Sunday, July 4, 2021

Finding Our Balance

 The first elements of Teaching for Transformation that we learned in our training were "Deep Hope" and "Storyline".  

The "Deep Hope" is effectively a mission statement for our classroom--the "why" or "so-what" of the subject at hand; what we hope students will have taken away from our class when all is said and done.  

We used the idea of 60-60-60 several times during Teaching for Transformation training: what do students need to know for 60 minutes (long enough to complete a given lesson or activity in class)? 

What do students need to know for 60 days (long enough to complete a unit of study, or a major assessment in a particular course)? 

And, what do students need to know for 60 years--what do we hope will stick with them long after they've left our classroom?  

The deep hope challenges teachers to think on that 60-year level and articulate that hope to the students.  Here is my deep hope for Humanities 11, my blended U.S. History and English class:

It is my hope that each of you will grow to be compassionate agents of change who glorify God by discerning wisdom from foolishness, noticing the needs of others in a broken world, and then pursuing justice, both in word and deed, engaging and navigating complexities and tensions between various perspectives.

The "Storyline", by contrast, is a pithy tagline inviting students to live and engage in the major narrative framing your class.  TfT training focuses a lot on the idea of competing narratives and stories, and what makes a Christian narrative distinctive in the midst of so many other stories.  The storyline needs to be applicable in the day-to-day, the here-and-now; after all, it's a distillation of what we as teachers, and our students are actually doing in our class.  For the past two school-years, I tried out the storyline "Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly with God", drawing on Micah 6:8.  While I still absolutely believe that these are important goals, and while I am committed to giving my students opportunities to practice these things in my class, they are more the destination than the journey.  On a day-to-day basis, I simply was not referring back to this storyline, and if I had, it would not have been organic, save as a constant reminder of "here's why we're doing this."

So what is the storyline in my Humanities class?  What have I actually been inviting my students to do on a regular basis?  I realized in February of this year that what I kept coming back to in every unit and nearly every lesson was the idea of "navigating complexities and tensions" from my deep hope.  This is intimately tied to the goal of pursuing justice, but has much more bearing on what actually happens in the walls of my classroom.  My storyline is--has always been (though I didn't realize it)--Finding Our Balance.

As students quickly realize, justice is not easily defined, and there are indeed competing narratives about what justice is or isn't in our world today.  Is justice primarily about promoting individual liberties?  Fairness?  The "greater good"?  The toppling of oppressive power structures?  

If mishpat--the Hebrew word for "rectifying justice" that shows up frequently in Scripture--is defined as "giving people their due as image-bearers", what does that mean in practice?  How do the major competing narratives about justice gel or clash with this definition?

Or consider another tension that comes up in my Humanities class, individualism and paternalism.  What does it mean to love our neighbors?  Is leaving them entirely to their own devices loving?  Is taking the reins from them and telling them what to do and how to do it loving?

Or the tension between government and civil society: at what point should government get involved in addressing an issue in society, and at what level of government?  How much autonomy should the institutions of civil society have in addressing issues?

Or what about the tension between socialization and agency?  To what extent are we the products of culture, society, upbringing?  Are these forces more powerful than our will and ability to chart our own course?

The list could go on.  The reality is, my Humanities course is heavy with these tensions, and actively wrestling with these tensions is crucial to being a good justice-seeker.  

Sometimes, wrestling with a tension will mean seeking the middle path between two extremes, but not always.

Sometimes, wrestling with a tension will mean synthesizing differing perspectives, but not always.

Sometimes, wrestling with a tension will mean picking one side to the absolute exclusion of the other, but not always.

Always, wrestling with a tension will mean figuring out what values and principles will provide us with a firm foundation to stand on as we question, wonder, and engage in a world that seems to shift and shake beneath our feet. 

These tensions are nothing new; they've always been present in my Humanities curriculum.  What will be different this year is that I will be repeatedly, insistently inviting my students to find their balance by facing these tensions head-on, not shying away from them or pretending they are not there. 

As I look ahead to summer curriculum work, I'm excited and energized by the possibilities that embracing this storyline will open up!

Monday, April 19, 2021

Learning to Serve and Service Learning

 Our school's vision statement reads "Equipping students to serve Japan and the world for Christ."

Much of what we teach can be assessed and measured with relative ease: we have accurate, helpful rubrics that tell us how students are writing or delivering speeches relative to our standards.  We have well-designed assessments that tell us whether students can solve for 'x', whether they can identify the relationship between populations in an ecosystem, whether they can engage with the tension between dual federalism and cooperative federalism in U.S. civics, and so on.  

Service, though--well, service is a little different.

In my role on our school's Research & Development Team (the RAD team for short), I'm currently serving on a committee that has been taking a close look at how we teach service.  One thing we realized early on is that unlike knowledge, understandings, or skills, genuine service cannot be assessed and graded in any meaningful sense because the way in which we talk about service is inextricably bound to attitude and even more deeply, a heart-level motivation fully visible only to God.  

So, then, where do we start?  How do we hold ourselves accountable for the lofty, but oh, so important vision of "equipping students to serve"?

Our committee, interested as we are in figuring out what we can teach and assess, is focusing on the concept of service learning

Vanderbilt University defines service learning as "a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves."

This definition caught our eyes because it is so strikingly similar to the FLEx (Formational Learning Experience) portion of Teaching for Transformation, the Biblical worldview integration training that our staff is currently undergoing. Here's how Teaching for Transformation explains the purpose of FLEx:

Formational Learning Experiences (FLEx) are opportunities for the learner to engage in “real work that meets a real need for real people”—opportunities to practice living the kingdom story.

If we can provide students with opportunities to participate in real work that meets a real need for real people, helping the students to build skills of reflection and self-assessment as they do so, we will go a long way towards teaching them to serve.  

Of course, neither Vanderbilt nor TFT's FLEx claim to teach or assess attitudes about service; rather, they are both about providing authentic opportunities to apply and build skills, understandings, and habits of mind by doing something that meets a need in the community. 

These opportunities are crucial, however, and hoping that students will seek or create such opportunities for themselves leaves a lot up to chance.  Yes--it's wonderful when our students search out avenues for service without our prompting, and even better, when their passion is so contagious that their classmates buy in and get involved because they care.  Weaving service learning into our classrooms--making service projects an expectation--won't take away from that.  In fact, I firmly believe that by regularly asking students to go through the process; by teaching them the skills and habits that service often requires on-the-job; by encouraging them to reflect on their learning during and after the process, we will empower more students to independently seek and take advantage of opportunities to serve.  After all, how often do we give up on an idea because we don't know where to start, who to talk to, or how to turn an exciting idea into a feasible plan?

Allow me to share my own observations: for more than ten years, there has been an unwritten tradition at our school that the 11th grade class is responsible for organizing some kind of large-scale service project or charity event.  The first class to do a project had been inspired by a guest speaker who presented to the class about the issue of human trafficking, and a core group of kids felt so strongly about doing something that they organized a a festival on campus to raise awareness and funds for a rescue organization.  This happened the year before I started at our school, but I first heard about it shortly after I arrived, such was the impression it had left on my colleagues and underclassmen.

And so a tradition was born, with the 11th grade class voluntarily putting together a service project each year.  The trouble with tradition, though, is that soon enough it can become an expectation and not truly voluntary.  When something is an unofficial or unwritten expectation, there can be a lot of tension and grief over whether or not to meet the expectation in the first place, followed by no shortage of bitter feelings, regardless of what the class decides.  Moreover, the process can get awfully muddy as each new class comes in tempted to start their planning with an event in mind before they have even settled on the cause for which they are serving. Talk about putting the cart before the horse!

So, this year, I adopted the 11th grade service project into my curriculum as my FLEx activity: no more tense debates or waffling about whether or not to even keep the tradition going in the first place and no more event-first planning.  Following our third unit, which was about toxic charity, and our fourth unit, which was about the role of civil society in addressing issues in the world, I asked students to develop and present proposals for a civil society response to an issue in the world today in groups.  If students wanted their classmates to consider their group's proposal, they had to present it publicly.  Four groups threw their hats into the ring, and their classmates voted to adopt two of the causes: raising funds for TELL Japan, an organization “dedicated to providing effective support and counseling services to Japan's international community and its increasing mental health needs", and creating an artistic display for our town's city office, thanking and encouraging medical professionals.  

With some initial trial and error, the students formed an event committee and several sub-committees, filling such vital roles as president, secretary, treasurer, public relations coordinator, art and design coordinator, and fundraising coordinator.  Though these projects are not "voluntary" in the same way that past classes' have been, I have already seen far more buy in, and it has been a joy to coach the students through conflict resolution, committee structure, delegation and division of labor, and logistics.  It has also been a joy to watch as the students apply understandings about solidarity, good charity, and the relationship between government and civil society as they plan, not to mention applying skills of debate and persuasion. These projects may be a requirement for Humanities class, but I hope that students will emerge from them with a greater capacity--and desire--to serve those around them.

Now, if we as teachers were to be more intentional about structuring service learning opportunities in our curricula throughout the years--even on a small-scale--or simply carving out more time for students to reflect on the many service opportunities that we already have, I wonder how much more quickly students would feel comfortable seeking out chances to serve on their own?  I wonder how much more smoothly the planning process would go each year, with each new service opportunity?

We may never be able to truly assess whether or not our students are serving Japan and the world for Christ, but I think we can increase the odds that they will!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Serving a Suffering Savior

Every year while I was growing up, my church held a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. As we read and reflected on Jesus’ words on the cross, and sang such plaintive hymns as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”, “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted”, and “Were You There (When they crucified my LORD?)”, the lights in the church would gradually dim until after “It is finished”, the sanctuary would be dark and everyone would exit and wordlessly make their way to their cars. No post-service fellowship, no refreshments, no conversations with friends--just a silent twilight departure.

From a young age, this struck me as odd. Conditioned as we are as consumers and tellers of stories to wait for the happily-ever-after--to look for the glimmer of hope--a service that so conspicuously ended on a down-beat stood out.

Unlike Advent, the season of joyful expectation leading up to Christmas, Lent and especially Holy Week can feel more somber as we take time to think and sing specifically of Jesus’ suffering and death. Why do we do this? Isn’t the whole point to just get to Easter and the empty tomb? Wouldn’t it be best to press fast-forward and skip to the good part?

To answer these questions, we must first ask another question: what do we gain from dwelling on Jesus hanging on the cross? Or put another way, what kind of Savior is Jesus, if His death is indeed a necessary chapter of the story?

In reading Jesus’ words on the cross, in singing mournful minor-key hymns, in remembering His death, we are reminded that we serve a Savior who knows what it is to suffer.

And why is this important?

We need look no further than this past year. Even if you were fortunate enough not to have lost a loved one to COVID, to avoid serious illness, or to have kept your job, chances are you know somebody who was not so fortunate. And chances are, you experienced disruptions that distressed you: social isolation, struggling to work or study remotely, restrictions on gathering to worship, and many more. Perhaps you were already struggling with anxiety or depression, and the challenges of this past year felt at times like just one damn thing too many to bear. Perhaps you still struggle to see past the daily case and death counts, or disruptions to your daily life to the day when this, too, shall pass. Perhaps you are enduring what poets have called the “dark night of the soul”.

You see, we who live shackled by sin in a hurting, broken world--“groaning, as in the pains of childbirth”--know what it is to suffer. And what could Jesus’ resurrection possibly mean if He knew nothing of our suffering? Would it be the equivalent of a spiritual Hallmark card? Well-intentioned, but impersonal and cheap?

Instead: Jesus endured betrayal not only by the adoring throngs who had welcomed Him with palm branches mere days earlier, but by His closest friends. Jesus endured the humiliation of a sham public trial followed by the agony of a slow public execution. Then, Jesus endured what our sins warrant, but which we have never experienced ourselves: true separation from God.

When the earth shook and the curtain to the temple tore in two, the situation appeared to be hopeless. His disciples scattered and hid--it must have seemed like their world had crumbled around them.

Could they see past the grief of that day to the joy that was soon to come?

Can we see past our present suffering?

We know, of course, that two days later, the disciples' mourning would turn to rejoicing. In that sense, it is impossible to detach Good Friday from Easter.

Yet when we do remember Good Friday and reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, we bring with us our own suffering, which may seem permanent, insurmountable. And as we read, sing, and meditate, we remember that Jesus in that moment took our sin and suffering onto Himself. Whatever you are enduring at the moment, joy will come in the morning. But for now, let us take comfort in the knowledge that we serve a Savior who knows--and bears--our suffering.

Friday, May 15, 2020

My Favorite Classroom Routine

A million years ago, when school was something that happened in person, and not through our screens, I never started class on Tuesdays through Fridays.  Instead, as the bell rang, I would sit quietly at my desk as a student called their classmates to attention.  The student would present for a minute or so on a current event or news story, summarizing the story for their classmates, before posing a provocative statement, asking their classmates to agree or disagree with the statement, then discuss why they agreed or disagreed.  15-20 minutes later, the student would move to wind down the discussion, and yield the floor to me, at which point I would introduce whatever plans I had for class that day.

What I've just described is my favorite classroom routine, News Circles.

News Circles were born out of a conversation I had with my principal three years ago in my capacity as Social Studies Department Chair.  We were discussing ways to increase student awareness of--and engagement with--current events, particularly global issues, before their Senior year, at which time we ask them to do a major research project on a global issue of their choice.  

What we came up with was a classroom routine in which students would share news stories each day, low-stakes to the extent that even if a student forgot and did not bring a news story to class, it wouldn't matter in the long-run because they and their classmates would at least be exposed to other news stories.  

I decided I wanted to pilot this idea with my Humanities class the following year.  

News Circles have morphed and evolved with trial and error over the past three school-years.  I realized early on that I needed to give my students ownership of the routine, and so formed a voluntary News Circle committee who would decide what, exactly, News Circles would look like, and then oversee it on a day-to-day basis.  

This year, the News Circle Committee took the ownership I'd been looking for.  Whereas the previous two Humanities classes had run News Circles as a 5-10 minute routine in which four or five students would briefly share news stories each day, this year's committee decided that the quality of engagement with a news story was more important than the quantity of news stories their classmates would hear each day.  So, they decided to assign one student to present each day, with the majority of the time going toward facilitating a discussion on their news story.  The committee asked me if they could have 15-20 minutes rather than 5-10, and I was happy to oblige if they genuinely felt they needed the time.  

Under the leadership of the current News Circle Committee, News Circles have become my favorite classroom routine.  Here are a few reasons why News Circles have been such a rich part of our Humanities class:

1. Student Leadership
The News Circle Committee has emerged as a respected leadership group this year, to the extent that all of them ran either for Student Council or Senior Council for next year, all citing News Circle Committee as relevant leadership experience, with most being elected in the end.  In addition to heavily changing the format of News Circles to introduce a discussion focus, the News Circle Committee members in both sections have worked to design a master schedule, assigning classmates to come prepared to share a news story and lead a discussion each day.  They have been dutiful in reminding their classmates when their assigned day is coming up, and in the rare event that a classmate has forgotten, they have been prepared to step in and present, themselves.  They have coached their classmates on how to effectively facilitate discussions, introducing a routine that I now use, myself, the Four-Corner Discussion (in which students must physically go to a designated corner of the room based on whether they Strongly Agree-Agree-Disagree-Strongly Disagree with a given statement or proposition).  In January, my committee in one of the Humanities sections even took a day to share other types of discussion formats they had researched, and talked the class briefly through how each could work.  And if all of that had not been enough, the committees in both of my Humanities sections have voluntarily kept News Circles going during our 45 minute GoogleMeet check-ins each day since we returned to online learning after Spring Break.  I have seen these students emerge as leaders in ways that would not have been quite as clear or dramatic were it not for News Circles.

2. Student Choice, Engagement, and Ownership
Obviously, this is a classroom routine designed by students, for students.  That alone increases buy-in.  But within the structure of News Circles, the committee has given their classmates a high degree of choice in what they bring to the table when they present and lead a discussion.  We have had stories on sports, on politics, on business, on entertainment, on fashion, on health, on human rights, on science and technology... students find what interests them, and it often shows in the way they tell their classmates about their news item.

3. Critical Reading and Media Literacy
This does not come up all of the time, but occasionally, the student leading will ask their classmates to read the article, or a pair of articles themselves to highlight contradictions or biases within the article. Sometimes, the discussions have ended up being less about the issue at hand in the article, and more about the way in which it was reported.

4. Presentation and Facilitation Skills
Although it is an informal, low-stakes routine, it provides every student with an additional opportunity to practice their presentation skills and become more comfortable speaking in front of their classmates beyond our more formal class speeches and presentation assignments.  Perhaps even more beneficial is the challenge of facilitating a discussion--figuring out how to rephrase questions if necessary, or break big questions down into smaller, more manageable parts.

5. Critical Thinking
Coming up with discussion questions themselves is a worthwhile activity.  Something the students started to do without prompting from me, but which I plan to make an expectation in future years was to ask bigger-picture essential questions that pick up on the implications of a specific news story.  In other words, most students are not asking simple or factual discussion questions based specifically on the story they shared, but rather larger, more foundational or philosophical questions raised by their news story.  For instance, today a student shared an article about how some anti-vaxxers have changed their minds about vaccines in light of the COVID outbreak.  Rather than asking questions about her article specifically, she instead posed the following questions to her classmates in a discussion that lasted about half an hour: 1) Should vaccinations be mandatory?; and 2) Is communal good more important than individual freedom?  I love it when my students are able to see the forest through the trees.  In fact, my fellow high school social studies colleagues and I have been reading a book on essential questions by Wiggins and McTighe (the same duo who wrote Understanding by Design), and although this book is designed to help teachers create better essential questions to drive their units in class, we realized that we can and should be teaching similar skills to our students, and encouraging them when they do ask good essential questions.

6. Debate Skills
So far, I haven't even mentioned the discussions themselves.  Because of the nature of the Four-Corners discussion, which has been by far the most popular discussion format this year, students cannot hide and must decide where they stand on an issue--literally.  Few statements this year have yielded unanimous results, and even in the rare cases where every student is on the agree side of the room, or on the disagree side of the room, there is disagreement about degree with some students standing in the "strongly" corner, and some not.  After students have gone to the corner that represents their stance on the issue, discussion and disagreement are inevitable.  Not every student speaks up, but everyone is a part of the back-and-forth by virtue of having taken a stand.  Students will question one another's faulty logic or point out a lack of evidence, or qualified sources as they rebut one another's positions, and it's not uncommon to see the "bystanders" in these discussions physically change their minds as they listen to the debate, walking to a different corner to show that a particular argument had convinced them. Sometimes, the different sides concede or compromise, and on several occasions, they have even recommended rewording or qualifying the statement/question at hand to reach common ground and agreement.  Sadly, this school-year will end without a formal debate in Humanities class, an unfortunate but necessary casualty of COVID-19 and the limitations of emergency online learning.  However, I believe that this class is in many ways more advanced in their debate skills than previous classes because they participate in debate informally each day through News Circles.

7. Awareness of Current Events
It's funny to me that this original purpose for News Circles was the very last thing that I thought of as I listed out the benefits for this blog-post.  This does not mean it's an after-thought, by any means.  The students are coming away with a broader and deeper awareness of what is happening around the world, why it's happening, what the implications are on a smaller more immediate scale, and a wider long-term scale, and what they, themselves, think about what is happening.  Inevitably, they are learning about history, sociology, psychology, politics, economics, culture, geography and so much more as they lead and participate in News Circles.  None of this is formal, and it's hard to quantify, but it's exciting!

Nobody would have wished to spend the final three months of the school-year doing emergency distance learning instead of regular schooling.  On my end, I have assigned the students work that they are to do independently, and the vast majority are keeping up with our end-of-year assignments.  Using our 45-minute Google Meets to lecture seems to me an ineffective use of both my time and my students' time, and initially I was skeptical of having set, required GoogleMeet times each day, but when it became clear to me that my News Circle committees were not only willing, but genuinely eager to use that time to continue News Circles, I knew that important learning would continue to happen in my classes.  This was not what I would have expected or chosen for my students, but in this difficult time, News Circles have given my students a way to show initiative and rise to meet such unique challenges.  I'm glad that I have this as a classroom routine, and grateful for a group of students who have shown me just how good News Circles can be.  I won't soon forget. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

Life and Learning in Disrupted Times

When Prime Minister Abe announced on the evening of Thursday, February 27 that all schools would be closing until April, he took a difficult decision out of our school's hands--the complexities and challenges of determining when to shut down campus due to the spread of COVID-19 were no longer ours--or our fellow international schools'--alone.  We may have been surprised at the timing of the directive, but our leadership team had prepped us for the possibility of a shift to online schooling as early as the beginning of February.  I do not believe any of us were caught off-guard.

The next day, our final day with the students on campus, we mobilized to give our students the proper instructions and preparation for the shift to online schooling.  Instead of giving the students one final day to finish up their essays from the previous unit, which I had been planning to do, I moved up our introduction to the next unit, which I had originally been planning to do the following Monday.  As luck would have it, I had decided to totally revamp the final stretch of my U.S. History/English-blended Humanities course in response to Teaching For Transformation training on February 10 and 11.  At the time, I wondered if I was crazy for dismantling the three units I had already planned, and which I had taught before, combining, revising and editing to create one entirely new large and untested unit.

In hindsight, I can only say that the timing was providential.  As I planned this new unit, online schooling was constantly in the back of my mind, and although I planned on the assumption that we would be on campus, in class, I also consciously developed plans that I knew I could adapt to an online platform easily if I needed to.

So, on Friday, February 28, the last time I saw my students in person, I had detailed plans ready to go for them. In addition to a broader unit overview--something that I share at the start of each new unit, outlining our standards, essential questions and summative assessments--I also shared a document titled "Online School Emergency Plan" which contained a checklist of the main tasks students needed to be working on, as well as a preview of the activities and materials that I wanted the students to stay tuned for on Google Classroom.

My Online School Emergency Plan (or at least part of it)

This mega-unit concludes a year-long study of justice, using U.S. History, literature, essays, and speeches as case-studies, and will (hopefully) culminate with a student-organized relief trip to Tateyama in the Chiba prefecture at the end of May, to assist in ongoing clean-up following the devastating typhoons from this past fall.  The students have been planning this relief trip since November, and part of my reason for so drastically adjusting my plans was so that I could adopt this service project into my curriculum, affording students with an authentic and intentional way to apply the principles we have been studying in class.

I realized that introducing all of this online would not be terribly effective, so took time on that final regular class-day to explain my thinking on this to the students, and get them started in reflecting on what good charity does and does not look like with a four-corners discussion (in which students stand in a corner of the room corresponding to Strongly Agree-Agree-Disagree-Strongly Disagree) on the old proverb "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

When the bell rang at the end of class, I felt confident that we were ready to go online; that we had successfully laid the groundwork for the weeks to come.

For any of my teacher friends at schools in the States who are now facing, or are likely to face, a shift to online schooling, here is what I have done for the past couple of weeks, for what it is worth:

I have posted a Weekly Check-in Video every Monday in which I recap what we have been studying, look ahead to the plans for the coming week day-by-day, remind the students of upcoming deadlines, and simply check in, asking for questions or feedback.

Me rolling into frame to start my weekly check-in video

I also informed the students that I would post three short rhetorical fallacy videos each day (the final portion of our study of rhetoric for the school-year), each one defining a rhetorical fallacy, providing an example, and explaining what makes the example a fallacy.  This took a lot of time to put together, and I spent four-five hours in total over the course of that first week planning, recording, then editing 23 videos that all ended up being about two minutes apiece.  For my examples of the fallacies, I had some fun using my daughter's Anpanman, Thomas, Mickey Mouse, and Shimajiro toys.  I posted three new videos each day, asking the students to keep up with the fallacies in their notes, and also asking them to comment on the post on Google Classroom with a "got it"; "thanks"; or a specific response/question based on the videos, simply to confirm to me that they had at least seen the post.  Through these comments, I learned that many students really enjoyed and looked forward to the fallacy videos each day, and that some were even invested in the ongoing storyline and relationship drama between several of the Anpanman and Thomas characters in my examples.  I actually planned my final sets of fallacy videos accordingly to give those characters a clearer arc.  Also, from the comments, it soon became clear to me who was tracking with me--even on a superficial level--and who to watch more closely.

The owl-teacher (a fan favorite), about to launch into a lengthy slippery slope fallacy about the consequences of playing video games in the middle of class.
Why did I choose to go through the fallacies using daily videos?  I felt like it was important, especially getting started, to provide students with a daily routine--something short but consistent that they could plan to do for Humanities.

I also assigned to them several longer-term tasks:

Of course, they had been working on a unit essay when we were still in school, and while this had been due on Friday, Feb. 28, originally, I gave the students a few extra days to finish in light of the general chaos of that Friday.  This was the first major due-date of online schooling, and I realized that not being physically present at school freed me up to give several pointed reminders about the due-date during the day on Google Classroom--something I would not ordinarily have had the time to do.  In the end, only one student submitted his assignment late (by 12 minutes), and he proactively contacted our principal, in accordance with our late-work policy, to explain that he'd gotten caught up playing the piano and lost track of the time.  As this was a teacher's draft, one of my ongoing projects (and more time-consuming tasks) these weeks has been to read and provide feedback on the essays.  I am still in the process of reading and commenting on these essays, though I hope to have them finished by late next week.

I also assigned the students to read a chapter from one of our core texts, Healing for a Broken World, by Steve Monsma, regarding the Christian call to solidarity, and the problems with an overly individualistic approach to poverty and suffering on the one hand, and a paternalistic approach on the other hand.  We discussed this chapter in an online video conference using GoogleMeet on the Thursday of that first week, with most students in attendance.  Students who were not comfortable speaking up in the video conference were able to type and post their responses or questions on Google Classroom.

In the next long-term assignment, I asked the students to apply what they had learned about individualism and paternalism as they researched Native American History using a large selection of resources that I had culled for them, ultimately evaluating the federal government's Indian policy over the course of time.  As there were three separate questions to which I wanted students to respond, I broke this assignment down into two checkpoints and the final due-date, with the first checkpoint on Tuesday, March 10, the second checkpoint being on Thursday, March 12, and the whole assignment being due on Friday, March 13.  Yet again, not being in school freed me up to take 20-30 minutes from 4:30 pm on the checkpoint days to quickly click through the students' documents on Google Classroom to see who was on track and who was not, providing brief feedback in their online grades.  I was impressed that most students responded to this timely feedback and their responses for the second checkpoint seemed much more cohesive and complete.

In addition to all of this, my student-led News Circle committees have planned activities to keep their classmates plugged into current events, with the committee in one class asking their classmates to look at both sides of several issues of their choice on and fill out a short document summarizing what they found, and the committee in the other class holding Google Meet discussions each Friday, discussing the North Korean Missile Launch the first week, the Australian bushfires this past week, and media coverage of COVID-19 this coming week.  In this, I have been thoroughly impressed with the leadership and initiative of my students on the News Circle committees, who volunteered to do this job at the start of the year, and who have consistently gone above and beyond to facilitate awareness and discussion of current events with their classmates, even in the midst of a disrupted online schooling schedule.

Coming up: 
Having finished the rhetorical fallacy videos, students must now go on a scavenger hunt for five fallacies of their choice, finding an example of that fallacy in the news, in political debates, or in movies or TV shows, then explaining how their example shows that particular fallacy.  This scavenger hunt will be due next Friday, before Spring Break.

The students are also reading a selection of Native American poetry, and will write their own poem in response to Diane Burns' "Sure, You Can Ask Me a Personal Question", responding to the assumptions and stereotypes others may have about each of us based on our culture, appearance, gender, hobbies, etc. We will share our poems in a GoogleMeet poetry read on Tuesday.

Finally, the students will have an opportunity to hear from my brother about his two years teaching on the Pine Ridge reservation, and his insights about Indian policy as he finishes law school, in a GoogleMeet question-and-answer session on Thursday.

Online schooling is not without its bumps, of course, and I do have a few students who seem to be struggling mightily in the absence of the structure and accountability that a school-day offers.  Importantly, it has become clear quickly who is struggling or falling behind.  The challenge moving forward is to find ways to encourage, support, and hold these students accountable virtually.

By contrast, I have also had a few students tell me that they prefer online schooling to regular school and that they have thrived at budgeting their own time, accomplishing much more than they ordinarily would.

I think in either case, online schooling is holding up a mirror to the students, that would not have otherwise been held up, revealing something to them about their own strengths and weaknesses as both learners and workers.  I know that I definitely would have struggled with the lack of structure when I was in high school, and also that I definitely would not have been able to recognize that for myself at the time.

We are soon to start our third week of online schooling, and while I admit that I am tired and that I miss the regular school routine, it has been reassuring to know that life and learning can go on even in a disrupted and disruptive time such as this.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Brandon Sanderson and the Power of Delayed Gratification

We live in a culture that demands instant gratification. In a world where we can binge-watch from a selection of thousands of movies or TV shows on our phones, or download and read just about any book with one click on Amazon, we hate to have to wait for payoffs. Ten years ago, I was watching LOST as it aired on TV, and I remember clearly how agonizing even a one week wait could be, between episodes. Yet, there’s something about delayed gratification--about the waiting and the agonizing and the theorizing with friends--that captures the imagination and makes a TV, movie, or book series more meaningful.

Disney and Marvel Studios certainly understand this. One of my summer projects has been to catch up on the MCU movies--no small task, considering that up until a month and a half ago, I had only seen the first Avengers movie. As my wife and I have caught up, one thing that has deeply impressed me is just how patient Disney and Marvel were in delivering payoffs for their epic, overarching story arc. The crossover references started as occasional blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em easter eggs, and the larger infinity gem narrative was indeed a slow-burn, in the best possible way.

A contemporary fantasy author who has tapped into the power of delayed gratification in a similar way is Brandon Sanderson.

Sanderson is an impressive author for a variety of reasons. He has been incredibly prolific over the last decade, juggling multiple separate series of books--Mistborn, The Stormlight Archives, The Wheel of Time, and Skyward, to name a few--and managing to publish at least one book, and sometimes one or more novella each year. While George R.R. Martin’s glacial writing speed may lead a reader to assume that a good fantasy book takes decades to write, Sanderson proves that prolificity need not come at the expense of quality. His books are well-written, his worlds fully realized.

A significant piece of Sanderson’s world-building comes from his knack for crafting engaging and thoroughly thought-out systems of magic in each of his worlds. Sanderson recently wrote an essay in which he discussed the distinction between “soft magic” and “hard magic” in fantasy literature. “Soft magic”, as Sanderson defines it, is magic where the rules are not clearly defined. Sanderson observes that one result of employing a “soft magic” system is that the characters cannot use magic to solve the central conflict of the story--at least, not without the resolution feeling arbitrary and unearned. Instead, in “soft magic” stories, the magic takes on a background role.

By contrast, “hard magic” is magic where the rules are clearly defined and explained, following an internal consistency within the world in the book. Unlike “soft magic”, characters can use “hard magic” to solve significant problems, as doing so requires the characters to develop an understanding and mastery of the magic system, a process which challenges the characters and forces them to grow. Moreover, the obstacles that the characters face are complex and not solvable with a simple wave of the hand. In “hard magic” stories, the magic system is practically a character in its own right.

Sanderson is a skilled “hard magic” writer, and has constructed worlds in which the magic systems function almost as an additional set of natural laws. His magic systems are neither arbitrary nor limitless, and a character’s power is a function of how well they understand the rules of the world’s magic, combined with their inherent skills and personal qualities, and a certain measure of creativity. It was Sanderson’s magic systems--and the edge-of-your-seat action that results from seeing characters use that magic--that first made me a fan of his writing.

What has cemented me as a fan, however, has been the way in which each story works together to form a larger narrative. Sanderson has said in interviews that he is a big fan of sprawling, epic fantasy series, and that he always wanted to write an epic series of his own. However, when he was writing his first books more than 15 years ago, he recognized the risk involved in embarking on an undertaking like that: if the first book in an epic series does not sell very well, the author cannot simply pitch the second book in the series to publishers as a fall-back, and all of the time and effort spent planning out the series would have gone to waste.

Instead, Sanderson began to work on several series that seemed separate from one another, set on different worlds with different magic systems and different characters. That way, if one book did not sell well, he would be able to send something unique to publishers on his next attempt. Yet, attached as he was to the idea of writing an epic series, Sanderson decided to sneak some easter eggs into each book to begin what he called a “hidden epic”, clues that each story and each world had a deeper connection to the others than might have initially met the eye. As his books began to sell and Sanderson gained clout and credibility as a rising fantasy author, he began to make these connections more explicit.

Sanderson’s world-building ability goes well beyond his skill at creating compelling magic systems. Indeed, he has created an entire universe--called the “Cosmere”--in which many of his series take place, a universe whose history, complexities, and conflicts he is gradually revealing with each new book. Sanderson’s books all hold up on their own merits, but the reward for reading everything is the larger “hidden” epic unfolding in the background across his works. It is, in a sense, his “infinity gem” narrative. Perhaps the most notable point of connection shared by all of the books is a mysterious character who appears in every book, sometimes only briefly, and often wearing a disguise. This mysterious character has taken on a more significant role in more recent books, and has undoubtedly inspired many readers to reread the earlier books in an attempt to try and spot each appearance.

Here is a quick overview of the main books and series set in the Cosmere, in what I would recommend as a reading order:

Mistborn Era One
This was where I started, on a friend’s recommendation, and it is where I would recommend others to start as well. Mistborn takes place on the world of Scadrial, a medieval world shrouded in a constant rain of volcanic ash and where an ominous mist settles each night, keeping people indoors. Scadrial has been ruled for one thousand years by the mysterious tyrant, The Lord Ruler, who has stratified society into a nobility class, and a slave class, known as the “skaa”. In the midst of these circumstances, a street urchin named Vin discovers that she has magical powers derived from metallic dust as she is recruited into the most dangerous heist that Scadrial has ever seen.
  • Mistborn: The Final Empire (2006)
  • Mistborn: The Well of Ascension (2007)
  • Mistborn: The Hero of Ages (2008)

Mistborn Era Two (AKA “Wax and Wayne”)
This series is set centuries after the first three Mistborn books, at a time when Vin and her friends have become the stuff of legends. By this point, Scadrial has developed to a mid-1800s level of technology, and this series reads as much like wild west fiction (with pistol duels, saloons, and train-top showdowns) as it does fantasy. This series follows the adventures of Wax, a lawman from the Roughs, and his deputy/best bud Wayne, as they investigate increasingly severe disturbances in Scadrial’s big cities. While I thoroughly enjoyed the first three Mistborn books, the first few pages of Alloy of Law were the point where I decided that I wanted to read everything that Sanderson had written. The tone and style are so vastly different from the first series that, as a writer, I could not help but be impressed with Sanderson’s versatility. I should note that Sanderson plans to write two additional Mistborn series in the future, an “Era Three” set in a Scadrial with 1980s-level technology, and an “Era Four”, which he has described as a futuristic space opera.
  • The Alloy of Law (2011)
  • The Shadows of Self (2015)
  • The Bands of Mourning (2016)

  • Elantris (2005)
This was Sanderson’s first published novel. While it was released to critical acclaim, it does read a little bit rough compared to nearly everything Sanderson has written since, with the characters not quite as well developed, and the writing not quite as polished as his later works. It is by no means poorly written, but Mistborn is a far better sample of what Sanderson is capable of as a writer, and much more likely to hook new readers for the long-haul. Elantris is set on the world of Sel, a world where people would sometimes, seemingly randomly, wake up as Elantrians--superhuman angelic beings--and relocate to the magical city of Elantris. That is, until a cataclysmic event causes people to no longer transform into angelic beings, but rather disfigured and undead beings who are imprisoned in the city of Elantris. Elantris tells the story of a young woman named Sarene, a princess who has just arrived in a new kingdom to be married to its prince, only to discover that the prince has suddenly, and perhaps suspiciously, passed away. The book follows Sarene’s adjustment to life in her new home, and her attempts to crack the mysteries of the neighboring city of Elantris.

  • Warbreaker (2009)
Set on the world of Nalthis, where people derive power from color, Warbreaker tells the story of Siri, a headstrong princess who is suddenly sent to marry the mysterious God-King of an enemy kingdom in the place of her older sister Vivenna, who has spent her life preparing for the betrothal, and Vivenna, who travels into enemy territory in pursuit of her sister.

The Stormlight Archive:
This is Sanderson’s series with the most epic scope. I read it immediately after finishing Bands of Mourning, and while I really enjoyed it, I would definitely recommend holding off on this series until after reading Elantris and Warbreaker, as the background from those two books will enrich one’s reading of Stormlight and make many easter eggs that I completely missed the first time through much easier to spot. Sanderson’s plan is for The Stormlight Archive to be a ten-book series, with each book weighing in at 1000+ pages, each book focusing on a different character. The Stormlight Archive is set on the world of Roshar where weapons and armor are charged with special power by the violent storms that regularly sweep the landscape. The first book opens with the murder of King Gavilar by a mysterious, gravity-defying assassin dressed in white, and the series follows Gavilar’s brother, the renowned warrior Dalinar, Gavilar’s son Elhokar, who takes the throne after his father’s death, Gavilar’s daughter Jasnah, a brilliant scholar who has been accused of heresy, Dalinar’s sons Adolin, a skilled duelist and eligible bachelor, and Renarin, a sickly youth who lives in the shadow of his father and brother, a young soldier-turned-slave named Kaladin, a young artist named Shallan who wishes to be tutored by Jasnah… the list could go on.

Although each book features chapters from the perspective of each main character, each book focuses on one character with flashback chapters mixed in. For example, The Way of Kings features Kaladin’s flashbacks. I’ll stop there as even revealing whose flashbacks feature in a given book would be a minor spoiler. I will warn readers that The Way of Kings takes a while to get into, and with good reason: it is essentially a 1000-page prologue to the series, and Sanderson spends most of the book laying essential groundwork that will pay off dividends in Words of Radiance and Oathbringer, which are my two favorite books by Brandon Sanderson, hands-down. Character development in this series is hard-earned, and Sanderson never cuts corners. Characters grow through grueling setbacks, pain and suffering, and Way of Kings features its share of such growth in order to place the characters where they need to be at the start of Words of Radiance. This is delayed gratification in action!
  • The Way of Kings (2010)
  • Words of Radiance (2014)
  • Oathbringer (2017)

Honorable mention:
  • The Emperor’s Soul (2012)
This is a novella and not a full novel, but it is an excellent sampling of Sanderson’s style and a good alternative entry point to Sanderson’s writing, particularly for anyone who does not consider themselves a fantasy reader, or for anyone who feels like starting a full novel or series is too much of a commitment. Set on Sel (the same world as Elantris, but in a completely separate country), The Emperor’s Soul tells the story of Shai, a thief and magical forger who is tasked with forging a new soul for the emperor after an assassination attempt leaves him brain-dead.

There are a number of other short stories and novellas that contribute to Cosmere lore, but I will leave those to the reader to find and read if they so choose. Bear in mind that each book or series (even the mammoth Stormlight Archive) can be read and enjoyed on its own, without any knowledge or awareness of the greater lore, and in fact, I did not start to recognize that greater lore until I was seven books in. That said, if you have the time and patience to read everything, you are in for a real treat. Sanderson’s hidden epic is nearly 15 years in the making, and he is not even halfway finished telling this larger story. If you want instant gratification--if you need answers and you need them now, these books are not for you. However, if you revel in the mystery, the agonizing, the theorizing, and the waiting, pick up Mistborn or The Emperor’s Soul. You will not regret it.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Expecting Catastophe

My heart raced.
Sweat poured.
Every nerve in my legs screamed in pain.

This is it, I thought.  This is how I die, here and now.

"Here" was Victoria's Peak in Hong Kong; "Now" was 1:00pm, March 26, 2009.

I staggered to a payphone and dumped a handful of change into the coin-slot.  I was not sure how much money I put in, but I knew it was the most expensive phone call of my life.  It didn't matter.  Money and materials do not matter when you're dying.

My mom picked up the phone in Washington State at 10:00pm March 25.  Thank God--I wouldn't have to break the news to my parents through voicemail or a Facebook post.

"It's me.  I'm sure I'm having a heart attack.  I'm freaking out."

My mom, who walks a perpetual tightrope between her role as a mother and her role as a doctor, offered a quick diagnosis:

"You do not sound like someone who is having a heart attack."

Geez, I need a second opinion.  If I even have time for a second opinion, that is. 

"I really think I'm dying.  My heart won't stop racing, and I'm getting shooting pain in my legs."

"Are you at your hotel room right now?"

"I'm calling from a payphone at the top of Victoria's Peak."

"Have you eaten lunch yet?"

I had eaten lunch, as a matter of fact.  I was in Hong Kong for a 3-day trip to reset the tourist visa that was allowing me to volunteer at the Christian Academy in Japan.  I had always wanted to go to Hong Kong, and particularly Victoria's Peak, ever since seeing a picture of the cityscape in a special Places of the World edition of TIME Magazine as a kid.  So, that morning, I had made my way by foot from my hotel to the trolley that would take me to Victoria's Peak.  I had walked for more than three hours, only to find that the fog had rolled in, completely obscuring the view of the city.

By then, it was lunch time, and I had settled at a window-side booth in an Indian restaurant that probably had a panoramic view of the city, most of the time.  I had only recently been introduced to Indian curry for the first time, and was feeling adventurous that day.  The last curry on the menu, advertised only as "very spicy", came with a health advisory notice, cautioning pregnant women and people with heart conditions against ordering it.  How spicy could it be? I thought to myself.  I decided to give it a try.

About halfway through the meal, I swore off spicy foods for the rest of my life.  I don't feel that any adjective I throw out could adequately capture just how spicy this curry was.  Suffice it to say that at one point, I felt like I could not only see--but understand--the concept of eternity.  I had ordered an iced tea with my curry and one refill quickly became half a dozen or more.  Soon enough, I had put out the fire, but left some burning embers behind.

As I was new to overseas travel and restaurant etiquette in different countries, I was shocked to learn that there was no such thing as "free refills" at this restaurant, and that I had spent the equivalent of $15USD on my iced tea alone.

It was about five minutes after leaving the restaurant that I had started sweating and my heart had started racing, and I knew with all certainty that I was going to die then and there.

My mom listened to my story as she would have listened to a patient history.  Then,

"Yep, that curry was probably a mistake.  Doubt you'll do that to yourself again, given how easily you get heartburn."

"But it's not just heartburn, my heart is racing--"

"Because you drank eight tall glasses of iced tea.  I'm assuming it wasn't herbal tea."

"But my legs--"

"You spent the entire morning walking, probably on concrete for most of the time.  You don't usually get this much exercise, so I'm not surprised you're feeling sore."

After the conversation had ended, I made my way back to the hotel in a stupor.  So I wasn't dying, after all.  Physically, I still felt miserable, but I felt like I had been snatched from the jaws of death.

After a nap back at the hotel, I made my way up to Victoria's Peak again that evening.  Second chances are a wonderful thing, and on this second trip, I found that the fog had cleared, giving me a beautiful view of the city lights.

I do not consider myself a pessimist, but over time, I have learned that I am a pro at expecting catastrophe.  Unbidden, I find myself leaping to the worst conclusions or envisioning the most dire scenarios based on little to no evidence.

It's all too easy to let my mind imagine the worst and then look for any reason to confirm those fears.  Disaster lurks around every corner; malice hides in every pleasantry; death awaits in each ache and pain.  Soon enough, I'm having a heart attack and wondering whether I'll die on Victoria's Peak itself, or in the ambulance.

Bracing myself for the worst, I forget the truth: that more often than not, it's just spicy curry and too much iced tea.