Thursday, February 19, 2015

Humanities and Community Engagement

As I wrote about several weeks ago, our current unit in Humanities is, at its core, about the human quest for meaning.  Not all of my unit objectives fit perfectly with this, but most of them do.  So what do I do with the objectives that don't quite fit with the quest for meaning?

Just because I decided to base this unit's essential theme on only some of the objectives doesn't mean I don't value the others.  It just means that I will teach and assess them a little bit differently.

In this unit, the odd objective out was about the ways in which different cultures interact with each other.  I chose to include this objective in this unit because even though it isn't central to our theme, it comes up organically in the process of examining the theme.  Our discussion of the American Dream inevitably included discussion of immigration and the struggles that immigrants to America faced: discrimination, nativism, pressure to assimilate.  As I planned out this unit, I realized that my goal was not for students to remember facts about American immigration specifically, but to understand immigration as a concept--the reasons why people might immigrate, the challenges they might encounter, the joys, the ways in which they blend with their new culture, the ways in which they remain distinct.

"But how can I make this come to life for my students?" I wondered.
"How can I make this come to life for my students in this international setting with people from all over the... wait a sec--"

At that point, the assignment basically created itself:

I asked the students to pair up and interview someone in the community (whether a staff member or family member) who immigrated to Japan as an adult about their reasons for coming to Japan, their experiences, and how living in Japan has impacted them.  The students had to receive approval on their interview questions from me ahead of time (so that they could practice the skill of writing interview questions) and then had to video tape and edit the interview to show "the big ideas" that came up in their interview.

The product was a set of 5-6 minute videos featuring a variety of people from our community talking about their experiences in moving to Japan.  I am using these videos, one per day, as an opener for class, and each day begins with my students hearing about another teacher or parents' personal experiences in immigrating to Japan.  Though everyone's experiences are different, there are some commonalities such as the feeling of not quite fitting in, memories of embarrassing misunderstandings, and mistaken impressions of Japan that were corrected over time by living here.

Will this understanding come up on a test?  No.  My students are living it, are surrounded by it, and I hope that watching these videos will encourage them to think more deeply about the unique cultural situation at CAJ, and how they fit into the puzzle.  At the end of the unit, I'll ask the students to reflect on issues related to immigration, but that will be the extent of the assessment.  They will, of course, have a much bigger assignment to work on as they tie together various aspects of humanity's quest for meaning from literature, history and Scripture.  Even so, I hope that the students will not forget the interviews that they conducted and that they listened to; this may not have been the central theme of our unit, but it was a worthwhile understanding that forged deeper connections between my students and the community that they live in.  In the end, isn't that community engagement a vital part of becoming people of justice, too?

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