Wednesday, August 31, 2011


"Beautiful Things" by Gungor

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new, You are making me new
You make me new, You are making me new
You are making me new

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us (x3)

We sang this song in chapel this morning. What a simple song, but man--what a powerful truth. Broken as we are, there are times when whatever beauty we have within us seems totally eclipsed, marred by our failings. Still, we are children of God, created in His image. When God created us, He looked on His handiwork and proclaimed it "good". We lose sight of this potential so easily. I think it is because we can't regain true beauty or goodness on our own. We try and we try, but every time we come up short serves to remind us of our weakness and inadequacy.

Thankfully it doesn't end there. Like the gardener who tends to a plot of dusty brown earth, plowing it and fertilizing it, God is renewing us. He is creating within us fertile soil out of which a beautiful garden may grow. We can't do anything to make ourselves beautiful and new--not anymore than a garden can plow itself. When we let the gardener work in us and through us, however, we are refreshed and restored. I'm so grateful to serve a Lord who recognizes the beauty and goodness in me even when I'm overgrown in brambles, and I eagerly await the day when this restoration, this ultimate feat of gardening, will be made complete.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Settling in...

As I write, the 4th day of the school year is winding down and I'm again awed by how time flies. Today, I finally felt like I was settling into a routine I could embrace. With morning Freshmen Orientation over and done, today was the first day where I was able to fully enjoy my 1st period prep time before a full day of classes.

I have to say, I feel like this 50-minute chunk of my day will prove very important to me this year. It makes so much of a difference to show up at school at 8, knowing that I still have an hour and a half to get organized and finish preparing for the days' classes. As I sat in the Business Office making copies of articles about Christopher Columbus (was he a hero? Or a genocidal maniac?), I realized that this was the most relaxing school-morning that I'd had in ages--usually if I make copies in the morning, I have to wait in line for one of the two copiers. There really is a morning rush to make copies before the bell rings and though it's not violent or sour, it's most certainly competitive! Being able to make copies at my leisure while thinking through each class one by one was a blessing I'd never had before... I liked that feeling!

Another cool moment today (and it was a pretty good day, so picking highlights is tough): Yesterday I'd taught the freshmen that "history is now and we're living it." I told them to tattoo this truth onto their brains. Today, I opened class by announcing "history is now" and before I could finish, the kids all chimed in, in unison, "and we're living it!" Then they started cheering and clapping. This happened twice in a row, 4th and 5th period--two different sections. I couldn't help but smile--such a different story from the last time I taught freshmen world history two years ago. Truth: you can be a genius and have the best perspective on history in the world, but if the kids don't buy into your vision for the class, you are out of luck as a teacher. I am so incredibly thankful for the buy-in.

I know it's not me--no, I remember all too clearly how the school year went two years ago. This is God working through me. I'm excited to see where the kids go, and what they do this year as they come to terms with this exciting realization that they are part of the grand historical drama.

Working late

Tonight will be another late night at school, and so I won't write much today (though I am committed to write something most days, even if it's short). Here's my observation for today: It's weird how fast the streets of Higashi Kurume become familiar--between cross country practice earlier today and then just now biking to grab dinner, navigating these streets has become second nature.

It used to be incredibly intimidating, and the fear that I would get hopelessly lost loomed large with every turn I took. Now, I know most of the streets by the school like the back of my hand, and on the streets that I haven't traveled, my sense of direction has improved enough that I can always find my way back to familiar territory. Tonight, as I biked from the machi to school on empty roads, I felt for a split second as though I were biking in a small town. The roads were mine for just that instant... and then a very noisy scooter came out of nowhere and roared past me, disrupting my moment of peace.

Still, Higashi Kurume has developed a "homey" feel that I never guessed it would. Strange and comforting how that works.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Thinking through "Thy will be done"

Thy will be done... what does this mean, anyway? I've heard people that I know call this phrase 'the scary prayer' because it means relinquishing the illusion that we are masters of our own destiny; admitting that God is always in control. Scary, but also incredibly freeing, I think.

Still, is praying 'thy will be done' an excuse to put up our feet and set our lives to auto-pilot? Does acknowledging God's control and sovereignty mean that we should sit back and wait for God's will to be done?

I don't think so. Let's look at what we know: God created us in His image. This means that we are naturally creative beings, that we are (or at least should be) constantly looking for ways to develop and care for the world around us. Certainly God expects no less. With the ability and God-given mandate to be creative and proactive caretakers, there's no excuse for a life spent idly hoping for signs and provisions from God. While some may call this faith, it's actually a form of disobedience, as waiting for further orders to the neglect of living day by day is a violation of God's instructions for humankind in Genesis... to fill the earth and subdue it, to care for the world, to be fruitful and increase in number.

We must seek to follow God's will for our lives, not so that we can finally have a break while God takes the wheel, but so that we can align our will to God's--meaning that we still make decisions, take risks and act... and all that we do serves the purpose of advancing God's will.

We learn about God's will as we turn to His Word and as we pray, and as we grow in our relationship with Him, our hearts conform to His. Gradually, the things in this life that we desire the most match with the things that He desires most for us, and so when we pray for God's will to be done, we are praying for our own wants and needs. We want what God wants, and our most pressing needs are what He knows that we need. I don't think I am up to this point yet. It still scares me to pray "thy will be done." I think "well, I really want this or that in my life--to find the girl who I'm going to spend my life with, to one day start a family, to own a dog... what if God doesn't want these things for me?" I realize now that I've been approaching this all wrong.

Just because there's uncertainty over these things and others doesn't mean that I must stop making important decisions about my future and simply wait. I've been equipped by my Creator to live my life and to make big decisions. I need to take each day as it comes, and not worry that God might not want something that I do want. I must make all of my decisions with the intent and purpose of glorifying God, I must continually pray and I must continually dig into His Word. This lifestyle precludes a lot of things, but it certainly doesn't preclude getting married, starting a family and owning a dog. (Now if these things were the end-goals in my life, in and of themselves, there would be bigger problems...) These things will happen sooner or later... I fully trust and believe that. I just need to follow God and make Him the center of my decision-making process. The biggest struggle here is patience :P

It's worth thinking about: Are you comfortable praying "Thy will be done?" If not, what keeps you from being comfortable praying those words?

Friday, August 26, 2011


Today is the first Saturday of the school-year. I consider the first week (really only one and a half days) to have been a success--I felt good about about how the year opened, and believe that each of my classes started off on the right foot. I'm enthusiastic about the promise of this school year, and hope that my students feel the same. I am also, however, exhausted. I love my new schedule--teaching for 5 straight class periods (punctuated only by a morning break and lunch) makes my days lively and exciting--no stretches of down-time means that I am never bored. Furthermore, I can keep my energy level high through all of my classes; even after lunch, when my students will be especially prone to feeling sleepy.

That said, my body is still not used to the routine, and it may take a little while--as soon as I reach my 7th period prep time, I crash--I get quite sleepy myself, and I feel the aches and pains that I've accumulated from standing, moving around and talking all day finally starting to catch up with me. Considering that my day is far from over (with middle schoolers to coach and both prep and grading to do at night), it's vital that I dig deep and find energy somewhere. The question of where to turn for that energy should be easy to answer, yet somehow I struggle--two nights ago, I turned to several glasses of ice coffee from Reno's. I got a lot of work done in the ensuing caffeine-fueled frenzy, but I went home at 11 with an enormous tension headache (rare for me--I've only had two headaches in my entire life). So, then, if not caffeine, where do I turn for strength, hope and energy?

As I thought about this question earlier, I remembered one of my favorite songs, which had been drifting in and out of my head all day:

In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied -
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain:
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave he rose again!
And as He stands in victory
Sin's curse has lost its grip on me,
For I am His and He is mine -
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.

I'm powerless and I'm weak. It's not crazy that I feel this way--it's instead a reminder of who does have the perfect strength. And so, in my weakness and tiredness, I turn to Christ in whom I can do all things. A teacher's work is never done--there's always something that needs to be worked on, changed, updated or improved. That process will never end so long as I'm in the classroom. To make it through and to do my job well, I need to turn to Christ for meaning and power. Without His strength and mercy, I will not succeed as a teacher, or maintain my busy schedule. To God be the glory, and at His feet I lay all of my successes and joys, and all my struggles and failings.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The First Day

Today was my 21st first day of school (the 20th anniversary of me starting kindergarten), and my 3rd as a teacher... 4th if you count student teaching.

It's amazing how much things change from the first year to the second, and then the second to the third. My first year is only two years past, but it seems like ancient history to me now... not in terms of the time that's gone by, but how much different I feel in a classroom. I remember having a very specific vision in mind for how I wanted things to go on that first day two years ago... and nothing went as I'd planned.

I was nervous, and visibly so. I shook as I talked to my new classes, stumbled over words, and tended to be very subdued and quiet. Nothing came out right, and I kept mixing up details and then coming down really hard on myself when I realized I'd made a mistake. This may be hard to avoid as a first-year teacher. I think you just have to muddle through those rough, nerve-wracking times with the knowledge that things do get better. However, those first days set the tone for the entire school-year and so there were many awkward, tense moments in the classroom that resulted from my insecurities and lack of self-confidence.

My second year, I found myself being much more articulate on the first day, and much more calm. I was in control of my faculties, and could say what I meant to say. As a result, the year started smoothly and I left the first day feeling confident and ready for a new school-year, a clean slate. Though it was a hard year in many other respects, my second year in the classroom was a good one and I think that was due in no small part to starting the year strong and being more sure of myself right off the bat.

This year, playing off of my self-confidence from last year and my positive experiences in the classroom, I started as strong as I ever have. I still have the feeling of control, calmness and confidence from last year, but rather than hiding my nervous energy, I've converted it into performance, thinking about my tone, my gestures, my eye contact, my expression, my body language... and then going crazy. With each class period, my introduction of myself and my classes got a little bit more animated and a little bit more dramatic (it helped that my introductory activity was pretty much the same from class to class). By the end of the day, I was leaping, bounding and sprinting around the room as I explained why I think English and literature are important to study. Did I look ridiculous? Yes. Did I have the students' attention? Also yes. I may tone it down in coming days, and I may not. I think my style has been developing to this point, and maybe if I'm overflowing in energy, some of it will transfer to my kids along with a zeal for history, literature and learning about how to function in God's world.

It was a fun day. I'm now exhausted, but I'm looking forward to a good year.

Some scenes from today

The day before the first day of school, 2011:

A group of nearly 20 freshmen wandering around campus in a pack, searching earnestly for a new student whom they have been expecting since the 6th grade (and is finally joining their class this year). Talk about a warm welcome!

Sophomore guys, all a lot taller than they were in June, catching up near the picnic tables.

A group of 8 freshmen standing outside my room and asking me very good questions about the coming school year.

A bunch of seniors (who I first met as freshmen) diligently running the afternoon's mixer activities and making sure their fellow students are served and fed at the evening's barbecue.

Me sitting next to two of those seniors over dinner... the conversation resembles (in my imagination, anyway) a reunion between soldiers and their commanding officer. The commanding officer is impressed by the leadership skills that his soldiers have developed.

A large class of juniors checking out their books and setting up their lockers in a relatively short amount of time, with only a few hitches.

Me standing in front of the Junior class of 2013 (who I taught as freshmen in my first full year of teaching) and talking to them as a group for the first time in over a year. We grow wiser as we grow older and God gives second chances. This moment nearly brought a tear to my eye.

Me working late at school to be as ready as I can for tomorrow. Feeling quite nostalgic as I print-out my opening day activity (the same one I used last year) and am struck by how quickly time flies. Determined to enjoy the nows of this year, as I know just how quickly they become thens.

I'm ready for tomorrow... so ready. 10 years from now, I will look back on this moment and say "that felt like the blink of an eye"... I am a young teacher who is gaining experience, who no longer quakes in his boots in front of a classroom. This is a time to be treasured, a gift from God. Life is beautiful, isn't it?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Some goals for this year...

As I look ahead to school starting tomorrow, I've been reflecting a lot on how last year went and what the coming year might hold in store. Here are several things that I've been thinking of and I want to work toward:

1. Grading. This is still the biggie. I did a better job last year of getting grades back, but often failed to get grades back in a timely fashion. This year, my goal is to take no longer than a one-week turnaround time for major assignments (essays, papers or projects) and ideally getting assignments back within 3-4 school days. This means that I need to restructure how I grade, the type of feedback I give, and how much I split up my assignments into smaller chunks. It will also mean fighting my general lack of motivation to grade--it's not my favorite part of the job, but it is essential for the kids to grow and I really do owe it to them to support my goals for the class with insightful, timely feedback.

2. Unit planning. Day to day, I manage. I have gotten much better at thinking on my feet and so rarely feel like I'm at a loss for ideas. However, as nice as this skill is, and as good as it is to have long-range goals, I need to give attention to the middle level--the unit view. I hope to be more diligent in thinking through my unit goals ahead of time, deciding on my assessments up front and then working out a brief outline that will show me (and my students) how we're going to reach the goals.

3. Drink less coffee. Yes, I know I posted yesterday about how good coffee is for my planning... however, it's probably not the best thing to rely on to get through the day. I am going to try to cut back a bit this year.

4. Write more. I've thoroughly enjoyed making writing a daily habit over the past week. Writing helps me to think, to process what's happening in my life, and to challenge myself. It's easy to forget about writing when school starts up and my schedule becomes busy, but given that this is my 3rd year and I've already established my teaching style, philosophy and big-picture curriculum (things that are more or less absent/rudimentary during the first year), I think I can afford to make time for this.

5. Make time for friends. I did a horrible job of this during my first year--my entire social life consisted of JAM and while I appreciate that group of leaders tremendously, it wasn't healthy for me to not be around people my own age. That was a suffocatingly lonely year. Last year, I did a better job of setting aside time to relax and enjoy fellowship with the other young teachers and I hope to carry that forward this year, too. As young teachers, we have the unique ability to empathize with each other and the challenges that go into the earliest years of a teaching career. We can support and encourage each other, inspire each other and help each other improve and plan. And, sometimes we can simply NOT think about school and just enjoy an evening of movies, games, karaoke, eating, and talking.

6. Sing more. When I think back on what I miss most about high school and college, I often settle on the memories that I have of being in choir, or just singing with friends in general. I am going to try to sing more this year, whether that be alone in my classroom or perhaps informally with students and colleagues (I still think it'd be great to have a staff choir that meets once a month or something).

And now, a short blurb about コヒ

Yes, I'm writing twice today! This won't be long... I just needed to voice my sincere appreciation for the existence of coffee (having just finished an iced Honey Milk Latte from Tully's). I went most of the summer without drinking caffeinated coffee, and there was a degree of pride in that feat (as anyone at CAJ can tell you, when the school year is in full swing, I'm a Tully's regular. In fact, when I went to Tully's last week after returning to Japan, the baristas all specifically welcomed me back with an enthusiastic 久しぶり--this roughly translates to "long time, no see!").

During the summer months, I can't have caffeine... when I'm totally ひま (that's a Japanese term for having spare time), caffeine makes me jittery and restless. My brain starts working so fast that time seems to crawl, but since there's no outlet for my thought or energy, I feel sort of trapped... like I need to do something really important, but there's nothing important to do. While I'm busy, however... caffeine is a miracle worker. I become alert and focused, I can think twice as fast and I can accomplish 10x as much as I would without the coffee. I also become more creative. I come up with ideas for my classes that I never would've thought of in a million years of concentrated (and uncaffeinated) focus. Thinking outside the box not only becomes easier, it becomes the standard.

So, as I settle in for a late afternoon/evening of prep-work, I raise a hearty mug to a wonderful beverage (and as I raise my mug, I can't help but also raise the question of chemical dependency... seriously, if you read that last paragraph and substitute the references to caffeine with another drug, it sounds pretty sketchy. Maybe I ought to hold off on the coffee till decaf becomes big in Japan...).

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Calm Before...

I have been looking forward to the first day of school for weeks. Since the moment that I realized during the summer that a lot of what I was learning in my storytelling class would be applicable to my own classes, I have been more or less counting down the days till the start of school. Now, two days away, I realize just how much prep I still need to do... syllabi to complete, opening day activities to plan, print-outs to make...

The most common question that I have asked my colleagues (and I guess my students, too) over the past week has been whether or not they are ready for school to start. Almost unanimously, everyone says 'no'. Most of my colleagues are excited, as I am, but few feel really ready; prepared for the busy-ness to start up once again.

Perhaps this will always be true of teaching--perhaps we'll never feel completely ready for the first day. As we grow as teachers from year to year, we gain a greater awareness of what we need to improve (even as we do in fact improve)--this means there's always something to work on; always something to be done; always something to be slightly apprehensive about. I guess this is part of what ensures that teachers will be life-long learners, but man... for the time being, I wish I didn't feel like there was so much yet to be done.

In the vast scheme of things, I'm not worried, though. One way or another, everything will come together on the first day. It always does. In our high school staff meeting yesterday, we discussed classroom management and discipline. The conversation inevitably lead to relationship and what it means to love our students, to create an atmosphere of love in the classroom. This afternoon, I will sit in every desk in my classroom and pray. Beyond that, there's not much that I can do to prepare for this intangible-but-not-invisible aspect of my classroom environment, no rubric for how much I care for my students, no curriculum map for love. Yet, I would argue that it's the place where a healthy classroom needs to start.

This will be an interesting year--it has been two years since I last taught the Juniors that I will have this year, and the Freshmen will all be new to me (as students, anyway--I know many from JAM). I will miss the class of 2012, with whom I bonded over the last school year, and who I won't be teaching this year. Yet, I'm excited for the chance to build community, fellowship and relationship with the classes of 2013 and 2015, and know that through caring for these students, I will do all that I can to sort out the day-to-day workings of my class as they come so that the kids can truly grow.

I pray for God's grace, peace and strength as I stand on the brink of this process. This is year #3... there were times when this day seemed so far away as I was struggling to keep my head above water my first year, and now here it is... God is good and He's delivered me to this point... I shall continue to cling to Him and do my best to instruct, guide and love my kids.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Song of the Semi

After a three day break, I finally went for a run again this morning. It was supposed to be our first official cross-country practice of the season--the kids had been emailed and alerted, and a few had even indicated that they would be at school at 6 am, and ready to run.

Remember the grace-like rain that I mentioned in yesterday's post? Well, turns out we had a lot of grace this morning; really--it came down in droves. So, I wasn't all that surprised when I arrived at school to find the head coach (also named Nate) waiting alone. We stuck around for a few minutes on the off-chance that maybe the kids weren't skipping practice, they were just running late, but no such luck. I decided that since I was at school anyway, I'd go for a run by myself.

I ran 5k and I won't say how long it took me because it's quite unflattering, but not so nearly as unflattering as the sight of a rain-soaked gaijin running blindly through the streets of higashi-kurume, I suppose.

An hour later, the rain had stopped completely and now I sit outside on the picnic benches in the school plaza having just finished my lunch as I type this post. The bench is a bit wet, yes... but that doesn't much matter to me. I look for any and all opportunities to sit outside at this time of day--the kids and my colleagues know this about me, and I've developed a reputation for maybe being slightly insane as I'll take a 50˚ clear day in February as an invitation to enjoy the great outdoors. This is the coolest that Tokyo has felt since I got back (when it's not raining, anyway).

All is still. Well, except for one thing: the constant grating song of the semi (the Japanese cicada). To give you a perspective on how this chorus sounds, imagine a 50-person band, all of them with rain-sticks. The members of the band are turning the rain-sticks over in such a way that the rattling sound never stops, not even for a millisecond. And, on top of all of that, the sound technician was hard of hearing, so under the assumption that the audience wouldn't be able to hear 50 rattling rain-sticks, they have mic'd every last player and cranked the amp up to full volume... THAT is the song of the semi.

Don't mistake me, though... it can be hard on the ears at first, but there's something soothing about their brash song. Some ocean-side-like quality in their incessant, inexorable chirping. Though this isn't my favorite season to sit outside under the trees in the plaza (Sakura wins that season hands-down), there was a definite feeling of renewal and refreshment in sitting outside on a cloudy summer day, eagerly anticipating the start of a new school-year and listening to the song of the semi.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Grace like rain

This past week was hot, and oppressively so. Not only was the mercury stuck in the mid-to-high 90 range during daylight hours (only relenting to a sultry 80-something at night), but it was also humid. The Japanese use the term 蒸し暑い (pronounced mushiatsui) to describe this brutal combination of heat and moisture, which causes a hot day to feel hotter and stuffier. On days such as this, one can work up a sweat simply by sitting still. For aficionados of saunas and steam-baths, this may well be the ultimate freebie, but for most, it is genuinely uncomfortable.

There's very little that a person can do about the heat, either. Air conditioning is expensive, and reckless use of A/C feels more than a little un-stewardly while the city of Tokyo attempts to save energy by making cutbacks. Furthermore, there are limits to A/C. Though I do not have an A/C unit in my bedroom, there is one next door in the living room and so I've had to get creative in my attempts to circulate the cool air. The first few nights that I was here, simply leaving my bedroom door open to the living room was enough but as it got hotter, I began to shift fans around in strategic ways to try and blow the cool air into the room. Even then, I experienced minimal success and several sleepless, sweaty nights.

Nothing that I did could keep me cool--no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't lower the temperature enough to sleep comfortably. Then, on Friday, it began to rain. It rained through the weekend, and as I write this post, the temperature is a mild 67˚.

As I marveled at the change in climate this morning, the comparison between grace and rain finally made sense to me. We struggle with sin in our own lives, struggle to do right, to speak wisely, to care for others and ultimately to seek God first. It's not for lack of trying, either. We can steel ourselves up and concentrate really hard, but try as we might we can't get rid of sin ourselves. It's like plaque growing on bad teeth in the way that it latches onto our hearts, and no amount of brushing or flossing can completely get rid of it. Just like the oppressive heat, the 蒸し暑い climate which we can struggle to endure, struggle to moderate, we cannot conquer sin by our own efforts.

The only solution is grace, which comes like the rain, completely beyond our control to cool us, sooth us and save us. If this feeling of peace and comfort can overwhelm me just because the rain brought the temperature down 30˚, then how much more should I feel peace and comfort at the grace of God which vanquishes my sins?

It's so cool that God has planted these object lessons, illustrations and analogies into His world. I hope more people take notice!

"Grace like rain"
by Todd Agnew

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now I'm found
Was blind but now I see so clearly

Hallelujah, grace like rain falls down on me
Hallelujah, all my stains are washed away, washed away

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed

Chorus: Hallelujah, grace like rain falls down on me
Hallelujah, all my stains are washed away, washed away

When we've been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing Your praise
Than when we first begun

Chorus: Hallelujah, grace like rain falls down on me
Hallelujah, all my stains are washed away, washed away

Friday, August 19, 2011

The power of words

As I am finalizing my major goals for the coming school-year, and revising my syllabi, I've been thinking a lot about what it is that I do as a teacher of the Humanities. One thing that keeps coming to mind is my responsibility to teach my students how to work with words. I've come to realize that this doesn't simply mean that I am teaching the students how to write without making grammatical or punctuation mistakes--in fact, that's little more than polish, an afterthought to my real purpose as a teacher of language.

I have the daunting duty of teaching my students how to use words in a way that displays thoughtfulness, care and integrity. Words are incredibly powerful and depending on how we use them, they can be agents of either healing or pain. One of the first units that I plan to teach during the school year revolves around how we interact with information--both as consumers and as producers. We need to realize that every piece of information that we come into contact with comes from a unique perspective, often with its own presuppositions, biases, limitations and agendas. Basically, we need to be careful and discerning in how we interact with information. We need to be thorough to ensure that we're getting the best information possible. Take the news media, for example: while individual journalists are often taught to strive for fair and balanced reporting, news corporations can be more absorbed in the bottom line--what sort of stories will bring in the most readers and therefore the most money? The sad fact is, bad news sells. So, if we read a newspaper whose editors and publishers have prioritized reporting on tragedies and disasters, we will be left with a skewed, pessimistic view of the world (and the distinct impression that nothing good ever happens).

Advertising is even more grim--ad corporations will do whatever it takes to sell a product. While lying outright is fairly easily detected, there are other ways in which advertisers can use words to bend the truth in ways that are far more subtle, far more insidious. Consider the use of appeals to authority: simply by having a famous actress or singer endorse a skin care product, the advertisers have taken advantage of the public trust ("If so-and-so is endorsing this product, it MUST be good!"). There are, of course, many more rhetorical fallacies at the disposal of advertisers that are used to distort the truth and manipulate audiences (showing a montage of sad looking puppies to encourage people to adopt a pet from their local humane society? That's like a dagger in the heart! Very tough to resist, even for people who have no business owning pets. Or, how about the way in which advertisers utilize veiled threats, or half-truths?)

Recognizing such abuses of language isn't the end-goal. While recognition allows us to be critical consumers, we must also strive to be wise and honest in our own usage of language. The importance of this wisdom was not lost on Solomon, who spoke extensively on the use of language in his collection of proverbs. Consider this advice:

"Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." (Prov. 12:18)


"The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit." (Prov. 15: 4)

Knowing when language is being used to hurt, to distort, to manipulate... that's only the first step. The second step is to turn that knowledge into self-awareness, to evaluate one's own usage of words. We may not even realize the ways in which we misuse words--think about trying to explain or justify a mistake that you've made when someone confronts you. You may not recognize what you're doing as lying, but that's actually because you're lying to yourself as well. I know because I've done this before... as the old D.C. Talk song says "I am the king of excuses! I've got one for every selfish thing I do." It's much better to own up to our limitations, our biases and our mistakes rather than to cover them up, attempt to justify them, or worst of all, pretend they do not exist. Once we're aware and honest about our shortcomings, we can take steps to fix them.

My students will be writing essays, poetry and research papers, telling stories and delivering presentations. It is my sincere hope that I will model integrity for them in my use of words and that I will do everything that I can to use language to love and care for my students, to guide them and instruct them in forthright, responsible usage of language... that they will know how to uplift, support and encourage one another, to gently correct and instruct one another in what they say and what they do. This is so much harder than simply teaching good grammar, but it is a calling that I'm committed to. It has to start with me being aware of my own relationship with words and using them in a way that is wise... as Solomon prayed, so now I pray for this wisdom.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

To Desire Shalom--A Morning Prayer

All of creation, everything that has breath praising God--it's so easy to say that this harmonious scene is my heart's desire, but it is much tougher to live in such a way that this desire permeates my every thought and action.

Intellectually, I understand what Shalom is--this perfect system of relationships in the world existing and working together solely for the glory of God--a flawless, uncorrupted, whole peace. Peace in its purest sense. I know that this is what I should desire, but often it's not the first thing on my mind.

I'm weak, easily distracted, easily worried or stressed by circumstances in my life. I think of me first and foremost, and I shove Shalom into a corner where I'll occasionally glance over and say "well, it's a nice thought." That's not good enough, though...

My fervent prayer is that Shalom becomes my heart's desire, my first thought waking and sleeping, my top priority. I pray that I can rejoice when I see healing in the world, when I see people giving glory to their Creator. I pray that I can grieve when I see injustice and pain, never once accepting it as normal but always recognizing that it's not how God intended the world to be. Most of all, I pray that God will orient my heart to pursue Him, to glorify Him in all that I say and do. Critics say that a Christian life is boring, that surrendering our personal wants and needs to God drains our lives of excitement. I confess I've felt like this sometimes but I believe that this attitude is yet another effect of sin's hold on our hearts. In truth, a life spent glorifying God is infinitely exciting, infinitely meaningful, even if I struggle to desire it myself... so naturally my prayer is that I will desire such a life at all times and in all things.

When you think about it, there's literally no other goal in life that we can pursue that will fill our lives with such meaning and such peace. May this cognitive understanding invade my heart and my hands, as well as my head.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thoughts on a hot August afternoon...

Confession: I have a very tough time living in the moment. As long as I can remember, I've spent most of my life looking forward to something other than whatever was happening at any given time: it could've been anticipation of something small like a party or dinner with friends, or as large as graduating from college. The point is, I struggle to be content with where I am now. I know how good I have it; I'm so very aware of the immense blessings in my life and yet despite myself I can't help but ask "what next?" There are moments when this thought totally evaporates from my mind (!/note.php?note_id=10150185016590332), but I'll admit that it usually happens randomly and not by my own attempts.

I'm in an interesting position this year. I've been at CAJ for 2 and a half years now and till only recently, the "what next" question has persisted in my mind (particularly last year where I was starting to think about going back to school for my Master's). Over the course of the last few months, I've felt convicted to stop asking this question and let God's will be done in my life, whatever that might mean. For now, I feel called to stay at CAJ. I'm happy here, enriched and energized by my work here.

This feeling of permanence is new to me--I've never been in a situation in my life where there wasn't some visible expiration date, some moment on the calendar that I could circle and say "this is when I move on". And still my mind keeps coming back to "what next?" So, my challenge for myself this year is to stop asking "what next" and start asking "what now?" This place--this school community, with so many students and colleagues who I've grown to care for--this is my home at this time in my life. There's no expiration date and I'm not going to try and set one... When and if God calls me somewhere else, I'll follow... but I'm not going to pretend to know that ahead of time or force that decision. What I need to focus on now is how can I best live day to day in this setting and with these people in a way that is glorifying to the One who gives my life and my work meaning. So... what now?

Myths and Facts about School (part three)

Originally posted as a Facebook note on August 17

Myth: Teachers know everything!

Fact: Teachers don't know everything (not even close), but have been trained to equip you to think about their subject area and to provide worthwhile, constructive feedback.

As I've taken a few baby-steps into my teaching career over the last few years, I've learned that it bothers me when students assume that I know the textbook inside and out. I had a teacher in high school who would never own up to not knowing something when students asked questions he couldn't answer, instead sidestepping and telling the student that they'd receive extra credit if they found the answer for themselves. I resented this tactic at the time but have come to appreciate the pressures involved in saying "I don't know." It's tough for you students to hear that, I understand! There's some safety and security in believing that some other human being has all the answers... and, there's also some safety and security in having the students believe you know all the answers, as a teacher. Realistically, though, we teachers know but a fraction of all there is to know of our subject area. Still, having gone through education and subject area classes in college and perhaps beyond, our fraction is larger than yours as students... so what does this mean?

It means that we teachers must not stop learning simply because we've gotten our degrees and teaching licenses--it means that when we look at the fractional knowledge that we have, we must recognize that we'll never know everything, and also that we can continually model a passion for learning to our students (and also model effective learning). We can teach through our own discovery. Some of my coolest connecting moments with my classes over the last two years have been times where I could say "Hey guys, I just realized something--" and could go on to explain what I'd just discovered or learned, and how I'd figured it out. When students see their teacher get excited about learning, they get excited too.

With the knowledge that we have as teachers, we are experts only in a relative sense (that being, we know more than the students), but this relative expertise enables us to see what is truly important about our subject area, especially for those who are just starting to learn about it. I think it would be much harder for an expert or a specialist whose brains store a multitude of detail to step back and look at the big picture. Teachers have just the right amount of knowledge for this--we can support our understanding with specific examples but we're not so zoomed in that we can't see patterns, relationships, trends and themes. Our education training equips us to design activities and assignments that will engage you as students, hopefully causing you to think through the most important questions about the subject. Throughout the year, we work together to improve this thought process, to make it sharper and quicker and to enhance the ways in which you communicate and show your understanding. We teachers don't know all the answers, but all is not lost! We're trained to help you think through and answer the questions that need to be answered most urgently. Every thing else, every other small detail... well, you can find those online if you know how to search effectively.

Myths and Facts about School (part two)

Originally posted as a Facebook note on August 12.

I just want to make it clear up front that I am not trying to target any one person, but rather what I see as prevailing attitudes and mindsets. If this does apply to you, please do not take it personally, but rather view it as a call to approach school differently and perhaps gain more from your educational experience than you would have otherwise.

Myth: I'm a unique individual, therefore I need to learn independently.


Myth: I am in a constant state of competition against my peers (for good grades, for popularity, for the teacher's approval).

Fact: I'm a unique individual who can uniquely challenge and be challenged, encourage and be encouraged by others working together in a group setting.

Learning is an inescapably social experience. Think about how you learned to walk and talk so many years ago--did you do it by sitting alone in your crib reading book after book about walking and reading? No, because you didn't even know how to read! We learn those basic skills by watching our parents, siblings and others and as we gradually break the process down and attach meaning to each step, we become more comfortable trying it out for ourselves: taking that first wobbling step, trying to say the word "daddy" or "bottle". Do we do it perfectly the first time? Nope. But we keep watching, keep trying and eventually we become comfortable with those skills to the point that they are second nature. Learning in school is much the same. We need our peers and we need our teachers. Our teachers function in a similar capacity to the role that our parents played as we learned how to walk--our teachers model for us a whole variety of skills. I, for example, am very intentional about volume, speed, eye contact, and gestures as I talk to my class because I want to constantly model effective presentation skills. And, just as parents offer a helping hand and encouragement to their child as they start to walk, so teachers must offer guidance, encouragement and ample opportunities for practice in school. When a child falls over, the parent doesn't laugh and then walk away as the child cries and struggles to stand up again--the parent helps the child up and allows them to try again. That's my calling as a teacher--to be patient and offer an endless supply of encouragement and support (while at the same time not being a crutch--the child will never learn to walk if the parent carries them everywhere).

However, school isn't just a student watching the teacher--we're surrounded by classmates! Each student has a unique personality and a special set of gifts and abilities. In short, each student offers something to the classroom environment that their peers do not, but in isolation, those gifts and abilities will only take the student so far. Students need their classmates, regardless of whether or not they are friends with their classmates, even regardless of whether or not they like their classmates. A perfect illustration of the necessity of a healthy group dynamic comes with peer editing: the fact is, when we write an essay, no matter how many times we reread it or try to edit it ourselves, we are going to miss mistakes that we've made and overlook problems with our content. If we give our essays to a few other students and together we discuss the essay, we'll find out right away what the others liked (validating our strengths), what wasn't clear, what we should do differently... and this causes a ripple effect as the classmates who read our essay begin to think of ideas for their own essay based on what they observed in yours--perhaps something that they would like to try with the style, or organization, or a mistake that they caught in yours that they now know to avoid. We bring each other up by working together. And this isn't just true of peer-editing, but think of any classroom activity: discussions, presentations, simulations... we make progress based on the comments, feedback and questions from our classmates.

This simply can't work if we view the classroom as a hostile environment or even a competitive environment. Competition has its place, and can be used well, but only as a tool and only occasionally--if a spirit of competition pervades the atmosphere of a class, the first thought will not be how to encourage or support our classmates, but how to put ourselves ahead (or even how to belittle or sabotage others). The classroom needs to be a safe and trusting environment so that students can reach beyond themselves and take risks without fear of being scorned or laughed at (which are the primary reasons we don't take risks in school--our sense of failure is largely dictated by how we feel others will respond to our messing up. You take that fear out of the equation and things change very quickly). I know from experience that a classroom environment can have that level of trust--one class that I taught last year came to view themselves as a family, and that feeling still persists even months after the course ended. Did that mean that cliques evaporated and everyone hung out all the time outside of school? No, but it did mean that students felt safe bouncing ideas off of each other and especially delivering presentations in front of each other. This isn't radical or next-to-impossible: This is how every classroom should be. I challenge you, my future students, to appreciate your classmates and the value that they have to your learning experience and to come into the school year ready to love, encourage and support. There's no other way to do it right.

Myths and Facts about School (part one)

Originally posted as a Facebook note on August 11

Exactly two months after leaving Japan for the summer (and 5 months since the earthquake, incidentally), I finally spent my first full day in a long while back at CAJ. I set up the desks in my classroom, started organizing my files, and put some posters on the wall. As I was leaving this afternoon, I bumped into one of my students from last year, and had a good chat with her--I was reminded again of why I teach, and encouraged that at least some of my students appreciate my philosophy of education (honestly, I am grateful for the patience of my students who are willing to work with me and invest in me, still relatively new to the teaching profession as I am, and do their best--the reason why last year was such a good year was because of my students!) Anyway, the conversation got me thinking and I want to do some thinking out loud on Facebook over the next two weeks as a series of open-letters to any and all students who I will have in my class next year. If you read these notes, feel free to pass them along to your friends/classmates. Consider them both an invitation and a challenge!

Myth: School is about getting good grades so that you can get into the best college.

Fact: School is about learning how to interact with the world that you are living in.

I know that this is tough for some of you to hear. I know that some of you are not satisfied unless you get straight As. I know that some of you feel like getting a B on that essay or a C+ on that test will be the end of the world as you know it because what college is going to accept someone who got a B (or so you think)? Here's the reality--we learn by our imperfection. If we could do everything perfectly, there would be no need for school... no need for colleges or even jobs, really, since each person would be totally self-sufficient. That's not the way the world works, though. We're fallen human beings. Creative? Yes. Capable? Yes. Limited? Also yes. Our limitations are part of who we are, and we shouldn't pretend to be perfect. Nor should we use our limitations as an excuse for not trying. We'll only successfully learn how to live in the world if we own up to our limitations and then strive to work through them... and yes, this may mean stumbling and falling; failing; or at least getting a lower grade than you wanted. That's how we learn, though! If you can show that you know how to learn, and that you genuinely care about learning... well that means more to any college or any employer than grades ever will. Grades are only as useful as showing you (and me) how much progress you're making. So, I challenge you to let go of grades--they are not the end of the process... merely signposts to help you through. If you end your hike at a signpost on a trail in the woods, you'll be stuck in the woods for a long time, and frankly, you'll probably get eaten by a bear.

On the flip-side, I know there are some of you who are totally turned off by the race and pressure for good grades. You don't feel like you have a chance of academic success, so long as academic success means scoring 100%. Well, take heart because getting 100% is NOT what school is all about! You may be used to floating through school, doing just enough to pass... and why is that? Perhaps you worry that if you actually tried hard and put your best into something, that it wouldn't be good enough--that you'd do poorly and then everyone would think you were a failure. Or perhaps you have been trying your best and keep being told that you're not good enough... either way, that's not the point of school. The point of school is to learn! Simple as that. To learn, to truly come away with your own understanding of something, you need to do your best--to stretch your mind just as weight lifters keep adding more weight or runners keep adding distance to their work-outs--and recognize that everyone messes up at some point. Don't be ashamed when this happens, but celebrate because you'll have another chance to improve! And trust me--though it may feel frustrating sometimes, you will improve. Here's the thing, though: you'll only learn how to function in the world if you're willing to take a chance and invest yourself in discovering how the world works, and this will mean working hard! This will mean pouring your heart and soul into papers and presentations. Will you write the perfect paper or deliver the perfect presentation? No. Don't let that discourage you--let it liberate you! You're working as hard as you can not to get a certain score, but to learn more about yourself and your place in God's creation! If you don't invest yourself in your learning, you'll end up just as lost as those poor souls who have mistaken the signpost for the lodge at the end of the trail.

Stay tuned for more myths and facts in the coming days!

Summer 2011

Originally written as a Facebook note on July 28, 2011

Summer 2011

by Nate Gibson on Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 4:28pm

I keep telling myself that I'll write more often during the summer. I keep telling myself that, yet somehow time slips away from me, and all of a sudden it has been 5 weeks since I posted a Facebook note. That last one was written on the longest day of the year, and was very much reflective, looking back on a tough year. This note will focus more on what I've been up to this summer/what I'm still up to.

1. I'll start with this one because it is so incredibly fresh in my mind--Storytelling class! I had the privilege to take EDUC 309 (Storytelling) at Western Washington University. The class started on June 23, meeting Mondays/Wednesdays from 1:00-4:50, and we just had our last class today (which I can barely believe!). This was one of the nicest surprises of the summer--I signed up for the class 2 days before it started because I noticed that a few spots had opened up (when I'd looked at the course catalog earlier in the Spring, this was one of the first classes to fill up). I had no idea what to expect, but let me tell you--that class is well worth the $800 price of admission! (and yes, that's how I spend my hard-won teacher salary--taking classes)

First, the professor was fantastic. Rosemary Vohs is a talented storyteller herself, and knows how to develop those skills in her students. On the first day of class, she opened with a story about how Anansi the Spider opened a great box containing all of the stories in the world, and as a result, they spread to every corner of the earth. As she told the story, I knew I was in for a different sort of class, and different was exactly what I needed to inspire me in my own planning for the coming school-year. Over the coming days, I would learn that storytelling is one of the most basic languages that we have--as humans, we are constantly telling stories and 90% of the time, we don't even realize it! I also learned that storytelling has lost its status as an art form, as well as a preferred medium of entertainment and education--in short, people have gotten increasingly sloppy and lazy as technology has gotten more complex and handy. We still tell stories, but we, as a largely technocratic culture, don't value storytelling enough to tell stories nearly as well or often as we should. As a result, social interactions often begin and end with electronics, there's a wide disconnect between children and the life stories/experiences of their grandparents and even their parents, and we feel as though entertainment isn't valid unless it fills in the blanks for us. How utterly unimaginative! The class has inspired me to try and bring back that emphasis, that value for storytelling in my own humble circles. My students--consider this fair warning!

I also learned that storytelling is NOT the same as memorization! This was a huge comfort, as I envisioned a storytelling class as involving a lot of time reading through the same folktale over and over until I had every last word, every last punctuation mark firmly etched in my mind. NOT SO! Storytelling is about employing mental imagery--reading through a story maybe once or twice to acquaint oneself with the major plot elements, character and above all, IMAGES, and then retelling the story in one's own words. So what if you tell the story differently than you read or heard it? So what if the dialogue changes? So what if the protagonist goes from being a rabbit to a bear, or a little girl to an old lady? As long as you've maintained the plot and the big ideas of the story, everything else is fair game--storytelling is a medium that calls for tellers to take ownership of something and pass it along to others. I mean, just think of how folktales have spread and adapted themselves to so many different cultural situations and times--in my research for the class, I discovered that there are something like 15 different variations of the "Sleepy Beauty" story. Folktales change--that's the nature of the beast, and of course we all know that every time we tell a personal experience story, that fish just keeps getting a little bit bigger... So, if you're thinking to yourself "well huzzah for Nate, glad he enjoyed storytelling, but I can't do that", THINK AGAIN. Everyone is capable of learning and retelling stories, and telling stories from their own lives. It doesn't require hours of memorization--just some imagination and the willingness to take risks, and improve your story with every telling.

In this class, we told four stories: a personal experience story, a retold folktale, a folktale with some kind of extra performance element, and a family history story. Each story allowed me to become more comfortable with the idea of not only learning how to tell stories, but also teaching it down the line. I discovered that storytelling comes naturally to me, and was paid a huge complement when several classmates told me on our last day of performances that I was hands-down the best storyteller in the class. Of course, I was 5 or 6 years older than most of my classmates, and have the advantage of 2 years of teaching under my belt--I think a number of my classmates could do just as well once they've been teaching for a while (and have gotten desensitized to the self-consciousness and jitters of being in front of a large group). I also had a chance to do a lot of reading/writing about how to use storytelling in the classroom (something that is woefully overlooked at the secondary level), compile a huge file of folktales to draw from, attend a local storytelling event, and even organize a storytelling evening at my church. The class was a tremendous blessing to me, and it will influence my teaching this year in a big way. Not only will I tell stories often (my goal is a new story each week), I will also make student storytelling a part of my class. I focused on public speaking and presentation skills last year, and I think that storytelling is the first step in that process that I more or less missed (aside from a few extemporaneous speeches that I had my students do at random times). Storytelling can be a confidence-booster, as students can share their own stories, and can speak without worrying about notes or a script. They can focus more on skills to hook their listeners such as eye contact, physicality (movements/gestures), facial expression, tone of voice, and more. It's an empty canvas on which they can start to sketch the presenter that they want to be. Taught and executed right, storytelling can also be a solid way to build an atmosphere of trust in the classroom--students get to know each other well as they share their experiences, and will be more willing to step out and take risks in formal presentations later on.

Not only this, but storytelling can be a step in teaching writing--what better way to get students to connect class themes and concepts with their own lives than through story! Not to mention, what better way to get students to think about language--to be aware of how they put words and ideas together than to watch a recording of themselves telling a story or listening to feedback from trusted peers?

In case you can't tell by the mammoth amount of space I've devoted to point number 1, I'm EXCITED :D! I hope my soon-to-be-students who read this are excited, too.

2. Church-related stuff: I am putting this all into one category because what this really boils down to is my love for my home-church, Wiser Lake Chapel. The highlight of my summer is having the opportunity to worship with my family and friends, to listen to solid expository preaching, and to enjoy fellowship with a wonderful group of people. My brother organized weekly Wednesday evening studies of the church fathers which was quite interesting and edifying. It was especially encouraging to see so many peers at the chapel, people in their early 20s, turn up to read and discuss each week. It gave me a new-found appreciation for theology, which I think too often gets dismissed as "too complicated for simple faith." True, there's centuries of muddy waters, and denominational struggles/splits that will never make sense to me, but here's the simple truth: You can say "I love Jesus and that's enough", but you absolutely need to know what that means! We're called to love God with our hearts, souls and minds... loving God with our minds means examining tradition against the Word of God, striving to know just what it is that we believe and where those beliefs come from. So many heresies have started and taken flame because believers stop thinking about their faith or apply faulty thought stemming from a misunderstanding of God's Word, God's character. Case in point--there was a heresy (Ben, if you read this, help me out with the name) that emphasized the humanity of Christ over His Divinity. As soon as you begin to overlook Christ's role in the Trinity as the Son (and with that, the weight of his sacrifice by dying on the cross, not to mention his triumph over death), and only look at His life, you wind up believing that Christ is an example of how someone can become perfect by basically just being a good person. To say "well, I'll just do what Christ did" means nothing unless you recognize that Christ is the Word, the Son of God, and that he died to atone for the fact that we are colossal screw-ups (we're born steeped in it--there's absolutely no side-stepping sin and living the perfect life). We follow Christ not because we have hope of becoming perfect ourselves, but because He is our only hope and we must cling to Him with our all. I find this reassuring, but still there have been many in history who find more immediate gratification and comfort in the thought that salvation really is something within our grasp, something we control. This thinking continues to be a dangerous temptation to this day. So yeah, theology can help us to recognize such heretical thought. Some may balk at what I'm saying, and argue that spending so much time thinking and studying will result in a faith that exists only in the mind--something that has no bearing on one's life, actions or the orientation of one's heart. To those concerns, I say this (echoing a point that came up repeatedly in our Wednesday evening studies): Study and discussion about theology must always bring us back to worship. Always. We can spend our lives studying Augustine, Athanaseus, and Tertullian, but if that study doesn't bring us back to worship, it's worthless. That said--the study is so very important, and once you get into it, so very interesting, and a true testimony to the goodness and faithfulness of God.

On a slightly different note, playing weekly Thursday evening softball was a tremendous joy as well. Again, organized by my brother (who is such an inspiration--Ben's a natural-born organizer, mentor, coach and teacher), each evening was mostly attended by younger children. While this limited the intensity of play somewhat (and definitely limited the amount of action outfielders saw), it was fun to be involved in encouraging the children and helping to teach them the game of softball--both the technical skills and the sheer enjoyment. Wiser Lake Chapel is a wonderful home-church, and I think that as long as I live, and no matter where else in the world I may eventually call "home", it will always be my home-church.

3. Reading/planning. I'll keep this section short--I promise! Just like last summer, I've done a lot of reading to prepare me for the coming school-year as I start planning my classes. This summer, the bulk of my attention went to two books: "Teaching for Joy and Justice" by Linda Christensen and "Building the English Classroom" by Bruce Penniman. Between these two books, I found more nuggets of wisdom, more wise advice for effective teaching than I can possibly try to incorporate in one school-year. So, I'm left with the painful task of picking and choosing what to focus on. What stood out at me in Christensen's book was the idea of connecting class content to student's own lives and experiences as a gateway to invite them into study, discussion, critical thinking and writing. This rubs shoulders nicely with what I learned in my storytelling class, so that was doubly exciting! I'm determined to plan around questions, ideas and themes that will lend themselves to such connections. The other thing that I took away was the importance of teaching writing as a process, and not as a 'two-drafts-and-voila-you-have-a-finished-product!' game. Both authors suggested the use of a writing portfolio to create this atmosphere of constant revision and retooling. I must confess that I am somewhat weak at teaching writing--writing has always come naturally to me, and so I never, ever, ever thought about what I was actually doing when I wrote. I certainly never revised anything I wrote, never proofread, never had anyone else proofread. I always got As, so I never felt I had to (another reason why grades might not actually encourage true learning, but that's a rant for another time :P). I'm excited by the idea of intentionally teaching rewrites and revisions as part of the process and not just a hoop to jump through (rough draft will be due on Monday, final draft will be due on Friday).

4. Running. Pretty self-explanatory, and I'm getting tired (and lazy). I've run for about two weeks now, and it feels better every day (less exhausting, that is--my feet have some gnarly blisters right now, and those definitely don't feel good :P). I'm determined to make a habit of this that will last me through the school-year (I hope to use the school treadmills during the winter). Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I hope not. Saying I value my own health but then spending a majority of my time sitting on my butt is terribly hypocritical and I even feel guilty right now having spent nearly an hour and a half sitting to write this long note. Plus, I want to be able to keep up with my middle school XC runners when practices start in August (the past two years, I've just biked behind them telling them to keep running. I wonder if they resent that? Man, I know I would've...)

Whew! I've written more than enough, and I need to call it a night. Anyway, that's my summer in a nutshell. It's been wonderful. My brother left for Denver last week to begin his training for City Year, so I'm feeling perhaps a bit lonely but also ready to get back to my other home in Japan. Just a week and a half away...

The Longest Day

Originally written as a Facebook note on June 21, 2011

As I write this note, I am sitting in a deck chair on a small patio attached to our family’s brand new (well, to me anyway… I guess it’s actually been finished for close to a year) garage. I’m facing east, where only the snow-capped peak of Mount Baker is visible over what must be the only layer of clouds in an otherwise perfectly clear pale blue sky. Although it’s 8 pm, it is still daylight, and the sun won’t set for another hour and a half. Today is June 21st, the longest day of the year and the first day of summer (traditionally known as the solstice).

Actually, the clouds around Baker cleared up minutes after I wrote this paragraph

Of course, “longest day of the year” is a superlative that seems inappropriate for a day so tranquil, so serene. In fact, this quiet day seemed to pass quicker than most. Longest day? Pssht. Reflecting on the past 6 months, I could easily assign the distinction of “longest day” to a number of other days; days with significantly less hours of sunlight.

Friday, March 11 was such a day. As my 6th period English students left my classroom at 2:42 pm, I thought that my day was winding down (and that was even anticipating a 4 hour drive up to the mountains with over 30 Middle Schoolers for a Youth Group snow retreat!). Earlier that day, in introducing a discussion about chaos theory, I had my Humanities class do an exercise in which they created a collective story, line by line, advancing the plot by trying to think of the worst case scenario; the most chaotic, disastrous outcome of the previous line that they possibly could.

Even in my wildest imagination trying to think of horrible scenarios, I never would have guessed that my day was only getting started at 2:42, that one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history would end so many lives, destroy so many homes, upset so much of the routine and even physically move Japan by a matter of meters. I never would have guessed that I’d spend the evening comforting, cooking for and waiting with hundreds of students who were waiting to hear from their parents that it was okay to go home. I never would have guessed that I’d have to cancel the youth retreat that my high school leaders had spent months planning for. I never would have guessed that so much destruction could be caused by a natural disaster—even a bad one. I never would have guessed that an event that lasted only a few minutes on that day would dictate so much of what hundreds of millions of people (myself included) would think about and talk about for the next few months. March 11 was a long day.

Thursday, March 24 was also a long day. I was in Thailand with 45 Seniors and 5 colleagues. We were already emotionally exhausted from the events of Mar. 11, the earthquake and tsunami still not yet 2 weeks past. We were exhausted by the aftermath of Mar. 11—heart-rending footage of a devastated Sendai, a week without school, long lines at gas stations and convenience stores, empty shelves just about everywhere, and of course the confusing, contradictory and often panic-ridden reports of nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant. We were in Thailand to work, to provide a unique ministry to hill-tribe children at the Ban Sanportong School as we played with the kids and laid the foundations for new school facilities, but being on solid ground again felt like a vacation of sorts.

Thursday, March 24 had felt like a fairly low-key, quiet day as we had returned to the Maekok River Village Resort from two intense days of work and play at the school. The CAJ students had done some team-building exercises, biked, and played games in the pool, and by that evening it was feeling very much like an average, non-descript day gone by in the blink of an eye. Then, at 8:56 p.m. as we gathered near the Sala (gym) for evening devotions, the ground began to shake. Hard. Almost as hard, it seemed, as it had just 13 days before, which was ludicrous since so many of us had confidently labeled that first quake as a “once-in-a-lifetime-type-thing”. We knew, based on our experiences of the previous few weeks, that this was not a small quake, that this was not normal. All over again, we were shaken and scared.

I know that many students were emotional as we did our evening devotionals, but I can only speak for myself when I say that I fell apart. I’d tried so hard to be the strong teacher, unfazed and stoic in the face of extraordinary circumstances. I’d put on a brave face every time I had spoken to my students in the days following the first quake, chosen the boldest words as I composed what I hoped were inspirational emails, and tried to conduct my online classes with a “devil-may-care” flair that said “not even an earthquake can stop me from teaching you SLAM poetry!” In short, I thought I was fine, that I was somehow above the high tensions and emotions of a major trauma. The Thai quake (actually centered in Myanmar, roughly 80 km away and well over 7M) brought me down to earth. I started to sob uncontrollably as we sang our praise songs; wracking, heaving sobs that shook my body. I literally hadn’t cried so hard since I was a toddler. I left the gym with Mrs. Spalink, the school nurse, and as I calmed down, I tried to articulate what I was feeling. Mostly it was a sense of bewilderment. Why would we be the ones (perhaps the ONLY ones in the world) who had to go through these two earthquakes? It all seemed so weird and so random and as I processed out loud, I concluded that we would be better equipped to comfort and help others who had been through disasters. After nearly 40 minutes of crying and talking to a very patient Mrs. Spalink (to whom I am still incredibly grateful), I returned to the gym to find so many students experiencing similar emotions: the bewilderment, the sadness and pain, but also the joy and faith in God’s larger plans and purposes.

It was my night to do room-checks and make sure the students had their lights out on time. In talking with my colleagues, we agreed that though the students did need to get a good night of sleep, it was a night to be flexible, gentle and nurturing to those who wanted to stay up and talk, worship or pray. So, my strategy for enforcing “lights out” was fairly straightforward: stopping by each room, and praying for each group of guys before turning off the lights myself. My prayer was simple: thanking God for our safety, and praying that we would trust that no matter what, living or dying, we were secure in God’s hands.

That, too, was a long day… and little did I know as I said that prayer, that one of the boys who I’d prayed for would die in a tragic motorcycle accident just over two months later.

This happened on May 31, and frankly, most of that day is a blur in my mind. I was supervising my Humanities class while they worked on their final project when I received the news. Damon, a co-worker, called me out in the hall to talk to me and the students were joking that I was in trouble, and I’m sure I joked back. I really don’t remember. What I do remember was Damon telling me that he had bad news that I needed to hear before the students did and that it would feel like a bomb going off. He was right. He asked if I’d be okay once he told me, and though I was reeling (and feeling as though I’d been punched in the gut and had the wind knocked out of me), I felt like I could keep my composure. I went to the lab and told several students working there to return to the classroom as there was some fairly heavy, bad news that they needed to hear. I sat in stunned silence with my kids for the next 40 minutes. Some left the room to cry, some forced themselves to finish their annotated bibliographies, and some just sat quietly.

I could hear a girl, likely a Senior, wailing in the hall, crying out “Why?! Why Taizor?! Why now?!” I am not sure who it was, but that cry will stick with me for the rest of my life because that was exactly what my heart was crying out at the time. When the bell rang, I managed to choke out an apology to my students for not having something inspirational to say, for not having a quick and easy explanation. I told them to take care of themselves and also to care for their grieving senpai, the seniors. I wandered for a while, first to the Learning Resource Center, where the Seniors had gathered and then to the auditorium, where many Juniors and underclassmen were sitting. I talked with several students and several other teachers and together we wrestled with the “why” question, cried, and prayed. After lunch, many guys (and some girls) joined in a large game of pick-up softball. I played too, and with my students, cheered and laughed for the duration of that half-hour lunch break. Emotions are such a strange thing. That evening, I went out to dinner at kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) with some friends and spoke of the morning’s events as though they were distant, ancient history. Of course, as I was reminded during a powerful, tearful farewell chapel for the Seniors the next day, this would be an event that would weigh heavily on my heart and mind for some time and it will be years before this truly becomes “ancient history” for me, if ever. Even as I write this note, I confess that I’m still in the midst of processing what it meant for me as a teacher to lose a student, what it must have meant for colleagues who had taught him for longer than I had and what it must have meant for the Seniors to lose someone so close. May 31 was a long day.

Moments before sunset

9:35 pm

As I wrap up this note, the time is 9:35 p.m. I took a break in the middle of writing the previous section to go for a walk and watch the sun set. The sun disappeared behind the horizon at 9:15, but there’s still daylight left. On this day, I don’t think the sky will be mostly dark until after 10. It’s still warm out, too—right around 70˚. I love summer. I think that God gives us days like this one to refresh ourselves, to reflect on the “long days” that we’ve been through, rejoice in His Sovereignty and look to the future with hope. As the days get shorter from hereon out in 2011, I will trust that God will bear me through even the longest of days as He has so far, even when I don’t understand.