Cuba Travels Post #1: What? Why? How?


Thanks to funding through Fund for Teachers and its local partnership with Math for America, I (along with other members of my school community) had an amazing opportunity this past summer to take a 2-week course at the Instituto Nacional de Higene, Epidemiologia, y Microbiologia (National Institute of Hygiene, Epidemiology, and Microbiology) and learn about Cuba’s health education system. My goal was to type my reflections while I was in Cuba and then publish them whenever I had access to connect to the internet, but that never happened for a variety of reasons. However, my revised goal is to blog a little bit about my experience as a post trip reflection the next few weeks.

Why was I there? 

Cuba has developed a preventative approach to healthcare which starts early on by implementing a national health curriculum in all schools. We essentially went to Cuba to learn about the general health care system, the education system, and the cross-section of it all.

“Cuba is the only country that has a health care system closely linked to research and development. This is the way to go, because human health can only improve through innovation,” She also praised “the efforts of the country’s leadership for having made health an essential pillar of development”

~Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO)

Isn’t it illegal for Americans to go? How did this even happen?

When I told family and friends, I was asked this question enough times. No — it’s not illegal to go to Cuba. Going to Cuba for the purpose of tourism is still illegal, but there are 12 categories for authorized travel. Since one of them is educational activities, our trip was completely legal.

Our amazing guidance counselor made it all happen! Her father has some contacts who work in the Cuban health ministry. At some point, they talked about the work we do at our school with regard to social-emotional health. The Cubans were extremely excited to share with us their approach to health, education, and health education. I cannot express how much because they JAM packed so much into 2 weeks, so much that it felt that I was in Cuba for much longer than 2 weeks. Just look at out program!

When we all signed up for this, we acknowledged that there would be a chance that we would have to pay for this out of pocket. Thankfully some team members (including myself) were eligible to receive a Fund for Teacher’s grant. We wrote a team proposal, submitted it in January and found out in April that it was approved! A few people fund raised through other means, which meant the trip was not completely self-funded.


So who went?

There were 7 members from my school and 2 members who joined us from a different NYC school.

This group consists of guidance counselors (3), social worker (1), Special Ed-certified teachers (2), ENL specialist/teacher (1), and 2 math teachers 😛



Key Take Aways 

These are my personal impressions based on what I saw and learned. But to be honest, with my limited time in Cuba and limited background knowledge of its history and current political system (which is currently in a period of transformation), I don’t think I have the entire picture. I can’t. Especially with people not being able to say anything against the government, it was hard to ask or speak frankly about what didn’t work or what was really happening as opposed to what we were told was happening. We were mindful when we had those conversations. Additionally, since school was out for the summer, we did not really get to interact with many teachers or any students.

I hope to write about these take-aways with details, but these are the few that come to mind:

  • The Revolution is very much kept alive in Cuba–and arriving in Cuba 2 weeks prior to Fidel’s 90th birthday, I definitely saw so much more than normal.
    Saw lots of homage to Fidel like this. Courtesy of El Mundo


  • There are elements of Cuba that are “frozen” in time, but there are so many other ways Cuba is progressive and revolutionary.
  • Mental health is integrated and all doctors regardless of specialty are trained in mental health to a certain extent.
  • The key approach towards health is prevention and not treatment.
  • The approach to health and education seems research driven.
  • A lot of what Cuba is able to do with regard to health and education is because of socialism and a lot of what is happening in health and education is dictated by the government in a top-down manner.
  • Special education services seem much more stream-lined as there is one government entity that overlooks it all.
  • There is a partnership among parents, doctors, and schools with regard to student performance.
  • While Cuba has systems and structures in place, much of the weakness lay in the fact that they have limited resources-which includes access to quality medications and facilities.

¡Viva la educación!


Year 4 Goals: By June 2017 my students will hate/fear math less than they do right now.

My goals for this school year came full circle while I was speaking to Brian P. I want my students to leave my classroom in June 2017 hating or fearing math less than they do right now. Perhaps even be a tad bit excited because they did something in Ms. K’s math class that reminded them that they do not suck at math. That they can still “do math” even if they don’t have the correct answer because their thinking process is just as important, or rather more important, than their final answer.

Okay that might be a bit much, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

So I decided that this year, in order to meet this goal I’m going to focus so much more on establishing and cultivating the classroom environment. It’s always has been rushed the past few years because we “need to get through the material.” But not this year.

  • I started our first math class with Sara Vaderwerf’s amazing 100 numbers to get students talking
  • We established some group norms based on the previous activity and I refer to them often.
  • I’m spending MORE time on LESS things so that students have time to explore, engage, ask questions, and then explore those questions.
  • I’m modeling what talking in math looks like. I’m facilitating those conversations when I check in with students instead of pushing the conversation along.
  • And I’m trying to be okay with not “finishing” as long as I know that students fear math less and are willing to engage even when they are not sure what the correct answer is.

Hoping the best for a great 2016-2017 school year.


Post 11: STOP and Stepping Back

While others enjoyed the beach, I was grading in a coffee shop is Astoria. Thanks Gossip Coffee for your amazing AC and banana bread muffin…

I wasn’t sure where to start? Equations? Subtraction?

Anyways, I became really disheartened when I came across the above work (It’s not the ideal set of questions, but it measures if students are able to solve equations given decimals or “not so friendly integers”). This reminded me of something I tweeted not too long ago.

I thought to myself, “How do  I get this student to solve for a variable, when she can’t subtract? Should I be reviewing basic operations with her? And if so…when? #overwhelmed


Overwhelmed is an understatement. And while I was slightly hyperventilating and dismayed, I heard  Sadie Estrella’s  voice in my head (mainly because I was just listening to her on ChalklineAt some point, she said:

“I have a really hard time when teachers say that these kids don’t know anything, even the basics. STOP.” ~Sadie

Even though the context for this was slightly different, hearing her say “STOP” allowed me to stop, take a step back, and look at my students entire work for this set of questions. This time, I tried to not focus on what she did not understand, but focus on what she DOES understand and start from there. This time, I felt proud of this student. Unlike others she was using the appropriate inverse operations to solve the equation. She just struggled with following through. She can’t apply algorithms because they don’t make sense to her.

Student work_solving equations

Even though, there are still gaps in her understanding…I have a better course of action to support her, and it isn’t going to be worksheets on worksheets practicing the standard algorithm for adding and subtracting, because that has already failed her. Time to take on some number talks and bring out some manipulatives!


Post 7: Impulsive? Yes. Jerks? No.

At this time of the year it’s good to remember that my students are impulsive and make poor choices in the moment because their frontal lobes are still developing. They lack the same amount of white matter as adults, which leads to slower communication between the brain.

“It’s the part of the brain that says: ‘Is this a good idea? What is the consequence of this action?’ ” Jensen says. “It’s not that they don’t have a frontal lobe. And they can use it. But they’re going to access it more slowly.” ~ Read the full NPR article here.

It’s reassuring to know that this is developmentally appropriate — it doesn’t make it easier, but it helps me reassess my empathy and patience for my students, like student Kay. Or this latest example, which is the inspiration for this post.


Yesterday, my advisory (sort of like my homeroom) had a substitute for Science. We do internal coverages, so it was a full time teacher, but she didn’t teach the students. A nasty verbal altercation happened between 2 students and a bunch of students decided to go cuckoo and make the matter worse. Said teacher tried to calm the situation, but eventually the Dean and our parent coordinator had to intervene.

The following class they had was math. I was fuming at MY advisory. We reflect a lot at our school, but I was not in a place to do with them at that time…so the class worked silently the entire period. I remained upset at them the entire period for choosing to instigate and react in a way that made a bad situation worse. The covering teacher came back today during our advisory period at the end of the day. We reflected and pretty much every single on of the students had so much guilt in their eyes. A few of them apologized for their behavior and reactions on behalf of the entire class. I found out a few of them had already approached her privately prior to this time.

It was refreshing to be in the room to witness this. I let go of the anger. I had towards them. I felt less tense because I was reminded my students are impulsive, but they are also able to reflect and recognize (after the fact) the choices they make. It might take some a while to get there, but most (not all, of course) take responsibility for their actions. 

They’ll be impulsive again. But this time, I’ll think about the spotty connection in their brain. Like most wifi in New York City, it’s pretty slow.





Post 6: I overreacted, I engaged-I’m human and have feelings.

It’s hard to stay emotionally constant, especially with middle school students, though I try really hard to do so. My student (we’ll call her Kay) is an emotional child, who struggles to trust adults, but we generally have a semi-descenti-ish relationship. Today, I engaged. I overreacted because it’s tiring to be an emotional punching bag for 12 year olds. It wasn’t my best performance and I could have handled it so much better.

Tell ’em Channing!

My students were working on some practice problems that they needed blank scantrons for. I asked multiple times if anyone else needed one. I gave a bubble sheet to anyone who raised their hand. Made it clear I would only address silent hands. I walked around and assisted students and reminded others to get back on track. One of my students called out my name. I gestured raising my hand to let her know why I wasn’t walking over to her. She didn’t call me over again.

This episode took about 3-4 minutes towards the end of class. At the end of the period, I had students collect the work and a student (let’s call her Kay) grumbled and mumbled under her breath. “Can’t finish my work because no one gave me a scantron.” I went over to her desk with a scantron and put it on her desk…and she responded with a tone.

-Kay: “I got one cuz I had to get one myself from the back.”

-Me: (somewhat passive aggressively): I’m sorry you didn’t hear me TWICE when I asked who needs one and sorry you weren’t paying attention to raise your hand when you needed it, but your tone is completely out of line and uncalled for.

-Kay: I was calling you over and well you didn’t listen.

-Me: Again, not really appreciating how you’re speaking to me, especially considering I asked anyone who didn’t have one to raise their hand. (While she’s still talking over me.)

I don’t know why I kept bringing that up…it’s silly. I’m pretty sure she didn’t hear me and wasn’t paying attention, but reflecting back, not really worth holding over her head at this point. She needed a scantron and was pissed that I didn’t give one to her when she called out to get one. Understanding that she can get very emotional over stuff like this, it would have been so much easier on my sanity to let her huff and puff under her breath at her seat and then checking in with her towards the end of the day…but no. I engaged, because I’m human and have feelings.


-Me: I’m no longer having this back and forth with you. You’ve always been honest with me about feeling disrespected by your teachers and now I’m feeling that from you. We need to spend some time together, I’ll see you in detention…

I walk away…

-Kay: These teachers always …something, something, something <yelling at me from across the room…

-Me: and now you’re yelling right at me…we’re done. We’ll talk later.

-Kay: <still yelling across the room> Because you walked away while I was still talking to you…

I gathered my things and walk over to my next class. Half way through the period, I see her at my door and she asks to speak to me. My current class was working independently, so I agree to speak to her while standing at the door.

-Kay: Sorry about my reaction. I didn’t really mean to offend you. I didn’t hear you earlier.

-Me: I really appreciate that, but can we agree that you over reacted to not having a scantron?

-Kay: Yes. I overreacted.

-Me: I did too…our back and forth wasn’t really helpful or necessary. We still need to spend some time together so this doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for detention, but since we both overreacted we might need some space to to cool off before we talk about this. So how about we talk at lunch tomorrow instead of during after school detention?

-Kay: Okay. (Smiles)

We shake hands and part ways.

Till tomorrow…

Post 4: Defeat and Humility…I guess

While my tweet from yesterday was specific about a task, the feeling of defeat is something that has been lingering with me for a while. I have attempted to give my students tools to persevere in problem solving, but seeing so many of them give up so soon yesterday reinforced the feeling of defeat. While I recognize that there are so many factors beyond my control in order to make my students effective problem solvers, the little that I can control keeps me up at night. It’s all consuming of any (seeming) free time I have. I guess it’s a humbling reminder that we have one of the hardest jobs. We’re directly dealing with students and are their intellectual and emotional caretakers far beyond 8AM-3PM, even though some people may tell us otherwise.

One way to keep my self sane is to think forward and reflect on what I can do differently. It’s also that time of the year, where I begin seriously thinking and reflecting on what I need to do differently next year. However, I have about 2 months of school left, where does that leave my students right now? So while I am really grateful because, “there is always next year”, I don’t know how to get over this heavy feeling I have at this moment. Of course, recognizing that my students were not having a productive struggle in my first section, I made neccessary-ish adjustments for my next section. However, that seems more like plugging holes in a pipe, as an after thought — very half-hazard. So while part of the feeling deals with my students inability to problem solve, much of it is about my own teaching, my own planning, and my ability to control the things that I am in control of right now….not so happy with it and it’s a feeling that sucks.


Post 3: Trying to keep up with “time” when time is a struggle.

I’ve struggled with the concept of time my whole life. I struggle to get anywhere on time. I underestimate how long everything will take me. It takes me forever to say something aloud that I think will take me a few seconds.

Priority was a foreign word.

Related, I’ve always had trouble prioritizing. Everything. For majority of my life, that was never an issue. If I needed to get x, y, and z done, I’d get it done within milliseconds of their ultimate due time. Writing an undergraduate honors thesis? Done (research done two weeks before due date, written in 3-4 days). If I had to do a, b, and c things together no matter how intense, I would and I could. Taking a 3-day intensive weekend Islamic course the same week as mid-terms? Done. Help curating a photo gallery which required traveling 1.5 hours (one way) weekly for 2 months during my undergrad years and spending a bunch of hours learning how to use GIMP to photo edit while “studying” for Calc Honors, Linear Algebra, and Discrete Math? Done. All-nighters were my life because I decided all duties related to being VP of MSA, no matter how minute, trumped all classes. Sahar never said no to anything. “Sahar could you…?” Yes. Almost always. People asked because I never said no and I knew I would get it done. Everything. Without much compromise.

I got things done. I did them well. So there was no urgency for me to get my ish together.

That changed three years ago, when I started teaching. The inability to juggle everything thrown at me, inability to plan and execute my lessons in the best manner (as I was used to doing everything else in my life), and the inability to say no hit me all too hard. So much stress and anxiety manifested physiologically. My adult acne was at its all time worse and I had stress induced acid reflex and ended up going on meds to put both under control.

multitasking multitask multi-tasking
I wasn’t naive per se. I went through 5 years of undergrad/grad education, 3ish years of student teaching, so I thought I knew what to expect going into teaching. I also knew to expect the unexpected. Countless of teacher friends and mentors told me: you won’t truly understand what teaching is until you’re a teacher.

yes seinfeld true kramer correct
So now 3 years later, time, pacing, getting things done, and being an organized teacher are daily struggles. I’ve learned ways to cope and have grown somewhat. I’ve had to change my mindset about somethings. Perhaps if I have time, I’ll write about that later…

Post 2: Dear Teenage Self…

Posting twice in one week probably means I won’t be posting for a while. #oops #sorrynotsorry

friends sorry joey sorry not sorry im sorry

I went through a list of 30 reflection prompts Tina Cardone shared on her first #mtbos30 post and #2 seemed the most intriguing/stuff I wouldn’t mind being out and floating about the virtual universe. While only a preteen in 2001, the 9/11 attacks very much defined my young adult life and acted as a catalyst in my exploration of Islam. I began to develop my identity as a Muslim American during my teen years, so it feels appropriate to start there.

Things I would say to Sahar (circa:2001-2008):

  • Don’t be hasty: You do not need to become the ultimate Muslim overnight. That’s not even the purpose. You just need to do the best that you can and everything else will sort itself out.
    tina fey stop calm down cool it you need to cool it
  • While finding your identity as a Muslim American, don’t forget that a part of the religion is maintaining a good relationship with your family, especially your parents. THAT is not optional-it’s actually a part of Islam. If you end up neglecting that, you’re really going to regret it one day. Trust me.
  • Islam is not black and white. There is a grey area. It is purposeful in order to make the religion easy on people. So don’t make it black and white because you’re going to make it really difficult to function on a day to day basis for yourself; it’s also easy to fall into judging people and #onlygodcanjudge.
  • Seriously your wardrobe needs work. I get it, you want to make sure you’re dressing within the guidelines of a Muslims women, you’re going through a weird identity crisis, but read the previous point. Ask your sisters for help in this department. Don’t wait until college. Seriously. Don’t.
    lol comedy jon stewart comedy central the daily show
  • Consider applying to a college away from home. While you will be extremely happy to be a product of the NYC public school system (K-12, undergrad, and grad school) teaching in the system with $0 in school debt, you’ll sometimes wish that at the very least you had considered a college away from home.
  • Don’t ever stop practicing Spanish. It’s going to come in handy when you end up working with students whose families are from Puerto Rico and Domincan Republic.
  • Don’t want until you’re 22 to get your license. You might think that the MetroCard is life, but once you drive you’ll think otherwise. You can drive and use your MetroCard around the city. You can also easily escape the city. It’s the best of both worlds.

That’s it for now, but I’m sure there’s a ton to say to young Sahar.


Data, Data, Data…

I work at a data driven school so we collect and look at data ALL the time. It drives our instruction. There’s definitely acknowledgement of qualitative data as well and we pour over student work, we conference with students, so we do make informed decisions using both qualitative and quantitative data. However, sometimes the sheer amount of data overwhelms and bums me (and the students) out.


Case in point: my advisory/homeroom class. I’ve seen their math growth with regard to the math practices (as well as math content), but that is not really evident on their mid-year benchmark (which probably isn’t the best benchmark to begin with). Thankfully, we’re a SBG school so I can show them their math growth, but I can’t take the look in their eyes when they see that they haven’t made growth based on this one mid-line benchmark. I’ll be the first to admit my students are not where they need to be. Many are 6th graders reading far below grade level. The same is true of their numerical fluency.  So….I get it, but then I don’t. I know the mid-line is just a snapshot of how they did on that one particular day. So, I have a lot of feels about the message that they get when they see that. It’s a conversation that’s developing at my (fairly still new) school about how best to measure student growth, specifically in math. There’s fairly straightforward DRP (Degrees of Reading Power) to measure their reading growth. And when the DRP doesn’t give us helpful information we do running records, an oral assessment that accurately tells us students’ decoding, fluency, and comprehension of text. We have a pretty well developed rubric for argument writing, so we can see their growth and for what it’s worth it actually means something. Measuring math growth isn’t comparable to the other two. Growing 12% just means you got 12% of the questions correct or you guessed 12% better this time around. We’re using SBG and it just “feels right” to somehow incorporate that when we are trying to analyze student growth in math. And it would give me back teaching time…

Parent Teacher Home Visits

I had mentioned in my Sunday Summary that one of my goals for this week was to reflect and blog about the parent teacher home visit conference that I will be attending this week in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I had hoped to reflect on parent teacher home visits before I flew out, but that didn’t happen, but alas…

So on to parent teacher home visits.

The general idea:  In March, pushed by community eagerness and desire to be involved (and a lot of other people), our UFT chapter leaders introduced the Parent Teacher Home Visit project to our staff.  The goal: Visit ALL of our incoming students before school begins in September.  After showing initial interest, we were visited by parents and teachers from the national project from Burbank, California who spoke of the impact in their school community since they started the project about 13 (I might have my numbers wrong) years ago.  Listening to their story, I was further convinced for the need in our community.  Our school was founded by the community, for the community, and since there is a huge community organization presence in our school, it just made sense that as teachers and advisors of the students, we go out and learn about our students and their families from the people who know them the best, namely their families!  I was touched by their stories and lasting impact. We modified our goal, realizing that completing all 140+ visits before the school year began was not feasible for us, so our current goal is to visit the homes of our students by December.

Hopes and Dreams: One of the non-negotiables for the visits is asking our parents to share their hopes and dreams for their child and in turn for us to discuss our hopes and dreams for said student.  This was the most powerful moment during our training as we heard from parents and from teachers who have been involved wit the project. I must admit, there were few dry eyes in that room when we all shared our hopes and dreams for our students.

Teaming up:  Our classes, nicknamed “houses” have two teachers who serve as the advisors for the students in the house. So roughly each advisor is in charge of 14-15 advisees.  Each advisor was paired up with another staff member or community member to facilitate the home visits.  I am paired up with the 6th grade guidance counselor and our teamwork and experience has been amazing. It is really helpful that she is multi-lingual which has come to use when working with our Spanish and French speaking parents.  We’re able to balance the academic, social, and emotional aspects of our students in our conversation with parents.

Initial Hesitancies:  

I was beyond nervous about making my first phone call about the parent teacher home visit.  During our training we practiced all kinds of scenarios, especially worst case scenarios, so in my head I was expecting to make at least 5-6 calls before getting a parent to agree to visit their homes.  However to my surprise all the parents I called on the first day were so eager.  About 2 months into school, my colleague and I have completed half of our visits and students and parents have been asking when we are visiting them, so the word has been spreading among the parents and students.

Impacts so far, Part ONE:

  • Getting to know students and their families, becoming a student in the process: First and foremost, I’ve been learning about my students from people who have known them for so much longer than me.  I get to know the academic, emotional, and social side of my students.  I have great rapport with my students, but it usually takes a few months to getting to know their likes, dislikes, and temperament. I am finding out about them so much faster through one conversation. I always start my visits by saying, “I want to be a better teacher for Johnny and I can do that by knowing more about him, so what are some things I should know?” It turns the tables and gives parents a chance to open up and allows me to be a student because its my turn to listen. I get to know about their home life and begin to see and hear about obstacles and stressors the student might bring into the classroom. I’ve become mindful of them and my check-ins with students have become so much more meaningful because I know (for most part) what some of the issues are.
  • Calling home: Prior to doing any home visits, calling parents was always such a painful thing to do.  I loath making phone calls home especially in the beginning of the year when I haven’t had a face-to-face with parents.  It’s not that I love making phone calls home, but I definitely hate them a lot less.  I know how my call is going to be received.  During the visit, I start off my saying “We want to create a partnership, a team so that Johnny can be successful…so let’s see what we can do to make sure that happens.”  Almost always parents mention to what extent they want to be communicated and about what things.  They share what they expect and in turn I share my expectations.   So the phone calls home become less of, “Johnny is at it again….” and more about working together to resolve issues because we have the same goal in the end.
  • Academic Support in school and home: It’s not even about the behavior most times.  Many of my parents are at a lost about how to support the students academically and thats where we as the school come in and I feel that now I know to what extent I can assist my parents and have realistic expectations.  For example, one of my mothers is willing to sit with the students and work with him on khan academy or practice exercises so when that student struggles with something I know what message I can send home.  For another student, mom explained her work schedule and she really can’t help him, so I know that he needs something independent or further support during school hours.  So now the messages and supports going home are so much more relevant for my students.  Clearly I’ve only visited half of my students so far, so there is a long way to go–but I think that there has definitely been improvement.

To keep this from becoming a long list, I’m going to pause on this and return to it at another time. To be continued…