Thursday, August 22, 2013

Summer learning', better teachin'

On Wednesday morning, I was jolted awake.  Not by the soothing, melodic tones of my alarm (the Sleep Cycle app on my iPhone), but rather by the realization that work was starting up again 35 minutes later with several days of staff meetings.  You see, this summer was an odd one for me... I was busy, having started my Master's classes online and fitting in three weeks of Japanese tutoring on top of that.  Perhaps more strange was the fact that I never really settled into summer mode.  After school finished in June, I had three busy weeks in Japan before I went back to America for three busy weeks with family before returning to Japan for three busy weeks (well technically two sick weeks and one busy week).  It was the summer of threes, and the pacing was less than leisurely.  It was a good summer, though!  The opportunity to learn, deepening both my understanding of my calling as a teacher and my ability to speak, read and listen to Japanese was valuable.  The time with my family (particularly introducing them to my fiancee) was precious.  Now, I am looking forward to the first day of classes, perhaps less rested than usual, but no less excited.

There are several reasons why I am, perhaps, more excited than usual for this coming year:

1. I was able to be a student again this summer.  I returned to concepts and texts that I'd read in college, when teaching was 100% theoretical in my mind and found new things as I read from the vantage point four years of experience.  I delved into new and exciting books that opened my eyes to so many possibilities for what a classroom can and should be.  I also learned a lot as I watched how my professors structured the class and gave feedback.  It's fun to watch how education professors teach--and I am sure that it must be more than a little stressful for the professors, who must be aware that their pedagogy itself is being scrutinized!  Fortunately, I was blessed with very good professors who provided me with many wonderful ideas simply by the way they set up the classes.

2. My schedule.  Check this out:

1st period: Prep
2nd-3rd period: Humanities A
4th-5th period: Humanities B
6th period: Matsu (yearbook)
7th period: Prep

It's never been a secret that 11th grade Humanities is my favorite subject to teach--I love the variety of learning opportunities that emerge when U.S. History and American Literature are combined into a blended block class!  However, this year I have the opportunity to teach two sections of Humanities, which is a blessing!  The past two years, I taught 9th grade World History in addition to Humanities and English 11 (just the American Lit--those students had another teacher for U.S. History) making for 3 preps and working with close to 100 students every day.  I learned that even thinking about (let alone teaching) 100 different students requires a lot of mental energy.

By contrast, this year, I have 2 preps, and between the two sections of Humanities, only 46 students.  I retooled my Humanities curriculum over July and August as an assignment for one of my summer classes, and I will be taking an online course this fall on assessment strategies.  In other words, I've developed the course to a higher level of quality than it was at last year, and I will continue to develop it as the semester goes on in tandem with my own online learning.  Humanities is my focus this year as a teacher, and my main responsibility.  The lion's share of my prep energy and grading energy can go into this single class.  I could not ask for a better assignment and I am excited!

I started working on my syllabus this afternoon at 4:30 and before I knew it, it was 7:30.  I'd become so engrossed in my work that I lost track of time.  I am really just ready for the students to come back so I can start teaching.  That's a good place to be the week before school starts, I think :)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Trains of Tokyo

Earlier this year, I read this article:

In case you didn't read the link or the URL title itself, the article presents a list of the 51 busiest train stations in the entire world, and yep--you guessed it!  Most of those train stations are in Japan.  In fact, you have to scroll about halfway down the list to find a train station that isn't in Japan.

It was articles such as this one (and the resultant, perhaps somewhat exaggerated word-of-mouth) that helped to form one of my most basic images of Japan long ago, years before a life in Japan was even a glimmer on the horizon for me: packed trains.  Putting aside everything Nintendo, busy trains were the first thing that came to mind when I imagined Japan.  I'd heard about trains packed so tight that stations needed an employee just to push people in so that the doors could close.  I'd heard about the rampant problem of groping on crowded trains.  I'd heard about the razor-sharp promptness and precision of the Japanese train schedule.  My main mental image of Japan was a salaryman in a suit, sleeping standing up while gripping the hand-rail (but not in any real danger of falling over due to the cluster of people crammed in around him).

Even as an abstract or fanciful concept (that is, something I would never experience myself), the Tokyo train system intimidated me.

Then, I moved to Japan... and that changed nothing.  For four years, the trains in Tokyo still intimidated me.  I preferred to bike, or walk, or catch a ride to wherever I needed to go, and would just as soon avoid taking the train, thank you very much!  The problem is, the further I needed to travel, the less I could get by with my diet of biking, walking or ride-catching.

At about this time last year, it occurred to me that my students knew the train system of Tokyo better than I did.  Now, one year later, I would say the opposite is true: I genuinely believe that I have a better handle on the Tokyo trains than 95% of my students (the remaining 5% are train-buffs who memorize that kind of information more for fun than out of practical need).

The reason for this shift?  It may have something to do with the estimated 160 hours I have spent riding the train so far this year alone.  I go to Otemachi for church each Sunday; I go to Meguro twice a month (once for worship team rehearsal, once for Gospel choir rehearsal); I go to Yurakucho each Thursday for community group; I go out to meals or coffee with my fiancee in Tokyo, Yurakucho, Daimon-Hammumatsucho, Ginza or a variety of other places on a regular basis.

I pass through Ikebukuro Station (#3 on this list, though apparently it has since overtaken Shibuya for the #2 spot) several times each week.  Numbers 8, 18 and 20 are all part of my regular routine.  The words "regular" and "routine" just about sum it up: this has become normal to me.  The crowds and busy trains no longer phase me in the least.  The map of the Tokyo Metro system (which makes the human nervous system look simple and straightforward) makes sense to me now.  I am beginning to gain an awareness of how everything is connected.

I'll close with a list of basic things I have learned while riding the trains over this past year:

1. Not all lines are equal.  The Oedo Line is roughly 50 meters above hell and my guess is that Satan himself had a hand in setting the fares.

2. If you get on the Marunouchi Line in Ikebukuro and are willing to wait no more than 5 minutes, there's absolutely no good reason why you can't find a seat.

3. The Yamanote Line has the most pleasant platform boarding melodies... but trying to get from Ikebukuro to Tamachi is a lose-lose situation.

4. The Seibu-Ikebukuro Line is weird; it's privately owned, and to downtown Tokyo folk, it's viewed as a rural line, kind of an isolated spur.  Yet, from Higashi Kurume, I can travel to Shibuya, Yurakucho, or even Motomachi-Chukagai in Yokohama (to name a few) without having to transfer!

5. Long train rides are the perfect time to work: I've graded many a paper (and this summer, written many a paper and read many a chapter) while sitting on trains to and from downtown.

6. If there are no seats available, or better yet, no grading/homework to do, long train rides are the perfect time to practice Japanese.  I've clocked many hours of JLPT vocab practice on my iPhone while on the train.

7. Another form of Japanese practice/entertainment is to translate station names into English!  Some of my favorites:
Ochanomizu eki = Tea-water Station
Otemachi eki = Big Hand City Station
Meguro eki = Black Eye Station
Mejiro eki = White Eye Station
Tsukishima eki = Moon Island Station
Ikebukuro eki = Glove Pond Station

8. I (and undoubtedly millions of others) will never tire of saying or hearing the name "Takadanobaba"

9. If I catch the Kotesashi-bound train on the Yurakucho Line from Tsukishima (Moon Island) where my fiancee lives, it takes EXACTLY one hour to get back to Higashi Kurume.

10. Suddenly, one hour of traveling doesn't seem like that much, anymore...  :)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Nate Gibson and The Never-ending Quest for Balance

One thing that always struck me about the Harry Potter series is how much the tone changes from the first book to the last.  The series gets darker, for sure, but the things Harry says, does and thinks; the adventures he finds himself in; the interactions he has with others; all of these change as the series goes on to fit Harry's age, and also his internal changes as a character.  I remember abruptly recognizing this shift when I read the irrepressibly moody, angst-y and dreary "Order of the Phoenix" for the first time--it was like I was reading a completely different series than the one I'd started with "Sorcerer's Stone".

I'd say my time in Japan has gone through similar tonal shifts.  Not from light to dark, necessarily, but the elements that make up my life, my interactions, what my time, energy and thought go toward--certainly these have all changed drastically since I first arrived as a wide-eyed 22 year-old in 2009.

My first two years were centered almost exclusively around CAJ and the Higashi Kurume area.  I worked 5 days a week at CAJ, I coached cross country or attended sports games on Saturdays and attended the church on campus on Sunday mornings (followed by supervising the JAM Middle School youth group on Sunday afternoons).  I spent easily 85% of my waking time either on CAJ's campus, or with colleagues/students from CAJ.  I ate, drank, breathed, slept and ultimately lived CAJ.  I love the school, and I love my job, but during these years, I had virtually no life outside the walls of Christian Academy.  I would occasionally hang out with colleagues who were around the same age, and do dinner or karaoke, but I found that I had little to talk about aside from my classes and students--there simply was not a whole lot more to my life at that point.

The earthquake (certainly a dark, dramatic chapter) woke me up to the need for some semblance of balance.  My reaction to the earthquake, which I now realize was unusual, was to resolve to stay in Japan (I had been planning on leaving).  Suddenly, with an indefinite stay in Japan ahead of me, I realized that I needed to adjust my lifestyle and seek out balance.  I realized I needed to stop going to church on campus and find a church that was completely (or at least mostly) separate from the school.  (By the way, I certainly am not suggesting that attending this church as a CAJ teacher is a lack of balance--my life just happened to be unbalanced, and finding a new church happened to be the first step in finding some balance--it would not be the right choice for everyone).  Not long after this, CAJ's headmaster issued a staff survey to gather data on church involvement; with me planning to "retire" from JAM and seek a new church, I realized I needed a place where I'd feel at home and could get involved.

I first attended Grace City Church in Ginza in August of 2011; the worship, the preaching and the atmosphere felt immediately familiar--similar in so many ways to my beloved home-church in the States.  Still, I worried that 50 minutes of traveling one-way was too far and so I attended only periodically, and tried to remain aloof (after all, friendships with folks downtown would inevitably take up even more time!).  Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of a very kind and caring family (who, incidentally, were my one link to CAJ at Grace City), I began to make connections and build relationships despite myself.  I realized that God quite clearly intended this to be my new home-church, and that I needed to get involved.  I joined the worship team, an affiliated gospel choir, and a weekly community group.  More significantly, I met my future wife at an after-church party last fall.

Now, a typical week sees me traveling downtown at least 3 times a week, and sometimes 4 times.  I am preparing to become a community group leader, and from September, will participate on the worship team two Sundays a month.  I've also participated in vision meetings for a church plant that will be starting services this fall.  And of course, there's the adventure of wedding planning that is now beginning, and the recognition that my fiancee and I do need to take additional time for each other that isn't about church-hunting, logistics, invitations, or anything else to do with the wedding.

My life has entered a new chapter and it feels like a completely different story from the one I was living almost 5 years ago.  Yet again, the pesky issue of balance remains.  I absolutely need to allow myself the time and mental energy to do my job the best that I can; after all, I view teaching at CAJ as my calling!  That said, unlike several years ago, I must balance this with the very real need for church involvement, friendship (one very special relationship in particular), and time with God.

This coming school-year will be something completely new, different from any I've had yet.  I ask for prayers for wisdom, for energy and for balance.  I'm excited; happier than I've ever been in my entire life, actually.  At the same time, I have an unprecedented amount of stuff going on simultaneously in several different sides of my life, and caring for all sides will be no small task.  Becoming a whole and healthy person is challenging, but I figure God's grace and strength are sufficient to build me into that person!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

5 Years Ago

In August 2008, I packed my bags and made the long drive to Iowa one final time.  I was 22 years old, and about to begin my student-teaching practicum.  To say that I was nervous would be an understatement.  This excerpt from a post I wrote at that time reveals some of my anxiety:

The wind blew gently, cool and refreshing.  I put down my sandwich and took a minute to appreciate my surroundings, my eyes following Skyline Divide to the horizon and then carefully studying the mountaintops ahead.  I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.  On Wednesday, I would pack up my Ford Taurus and leave for Iowa.  It would be hard to leave behind this beauty again.  

In that instant, the fears and uncertainties of graduation day returned in full force.  Was I really supposed to go back?  What if I got in front of the classroom and realized that I wasn't supposed to be a teacher?  How would I survive the semester?  Just what was I supposed to do with my life?

As long as I could remember, I had believed that God had a plan for me, but somehow, in that moment I found trusting harder than ever. 

The others finished eating and we began to walk away from the hilltop, and into the woods; away from summer and into the unknown.

I worried that I'd find I wasn't meant to be a teacher, and that all of my education classes would have been a waste.  However, more than that, I worried about what lay beyond student teaching.  Even if my experience in the classroom went well, what would I do after that?  The name of a Facebook photo album I created that month was "The tip of the question mark".  Everything seemed so uncertain.
Teaching 11th Grade U.S. History in Sept. 2008

What I realize now is that the future is never completely certain.  Putting down roots and having financial security does make a difference, but ultimately, the future is unpredictable.  My 22-year-old self came to grips with his own doubts and difficulty in trusting God at such an uncertain time.  My 27-year-old self recognizes God's hand very clearly guiding me and caring for me over the course of those 5 intervening years.  I would do well not to forget this when I face trials and uncertainties in the future.  

My 22-year-old self had no idea that he would enjoy his student teaching experience (well, half of it, anyway).  My 22-year-old self had no idea that he would move to Japan less than 5 months later.  My 22-year-old self had no idea that in 5 years, he'd be starting his 5th full year of teaching at the same school, that he'd be engaged to a wonderful, Godly woman, or that he'd dedicate much of his free time to learning Japanese.  

The future is uncertain, but God is good; God is faithful.  What's more, God knows our future and His plans are better than ours.  I do not know what the next 5 years will bring, but I am resolved to place my trust and faith in God, who has never abandoned me, and never failed me!

I haven't had a beard like that since then...