Sunday, September 30, 2012

Vacation Awaits

Every year, there seems to be a bit of a struggle to line up enough teachers to accompany the Juniors on their School Without Walls excursion, a four-day (3 night) hiking trip in the mountains of Western Tokyo.  This doesn't surprise me, but it does make me a little sad.  I can understand the reaction that so many have when asked if they are willing to spend the better part of a week outside hiking and camping--there's much that simply will not be comfortable or luxurious.

And yet... for those who decline, it is a colossal missed opportunity.  For me, it is an opportunity to rest and relax.  Yes--those are two of the first verbs that come to mind when I think of Wilderness Camp, and they are likely just the opposite of what most who avoid Wilderness Camp would expect of the experience.

Perhaps a lot of this feeling has to do with my background: Being from the countryside, I never once expected to live in a big city, let alone one of the biggest cities in the world.  Yet, here I am, and I love it.  I always imagined that I'd feel confined and claustrophobic living in the city, and that I'd long for fresh air to fill my lungs, or for the color green to sprout from the concrete field before me.  The truth is, I don't even think about the lack of space, the possibility of air pollution or the fact that the color green is underrepresented.  I don't think about these things, that is, until I leave the city--I guess I'm getting better at being content with where I am.  For whatever reason, the stresses, worries and sometimes-hectic pace of my job do not follow me out of the city.  It doesn't matter if I'm sleeping on concrete in a rainstorm, or putting in long days of hiking--being in the woods feels like a vacation.  The prep I need to do and the papers I need to grade have not disappeared, but they stayed behind... in the woods, in the moment, there are only the most fundamental tasks of hiking, preparing meals, and supervising the Juniors as they learn firsthand about servant-leadership.

As I take a break to write this from a work-load that seems tonight to be insurmountable, I can't help but look forward to getting out of the city and hiking hills that, while challenging, I know can be conquered.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


I enjoy my classes every day, but today was especially fun: there was laughter in every single class period--laughter that was still on-task (or at the very least, not too far off-task).  I feel like moments where the students can laugh together are vital to building the atmosphere of trust and peace that I want to build... so much the better if the laughter stems from the activities or content of the class!*  It's a good feeling, as a teacher, to know that moments of my class are providing a bonding experience for the students; that as they study, and work on projects and presentations together, their relationships to each other are being deepened.  It's a good feeling because it doesn't always happen that way.  Sometimes students bond over the hatred of a class, teacher or assignment, which generates a negative atmosphere.  Sometimes, the students don't bond at all, but fight.  When students can work hard and at the same time have fun and enjoy each other's company, it's a tremendous blessing.  My original Humanities crew can still recall inside jokes that formed during our study of Native American creation myths, The Crucible, Amistad, Custer, vocabulary, the atomic bomb, and many other moments.  While other details and lessons may fade, those that are rooted in class camaraderie and laughter are the ones that will remain vivid and memorable for years to come.  I feel like such moments are starting to develop in each of my classes this year.

I couldn't suppress my smile as I sat and reflected on this at lunch-time--my morning classes had gone well, I was looking forward to my afternoon English class, and as I ate a quiet lunch at a picnic table in the school plaza, a gentle breeze picked up.  It was the most at peace I'd felt in a long time.

*Well, within reason.  I'd feel awful if we were studying something really heavy and serious and my choice of teaching method or activities became a colossal joke.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012



For every conversation I have in Japanese, there are two versions of the conversation happening:
1) The words that I am actually speaking;
2) The words that I want to speak; the thoughts and feelings I want to express:

I grew up on a farm, 10 minutes outside a town of 10,000 people.  To me, when I was growing up, THAT was a big city.  Imagine what a big change it was for me to move to Tokyo!  My experiences in life have probably been vastly different than yours, yet I am in Tokyo by my choice.  I love America, and I love the country-side, but I'm glad I'm here in Japan--this is where I need to be.

I wish I had the words to tell about the amazing series of events that brought me here.  I never planned on living overseas, and especially not in one of the biggest cities in the world, but God is amazing and powerful.  Would you believe me if I said that I didn't know I would be moving to Japan less than 3 weeks before I actually moved here?  God can call us to new places and new circumstances at any time, and I learned that I need to be ready for His call.

I never planned on staying in Japan... until March 11.  That day, and the days that followed, changed everything for me.  I didn't just see or hear about the grief people were feeling; I felt it, too.  A part of my heart now belongs to Japan and it always will.  I didn't leave after the earthquake when so many other foreigners did leave.  Before the earthquake, I wasn't planning on staying.  Now, I'm not planning on leaving.  Though Japan is not my home-country, it has become my home for this time in my life.

I am sorry if my silence feels rude.  I want to speak, and I want to listen... I just don't have the words to say.  I spend as much time as I can in addition to my job studying and practicing Japanese, but it is not easy.  

I try so hard to listen, to catch every single word that I sometimes feel like I'm going to pull a muscle in my ears or maybe my brain.  It is very frustrating for me to not understand a language.  I love words; love speaking, reading, and writing in my native English.  Words have always come easily for me until now.  Don't worry, I am not stupid--the learning process is just taking a long time.  Please be patient with me.

Thank you for allowing me to speak with you, and to practice my Japanese.  Thank you for welcoming me into your country and helping me to feel at home here.  I sincerely hope that one day, I'll be able to speak to you in fluent Japanese, and that I will be able to listen and to express myself exactly as I want to.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tama Hills, 9/22/12

In addition to being my 4th full year of teaching, this is also my 4th year of coaching and assisting with Cross Country.  It's amazing how different each season is from the one before, and how a program builds and fluctuates.

Over the course of these 4 seasons, I witnessed the rise of one of the strongest guys' teams in CAJ history, watched them win the Far East tournament in 2010 and then have since watched the team rebuild itself, virtually from the ground up into something respectable (though not as strong as the 2010 crew).  The best adjective I could use to describe the current guys' team is new.  Most of the guys are running cross country for the first time this year.  A few are returning for their second year, and only two, Seniors, incidentally, have run for three years or more.  The difference is not so much in potential as it is in mindset--since only two of our eleven guys were part of the 2010 championship team, only two were a part of the atmosphere of extreme dedication and hard work that the runners on that team created.  Thus, what was assumed two years ago can no longer be assumed.  I don't mean to say that these guys do not work hard; simply that as a team, they are still figuring out the sport; still searching for a love for running and searching for an intrinsic reason to devote themselves to the team.

The girls had won the Asia Pacific Championship in 2008, the year before I started coaching.  Up till now, the girls teams I had worked with were in more or less the same place as the guys' team now; rebuilding, trying to figure out motivation and dedication as a team.  This year, the potential is shining through.

Same goes for the middle school boys--over the past 3 seasons, a core group has come up through the ranks from 6th grade to 8th grade, learning how to run, how to work hard, how to be a team.  This season, they are seeing the fruits of their hard work.

The middle school girls struggle to field a team at all--I blame volleyball (no offense, volleyball coaches), since volleyball in middle school doesn't cut anyone and it is the "fancy", "flashy" indoor sport (I'm not bitter, not at all).  We had two solid 6th graders last year... neither of whom could return this season for reasons beyond their control.  Now we have 3 solid 6th graders.  I keep thinking that if we put all 5 together, we'd have a pretty good team.  Maybe next season...

Here are the top finishers from each race today:

Middle School boys (Tama 3.3k course):

26. Kenji J. 14:37
27. Kenta S. 14:38
28. Yeol R. 14:39
41. Callum M. 15:22
50. Rees M. 16:15

Middle School girls (Tama 3.3k course):

71. Keziah S. 19:43
72. Maya Y. 20:01

High School Girls (Tama 3.3k course):

8. Runa S. 14:28
14. Ria K. 14:52
19. Misaki N. 15:08
31. Naomi N. 15:42
61. Jessie S. 18:39

High School Boys (Tama 4.4k course)

7. Tsubasa K. 16:32
8. Kye A. 16:39
43. Eito O. 19:26
53. Treje Y. 20:31
57. Isaiah S. 20:36
58. YoungJun K. 20:38

Though we were unable to beat ASIJ (American School in Japan) and ISSH (International School of Sacred Heart), our runners had a strong showing today with lots of personal records (and most at least had season bests).  I'm grateful to be a part of this program and I hope I can continue to work with cross country for years to come.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

And now, a song about differentiated instruction and meeting the needs of a diverse classroom...

I wrote this as an "exit-out-the-door" card for a Professional Development seminar on expanding/developing English Language Learner instruction at CAJ; the prompt I chose was a RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) where the role was "student", the audience was "teacher", the format was "song" and the topic was "What you need to do for us."

In a nutshell, I had to write a song from the perspective of a student about what English Language Learner students need from the teacher, incorporating concepts from the past two days.  We had a half-hour to write our exit cards, so I used the tune of "Piano Man" by Billy Joel to create this (which I was then asked to sing for all my colleagues).  Writing and singing this made me a little nostalgic for all the times I did similar assignments back in high school: I LOVED it when teachers assigned song-writing as an option!  I need to think about how I can provide assessment opportunities for my students that will not only allow them to show their learning but also will inspire and energize them the way assignments like this one did (and still do) for me:

“You’re the teacher, man!”
(to the tune of Piano Man)  

It’s 8:30 on a Tuesday
Me and my friends shuffle in,
We had a rough day in class yesterday,
and now we must do it again.

Mr. Gibson says “Write me an essay!
About how civilization began.
You should talk about culture and geography, too,
oh and discuss the nature of man.”

Oh lah-dah-da-dee-dah dah
Lah-dah dee dee daa-da-daaa

Give us a hand, you’re the teacher, man!
Break down for us, what you mean,
Cuz nature means trees,
And I can’t help but freeze because
my first line is “well, trees are green!”

“Now Takeshi”, he says, “I’ve been thinking,
Maybe an essay’s too rough.
But you’re good at art,
(and I’ve got a kind heart)
So a poster should be enough.”

But then he tells all of my classmates
That writing is a valuable skill
Which we’ll carry for life
and will minimize strife;
So while they charge ahead, I’ll stand still?

Give me a hand, you’re the teacher, man!
Don’t dumb down your standards for me,
Cuz I’ve got a good mind,
and good ideas, you’ll find,
If you’d strategize to set them free!

“Class, I just came back from a seminar,
about how to teach like a pro.
When it started, I was all arrogant, 
but there was much I didn’t know.

All of you in here learn differently,
and I need to change how I teach
Because 'one size fits all'
is just dropping the ball.
And leaving success out of reach.”

Well, thank you for changing your teaching, man,
My competency, I can show.
Though I may never be ambi-lingual,
I can demonstrate all that I know.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Runner's High

After the first Cross Country practice of the year, and the second, and the third, I tell my middle school runners to hang in there.

"These are the most difficult practices of the year," I tell them.

"You mean we'll never run any further than this?" Someone inevitably interprets what I said in this way.

"No, we'll run a little more each week.  It just gets easier the more you run."

And it does.  Those first work-outs, when you are trying to start running regularly, are brutal.

Why would anyone do this for fun?  Why put my body through such abuse?

Still, there's a recognition that each practice builds on the last.  We look ahead to a time when we'll be stronger and when we'll be able to keep running; and not only keep running, but to ENJOY running!

From my vantage point as a 4th year teacher, I can say that teaching is much the same way.  My first year of teaching, like that first week of practice, was more painful and uncomfortable than fun.  There were many times when I was tempted to give up; many times when I felt like quitting would be the  wisest decision.  Just as the experienced runners must seem super-human to a fledgling runner, the experienced teachers seemed to me to be gifted in ways that I wasn't; that I'd never be.

I'm so glad I kept pushing through.

Each week of running sees the runner growing in strength, speed and endurance; the runner can travel further and faster, and more efficiently.  As a teacher, each year has seen me growing, developing in understanding and ability.

It's not to say that all will be smooth sailing... as one of my better high school runners discovered last week, it is still possible to have a bad race no matter how experienced a runner you are.  I shared with her the story of my last cross country race, which I ran not knowing I was sick with strep throat--I remember the feeling that I couldn't get a full breath, that my joints and muscles were sticky, sluggish and in pain, and more than anything else, the feeling of not being able to do better even though I knew I could.

My mistake in high school was that I gave up.  In both my running and my teaching, I've resolved not to give up, even when I have a bad race; even when that class comes along who just seems impossible to connect with.  I keep running even in the hard times because I look forward to the best, and the best is worth it:

Feeling as though I am flying; taking long, yet quick strides over pavement, rubber, dirt, grass and gravel.  Feeling the burn of my calf muscles breaking down with every step, but not caring because I know I'll recover and emerge stronger and faster still.  Feeling the endorphins lift my spirits and push me on to the end.

This is the runner's high; this is the feeling that runners actually become addicted to, to the point that they go through withdrawal symptoms on a day when they are unable to run.

This is the point that I've hit in my teaching--it's still hard work, and I honestly feel like I'm doing more hard work now than I ever did in my first two years, and I'm doing it more efficiently.  I feel like I'm flying.  I enjoy every moment, and feel withdrawal on the days when I'm not teaching.

The great thing is, this isn't where it ends for a runner: it's not as though growth ceases at this point--the runner must still push hard, and in so doing, will continue to grow, to become faster and stronger.

So will I, as a teacher--I still have much growing to do, and so many opportunities before me in which I can grow.  I'm so grateful that I've hit my stride; the stage where the hard work involved feels natural and necessary, even enjoyable.

As far as I'm concerned, they can just push the finish line back a mile or two... or 2000.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Faithlessness or Rebellion?

Today, I opted to listen to Fukuda-Sensei's sermon without an English-translation headset.  I don't do this every Sunday, since I wind up missing so many details along the way, but Fukuda-Sensei is an engaging and animated preacher so I feel like I probably miss out a little bit when I just listen to the headset, too.  My hope is to one day have strong enough kikitori (listening comprehension) skills in Japanese that I'll never need to use the headset again... for now, the occasional Sunday will have to do.

While I am unsure if it was a main point, one point that Fukuda-Sensei made that I caught and that really struck me was that Moses had actually seen God's back, yet still disobeyed God's instructions for drawing water out of the rock later on.

We (well... I know I) tend to say "if only God would show Himself to me as He did to Moses.  THEN, I would stop being a lazy follower; stop being luke-warm; stop being disobedient."  Yet, the account of Moses' disobedience at Meribah takes such a mindset head-on and points out that even a man who had dialogued directly with God on numerous occasions and had in fact, seen God's physical presence could be every bit as untrusting and disobedient as modern believers.  The problem, then, may have less to do with a lack of certainty about God's existence and presence in our lives, and more to do with a lack of proper respect for this fact.  Bear in mind that we all have eternity placed in our hearts--all humans, regardless of who they are, have a built-in awareness of their creator; a God-shaped hole in their hearts that can only be filled with a life spent pursuing God (though it is often spent pursuing other, ill-fitting and ultimately unsatisfying things).  The bottom line is, on some level (perhaps undetectable to even ourselves) we know God exists, and we know He is worthy of glory.  However, our hearts are rebellious and we choose to fight or flee much more easily than we choose to follow.

Asking for a sign; asking for God to reveal Himself may seem like an earnest and sensible prayer, but perhaps the more important prayer is that our hearts are transformed to follow and obey a God who has already revealed Himself to us, time and time again.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Plans to Prosper, Not to Harm

What's interesting about teaching as a job is that even though I have the exact same schedule as last year, this year couldn't be more different.  On paper, teaching looks repetitive, but in practice, the variety is endless.

I deeply appreciate my students this year because their energy and their willingness to invest in my vision for the classroom makes my job fun.  I look forward to each new day of school, and can say with all honesty that there is not a single class in my line-up that I dread.  Each class period (well, two periods in the case of Humanities) is different from the others, but all are genuinely enjoyable.  A healthy classroom environment makes a world of difference for both the students and the teachers... it motivates me to put my all into planning and grading, gives me energy for each day and gives me perspective when something doesn't go the way I'd planned (as a healthy class will be understanding and forgiving).

Beyond the classroom, I feel like I'm finally starting to find avenues for making good friendships and plugging into community.  Don't get me wrong--I love CAJ and the community around it.  That said, I feel like I'm not all that close to the other young teachers (there was a pretty solid group of us two school-years ago, but that has dissolved as about half that group has since left CAJ).  At this point, I don't feel like CAJ is where I'm going to build deep relationships with peers.  I feel like I'm closer to the older staff members than I am to the colleagues who are my age.  Maybe this is preparation for me to one day be for younger staff what those older colleagues have been for me...

This was much tougher for me to accept last year, as I was often lonely and wishing for friendship and community that wasn't materializing despite several attempts on my part to create it.  This year, I've plugged into my church community at Grace City in Ginza, and, as they say, that has made all the difference.  I attended GCC sporadically over the course of the last school-year, tentatively testing the waters.  I appreciated the preaching and the worship but for whatever reason, held off on getting to know people until several months ago.  I think it was mostly shyness on my part, shyness being a quality in myself that I really do just forget about while I'm working a job that tends to amplify the small part of my personality that is outgoing.  In any case, I'm glad I got over the shyness because being a part of the church community at Grace City has been wonderful.  I've done dinner and games with friends, I am involved with weekly set-up at the church, and I'm becoming more comfortable introducing myself to new people and talking after church (usually in Japanese).  I feel at home there.

Also, on Saturday, I had the privilege of reuniting with a friend/classmate from high school, and his wife, who are currently stationed at an Air Force Base here in Tokyo.  I gave them a tour of the school, and enjoyed dinner/a round of "Settlers of Cataan" with them, as well as hours of good conversation.  This is the second time I've met up with a high school friend in Tokyo, and another old friend will be coming to serve on base in Tokyo early next year.  This is a circumstance that I never foresaw when I moved to Japan several years ago--amazing how small the world is and how God allows people to stay connected even after years apart.  Though we're now part of different communities and circles of friends, I am grateful for the opportunity to renew old friendships with the occasional evening out.  It is indeed a blessing.

All in all, the difference this year is a feeling of settling in.  Until last year, I'd always thought of Japan as "just a stop" on the journey, and even last year carried a feeling of impermanence as I knew my roommate would likely be gone this year and therefore I'd be in search of a new place to live.  This year, there's none of that.  Less loneliness, less uncertainty, more root-placing.  "'For I know the plans I have for you', declares the LORD..."