Choosing Education as My Life’s Mission
My father grew up in a refugee camp wearing underwear my grandmother sewed together from UN donation rice bags and using street lamps to study at night. Through education and scholarships, he became a physician and ultimately worked his way up to become the Secretary-General of Healthcare of Jordan.
I witnessed firsthand how hard my father worked to overcome obstacles not faced by many of his peers, and I understood how access to high-quality education could open new doors for anyone who did not grow up with the benefit of privilege. So I followed his example, worked hard too, and was on full scholarship all my life ending with a ticket to boarding school to America and then a full ride to Brown.
I believe that while talent is universal, opportunity is not. So, I founded ChalkTalk in 2016 to support K12 teachers in their quest of providing high-quality education to their students. I didn’t build a product for students directly because I firmly believe teachers are the heartbeat of our schools that cannot be bypassed. Ultimately, most students don’t learn well from 12 years of independently reading academic textbooks or watching youtube videos. They learn from human interactions with their teachers and peers. So we built a product that makes teaching easier for teachers, deployed it in schools in more than 20 states, and the results have been truly astounding.
ChalkTalk is the blended learning program for teachers. Using the results of a computer-based diagnostic test, ChalkTalk generates adaptive teaching materials for the teacher and practice activities for the students. All material is customized to match the school schedule. Learn more here.
ChalkTalk currently exists for upper high school ELA and Math, but this Summer 2020 we’re launching ChalkTalk for Math grades 3–12, aligned to all US State Standards and major Math curricula like Illustrative Math and EngageNY.
Moving ChalkTalk to the Big Apple
NYC has always been a hub for the intersection of technology, education, and innovation. It’s also ranked first in funding for EdTech, which draws a lot of innovative education companies to the city. In fact, NYC has the highest density of edtech companies in the world. It also has the largest school district in the country — almost double that of the closest district (LA) — and it’s the birthplace of renowned open-source curricula like EngageNY, used widely by schools around the US and the world.
After spending a couple of years in Boston and San Francisco, we were excited to move to New York and make NYC our new home.
Governor Cuomo & Reimagining Education in NY
While many state officials have been silent on the matter of school closures and distant learning, Governor Cuomo is publicly acknowledging this challenge and pledging to help in every way his office can. I find his efforts commendable, and his address contained great insights.
He vowed to reopen schools, but wanted to reopen “better schools” that have a smarter education system. He emphasized the more human synchronous learning over bot-driven asynchronous learning using the example of a teacher from Staten Island talking to students on Long Island and it feeling like everyone is together in the same classroom.
Our state is embracing the growth and change that might come with something as horrific as COVID-19. And while other officials have remained silent, Cuomo is publicly voicing our state’s bold ambitions to help.
Teachers’ Ingrained Distrust in Tech
Many educators have an innate distrust of technology initiatives, particularly initiatives brought forth by policy.
Based on hundreds of our conversations I’ve had with educators in the US, here is my take on their concerns surrounding edtech —some which haven’t been addressed in Cuomo’s plan just yet:
- Including Educators: Including teachers and administrators in the decision-making process—not just the implementation process—is going to be important. Cuomo announced partnerships with Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt but many educators are waiting to see the names of NY teachers and administrators on that team as well. They want to make sure that their voices are heard and that solutions are not disconnected for the day-to-day realities of the classroom.
- Software vs hardware initiatives: software solutions are a lot easier to implement than hardware in most industries.. but not K12. It’s easier to get buy-in for hardware projects in education— for example, everyone can get behind providing internet-connected devices to every student in a district. But software is a lot harder to implement and scale, largely due to its prescriptive implementation & product design. Many edtech companies have strict guidelines for what it would take to use their software with fidelity. Things like “the student needs to spend 45 minutes, four times a week over a period of no less than 120 days” don’t seem that crazy at first, but in practicality, such guidelines are far too prescriptive to fit in with other daily instruction, scheduling holidays, and state tests to name a few. Software implementations need to be flexible and not prescriptive.
- Cookie-cutter Professional Development (PD): due to the rigid structure of software implementations, accompanying PD programs tend to be both complex and “cookie-cutter” at the same time. Customizing PD for each district’s specific needs is operationally more difficult and not as scalable, but it’s necessary for building relationships and achieving success.
The Path Forward
Our great state has served as a cornerstone for US innovation and growth for centuries. Governor Cuomo’s initiative serves as a loud voice for supporting education during times of widespread silence and confusion. If his initiative can address some of the issues above—bringing in teachers to create solutions that make their work easier and more accessible—our state will come out of this as a beacon of progress and community support. I encourage Governor Cuomo’s office to learn more about NYC’s EdTech startups, like ChalkTalk, that can help with solving the issues we all aim to address. Ultimately, we’re all in this together and we’re all products of our great teachers who’ve changed our lives — the essential workers of our lifetime.
Author: Mohannad Arbaji, ChalkTalk Founder & CEO
Favorite NY sandwich shop: Fedoroff’s Roast Pork, Williamsburg Brooklyn. Can a sandwich be life-changing? Absolutely.