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.





Whew I haven’t posted yet mostly because of laziness and indecision on what to write about, but I figured hey I might as well just dump some of the things floating in my brain into writing. There’s just been so much happening these past two weeks, and I can’t believe my time in Italy is already halfway over. I’ve been trying to soak in as much as I can since I don’t know when I’ll be back (though I definitely plan on returning some point in the future), and I’ve finally had a little bit of time to decompress and organize my thoughts.

The Facade of Liceo Govone in Alba
Although the school was founded in 1887, my host family mentioned that the building itself is much much older and used to be part of a monastery complex

If I had to summarize my experience so far in one word, it would be adaptation. I’ve had to adapt to a lot of things (most of them related to my teaching), and as a biologist, I especially appreciate how this adaptation is driving my evolution as a teacher (sorry no more nerdy jokes from here onwards). The school I’m teaching at, Liceo Classico Govone, is a classical lyceym, meaning that the students hear typically focus on classical studies such as Greek, Latin, Italian, Literature, and History. Unsurprisingly, most of them don’t have as strong of a background in STEM nor do they want to ultimately pursue a STEM career in the future. As a result, I’ve had to teach from the ground up and make use of a very sparse and old lab. It’s been fun so far, and I know some of the students are at least interested in what I have to say given how diligently they take notes on my lectures 🙂

Some delicious gelato I got to enjoy while catching up with Abhijit in Milan (featuring 3 flavors: stracciatella, fondente, and pistacchio)

The rest of my time has been spent adapting to the laid back Italian lifestyle, which I honestly could get used to. I love how there are so many snack breaks and a post-lunch naptime, making the late meals much more bearable. I also think I’ve drank more coffee and sparkling water in Italy than I ever have in the rest of my life. I’m also just eating so much gelato, cheese, and bread (especially focaccia omg) – which has been fantastic for my mood but terrible for my waistline. Also, I’m a huge art history nerd, so getting to see all the works I’ve read about in person is a dream come true. There have been some negative aspects though, such as being stranded at the Turin train station for over three hours in the freezing cold late at night because of a train strike that cancelled the last train back to Alba. Overall, I’ve had a fantastic time though, and if you want to see pics of my travels you should follow me on insta @siddarthvader97 (shameless plug hehe).

Michelangelo’s most famous work in the flesh (well actually marble)
Pro tip: If you go to the Academia in Florence at opening time, there’s basically no one there so you get to enjoy all the art (including the David) all to yourself 🙂

To conclude this post, here are some random observations that I thought were kinda interesting: 1) The most common English songs I hear on the radio are Happier – Marshmello ft. Bastille and Nothing Breaks like a Heart – Mark Ronson ft. Miley Cyrus 2) Italian coffee is basically just a shot of espresso. Also, you can get a cappuccino and really good pastry for under 3 dollars (compared to Flour where the same thing would cost you more than double) 3) A LOT of people here have dogs and they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I’ve seen just about every breed, and I am blessed that both my host families have had cute dogs for me to play with 4) The most commonly used Italian word is allora, which roughly translates to “so then” – it’s a really commonly used transition and it seems to be versatile in its usage as well 5) Italians use bread as a sponge to clean up all the leftover sauce and other stuff on their plates, which kinda similar to what I do at home except with naan and curry

Luna – my first host family’s doggo and a big borker despite her smol size

Until next time,


The Italian School System: Part II

Fortunately (or unfortunately?) for you, I learned more and now have many more thoughts about the Italian school system, so here we are: part II. My last blog about the Italian school system was very superficial. It explained only the skeletal structure of the system, along with a few important characteristics. But recently (as in every day for the past 2+ weeks), I have been spending quality time with teachers and educators, so I now have a lot more context to add to this structure. I’m sorry this is so long; feel free to skip to the thoughts on culture/climate/fun quotes at the end.

My primary sources of information for this blog are (in no particular order): 1) my host father, who is a leading member of the education office for the region and knows a lot about the politics that go into educating students, 2) the students themselves, 3) the teachers that I regularly teach with in class, 4) the school principal who often spends afternoons with us, and 5) the GTL coordinator at my school, who also is an English teacher that I regularly work with and who plans out our afternoons and weekends to various parts of Italy and Slovenia. We’ve spent many an afternoon talking in the car or over food and coffee about anything and everything. Teachers love to talk, and luckily for me, they love learning and sharing knowledge, so they talk about things I find very interesting: culture, history, education, human nature, why things are the way they are. I’ve used my spongy abilities to soak up as much knowledge and feeling as I can, roughly organized below:


One thing I’ve heard about a lot is the Italian Bureaucracy. Partly because Italy wanted to guarantee that fascism would not be able to take hold again after WWII, there are a lot of steps involved in getting anything done through the government. I got to go to the Italian DMV to get approval for living with a host family and for my stipend, and there were probably 20 people lined up outside the door, waiting for it to open (the office was on lunch break). It takes a long time for anything to get done through the Italian government. This has strong effects on the school system.

Curriculum and school structure, unlike in the United States, is mostly run by the national government. Schools in the south of Italy and in Milan and in Trieste likely will have similar funding and the same basic curriculum. Keeping a standard for all schools in the nation seems reasonable, at least for a small and relatively unified country, rather than letting individual states and districts decide what they want to teach their students (and how much money they want to spend on it).

What I found interesting is that civil service exams are incredibly important in Italy. To get a top position in the government, you have to take a grueling exam (written and oral), and the person with the best score gets the job. There may be other things that go into your score, like education level and experience, but the test is very important. The same goes for teachers. If you want to teach in Italy, you have to take these tests, and you are placed on a list based on your score. Teaching ability and various other skills are not important for your placement on this list.

Then, the government will give the list to the principal at a school that needs a new teacher. The principal must take the first person on the list, even if the principal does not want the teacher for whatever reason. Basic skillsets, like if the teacher can use technology in the classroom or if the teacher has good reviews from their past teaching experiences, do not matter in this process. I was told that this process tends to bias against young teachers, and that things like marriage and if you have kids are also taken into account.

Furthermore, the principal has no power to fire teachers. Some teachers are wonderful, love their job, and really want to teach their students in a productive, interesting way. But other teachers know that they have a good score on that list and that the principal cannot remove them from the school, creating an unproductive attitude towards teaching. These teachers can be very smart with great test scores, but terrible educators, and there is nothing the school can do. In the US it can be very difficult to fire bad teachers, but this system seems even worse.

Personally, I think that teachers can make or break a child’s education. This is one of the most frightening parts of the Italian school system to me. I’ve witnessed some of the effects of the policy at my school. A couple times a teacher has not shown up to a class with me (or told me right beforehand that they weren’t coming), leaving me alone with the students and without a lesson plan. With at least one teacher, when the students heard she wasn’t coming, they cheered. It’s clear which teachers they like and which they don’t. Often, I amuse myself by watching teachers attempt to type up worksheets or google things on the computers in the teachers’ lounge. One teacher had me set up the projector because she didn’t know how to use it. Teachers sometimes forget which class they have next and seem to have nothing prepared. Some teachers tell me what they want me to do in the class 5 minutes before it begins (or even 5 minutes after it starts). There are very few young teachers.

Some of the teachers are absolutely wonderful. I love working with them, and the students seem to love being in class. But there is something wrong with this system.

Five Years, One Class

Like I said in my previous post, students choose their class section before their first year, and those students stick together for the next five years of their life. You and your classmates take all the same classes and sit together in the same classroom all year long. There are some advantages to this: students have very strong bonds with their classmates; there seems to be less of a competitive atmosphere because they know each other so well and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses; and they all take the same classes, so they all have the same hell weeks to barter with the teachers about switching exam dates/assigning less homework. These points were brought up by students in our conversations, but mostly by the younger classes. The fifth-year students told me that it was starting to get old.

Personally, I liked being around different students in all of my classes growing up. Hearing different opinions is valuable and can keep you from being sucked into a bubble. The classes have very different atmospheres, and I think this is because they are around the same people all the time. Strong personalities will start to take over and influence the rest of the class. Some classes are filled with high-achieving, engaged students, while others are a sea of disinterested faces, all refusing to talk. One class has just 2 students (their classroom is essentially a closet off the main hallway). Imagine spending your entire high school in class with just one other person. The two boys seem like good friends and good students, but teaching them was a very strange experience.

Another issue with this structure is that in my school, teachers will often teach only one section, but for all five years. If this doesn’t change each year (and I assume it doesn’t), this means that students might have the same English or science teacher for all five years of high school. If they get stuck with a bad teacher, at least the rest of the class is in the same boat. Many American graduate schools will refuse their own undergraduates for admission because they want students to get new perspectives from different faculty. This system is the exact problem they want to avoid. It’s important for students to get various viewpoints and hear different voices, if only because it’s less boring.


Another issue with choosing a class section in your first year is self-selection. Generally, students who do not like math will choose either the linguistics or classical section. Students who don’t like languages, or maybe are not as good at English, might choose the math or science section. This is a choice you make at age 13 or 14, but when you get older and learn about more interesting aspects of these subjects, you’re stuck with the choice you made as a pre-teen.

In addition, there is no freedom to choose classes beyond the initial selection. If you choose the math section, you can’t choose to also take German or a certain type of science class; the curriculum is fixed for each program. In my last years of high school, I had the option to choose between different types of history or science classes, and these students do not have that option.

Other Issues

Even after going to university, it is very difficult to find a job in Italy. The country hasn’t quite recovered from the financial crisis 10 years ago. There also is an issue of brain drain, where professionals and academics grow up in Italy, are educated there, and then go abroad to work. Then they return to Italy to retire.

This may or may not be a bad thing, but there is no division between classes based on ability or difficulty of material. There is no advanced or honors section like in the United States. This allows all students to have equal opportunity to learn, but it also means that if students excel in one class, there is no opportunity to go beyond, and students who struggle can easily be left behind.

The less competitive atmosphere also could result in less drive to achieve more. University admittance is mostly based on a huge test you take in your last year. This could make students less likely to push themselves in their classes because there is not much incentive to be ‘the best.’

Good Things

It’s easier to focus on the issues than the good things, so here is a quick list of parts of the school system that I think are great:

  • Students are required to take 3 languages by default. They already speak Italian and Slovenian fluently, but by the fifth year, they are also very good at English.
  • The school is starting a new program where students can choose to take math in English. After three years, they will have a certificate from Cambridge University in math and English.
  • Every student from this school goes to university.
  • Exams are often oral rather than (or in addition to) written, especially for language classes. This seems like a good way to learn and practice a language.
  • Classes are generally small, which allows for more individual attention. This may be a factor of my school’s small size.
  • The teachers enjoy having discussions with the students rather than just lecturing. Most teachers teach sitting down. I like this, as it makes the class atmosphere more relaxed and gives the students a chance to talk.
  • Sports and activities take place outside of school. Students seem to like this because they can make friends with people from other schools, and they’re not restricted to the opportunities that their school has.
  • There is no limit to school enrollment, and students can choose any high school in the region. Your high school is not determined by where you live. If the classes get too big, the school just hires more teachers.

Overall, the experience of being in another system has really opened my eyes to the system I grew up in. I have a natural bias against American governmental structures, and I always assumed our system was bad, especially compared to the rest of the developed world. I still think we have a lot of issues with our system. However, there are parts of it that work. The grass isn’t always greener across the Atlantic Ocean.


The GTL coordinator/English teacher has brought us to some amazing places in our afternoons and weekends here. In addition to going around Trieste and other Italian towns, we’ve seen parts of Slovenia and Croatia. Although both countries were part of Yugoslavia just 30 years ago, there are big differences between how they came out of communism into the modern era. Slovenia is part of the European Union, has beautiful new roads and bridges, and lots of tourism. Slovenians are incredibly proud to be Slovenian. Croatia seemed to not have had as much development after the Yugoslavian regime.

I have witnessed some mild sexism, especially regarding women in leadership roles or driving cars. Gender roles for domestic life seem to be very present, especially in the older generations. Few women are interested in STEM, and I have heard stories about those who are interested being dissuaded from pursuing STEM after high school because it is so uncommon. Also, there are still hard feelings between the former Yugoslavian countries; some Slovenians look down on Croatians and Bosnians and Serbians and can be very discriminatory. I’ve heard Croatians being described as ‘living in misery’ and being ‘not a part of Europe.’ Being described as Bosnian is an insult. Past conflicts run deep.

Fun Facts

Trieste is a large center for physics and houses a synchrotron and one of the six free-electron lasers in the world. We got to tour the facility and see the electron accelerators up close (pictured). 8.02 really came in handy. It was very cool.

Shifting gears to climate: the weather has been very nice so far. We’ve only had rain once, and everyone keeps commenting on how lucky that is. It feels cold, but still more mild than Boston. It snowed the day before we went to the capital of Slovenia, so everything was covered in white. It was beautiful (pictured: Bled, Slovenia).

The eastern Adriatic coast has something exciting called the Bora. I’ve included it in my weather lecture to bring something relatable to the students. Essentially, the Bora is an incredibly strong, often cold wind that comes down from the mountains and towards the sea. Due to funneling of the winds through mountain passes, the wind can get up to 220+ kph, which is really fast. There are some great videos of large objects falling over and people struggling due to the wind. There are two types of Bora: white and black. The White Bora is generally stronger and faster, but the weather is clear and cold. The infamous Black Bora comes with heavy rain or snow. I have not gotten to experience a true Bora yet (unfortunately), and I probably won’t, so I guess I’ll have to come back.

Trieste is also surrounded by hills of Karst, a limestone characteristic for caves. The first weekend I went to Grotta Gigante, which translates to “giant cave” because it used to hold a world record for the largest single cavern (107 m high, 65 m wide, and 130 m long). It houses the two largest geodetic pendula (they measure minuscule shifts of Earth’s crust) in the world. Some of the huge stalagmites are still growing, even though they are already 12 m tall. The stalagmites have these amazing pancake-shaped layers due to water dripping from such a high ceiling (pictured). Caves like this scatter the hills around the area, some being the shelters of the earliest hominins in Europe.

Fun quotes

“[name redacted]. Hmm… Your name is very sensual to me.” – a teacher

“Is Ohio part of Massachusetts?”

To the class: “Did anyone fall in love recently?” to me: “I love learning about when my students fall in love, but it doesn’t happen every day.”

“Parking is good exercise.”



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.



Aspects of Kazakhstan (and Britain)

The schools I am teaching at, Haileybury Almaty and Astana, are offshoots of Haileybury in England, which is one of those fancy British schools. Just relate everything I say to what you know from Harry Potter. Haileybury Almaty has 650 students ages 5–18, with only about 40 students in the sixth form (last two years of high school) because most families send their children to the UK or US for those last two years of high school. The school then has to recruit more students and get some scholarship students as well for the sixth form. Those students are doing their N.E.W.T.s A-levels.

The students are divided into four houses (and the colors are red, yellow, green, and blue, of course). They all wear uniforms – the upper school boys are in suits and the girls in suits with skirts. The girls complain about not being able to wear trousers. Currently, there is no boarding option, but the school is building dorms for future years. The school has a headmistress, and almost all of the teachers here are from the UK.

On Tuesday, the upper school had a morning assembly. The headmistress, upper school head, and we MIT students formally walked up to the front in some kind of procession. (It works a lot better to imagine that this is happening in some English cathedral instead of a modern-looking school atrium.) The headmistress and upper school head congratulated the Year 13 students who got into Oxford and Cambridge (ooh) and gave the rest of the students a reminder of the merit of hard work and personal growth. Then, Alex and I each talked about our journeys to MIT and gave some general advice. Alex talked about the differences between high school and college. I encouraged the students to pursue interests outside of classes.

There was a parent session after school on Wednesday, and we spoke again at that assembly. The parents were there to help their rising Year 10 students pick IGCSE subjects for next year. Afterwards, several parents remained to pick our brains about the admissions procession and what their children should currently be doing. I don’t mind talking about this stuff, but I am starting to grow weary of it. I am also not used to talking about myself, and having to give monologues about me and my past was quite the instructional experience.

We arrived in Kazakhstan last Friday, and we visited the school on that day to get settled. We went through a “safeguarding” training, which is pretty much Haileybury’s version of ESP’s minors policy. (Don’t be alone with the students, don’t act inappropriately, etc.) All the classrooms and offices have windows for hallway-facing walls, so you could see everything that is going on. The school is very serious about safeguarding; they even flew in a safeguarding consultant this past month. Interestingly, we are also not allowed to take pictures of the students, because some of their parents have not consented for that. However, the school photographer (yes, there’s a school photographer) knows which students to take pictures of.

Essentially, parents send their children to this school to give them a good chance of getting into universities abroad. I am frequently told that the universities in Kazakhstan are terrible and that there is no much opportunity here due to governmental corruption and a failing economy. If someone wants to do something that matters, they need to go to the US or Europe. To that end, the school focuses on high-level instruction and also tries to emphasize the idea of a holistic education. (One thing they do is force all students to participate in an after-school activity, which is met with some disgruntlement.)

This week has been a whirlwind of prepping, teaching, eating, and meeting people. I am exhausted every night, but I wake up early (around 6 am) to do more prep for the day. It’s been great, and I will have more thoughts to share about teaching later.

Some fun tidbits / incidences:

🏠 My co-teacher and I are both staying with the same family. They have a nice big house with a glass elevator. The two older sisters currently study computer science (!) at the University of San Francisco, and the father has his own finance-technology company. The three daughters have all taken their father’s first name as their last name. This is in an effort to dissociate from the –ov, –ova naming convention that is a remnant of the Soviet era.

🐕 The family has a husky named Java with complete brown / blue heterochromia.

🚗 Before the days of Uber and Yandex (Russian Uber), you would hail a ride by sticking out your arm at the side of the road. A car stops, and you determine if your destination is somewhat on the driver’s route. If so, you and the driver agree on a fare, and you hop into the car. Apparently this was a very common practice and a nice way to make a quick buck.

🏰 “I am pretty sure there is not a Disneyland in Uzbekistan…”

🧭 The city of Almaty has hills and higher elevation in the south. Instead of telling someone to go south or north, you would tell them to go up or down the street. An Almaty native currently studying in Boston tells me he also tends to do this in Boston, where it doesn’t make as much sense… This up / down thing also causes some maps to be printed “up-side-down,” where south is at the top.

🍣 Sushi is apparently popular in the world’s largest landlocked country.

🍵 However, boba is nowhere to be found, much to the sorrow of David (the counselor who has been in charge of our stay), who is from California. The Kazakh people drink tons of tea though, often with milk. I am offered tea several times a day.

🇬🇪 Alex, my co-teacher, and I both grew up in Georgia. David took us out for Georgian food our first night here, which he thought was hilarious. The food was pretty good.

🐎 Horse meat is traditional here. Our host family made beshbarmak for us!

Until next time,



A picture of me with one of my Week 1 relativiy classes!

I’ve never had the chance to really “iterate” a course. Like I briefly mentioned in my last blog post, for the past 3 summers, I’ve taught at the same* math camp. The first two summers, I was given a curriculum to teach, and each day after we were done, we were expected to make edits to the lecture notes and problems for future years to use.

*The third year, I worked for a different camp got run in a very similar manner by people who worked on the previous camp. Confusing, I know, but it bascially counts as the same camp IMO?

The 3rd year was different – I had to write all of the lesson plans and problems (6 hours worth of content) for 12 days of classes AND teach them the next day. While it gave me complete control over the curriculum in terms of material, ordering, and the way it was presented, I only got to build off of the lessons I remembered from how I presented content last year.

But GTL so far has been a different experience, because not only do I get to re-use the content I prepared for the first week, I get to make direct adjustments to what I taught to make it even better.

Relativity Week 1 was an imperfect experience. I taught a 9-hour course on relativity to two separate classes. There were many, many things which went wrong.

  • I spent the entirety of the first day boring students. There was a solid hour where I spent helping them derive the mathematics behind the Michelson-Morely experiment because I thought it was interesting, but I was halfway through it and realized that I had the attention of maybe 1 kid in 20.
  • I may have accidentally stated the formula for time dilation backward for an example, only serving to confuse the kids more in a subject that’s already confusing to begin with.
  • I didn’t have any fallbacks on activities to do when my timing was off by a few minutes – figuring out how to spend the remaining 5 minutes of class when I’ve already asked “Do you have any last questions?” and they’ve been silent for the last 10 seconds.
  • I really like interactive activities, and I knew coming in I didn’t have many of them planned out for relativity. That fact was made very apparent during my classes.
  • I spent a lot of time on derivations in general, but I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing. More to discuss later.
  • Oftentimes, I’d realize during lectures that my slides were not what I wanted them to be. As a result, I’d just ignore them and lecture with a board (like I usually do).

Wrong is a strong word here. Especially in the context of me getting to teach this class again during the second week, it gives me a chance to actually make use of all of the things, big and small, that I noticed could be better.

But also, even with all of these things that could be improved, there was so much that went right.

  • I love teaching. Sometimes it’s easy for me to forget this (especially maybe a little bit last summer when I spent 16 hours a day teaching or prepping notes for the next day), but wow, I love teaching. Getting to see their excitement when thoroughly unintuitive concepts make sense, when after just 9 hours I can talk about black holes and parts of the math actually make sense, when I’ve given them enough intuition behind the material that they start me asking the questions that I’m about to ask them to think about.
  • These students ask incredibly good questions. Clarifying my scribblings on diagrams, wondering about how FTL travel could possibly work, asking about connections to SciFi movies. Absolutely awesome questions.
  • Someone gave a fully correct answer to the Ladder and Barn paradox! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • I gave students the velocity addition formula, and one of them was interested enough to ask me how he could derive it!
  • A teacher sitting in on my class complimented my ability to lecture, and to tell a story. She really liked the way that I taught relativity–by first bringing up the comparisons to classical mechanics in almost every lesson, to help them gain intuition, and then connecting it to the idea that exists in special relativity. She was surprised I hadn’t taught relativity before.
  • Blew people’s minds with dotted lines. Always fun.
  • I got an applause at the end of one of the classes ❤

Hm, a 9-hour course on relativity. Potential HSSP class? Maybe not this semester, TBH.

Teaching is fun and I love it. And the nature of my GTL school means that I get to actually improve upon all of the things that I noticed–they’re not just passing comments that might get lost to time, but real, actionable things that I know I can do better. And I did!

  • More examples, put directly into the slides. I qualitatively bring up the idea of the Barn and Ladder paradox (renamed to Snake and Gates for visuals) the day I introduce time dilation and length contraction, then as days progress, continue coming back to that example (using it for Lorentz boosts and spacetime intervals)!
The “snake and the gate” paradox slide used for the spacetime interval lecture
  • A lowered emphasis on derivations. I reduced the number of “let’s work through the algebra” moments to focus on the important conclusions: light always travels at c, moving clocks run slow, moving rulers get short.
    • However, they’re not gone entirely. A good number of the derivations serve to make their intuition clearer and to truly understand where concepts are coming from. For example, my “derivations” in a spacetime diagram all simply revolve around the spacetime interval and saying x/t is a velocity, which provides direct intuition into what each region in a spacetime diagram means!
    • I think for me personally, I’m slightly biased towards lots of derivations because that’s how I like to learn. Need to keep in mind that that’s definitely not the same for everyone 🙂
  • More planned “talk to your friends about ____” times! One of them that I like in particular is asking students to discuss what happens to the length that is perpendicular to movement – whether it stays the same, there’s length contraction, or there’s length expansion. This one is great because there are feasible explanations for them all.
    • Same: Your velocity perpendicular to movement is 0, so
      γ=0 (correct explanation).
    • Bigger: The volume that gets compressed has to go somewhere, so it should get bigger.
    • Smaller: If length contraction happens parallel to movement, why should that axis be special?
    • From here, I go through a solution using proof by contraction to justify why the answer is “same.”
  • Sliiightly less lofty goals in terms of content. Much like with derivations, I’ve decided to cut out some planned material (especially towards the end) in favor of moving slower, emphasizing the content that I think they should be getting out of the course.

Of course, 1 round of iteration is not enough. Even this week, I’m noticing many, many things that could be better. This may be my last time teaching this class, but I’m hoping that what I’m learning this week doesn’t go to waste. I’m making comments on my lesson plans and slides that I have, hoping that when I send these materials to the GTL Italy coordinator, someone in the (maybe not-so-distant) future who’s teaching relativitiy can look at them. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll continue the process of iteration.

This blog post would be complete without some random photos, so here they are 😛

And of course, some fun things I’ve noticed about Italy 😛

  • Toast refers to a sandwich which is toasted (meat and cheese), not just the bread.
  • Lots of music from 10 years ago. This Is Me by Demi Lovato? You Touch My Tralala?
  • Some teachers drive us to the school in a neighboring town for the second week. They’ve complained about Italian drivers no less than 3 times. They’ve been driving us to this school only for 3 days. “Everyone has their own rules. And their rules are exactly what the real rules are not” (paraphrased).
  • There’s a town here (Basiglio) with a significant Filipino population.
  • Prego is just another word here. It’s not pasta sauce. It has many meanings, including “you’re welcome” and “after you” (which are the two most common ones I hear). Salsa means “sauce” and refers to condiments–mayo is a salsa.
  • Grande is just a word they use here. After seeing my FB friend request: “Grande, Paolo!” Anyone who knows me IRL will know how happy I am.
  • Some students asked my age, and I asked them to guess. They said 24 or 25. Others said 20, 23, and 25. Someone asked if I dress up like this (business casual) normally at MIT.
  • My host mom baked me a birthday cake! There was a” rose” on the top, and before I ate it, I asked what it was. “It’s the same as in church, the Body of Christ.” And lo and behold, it was actually a Eucharist wafer, just without all of the holiness.
cake c:

This’ll be my last blog post on the relativity class. Time to talk about other adventures 🙂

I challenged myself to write this blog post in 30 minutes to procrastinate, and it only took 50, mostly because I decided to add photos 😛

The Italian School System

The past week has been a whirlwind of meeting new people, learning new things, and living with the unexpected. I’m very tired, but I love it.

This is the first year that my school has had students from MIT for GTL. This means that the teachers are taking advantage of the opportunity to learn about America and MIT, and to show some Americans their city and home. The teacher in charge of me and the other GTL student at my school taped a blank schedule to the table in the teacher’s lounge and just let teachers sign up for different hours of the day with us. A picture of my schedule is attached (though this tends to change as teachers forget they signed up/want to add me to other classes). So far, I’ve taught with 10 different teachers and met 12 different class sections. After school, this teacher coordinator and the principle drive us around to eat local food and see different parts of the region. It’s been an adventure, to say the least.

Because I’m here to teach ‘debate’ (which has been confused with ‘discussion’ several times with the teachers), I’ve mostly been in language classes. Teachers mostly want me to make conversation with the students so they can practice English, which means I’ve been able to have many (MANY) conversations with students about America, stereotypes, education, school systems, university, their lives outside of school, and whatever information I can drag out of them.  I’ll focus on the Italian school system (and some specifics of my school) for this post and conclude with a few amusing moments from the week. I’ll save my teaching experience for a future post (and after I have some more experience in classes that don’t involve just talking about America).

gtl schedule

The System

First, keep in mind that my school is not a typical Italian school. Trieste is only a couple miles from Slovenia (five minutes by car from where I’m living), so there is a large Slovenian minority in the city and surrounding villages. For these families there are Slovenian-language schools like mine, where most of the students and teachers speak Slovenian at home. Because this is a minority group, my school is small, with only about 230 total students in the five years of secondary school.

The structure of Italian secondary schools is much different from American high schools. When you first enter secondary school, you choose one of several programs which will determine which subjects you study for the next five years (yes, Italian high schools last an extra year, so the oldest students are the age of current freshmen in the US). At my school, students can choose from a math/physics, science, linguistics, or classics program, though these vary from school to school. All students still learn math, science, history, English, Italian, Slovenian, and other subjects, but the program they choose affects subjects we would call electives. The math and science sections are self-explanatory. The linguistics section studies the three languages listed above, but also German and Russian. The classics section studies Latin and Greek, along with philosophy and classical art history. In total, students take about 13 classes each year.

The program students choose is very important to their school experience because they will study with the students in their section for every class of every day for the next five years. Because most students will stay in the same program (you can switch in the first couple years if you want), they have the exact same classmates for every class for all five years of secondary school. This creates strong bonds between students and unique class dynamics. Because of the varying popularity of some programs, there is a huge range of class sizes, from 2 to 19 at my school. Each class has an incredibly different atmosphere, and teaching is very different for each group of students.

The hot topic at my school and much of Italy is whether to have school on Saturday. Classes go from 8:00 to 13:35 (with no lunch break), so there isn’t enough time in the year for the number of school hours required by the government. To solve this problem, students in the last three years of secondary school have class on Saturday. It seems like most students do not like this policy, for obvious student reasons. However, most teachers like the schedule because they can go home early every day and have the afternoon free. Also, most students do activities outside of school, like sports or music, so the long afternoons allow them enough time for those activities as well as their homework.

Another aspect of school life that often comes up in our conversations is cheating and strictness. Italians perceive American schools as being strict and competitive.  I do see strong relationships between students and teachers at my school, possibly a factor of its small size, and the class atmosphere seems very relaxed, rather than stressed or tense. Students know the grades of every other student for every assignment, and they seem less jealous/stressed/upset about their grades than at my high school. Also, cheating is apparently a big problem in Italy because it’s considered rude to not help your neighbor if they ask for it during exams, for example. Teachers are less excited about this cultural phenomenon.

I’m not going to make a judgement on which system is better. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages of each system, and we can only attempt to prepare students for the world as best we can. But despite these differences, I can see so many similarities to high schools in America. Teachers have different styles of teaching, and their students react to the styles accordingly. Teenagers act like teenagers: making friends, trying to trick the teachers, laughing in the hallways, making excuses about not doing the homework. It’s a bit nostalgic for me, and fun to be here.


And finally, just a snapshot of some of the things that amused me this week:

-My host sister had skating practice on Wednesday night, but she had a student pass to the theatre in Trieste. She told me to use her pass and see an Italian play in this beautiful old theatre. I went, could not understand anything, and promptly fell asleep.

-The stereotypes about Italian driving are definitely true. I have driven with four different people, and none of them has managed to get through a drive without breaking some traffic law. Stop signs and no parking signs are the most commonly ignored.

-My host family has a cat named Birba, who likes to sleep and eat and sleep (pictured).

-Enrollment in the classics section is low in Italy, so many schools across the country had Noč klasikov (Classical Night) on Friday. This was a six-hour exhibition of student achievements from the classical section, including song, poetry, food, a hilarious modern rendition of The Iliad, and much more, aimed at promoting the section for future students. Because I was planning on going to the show to support my host sister, I also got roped into being in the performance. I gave the last two sentences of Martin Luther King Jr,’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the first-year students’ reading of poems on tolerance. A video of this may exist. Am I being exploited for my American accent? Maybe. Do I mind? Of course not.



Lesson Plans from a Plane

Hello from Sophie, currently on a plane to Frankfurt, where I have a layover before heading to Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Altitude:   10494 m
Heading:  72°
Location: 45′ 25″ N, 61′ 44″ W

Another January, another GTL. Last year, I taught Batxillerat (upper high school) students at a public-private school in Spain. That experience gave me an impression of what it would be like to be a high school teacher at a fairly standard school in surburbia. I learned how to plan classes that fit within a predefined curriculum. I designed various practice problems. However, I was limited by my short time with each student cohort and having to get through preset material so that they could pass their intensive exams.

This year, I have the opportunity to design classes and workshops on topics of my own choosing, which is quite exciting. I made some initial proposals to the schools, and we worked from there. My goals are to:
– introduce topics that are generally not in the normal curriculum
– incorporate activities based on problem-solving, so that the students have a chance to practice the concepts and see how they relate to the real world

Class 1: An Introduction to Linguistics

Audience: students grades 7–9.
Linguistics is great because the students already have a very good background – the fact that they speak a language! I want to share the wonder of language: the power of a productive grammar, the diversity found around the world, the existence of underlying patterns.

There are so many subfields, but I will focus on phonetics/phonology at the beginning. Phonetics is generally pretty accessible, and phonology comes with the ability to discover various phenomena by solving pattern-based problems (think NACLO). After these topics, we will touch on syntax and do some problems there as well. Any remaining time would be left for the students to decide what they are interested in hearing more about!

(There is also great potential for interesting linguistic input from the student body. Most students speak Russian and Kazakh in addition to English, and the school has many international students as well.)

Class 2: Activities in Cryptography

Audience: CS-concentrating students grades 9–10.
Information hiding has always been relevant, and it is definitely still so in modern society. I think there is a certain air of intrigue in the subject (secrets! vulnerabilities! attacks!), so that adds excitement to the mathematical concepts that underlie the techniques used. We will talk about different types of ciphers and explore modern methods of encryption. Activities will mainly involve code breaking. Based on student interest, we will also potentially explore the ideas behind hashing, authentication, and modern security protocols.

After-school workshop: Digital Logic in Electronics

Audience: self-selecting students grades 11–12.
I really liked the first unit of 6.004, when we learned how computers are pretty much just bit manipulators. In this workshop, the goal is for students to learn binary logic and be able to apply those concepts to construct some simple circuits that use logic gates. Depending on the students’ experience with breadboarding, we may also try some more complicated designs like a three-bit adder. At some point, we will discuss abstraction layers and how computers are built on top of this layer.


Some of you may have noticed that I really like puzzles. My first puzzlehunt was at CPW, and it was my favorite activity that weekend (Firehose being a close second, of course). Experimenting with different techniques, finding patterns to solve a series of problems – to me, that’s what drew me to MIT. Time willing, I want to share this part of my MIT experience and run a fun puzzlehunt for the students.

I have a co-teacher, Alex Lynch, who will be teaching classes in machine learning and the Internet. We will jointly teach the after-school workshop. We will spend 1.5 weeks teaching at the Haileybury school in Almaty and then (hopefully!) take a 24-hour train to Astana, where we will teach for another 1.5 weeks at the Haileybury school there. I will be teaching mostly the same material in Astana, which gives me the chance to iterate and improve the classes.

Fun fact: Almaty is sometimes translated as full with apples.

🍎 Sophie

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.


Nervous Beginnings

Hello, this is Sarah, and welcome to our GTL blog! I will be teaching debate and natural science in Trieste, Italy for the next three weeks. I’m excited about the location because Trieste is just a few miles from Slovenia, and Slovenia seems more exotic and exciting than Italy for some people. In fact, the high school that I’ll be teaching at is a Slovenian-language school, so they don’t even speak Italian in this Italian school. My host family speaks Slovenian primarily at home. Unfortunately, Duolingo does not support Slovenian so I am not to prepared for that particular language barrier, though I’m doing my best with the Italian. I’ll mostly have to rely on the classic “speak Spanish and French in an Italian accent” strategy.

I’ve been having mixed feelings going into this experience, but I hope my expectations will be exceeded. I did not do competition debate in high school (or ever), so I feel unqualified for teaching the subject. I justified being able to teach debate in my GTL interview because I did Model UN (United Nations-style debates and negotiations) and took public speaking classes in high school.  However, part of me thinks I should have declined the spot on the basis of inexperience. The natural science classes were added by my school as an afterthought, just a few weeks ago. I have no idea what they’re expecting for those classes. My worry is that the students will not gain anything by me being there, and I don’t want to be viewed as just there for a free trip to Europe.

I spent much of winter break stressing myself out about this. What made the nervousness worse is my school told me not to prepare any classes before getting there, as I will be creating lesson plans with the teachers in person. The thought of arriving in Italy with no preparation gave me lots of anxiety over the break. Eventually I broke down and planned some classes. I started to get excited about activities I could run, some based on the public speaking activities that I used to hate in high school (they’re good activities, but I hated having to practice public speaking in general). I’m excited to pull out something my English teacher called the “coffee can of fate,” where each student’s topic and/or partner are chosen randomly from this frightening little jar of paper slips. I’m hoping they’ll let me teach a weather forecasting class, though I have some feelings about the high cost of the European weather forecasting models. I might have to restrain myself there.

I’ve mostly convinced myself that this will be an overall net-positive experience for those involved. Hopefully the students will have a bit of fun, learn some English, and maybe even some public speaking/science. If not, then at least I will gain valuable teaching experience and self-confidence. It’s highly likely that I will learn more from the three weeks than the students will. I’ll keep track of this and keep you updated.

P.S. I was planning on writing this on the plane, so it would be literal Splash on Planes, but that didn’t happen. This was written on a train instead.