. Some of them weren’t even weaknesses? So clearly people didn’t even understand the point of the question. Finally, the energy never seemed to hit a peak (you know like 1.5 hours into the morning retreat discussion when you’ve gone too far) — at the end of the meeting, it felt like peoples’ minds were still warming up.

Today, we got to have even more discussions! (For those that don’t know me, I love discussions!) We talked to two strategic advisors with experience in their own non-profits and advising many other non-profits basically for the entire day. The discussion was kinda loosely organized — we mostly just talked about anything with a little bit of structure in between.

We started with meditation and relationship building. I think more than ever, I saw how important intentional relationship building can be to the success of a discussion. If people are not willing to be honest and vulnerable, it’s almost impossible to have a meaningful discussion (particularly if the topics are very personal / emotional ones).

Next, we gave program updates. The two advisors (omitting names for privacy) asked lots and lots of questions. Whenever we’d explain some part of Project Invent, they’d ask questions until they understood exactly why we were doing some thing, how successful our actions were toward that goal, and what assumptions we were making in our answers. Maybe surprisingly, I think they had very different life opinions/assumptions than us, leading to lots of identified potential assumption mistakes (or maybe they’re just really great at identifying assumptions outside of their own views on life). Asking these questions really did two things. First, it meant that for all future conversation, we’d be on the same page. Second, and maybe more useful, asking the hard questions really poked at all the soft spots we’ve been ignoring or avoiding.

After this, we moved into a SWOC analysis. I think it’s unclear to me how thinking about this mentally translates into actionable decisions, but at the very least, this did generate lots of ideas and talking points — from improving at fundraising to defining goals for teams after one year in Project Invent.

By the end of the day, we were both exhausted but somewhat energized by all the ideas. Next, we’ll have to synthesize all the thoughts and reflect on the points made that we truly believe are important and worth working on / thinking about.

I think after these two days of strategy discussions, here are some of my realizations about discussions:

Discussions are how real decisions are made. I feel like this is something I’ve always vaguely known / been aware of. Maybe it’s one of those things where if someone else told me this I’d be like “yeah, ok. sounds reasonable. so what?” I guess my three takeaways from these last two days are really

  1. I wish I could be in on these types of discussions. It seems like a really important way to make an impact. Discussion / negotiation / persuasion skill directly translates to decisions (if done well)
  2. If I were ever to have my own board to make decisions, it’s really important that I surround myself with people I trust to have a good, productive discussions — and I think it’s really hard to find people like this.
  3. These discussions sound like so much fun!

Problems with discussion productivity seem to continue existing outside of ESP discussions. Though the two strategic advisors had extremely interesting ideas, sometimes we struggled with keeping the discussion oriented. So, even if these peoples’ jobs are to have these discussions effectively, this doesn’t mean they necessarily think in an organized way. This then means it’s really important to keep discussions in check and that good facilitators are very valuable people.

I’ll end this post here. Here are a few more fun pictures from the last few days:

Ramen Nagi. I waited for over an hour with Jerry and Aofei (!!!) for this ramen. Was worth the wait.
3 super cheap pastries/bread things I got for $2.50 at a Mexican bakery. Lasted 2 meals.
Tasty Hot Pot in Santa Clara. Personal hot pot bowl — very fancy and pretty good.



Note: I was hoping to post this on Sunday…but it’s Thursday now and I’ve spent maybe 2 hours writing this. Also since I’m a terrible person, I didn’t take pictures of anything I did or saw. Please accept these nice pictures of food and cats instead.

According to the book Forces for Good, non-profits are about starting movements. The story of Teach For America’s growth (via One Day, All Children… by Wendy Kopp) is a great example of this. Wendy, against all sense and reason, willed this concept, the idea of bright individuals helping the neediest schools, into people’s minds across the country.

Rather than testing her program — proving her solution is effective and logical, Wendy’s push was to win people’s minds through emotion. She worked up the severity of educational inequity and on the aspirations of recent college grads to change the world. Every mind she claimed would be another domino to fall in the teacher corps movement. To her, the impact and outcomes she hoped for would necessarily follow. This is Conjecture #1 about movements, an idea Connie has told me since day one: movements are not logical. Movements aren’t made of ideas people can reach with logical reasoning. They play off emotions — the ones people feel deeply passionate about. They get people out of complacency and into action. They can’t be designed, engineered, and executed with high fidelity. In fact, the entire process around creating them is pretty contrary to most engineering mindsets. Movements transcend the implementation details. They’re about the why, not the what.


Tacos from a place known on Google Maps as simply “Tacos”

Conjecture #2: Movements are about reframing the world in a way that makes sense. At the heart of every movement are ideas — shifts in an individual mindset that resonates with many many others. Logic can’t create these shifts because it doesn’t grab peoples’ hearts. Instead, I think these shifts look like reframings of the world that align strongly with emotions, morals, or frustrations shared by many, and often these frustrations go unvoiced. By saying that idea that everyone’s been thinking for a long time, people are convinced to join. For TFA, this meant connecting the problem of educational inequity to the excitement of college grads to make a difference. Where before educational inequity went relatively unchecked and college grads became consultants because they couldn’t see how else to change the world, TFA’s pitch bridged this gap. It created a world where this important problem could and needed to be solved — one that just made sense.

So, returning to Project Invent, what does our world look like? To me, this is really the million-dollar question. Connie and I both have the program experience to make and scale impactful programs, but we don’t know how to convince teachers, parents, students, funders, that they should buy in. (Seriously, if anyone’s interested in talking to me about this, I’d appreciated the help.) One way this question manifests itself is in choice of language.

The tagline on the front page of our website says: Project Invent empowers high school students to invent technologies that improve their communities. To me, this isn’t quite the message we want to send. As a reader, I think this feels like a jumble of buzzwords. Every night, we spend at least one hour (basically until we fall asleep or words no longer have meanings in our brains) talking about our message, about tweaks we could make to get people moving.

If we look at TFA’s website, their tagline is: “Teach For America is looking for promising leaders to take on educational inequity.” I don’t think this is the best pitch I’ve ever seen, but I think it’s pretty powerful.

  • “Teach For America is looking”: I think this immediately makes readers ask themselves Is this me? Maybe some readers even want this to to be them because they feel wanted / valued. The of the read then becomes introspective — What do I care about? What matters to me?
  • “promising leaders”: I’m not sure people resonate a ton with “promising” but I think with “leaders” they really target people who see themselves as changemakers, people who can and want to make some impact.
  • “to take on”: The first time I read this, I think this phrase is what blew me away the most (though I also find it the hardest to explain). There are so many other words that could go here (that also probably come to mind more readily) like “combat”, “fight”, “tackle”, “solve.” I think “to take on” is near-perfect though because it matches this David-Goliath dynamic. Even though the problem is large and scary, we’ll take a stab at it. It isn’t about the problem and fighting the problem or solving the problem, it’s about us, as individuals, banding together to take on this injustice.
  • “educational inequity”: This is a problem that many experience first-hand. It’s one that lends itself easily to emotional anecdotes. It can take on its own meaning from person to person, but it’s an entire set of problems, injustices, wrongs in the word concisely wrapped into two words.

Though we realize the exact language we use isn’t the end-all be-all of of Project Invent, (Conjecture #3:) we both believe finding clarity in our words will help us understand how to better interact with different stakeholders we talk to.


Malaysian curry

Thus far, through our nightly discussions (though we also talk about it at other times) we’ve tried several different approaches to finding some answer. We’ve posed several different phrasings, we’ve tried several different problem breakdowns, and we ask almost everyone we talk to for ideas. We do feel like we’re making progress, but it’s really hard to tell when we’re always scared we’re spending too much time with the same words.

So, we’ve still got a ways to go to start a movement. Language seems to just be the first barrier. Even after hardening that down, we would need to do lots of legwork. One of the best places to do this legwork seems like conferences.

Last Saturday, I went to my first conference. Saturday morning, we flew down to LA for CUELA. We brought pamphlets(!), postcards (on paper much nicer than ESP postcards), and a fresh powerpoint, full of vague language, completed on the plane flight over. After lots of preparation, internalization, and putting 6.UAT to good use, I gave my first conference talk…to the two people that showed up. We told them about Project Invent and asked them to spread the word to anyone they knew who might be interested. They both seemed pretty nice and we got lots of good feedback on what worked from our presentation and what didn’t.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to meet too many people at the conference. I’m not really sure why this method was so low yield. Maybe it wasn’t really low yield and it just felt like low yield? Maybe digital avenues are lower yield but reach a higher audience. To some extent I felt like the people I met weren’t particularly great or interesting, though maybe this is more a function of the specificity and small size of this conference. As far as legwork goes, I’m not sure if this means we should put more effort towards attending these kinds of conferences or if we should redouble our efforts in social media.

Anyways, after the conference, we went to get ramen.


Soul Ramen from Tatsu Ramen.

The final point I’d like to make about movements is an assumption that’s underlied this entire discussion (though tbh I’ve probably made a bunch of other assumptions and logic gaps at this point): non-profits are about movements. Is is necessarily better to focus on getting the idea out rather than focusing on program success? If a program just really works well, shouldn’t that be most of the work to successful spread? I’m not too sure which side to believe, but I do think non-profit message reliance on emotion may tip the scales in favor of movements. If this is the case, though, that non-profits are about movements, then this really changes, in my mind, the focus of my work (and other non-profits’ work). Instead of just spreading the word to serve the spread of the program, it seems like the goal should be to spread the word and the spread of the program is more of a nice corollary.

Hopefully this post hasn’t gotten too illegible. Maybe someday I’ll come back and edit. Hopefully in the next few days I won’t sit on this much content before posting.



Late Nights

It’s Tuesday night at 12:30 AM and I just finished work.

Image result for project invent

This IAP, I (Evan) am working at Project Invent — a non-profit started by an MIT alum bringing design-thinking and real world impact to the hands of high school students. For the last two days I’ve been reading, and writing, and thinking about what Project Invent is and how to bring it to mentors and students everywhere. This means getting ~15 book recommendations, reading through an ESP-sized Google Drive, writing the same blurb 25 times until it sounds (possibly) better, and lots and lots of thinking to no end about what we can do better and how we can do it.

My particular project is “How can we better get the word out about Project Invent?” (where better is defined a yet-to-be-determined metric), and I’ve spent a good amount of the last two days thinking about this — thinking about how to break this problem down into smaller parts, thinking about who are the greatest influencers for educators, thinking about the best pitch we can make to potential mentors, thinking about how teachers look for new resources or opportunities for their students, and so much more! I think I have yet to finish a day before 10 PM (though to be fair, I start late, and take food and football breaks), but if you know me, I’ve loved it.

Over the next month, I hope to share with you all some of my reflections and thoughts on the problems we face at Project Invent, the workings of non-profits, and education in general.

To hopefully prevent my post from becoming too long, I’ll try to limit myself to two one topics today.

ESP is for real.

I think I actually started having this realization before I landed in California, but in some sense, non-profits are the grown up version of ESP. A lot of the work we do in ESP directly translates to useful work at Project Invent (at least so far). Being able to do things from writing professional emails, understanding complex systems, writing effective website text, to creatively reaching potential mentors are the workhorses of getting Project Invent up and running. I think everything I’ve done in ESP has trained me to jump right in and make a positive impact at Project Invent.

Conversely, this also means that ESP does real work. Though we may have lower standards and less time than the average non-profit, we’re doing the same work and, just like lots of them, making a real impact on the world.

I think when we’re reviewing classes at Scheduling Weekend, doing work at an HSSP, or even running around on a Splash, it’s easy to forget how awesome this really is. ESP isn’t just a club where we compete in a made-up competition or do fake simulations. The work we do can really change the lives of students and teachers — it’s work with an impact others wish they could make.