Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Farewell, 2014

One year ago, I wrote a blog-post thanking friends and family for helping with wedding prep, set-up and clean-up.  Sometimes I forget that I didn't get married in 2014; December 28 may have been late 2013, but it was still 2013.  Therefore, I cannot reflect on 2014 as "the year I got married", but it was significant for a number of other reasons!

Married Life
2014 was my first full year as a married man and it was an eventful year.  Tomomi and I had about a week after our wedding before she needed to be back at her job, and I needed to be back at school.  The following weekend, we flew to Thailand--not for a late honeymoon as some might expect, but for Tomomi's cousin's wedding.  This was our first time to travel together and it was wonderful to do a bit of sight-seeing, and to get to know Tomomi's family better as well.  There was a surreal moment when I realized that I was the only gaijin  (non-Japanese) at the rehearsal dinner, a moment that became even more bizarre when the Thai waiter approached me to ask what the evening's plan was.  Ah, the curse of being the only apparent English-speaker in the room!  What was worse was the fact that the waiter did not seem to believe me when I told him that I didn't know anything about the plans and that Tomomi's cousin also spoke English, so he should go ask him.  Guess we all have our own prejudices!

2014 saw Tomomi and I build a life together and learn how to live as a married couple: we established routines for cooking, shopping, laundry, how to spend our Saturdays, etc.  I personally learned a lot about cooking, as Tomomi typically would not return home from work until 7:30, sometimes as late as 8:30 or 9:00.  I learned how to make homemade pizza and chili, spare ribs, mikan chicken, sloppy joe's, green bean casserole, homemade Oreos, custard, and even a Thanksgiving turkey (just to name a few).  I did have a few disasters, too: once while trying to deep-fry homemade potato chips (I was really into making homemade versions of typically store-bought food), the oil overflowed and clogged up the burner, a mess which took quite some time to clean up.

Kitchen oil-spills aside, it was a wonderful and peaceful year.  Tomomi and I had been advised by so many friends from church that the first year of marriage would be difficult and even more-so for an international couple.  Maybe it was because we went in prepared for differences and miscommunications that neither actually bothered us when they occurred.  Rather, we enjoyed figuring out how our new family life would look, and spending each day together (even if the work-hours could be long).  It was a year of foundation building, a foundation which will serve us well as our routine changes in 2015 with Tomomi now done with her job and seeking God's guidance on what will come next.  Having just celebrated our first anniversary, we are truly excited for the years to come.

Family Life
In addition to the beginning of our married life, 2014 saw big changes within both Tomomi's and my family.  In July, we traveled to America for a visit, kicked off by my brother's wedding in Denver.  Ben and his wife Hilary have settled in New Haven, Connecticut for at least a couple years while Ben pursues a Master's in theology at Yale.  The wedding was beautiful and it was a great opportunity to reunite with extended family and old friends.  There was a bittersweet moment at breakfast the morning before the wedding when we realized that it was just the five of us--Dad, Mom, Ben, Lea and myself--sitting around the table, and we said a quiet goodbye to the family life we'd known for so long.  Lea herself was only on a short break from her job as a camp counselor in Wisconsin, and so went her separate way after the wedding rather than coming back to Washington.
It was the beginning of a new normal for my parents' Gibson family as two new Gibson families formed.  Who knows when all three Gibson families will meet at the same time again?
Then in September, Tomomi's sister Manami got married.  Again, I was the only gaijin at the wedding, and when Tomomi and I escorted Manami from the reception hall at dinner time so she could change out of her wedding dress, a drunken chorus of "USA! USA! USA!" reminded me of my nationality, in case I had forgotten.  Manami and her new husband moved to Nagoya, a city several hours to the southwest of Tokyo, a dramatic change for Tomomi's parents, with whom Manami had been living.

After a break from my Master's classes in the Spring, I resumed my coursework over the summer, studies which challenged, encouraged and inspired me in my planning for the coming school year.  On top of all of the hours I devoted to my Master's coursework, I clocked well over 100 hours of curriculum planning in my classroom at school, a fantastic opportunity to apply what I had been learning in my courses.
That investment has paid off to a tremendous extent as the fall semester felt like my most organized, thoughtful and creative teaching to date.  Though a glitch in the scheduling saw me with another semester off from my coursework this fall, I am eager to resume my studies this Spring with a Teacher Leadership Field Experience course.

After several months of attending both Grace City Church and Grace Harbor Church, in September, Tomomi and I ultimately decided to settle in at Grace Harbor.  While this has made it challenging to consistently keep up with our Grace City friends, many of whom live on the opposite side of Tokyo from us, we have also developed many new friendships, including several other young international couples.  We deeply appreciate the fellowship and vision of our church home and feel blessed to be a part of the Harbor community.  We also look back fondly on our time at Grace City, and are grateful that God led us both to the church where we met each other for the first time.  We continue to pray for the growth and success of these wonderful church communities in a city so desperately in need of the Gospel.

As I finish this blog-post, our final night in Washington for Christmas vacation draws to a close.  The time with my parents and sister has been refreshing and it was a season of many firsts for Tomomi as she was able to experience an American family Christmas with all of its traditions.  It will be difficult to leave early tomorrow, but we trust that God will lead us and provide in the year to come, just as He did in the year we now depart.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Power of Student Samples

This is my 5th year of teaching Humanities and English 11.  Because I'm somewhat of a digital pack-rat, I've accumulated quite a number of student essays over the years.  I hadn't done this with the intention of building a collection of potential samples--that is simply how it turned out.

My students just finished the first draft of their Unit 3 essays, and they will spend our Culminating Event time next Wednesday revising so they can submit a final draft for me to grade en route to the States for Christmas Break.  For the Unit 1 essay, I personally edited and commented on each rough draft.  This time, I am having the students develop their abilities as peer-editors.  I should note that I did give each essay a once-over (maybe 2 minutes tops) yesterday evening after receiving them, and jotted down major areas of need that had been obvious even after a cursory examination (e.g. missing thesis; lack of citations; organizational issues).  Beyond those comments, the lion's share of the feedback which the students receive will come from their classmates.

In past years, I have had difficulty with peer-editing activities.  One student's image of a classmate plays a big role: if a student happens to be editing an essay written by a classmate who they view as an academic leader, they may have difficulty detecting areas in need of improvement.  Social dynamics also play a role: it may be uncomfortable offering an honest critique of a friend's work for fear of how the friend will respond to criticism, no matter how constructive.  More than this, it can be difficult to articulate why a line on the rubric was scored low or high, what specifically needs to change. 

As early as a month ago, I was starting to brainstorm ideas on how to actually teach some peer-editing skills.  Then, a PLC meeting provided me with the answer.  In November, our English/Social Studies PLC (Professional Learning Community) spent a meeting calibrating our rubrics.  Our department chair gave us a sample essay and we each filled out a rubric to evaluate the sample.  We then talked through our completed rubrics line by line and learned where we'd agreed on the scores, where we'd disagreed, how we'd interpreted the criteria, and why we had graded as we had.  

I decided that it would be worthwhile for the students to go through this same process as it would force them to grade objectively and to firm up in their own minds just what the criteria on the rubric meant--perhaps with that in mind, editing each other's essays would become a more fruitful undertaking.  

So, I printed and distributed two student essays from 2010, names removed--all I told the students was that one was slightly above the standard, and one was well above the standard.  In groups of three or four--the same groups in which the students would eventually peer-edit--the students read through and rubricked the two sample essays.  They graded individually at first, but then had to talk through and agree on an official rubric score with their fellow group-members.  Then, they had to list 3-5 specific positive aspects and 3-5 specific areas of need in each essay.  I averaged each group's scores: the first sample essay received a 2.7, the second a 4.4 (compared to the 3.4 and 4.5 that the essays had actually received).  The students were amazed to discover that they had actually graded more strictly than I had, as I have definitely developed a reputation for being a strict essay grader with this class.  

What followed was an immensely productive discussion of why the students had scored the essays as they had.  In our normally quiet and reticent Humanities class, nearly everyone had something they wanted to say about the problems in the first sample essay: "It had no sense of organization!"  "The vocabulary was so repetitive."  "The in-text citations were formatted incorrectly!"  "The thesis had no preview of points."  Then, I asked what the writer had done well.  This took a bit more thought, but every student was clearly thinking, several even leafing through the essay again on the off-chance that something would leap off the page.  "Well... they do address the prompt."  

"Okay," I replied, "and how many of you gave them a low "prompt" score?"  Most hands went up.  
This provided an opportunity to talk through what it meant to address the prompt, and the fact that this student had in fact done a reasonable job, but this had been unfortunately masked by a lack of organization.

"Now do you see why I put such a strong emphasis on thesis and direction?"

I asked the class if they thought the first student had been a bad writer and most replied that no, this student was actually a decent writer.  This gave me the chance to reveal that this particular student had started the school-year with very low scores, but had ended the year near the top of the class--what they were seeing was a piece of evidence from roughly halfway through the journey.  I certainly hope that this was a source of encouragement to any students who had been disappointed with the scores that they had received on our last essay.

The second essay provided an opportunity to look together at a good thesis and strong sense of direction.  When I asked the students what the biggest problem was (what I'd actually graded down was the fact that the third point had no specific support), I got a variety of answers that intrigued me.  One student had really disliked the bubbly and emotional writing style: "The voice is terrible!"
I explained to her that for this particular student, the bubbly writing style had fit, and that this student's personality came through in her writing.  "However," I added, "This bubbly style would not fit for everyone.  If you turned in a really bubbly essay, I'd probably be worried."

All in all, it was a lively discussion--the best we've had in Humanities this year.  We were able to reach a common understanding (or at least a more objective understanding) of the writing rubric and to talk through a variety of criteria including 'voice', which is next-to-impossible to teach on its own.  

When the students settled down to work on editing each others' essays, I noticed a level of focus and determination that I simply hadn't seen while peer-editing in previous years.  I am truly excited to read the students' final drafts next week!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Her story was truly remarkable: her childhood too short, too tragic; her escape, daring and selfless.

Yet the reaction of my classes in past years was not unlike the reaction of her original Northern audience: an incomplete appreciation at best, dismissal and apathy at worst.  

Harriet Jacobs was born in 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina.  Though her early childhood had been shielded due to the status enjoyed by her parents and grandmother (comparatively high status for slaves, anyway), both of her parents died within a relatively short span of time when she was only six, and she ultimately wound up being given to a young girl.  Her mistress' father, Dr. James Norcom, began to sexually harass Jacobs from the time she entered puberty.  Beauty, said Jacobs, was a terrible curse for a slave girl.  To avoid Norcom's advances, Jacobs opted instead to get pregnant by another white man in the community.

Artists' rendering of Jacobs' hideout
Jacobs recounts her escape from Norcom's home, but perhaps the most amazing feature of her escape is her sacrificial love for her children.  Because her children were slaves in the possession of the Norcom family, Jacobs chose not to run away to the North.  Instead, she stayed in an attic crawlspace in her grandmother's house, a garret measuring 9 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 3 feet tall at the highest point.  From this crawlspace, she watched her children grow up through the knots in the boards.  All told, she remained in this crawlspace for seven whole years, emerging only occasionally, and only revealing her presence to her children near the end of that time.  She spent her first decade of freedom crouched in a space so cramped that it caused her muscles to atrophy and her health to suffer, all for the sake of ensuring her children's safety.  

The latter portion of the book is filled with Jacobs' impressions of the North, most notably her distaste for the racism suffered by even free blacks, and the overall miserable condition of the working poor.  In the end, a friend purchases Jacobs' freedom.

This book was published in 1861, but dismissed as too sophisticated to be authentic.  It was widely believed that a white abolitionist women had written the book, that no black woman could have possibly written a narrative so eloquent and compelling.  It was not a suspicion lacking precedent--"Uncle Tom's Cabin" had been written by a white abolitionist woman.  But then, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" hadn't claimed to be an autobiographical slave narrative, either.

So, "Incidents" gathered dust for over a century until a historian in the 1970s took it upon herself to prove Jacobs' authorship and the authenticity of the story.  Census records, newspapers, letters and other documents confirmed that the content was true and that Jacobs was highly literate and fully capable of writing a book.  

Harriet Jacobs
Unfortunately, as I mentioned at the start of this post, in the past, my students tended to react much as Jacobs' earliest readers had: dismissive and unimpressed.  My suspicion was that the reality of the narrative had been lost--that this, to them, was as real as "Lord of the Flies".  This year, I made a point of stressing the reality and even the controversy over the authorship from the get-go.  I had the students look up photos of Harriet Jacobs and Dr. James Norcom to attach faces to the people in the book.

Dr. James Norcom
The other significant change that I made this year was the decision to have daily book discussions.  I divided the reading up so that students would need to read approximately 15 pages per night.  I assigned pairs of students to be the discussion leaders for each day.  I told the students that they were starting off with 200 participation points and that they would lose points if they disengaged from the discussion: they did not necessarily need to speak up and offer contributions, but had to actively listen to the discussion.  I provided a short list of daily discussion questions, calling for general reactions, points needing clarification, as well as questions related to the themes of agency and audience awareness.  

Overall, the discussions were good.  This Humanities class tends to be rather quiet, but many students who do not ordinarily contribute seemed to find their voices during these book discussions.  There are certainly things I will change for when I do this unit with my standalone English class in January (tailoring discussion questions more specifically to each chapter; reviewing good group discussion norms; resisting the temptation to get involved in the discussion more often).  And, of course I am a realist: I know not every student had read the assigned chapters for each day.  Very likely, some students got by reading chapter summaries online.  This said, there were enough students with their books open referring to specific quotes and page numbers that I feel confident that there was a higher level of engagement than in previous years.  What's more, the students were interacting with Harriet Jacobs in a way I'd never seen before, admiring her, sympathizing with her, questioning her thought process, and wondering what they themselves would do in her situation.  Harriet Jacobs was a real person whose words and actions are worth responding to as fact, not a fictional character whose words and actions were the creative offspring of an imaginative author.  I hope the students will remember Jacobs as they continue to consider what true Biblical agency looks like... particularly as we hold her very real selflessness up and against the extreme selfishness of Kate Chopin's fictional heroines in our readings next week.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is in the public domain.  If you want, you can read the book here:
Or, listen to a free audio recording here:

The Importance of Self-Care in Teaching

Watching the students, the rhythms of the school-year become obvious, and even predictable over time.  Mid-to-late November, I have learned, is a time when viruses start to spread, energy is low and stress is high.  Given this, it is especially important for the teacher to remain positive, encouraging and generally well.

We're not immune to the pressures of the calendar, of course, and self-care is crucial.  I speak as one who has not done a good job of this in the past.  Often, by late October or early November, I get sick.  I fall behind on prep and grading, and even though I would recover from whatever bug I had, I'd find myself even more exhausted and stressed than I had been while I was sick.  There were a few years where I basically needed to drag myself, step by step, to Christmas vacation.  

Unfortunately, when that's the case, my energy in the classroom completely evaporates.  I can't even inspire myself, much less a class full of tired students.  It's a miserable feeling to slump in my desk-chair, wishing I was at home sleeping, as the students work sluggishly on some half-baked task.  I've been there, and I never want to go back.

This year, I am still going strong as November comes to an end.  I'm starting to feel a little weary and my neck has been stiff and sore for about a week, but I'm not stressed, nor am I completely "out of gas" (as I have been at this point and even much earlier in past years).  

While I'm sure that growing as a teacher makes at least some difference, I attribute this change largely to marriage.  Getting married has taught me to take self-care more seriously.  

I realized when I got married that my time was no longer my own, and that to make the most of the time spent with my wife, I would need to be more economical with my schedule.  I've made time for cooking dinner.  I've made time for unwinding after the school-day.  I've made time for blogging.  I've made time for finishing whatever prep and grading I need to do.  Everything has its place.  This did mean sacrifice.  Last year, I was busy with:
Tuesday night Japanese Class at City Hall
Thursday night Community Group in Yurakucho
1st Saturday/month Gospel Choir in Meguro
2-3 Sundays/month Worship Team at Grace City (sometimes involving an early morning rehearsal in Meguro)
...and all of this was on top of my responsibilities at school, taking a Master's course, trying to plan our wedding, and still spend quality (non-planning) time together.

I gave up each of those things this year--Japanese class, Community Group, Gospel Choir and Worship Team.  It was difficult to let them go, but it was the right decision and the result has been a sustainable schedule that has enabled me to be a better teacher and a better husband.  

The rhythm of this year is about right for me: I'll cherish the long weekend coming up.  I'll return to school next Monday energized and ready to take on the last little sprint before Christmas break.  I hope I'll be an encouragement to students who might be feeling overwhelmed or exhausted.

I hope that I can continue to develop strategies to care for my own health, sanity, and schedule as the year goes on!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Confessions of a Strict Essay Grader

"You know, Mr. Gibson, you really were a strict essay grader."
These were words I never thought I would hear.  There are many adjectives that one might attach to my teaching, but strict is not and has never been among them... at least I had not thought so.
Yet, when one of my top students from last year approached me earlier this month with this statement, he was being completely serious.  He went on to cite a specific time that he'd worked very hard to get a B+ on a DBQ, and how this challenge had helped prepare him for the rigor of his Senior English class.  Though it had frustrated him at the time, he now thanked me.

After this conversation, I began to reflect in earnest on my grading practices, and found that they have indeed changed over the past six years.  I certainly was not a strict grader in my first few years of teaching: I was far too generous in giving out 5s (the top score) on the rubric.

Since I arrived at CAJ, every year in May, I have been involved in the grading of the Senior Comprehensives essays, which synthesize the students' research with a Biblical perspective and an action plan.  These essays are graded by two teachers each, who fill out their own rubrics and then talk together to fill out a final rubric.  After I'd been here for a few years, I began to observe that many students who had achieved perfect or near-perfect writing scores in my 11th grade class were scoring 4s or 3s on their Senior Comps essays.  I realized, to my dismay, that I'd really done them a disservice in giving them such high scores while they were in my class.

Shortly after I started my Master's coursework (and in particular, a course on assessment practices), I also took a step back to look at the writing rubric.  By our school's definition, '3' is "Meets Standard", and serves as the basic target: if a student achieves a '3', they have sufficiently demonstrated the skills and understandings that we as a staff hoped all students would have by the time they graduate.  A '4' is "Above Standard": the student has gone above and beyond expectations and has produced fine work.  A '5' is exemplary, and demonstrates not only a technical accuracy, but a high degree of sophistication and innovation.  I don't know that I was fully aware of the change in my grading--it certainly was not something I set out to modify intentionally.  Yet the change is undeniable: my students this year know that an 'A' on an essay in my class is really something special.

Just this week, I finished grading my 4th set of essays so far this year.  I have never been so pleased with a class' performance (though the average score is lower than it would've been a few years ago, before my philosophy of grading shifted).  I am thrilled when a student who has been scoring '2's nabs a '3', when a '3' student finally reaches a '4', or when a '4' student just "clicks" and takes home a '5'.  I don't see it as As, Bs or Cs, with all the stigma that those letters carry: I see it as a quest to meet the standard and then having met it, to master, to grow beyond.

Unfortunately, many students are not operating in that frame of mind.  For them, the pressures of transcripts, GPA, and college admissions loom large, and stand in the way of them appreciating the journey; of learning to embrace a '3' as evidence that they've adequately demonstrated a new skill or understanding (a foundation upon which they can build in future essays and rewrites).  I tell the students that writing is a process and that no amount of revisions will ever make an essay truly perfect, but that I want to reward them for the growth that they demonstrate.  To this end, I give each successive essay more weight in my grade-book.

All the same, I understand that students tend to be "in the moment", and responding in real-time to the demands of classes, friends, family, extracurriculars... the big picture in my course is not terribly high on their list of priorities.  So moving forward, I wonder how I can "sell" my vision to my students so that they do not become discouraged when they see a '3' on their writing rubric; so that they can move beyond the instinct to dwell on the number crunch ("let's see... a '3' is a 73.5%, which is a 'C' and oh my goodness, that's terrible!"), celebrate in what they have achieved, and begin to plan ahead to make improvements for the next essay.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

John Adams: The Hero of Humanities, Unit Two

"It's Revolutionary-themed..." "It's entertaining." "The kids will like it because Heath Ledger is in it."  "Maybe it will make them interested in history."  These were but a few of the rationalizations that my student-teacher mind served up when I dedicated five days of class to showing my 11th graders at Unity Christian the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot during our unit on the American Revolution.   See, I knew it was bad history, and I knew that it wasn't really supporting the objectives I had in mind, but I showed it anyway because that was precisely how my own teachers (and even some professors) had used movies in class, and I did not know to do any differently.

That same fall, on the recommendation of a friend, I purchased the DVD set of HBO's John Adams miniseries.  I watched through the whole thing one Saturday and was captivated by the show.  Based on David McCullough's acclaimed biography of Adams, everything about the show was well-done: the writing was faithful to the Revolutionary patois, while at the same time making it accessible to modern ears; the performances were complex, and powerful enough for me to completely forget my general dislike of Paul Giamatti; the production value was high, and the costumes, sets and effective use of CGI made Colonial, Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America come to life.  I used a short clip in that same U.S. History class to illustrate the growing ideological divide between Adams and Jefferson.

Never once did it strike me as backward that I'd dedicated five days to showing The Patriot, but only five minutes to a clip from John Adams.

This year, I showed all but two episodes from the seven-episode series.  In the end, this came out to 5 days (and about 8 class periods total), no small allocation of time.  Yet, I wouldn't change a thing.  Our essential questions for this unit were:
1. What is worth fighting for?
2. What rights are humans entitled to?
3. What responsibility does a government have to its citizens?
4. How can words change hearts and minds?

John Adams touches on each of these questions in some way, from Adams' impassioned defense of British soldiers during the Boston Massacre trials, to his eventual decision to represent Massachusetts in the Continental Congress, to his hand in declaring independence, to the ongoing debate between him and Jefferson over the obligations of government to citizen.  What's more, each episode brought to life the people, places and events that I would bring up during lectures.  Today, in our unit reflection, I asked the students to identify something from the unit that they had found particularly meaningful or helpful.  Our simulation from several weeks ago was widely cited as a favorite learning activity, as was John Adams.  Here's what a few students had to say:


"I personally loved watching the videos about John Adams. They really helped me a lot and even helped me to understand the documents in DBQ."

"Watching the episodes of John Adams helped me learn much about the US History and how one should sacrifice to have government-associated jobs. I learned how to speak powerfully if I wanted to stand in front of a crowd and give a speech. What "clicked" for me is that John Adams was constantly unbiased and kept going towards his way. However, John Adams could have been more tolerant and patient to listen to others without raging upon them. By visually watching these, I can remember what I have seen and hopefully apply these to real life. Also, it was easy to understand what was going on in that era, rather than reading words on textbooks and trying to memorize them."

"The movie of John Adams helped me visualize what happened during that time, not only the facts and list of things that happened but the emotion, struggle, and drama behind historical events."

"I enjoyed watching the John Adams series, and it helped me see actual people talking about what we discussed with the notes."

"I think the TV series we watched made me realize that the "stories" about the beginning of America was real, and that the Americans were not heroes that fought for freedom, but were human."

"His relationship with his wife was my favorite part. I think we have an image that women were not treated well back then, but John Adams treated his wife as equal."


There's something that rings true about the miniseries in a way that would not happen with other media.  Historical movies often cling either to the extreme of painstaking tedium, or the other extreme of sensational unbelievability.  In other words, either the work is too dry to connect with, or too "Hollywood" to believe.  John Adams finds the happy medium.  The largest historical inaccuracies lie in the passage of time, as well as several particular changes in detail intended to build dramatic effect (for example, Adams is shown to be the tie-breaking vote in the ratification of Jay's Treaty when in reality the treaty was ratified by a larger margin and Adams' vote was not required).  These moments are infrequent enough as to pick them out and wonder as a class why the directors, writers and producers might have changed them.  All in all, it's an honest portrayal of a man who could be at times arrogant, impatient, even harsh with those of whom he disapproved, but whose unflinching integrity and devotion to his country and to his wife are profoundly admirable.  Indeed, I believe it is the front row seat to Adams' very relatable shortcomings that makes his remarkable qualities all the more remarkable.

Today after finishing our unit reflection, we watched the final episode.  Perhaps not as significant as earlier episodes from the standpoint of addressing our stated learning objectives: the episode covers Adams' retirement; the loss of his daughter Nabby to breast cancer, the death of Abigail following a stroke, his rekindled correspondence with Jefferson and his death on July 4, 1826--50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and several hours after Jefferson's passing.  I showed the episode to see the story through, and what a powerful thing that sense of completion is!

As we watched the ravages of age beset people we'd come to know and love, we keenly felt the loss along with them.  Many students, guys and girls alike, could be seen brushing away tears as we watched John Adams hold his dying wife in his arms and beg his "dearest friend" not to leave him behind.  Then, when Adams took his last breath (his final words having been "Jefferson survives"), the classroom was silent but for the sniffling of running noses.  My students--most, anyway--had made a real connection with the past, a connection that was as much intellectual as it was emotional.  This was not an explicit learning objective.  I'm not even sure how I'd phrase something like that.  Yet, there it was.  In this unit, my students learned about the power of words, the criteria of Just War, the rights of man, the workings of government... but I am certain that the relationship they built with John and Abigail Adams will be what gives those understandings staying power.

That is worth five class-days, I think.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Parent-Teacher Conferences: Check In, Clarify and Challenge

I vaguely remember dreading parent-teacher conferences when I was a student.  My parents would go off to school, usually on a weekday evening, and meet with my teachers, and I'd sit at home wondering what my teachers were going to say about me.  My fears were mostly unjustified: my teachers liked me, and my internal lack of motivation must not have manifested itself in ways obvious to them.  Still, there was something intimidating about being left out of the conversation.

For this reason, I deeply, and personally appreciate CAJ's approach to parent-teacher conferences, where the students are not only invited, but required to attend.  I write this blog-post between conferences and have been happy with how these conversations have gone this year.  I attribute this largely to the fact that I have made a point of keeping in contact with the parents since the start of the school-year.

During the first week, I sent the parents my course syllabi; during the second week, I sent the parents the guide for the first unit; when I met the parents on Back-to-School Day in September, all of them already had some idea of what their students were learning in my classes.  For conferences, the parents of my students are coming in as well-informed as they have ever been.

In past years, I would spend a majority of the 7-minute conference time simply filling the parents in on what we have done, what we are doing and what we will do in class.  Just as I would turn the conversation to the particular student, the bell would ring and the parents would need to move on to the next conference.
This year, with the parents already in the loop, my conversations have been primarily with the student, the parents serving as witnesses and hopefully at-home accountability/follow-up.  The purpose of conferences this year has been three-fold: to check in, to clarify, and to challenge.

Firstly, I begin the conference by checking in with the student: how are they feeling about the way class is going; what learning activities have been particularly helpful; how are certain long-term assignments coming along (especially for my AP students); what book has the student chosen for Guided Outside Reading?  Checking in gives me a quick read on how a student is doing beyond what I see in my grade book and also gives me a sense of their perceptions of me and my class.  It also serves as a reminder, in the event that the student has not gotten started on their G.O.R., or their AP reading logs.  The reminder is directed toward the students, but when the parents become aware of a specific task that their child should be working on, there will be a higher chance that the student will start early, if only to appease their parents' persistent queries.

Secondly, I clarify assignments or policies from class.  This year, I have put a lot of energy into clarifying the "understandings" category in my grade book.  I introduced this to the whole class early in the year, but now I have the chance to make sure the students are on the same page as I am.  I invite each student to email me at any time, to schedule a meeting on any understanding they wish to improve.  I now rest assured that the students are at least aware of the opportunity; whether they will avail themselves of the opportunity remains to be seen.

Finally, I challenge the students in areas of struggle.  For several students, this area has been timeliness, and the challenge has gone hand-in-hand with an offer of help in planning a schedule and budgeting out time.  For other students, the area has been reading comprehension, and I have been able to provide specific recommendations for books to read, or for strategies to use while reading.  For other students still, the weak area has been their direction as they write and I provide a verbal reminder of comments that I'd left on their essays.  Again, to discuss these areas of need with the students in this context is to invite the parents into the solution as agents of accountability.

Of course, there's a bit more to the conferences than the three C's; I make a point of encouraging the student on something, whether an aspect of their work, a comment they have made in class, perhaps even something I've observed outside of the classroom, but I've always tried to do this.  The three Cs are new, and are a product of my increased communication with the parents.  For the first time in my career, these three days of conferences felt intimately connected to our regular instructional days, and rather than feeling like an unwelcome disruption, they felt like a profoundly meaningful opportunity to reflect and to look ahead.  I will endeavor to maintain these lines of communication with the parents as the year goes on--it is a valuable partnership and one which I firmly believe will foster true understanding and true growth.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Teaching Using Simulations

One of my best experiences in college (and the reason I majored in history) was participating in a simulation of the French Revolution in Western Civ. during my freshman year.

I'd be the first to admit that I was a lazy student in high school; it did not take me much effort to graduate with a 3.81 GPA and my mentality was "why work harder when I'm doing well?"  I even voluntarily took an A- instead of an 'A' in a Senior class by opting not to do an semi-optional report (semi-optional meaning that we could choose not to do it, but in choosing not to, would not be able to achieve higher than a 95%, which was an A-).  I liked the class, and I liked the teacher, I just wasn't altogether motivated.

Then came college, and the simulation.  Suddenly, I was in charge of the Parisian mob and I needed not only to be able to quote Rousseau, but to use Rousseau like a cudgel against the corrupt clergy and nobility.  I stayed up all night editing my faction's newspaper several times, pulling out all the stops that I'd learned on the high school newspaper staff to make our publication the best.  It wasn't just me--our entire class was so engrossed in this simulation that we even agreed to meet at 7:30 a.m., half an hour earlier than our usual meeting time, when we realized we were going to run out of time.  Our class' experience was actually featured in a book by Dr. Mark Carnes, the Barnard professor who created the simulation.  Carnes, who has designed several other simulations as part of his "Reacting to the Past" series, posits that simulations hold the key to transforming lackluster college classes.

Personally, I'm turning my attention to my high schoolers.  There must be students like me.  There must be students who are disengaged, who see little purpose in trying beyond passing.  I want to give them what my professor gave me: something to spark their interest, to make them want to understand for understanding's own sake.

Last year, in teaching about the formation of the U.S. Government, I designed a loose one-day simulation which called for the students to establish a system of governance for the fictional country of Humanistan, which had many parallels with the United States, circa 1790.  The activity was fun and the kids did get into it as I'd hoped.  However, there was not quite enough structure to make the learning outcomes worthwhile, and I was half-amused, half-dismayed to see several enterprising students use the lack of structure to form a coalition through which the North ganged up on the South and coerced them into agreement.

This year, I sat down with my Humanistan simulation and performed painstaking reconstructive surgery.  My first decision was to toss out my creative and intricately designed Humanistan map, which I'd spent hours designing the previous year.  It was fun, it was cute, but it was not a perfect analogy for the United States, and the energy spent pointing out the parallels to the real U.S. could have gone toward other things.  The second choice was to give each state specific objectives, each with a point value assigned.

Here is the role sheet I gave to the delegates from Massachusetts, for example:
Population: 378,787 (0 slaves)
Description: You are part of the region commonly referred to as “New England.”  The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1630, later combining with the colony of Plymouth to form modern-day Massachusetts.  Your climate has short, mild summers, and long cold winters, with the positive result of less disease than many other, warmer colonies.  Your terrain primarily consists of jagged coastline and forested hills: less than ideal for farming, but very conducive to ship-building and trade.  Massachusetts is the proud home to Harvard University, founded in 1636.  You also hold the distinction for having led the Revolution, and currently you are on another cutting edge: yours is the first state to completely abolish slavery and you are the leaders of a small but growing abolition movement in the nation.  Your heart longs to see slavery eradicated from the face of the earth.  You are in favor of expanding the powers and role of the federal (central) government as you believe only a strong central government will bring about the unity needed for the growth and success of America.  As such, you believe that states ought to be represented according to population.  You also support a two-house legislature and the establishment of a national bank to help pay off debts.  Even if the other states are not ready to immediately abolish slavery, you are desperate to see some decision made on the matter. 

You will earn points if the following resolutions are passed:
+Representation by population (+4 points)
+Slavery abolished immediately (+3 points)
+National Bank Established (+2 points)
+Two-house legislature (+1 point)

You will lose points if…
-Slaves count toward the number of delegates (-1 point)
-Only states may pass protective tariffs (-2 points)
-One-house legislature (-3 points)
-The issue of slavery is not voted on at all (-4 points)
The students' task was to respond to the Virginia Plan, which proposed a bicameral legislature with the representation of both houses determined by population.  Students were assigned two to a state, asked to think through their state's priorities, and to talk to each other, to make deals and eventually create a plan that would be widely approved.  My goals were three-fold: firstly, to prepare the students for an upcoming DBQ in which they would address the shift in American perspective on government in the years leading up to the Constitutional Convention; secondly, to have the students consider firsthand what a government owes its citizenry; thirdly, to have the students engage in the sort of compromise that will characterize much of the content of the next unit in class to recognize its benefits and pitfalls.

The experience was a success: it took the students a little bit of time to figure out that they would not be able to get a perfect 10 points, that they would have to give up some things they wanted and agree to some things that they did not want, and that the only way to move forward was to get up from their desk and talk to the other states.  Every student was engaged.  The most fun was seeing students who are typically shy become major facilitators.  How did that happen?  I called for it in the role.  I made one of New Jersey's objectives be to write up a new plan (which actually happened in history), and as such they had to 1) Talk to every state in the assembly (a 4 point penalty if they failed to do so) and 2) Listen to what the other states wanted and write up a plan which would present a compromise (worth 2 points).  The girls who I'd assigned to represent New Jersey went a little pale when I explained this part to them, but they rose to the occasion masterfully.  It's worth noting that I told the students at the outset that they wouldn't be graded on the simulation and they still dove in anyway!

The students approved a plan which called for a two-house legislature with representation by population in one house and representation by state in the other; slaves would be counted toward the total population in determining delegates; and a national army would be raised.  Separately, Massachusetts unsuccessfully lobbied for the abolition of slavery.  While there are things I will change or fine-tune for next year, I was pleased with how this turned out and felt validated in my high opinion of classroom simulations.

In past years, I always struggled to introduce information about legislature and checks and balances to students who may be totally unfamiliar with American government and who may never live in America.  This year, the students understand--they lived it, if only for 100 minutes.  I don't care if they remember the specific terms and indeed I won't test them; what I'll look for on their DBQ is an understanding of why such a government took shape, and in coming units, we will look at the results (both positive and negative) of the government created at that Constitutional Convention.  This, in my mind, is a vital part of our ongoing discussion about justice, for indeed, government can be (and has been) the source of both justice and injustice, not only in America but all around the world.  The discussion on compromise will come back in full force later when we talk about the Civil War.  Maybe that will be a good time for the next simulation...

Friday, October 17, 2014

Intro to Wilderness Survival & Servant Leadership

"Equipping students to impact the world for Christ."  One thing that I think makes CAJ such a special place is how committed the administration and staff are to making this school mission statement our genuine mission; a goal towards which every aspect of our curriculum is working (ideally, anyway).  This next bit is crucial: our leadership team understands that some things are learned more effectively outside of the classroom setting.  
School Without Walls (referred to as "SWOW" in CAJ shorthand) falls during the first full week of October each year.  The 9th graders conduct team-building and service initiatives on campus and around the Higashi Kurume area, the 10th graders travel to Lake Yamanaka near Mt. Fuji to deepen their understanding of the natural world and our obligation to care for the environment, and the 12th graders travel north to Ishinomaki (the area most affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami) to assist in service projects.  
The 11th graders embark on a four-day, three-night hiking trip in the mountains west of Tokyo.  This is the trip that I know best, as I've accompanied as a chaperon five times now.  I've written a detailed description of Wilderness Camp before, and will not endeavor to do so again.  My intent in this blog-post is to discuss the curricular value of such an experience.
All of these trips, 9th grade through 12th grade, are designed to prepare the students for a week-long mission trip to Thailand in March of their Senior Year; to cultivate a heart of service in addition to providing opportunities to serve.
The focus of the 11th grade Wilderness Camp is Servant Leadership.  This is broken down into three main emphases: Leadership, Follower-ship and Personal Integrity.  
This year, I had the privilege of co-leading with the colleague who developed the Wilderness Camp curriculum, and who has played a major role in developing the SWOW curriculum as a whole.  With this in mind, I made a point of looking for the big picture this year--something that can be quite difficult in the moment when the kids are tired and hungry, and struggling to set up camp, and daylight is fading fast.  What I saw was tremendously encouraging.  The kids learn valuable lessons about leadership, follower-ship and integrity firsthand as they hike.  
Each student has two chances to lead the rest of the group, paired with another student.  The student leaders must figure out when to take breaks, and for how long, when to eat lunch, what order the students should hike in, where to camp for the night, how best to set up camp and prepare dinner, how to build and maintain team morale and other duties that I'm likely forgetting.  The first day is often a shock for the students, many of whom have never hiked before, have never been truly hungry before, and have never been away from their screens for more than a few waking hours before.  Often the students' knee-jerk reaction to the sudden introduction of these challenges is to turn their attention inward.  Even if they are not complaining, they have a difficult time looking out for the needs of their teammates.  This is a normal human response to difficulty, really.  However, through intentional debriefing and discussion each night, as well as ongoing discussion about the various components of servant leadership (divided into themes for each day), the students come to recognize the importance of selflessness, graciousness and outward focus to the success of the team as a whole.  In living out the real and at-times painful case study of hiking in the woods as a group, the students internalize lessons about servant leadership which would have been purely academic in any other setting.
By the end of the week, our debrief discussions were lively and insightful; the students had really connected with the the week's themes.  I am excited to see how these lessons translate back into the classroom as the school-year goes on, and I hope that the lessons will endure just as much as the memory of wilderness camp itself!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Unwritten Story

This evening, Tomomi was cleaning out the closet while I worked on prep for the coming week.  She found the notebook that I brought to Japan back in 2009 (back when I still used a spiral-bound notebook).  Leafing through was a trip down memory lane.  One thing in particular stood out to me: an introduction to a book that my brother, several friends and I had started writing in Summer of 2008.  I think the introduction is pretty good, myself!  Here's the introduction to "We Must Be Monsters".  I hold out hope that someday when we all retire from our respective careers, we'll sit down and finish this or one of the several other stories we've started writing over the years.

Thinking back to middle school, it's not hard to remember who the popular kids were.  They could run faster, jump higher, and sink the game-winning shots.  When they spoke, everyone listened.  Where they lead, everyone followed.  Maybe you were one of them, one of these playground deities.  Or, maybe you were like me.  If I'd been one of those kids, I probably wouldn't be telling this story today.  My name is Curtis Baker, and I'm a follower.  Always was.  Sure, people liked me well enough.  I treated others decently, and they returned the courtesy.  
Still, every once in a while, one of us gets the chance to do something great, to be someone important.  Under extraordinary circumstances, we humans are capable of surprising things.  Popularity and schoolyard cliques are broken down, shuffled and re-dealt.  Everyone has a role to play, and it's not always what you might expect.  For us, that extraordinary circumstance was the cave.

Much of the brainstorming having slipped my mind over the past six years, I found myself wanting to read the story and find out what was so important about the cave, and what happened to Curtis Baker.  I guess that's a good sign we wrote a decent intro!  Reading this encouraged me not to give up on my dream of writing a book someday, even if it doesn't happen until many years from now!

Friday, October 3, 2014

#Patrick Henry

Let me begin with a confession: the idea of teaching reading terrifies me.

I LOVE teaching speaking skills.
I remember so vividly how it felt to fear public speaking, and I'll never forget how liberating a feeling it was to become not only comfortable with public speaking, but to actually enjoy it.  I have a passion for sharing this with my students.
I love teaching writing a little bit more each year.
I've always loved writing, and in school, I was generally very good at it, though I was incredibly disorganized until my sophomore year of college, when I learned to write a thesis.  The older I get, the more comfortable I find myself with teaching writing skills, particularly related to organization of ideas.
Teaching reading, on the other hand...
I'm a slow reader.  Literature classes provided no shortage of infuriation and frustration for me when I was younger.  I didn't read just for fun for the first time until after high school.  Don't misunderstand me: I love reading.  I've just always felt ill-equipped to teach reading.

This goes doubly when it comes to writings from the 18th or 19th century; texts that are outdated even to native English speakers' ears, and which can be downright baffling to anyone who has learned English as an additional language.  In our current unit, we are studying rhetoric and the topic of the day on Thursday was subtext.
As I wrestled with how on earth I would teach subtext with Revolutionary-Era speeches, I asked myself how I would manage to work through Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech.  I realized that the first step would need to be to break the speech down into manageable chunks.   The second step would need to be identifying the tone or underlying idea of each chunk.  Suddenly, it dawned on me: this is exactly what people do on Twitter!  Subtext can be tricky to identify, except on Twitter, where the subtext is brought to the surface through hashtags.  With that point of reference in mind, I crafted an activity in which the kids would need to view Patrick Henry's speech as though it were a series of tweets, and their task would be to come up with hashtags.

For this activity, I posted the speech on Moodle and had the kids respond with their hashtags using Moodle's discussion function.  To make this more manageable, I limited the online discussion groups to six, so the students would not have to read every classmate's post.  As the students posted their hashtags over the course of roughly half an hour, I compiled them, copying and pasting into the text-box on Tagxedo (an online word-cloud generator).  The students were completely engaged and trying to think of better and sharper hashtags as they read on.  In nearly six years of teaching, I've never heard my students so into a piece of Revolutionary writing!  When all was said and done, here were the word-clouds generated in my 1st period English class and my 3rd-4th period Humanities class, respectively:

For the first time, I now recognize the potential for fun in teaching reading skills.  It's not quite as intimidating, the idea, not quite so distasteful as it was in the past.  I hope I can continue to develop strategies as engaging as this one as the year goes on!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Understanding is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Why can't skill-based grades reveal achievement in an understanding-based subject?

This is the question I wish I'd been asking five years ago as I was making my first grading scale.  Over my teaching career, I've graded on such categories as writing, presentations, projects, participation, tests and general homework.  These are all important things to assess... the problem is, they are all primarily skill-based.  A good writer can occasionally mask a lack of understanding through their organization and eloquence--I speak from experience here--and even if is clear that they do not really understand, their high marks in the technical aspects of writing will offset weak understanding to at least some extent.  The same goes for eloquent speakers, artistic project-designers, and savvy test-takers.  On the flip side, students who may understand perfectly, but struggle with the skill-set necessary to complete the assessment are unlikely to be accurately represented either.  I was confronted with the fact that none of these categories purely get at what a student understands; not really.

This year, I decided to include Understanding as a category in my Humanities grade-book all on its own.  Each unit has between three and five enduring understandings: big takeaways based on the departmental objectives.

There will be at least one official assessment for each understanding, often two.  For example, in this first unit on "Conquest, Colonists and a City on a Hill", one of the enduring understandings revolved around the reciprocal relationship between trade and demand.  Demand leads to the establishment of trading relationships, which in turn lead to new and higher demands.  The first assessment on this was a test.  Most of the test consisted of different economic scenarios for the students to respond to.  When I graded the test, I entered the scores under the "Trade & Demands" heading of the "Understanding" category in my grade-book.
The second assessment required the students to select a contemporary nation and conduct basic research into the top imports, exports, and GDP, as well as the relationship between the nation's economy and culture/lifestyle.  I explained to the students that while everybody needed to complete the contemporary economics posting for a completion credit, they could opt to have me evaluate their posting more deeply if they felt it to be a better representation of their understanding of economics than the test revealed.  I told them that if they scored higher on the economics posting, I would replace their test score with the posting score.  Several students took me up on this offer right away and did a beautiful job of researching and sharing about the economies of such varied nations as India, Qatar, Russia, Hong Kong, Argentina and Japan.
We wrapped up our unit today with a journal reflection, in which I asked the students to respond to the big questions we'd covered over the past month.  This was another opportunity for the students to demonstrate their understanding--I told the students that I'd only assign a specific grade to their journal if they felt it was a better representation of their understanding than anything earlier in the unit.
Finally, I informed the students that if they were dissatisfied with any of their "Understanding" scores, they could schedule a time to meet and conference with me: either to discuss a better way to demonstrate their understanding, or to actually demonstrate to me verbally that they understand what I hoped they would.

I want to give as many chances as the students need to reveal their understanding, because I, myself, understand something now that I did not understand five years ago: understanding is not a zero-sum game.  If they don't "get" a concept on the test at the start of the year, I shouldn't etch that into the grade-book in stone; rather I should mark it in with pencil, with the hope and expectation that the student will correct their misunderstanding and come back to me later, ready to show that they've studied, thought, and grown in their understanding.  My desire is to see the students grow and gain understanding, and I want the grades to reflect this rather than reflect the errors that accompanied the earliest trials.  After all, understanding can be won.  Sometimes the battle is fierce and exhausting, but even a loss does not mean that the war is over.

I've already seen positive responses to my new system and I am looking forward to watching this play out over the course of the entire year.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Breaking Writing Down

It is that time of year again.  This week, the thermometer finally settled at a livable temperature, crispy yellow leaves began to fall from the cherry trees in our school plaza, parents gathered for our annual "Back-to-School Day", and the 11th graders set to work on their first major essay of the year.

In the past, I viewed essays as a largely independent endeavor: naturally, the students should be responsible for starting and making progress on their own time!  If I were merely teaching content, this might be true.  However, as I considered the skills I would be assessing this time (in particular, thesis and direction), I realized that I needed to give the students ample opportunity to practice.  After all, most of the students had not written a thesis statement, or an essay, for that matter, since their major 10th Grade "Who Am I" paper in the Spring.  What's more, students new to CAJ might never have written a thesis statement before, in which case this opportunity to learn is crucial!

With this in mind, I had my students engage in a thesis writing exercise in the 2nd week of school, following our discussion of labels, and how stories help us move beyond such assumptions.  Using an intuitive journalling tool on Moodle (the program we use for online classes), I had the students choose a prompt and write only an introductory paragraph, including a thesis.  Making my life easier, this particular Moodle function has a box for feedback under each student's submission.  I spent an hour reading through and commenting on each student's introduction.

Fast-forward to this week.  The rough draft of the first essay is due next week and remembering the panicked questions and emails that I would typically receive the day before an essay was due in past years, I decided to make use of the Moodle journal tool yet again.

Yesterday, I had my students write the introductory paragraph to their unit essay.  I found myself giving higher-level feedback than I had the first time around, and seeing (overall) a trend of improvement. For example, rather than finding myself needing to remind the students what a thesis was countless times (as has happened in previous years), I gave suggestions for how to make the main points develop more logically, or how to rephrase an idea to make it stronger.  Today, I asked the students to use their thesis to write up a brief outline of their body paragraphs, and to begin filling in possible support for each point.  While each student ended in a slightly different place, I no longer have to deal with the sneaking fear that students are putting off work for a big assignment in my class, as I put off work for so many of my own teachers' classes when I was in school.

For the first time ever, I caught myself thinking, "If only I'd had a teacher like me when I was in school!"  I mean this to be neither arrogant on my own part nor unduly disparaging to the English teachers I did have.  I just don't have any recollection that any of my English teachers ever walked us through writing as a process.  I'd find out only upon receiving a final grade that my thesis was either poor or completely absent, as though I should have been magically able to conjure up something I hadn't received direct, timely feedback on.  I cannot judge my teachers too harshly for this; after all, I failed to provide this kind of feedback to several years' worth of my own students.  On Tuesday, I will have my students workshop one of their body paragraphs in class, and then the essay itself is due on Wednesday.  I am excited--if these rough draft essays are the product of feedback and several days of effort, they will be leagues ahead of the rough draft essays I have received in the past, many of which were the product of a frenzied last-minute rush and quite likely a lot of caffeine.  I will have a clearer picture of what my students learned; what they are capable of; and what I can challenge them to work on for the final draft.

Grading is usually one of my least favorite parts of teaching, but this time, I genuinely cannot wait to sit down and read what the students come up with!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Teaching With Integrity... again

On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-June, I slumped in the chair by my desk in my newly-empty classroom, exhausted and a bit discouraged.  I sorted through my thoughts in a blog-post in which I concluded that over the course of three years, I'd drifted from my true self in my teaching.  This summer, as I studied and applied various other crucial aspects of teaching to my curriculum design, I aslo mulled over what I could do to teach with integrity.

On the first day of class, I delivered an "inaugural address" to my students in which I promised I would give them my very best, if I was going to be asking them to give their very best.  I vowed that I would sing, tell stories, give speeches, do voices, play characters, and write, all in the name of teaching.  Of course, these things require both risk and effort, so in essence, I was vowing to pour myself into my teaching at every turn.  I told the students that they were my witnesses to this vow and issued them an invitation and a challenge to join me on the risky, joyful path of integrity.

Three weeks in, I now look back and reflect on how I am doing thus far:

Singing: I sang "Colors of the Wind" to illustrate the theme of the "Noble Savage"--completely a-capella, the whole darn thing.  I got thunderous applause and cheers both times, though I'm not sure if they were clapping for my performance or because the song had finally ended ;)  Either way, it was a show-stopper, man.

Story-telling: I tell stories often--probably daily--but likely the highlight was telling the story of one of my own teachers from high school, who responded to a student miss the garbage can by dumping the entire trash can onto the middle of the floor.  I used this story to teach how to use movement, gestures and tone to bring a scene to life while telling a story.

Giving speeches: Obviously, I opened the year with the inaugural address I mentioned earlier, but I also delivered a 5-minute speech on becoming people of justice, which is our major course theme.

Doing voices: This happens almost every day, but just yesterday as my students were divided into three groups researching the different regions of the colonies, I tried my best to talk to them in the accents from their respective regions.  My Georgia accent was the best.

Playing characters: After the students had finished their research on the colonial region they'd been assigned to, I asked them to represent their colony at a convention during the next class period.  I found a cardboard crown and a robe in my classroom closet and put on a pompous, affected accent to play the role of a generic King of England.  I then personally interrogated each group in character regarding the society, economy and challenges within their respective colonies.  This morning, I wore a long coat and played the role of a Puritan school-teacher as my English 11 students spent a class period in a Puritan school-house, studying the Puritan Primer, Anne Bradstreet and John Winthrop.  I did my very best Alan Rickman-as-Severus Snape impersonation to make the dour severity of this role come alive.

Writing: Aside from attempting to blog with greater regularity, I've also written along with the students several times.  When I assigned them to write a one-sided dialogue poem addressing stereotypes, I did so, too, with my computer hooked up to the projector so they could see me wrestle with the writing process.  This week, as we took a class period to work-shop introductory paragraph/thesis statement-writing, I wrote an introductory paragraph of my own (even walking away from my computer to manually mark up my writing, which was projected onto the white-board).

All in all, it's been a wonderful start to the year.  I'm putting a lot more work into my teaching than I can ever remember investing in the past, but the pay-off is incalculable.  I have a genuine sense of joy in each class I teach, and the students are responding very well to what I am doing.  Though the extra time I spend in preparation has come at the expense of activities that had been important to me in the past, the sacrifice has been completely worthwhile.  I recognize that these gifts are not native to me, but have been entrusted to me by God.  To not use them would be poor stewardship on my part.

For the first-time, I feel like my teaching matches where I am in life.  I am truly happy with the work I am doing, and will continue to strive to teach with integrity to who I am.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Community Through Story, Part II

The students closed this school-week by sharing their own stories in class on Thursday and Friday.  I'd intentionally made the prompt somewhat vague: the kids simply needed to relate one or several watershed moments in their lives that brought them to where they are today (whether that be an explanation of how they came to CAJ in a geographical sense, or talking about events that shaped them into the people they are).
What an incredible variety of stories we heard!  We listened to stories about moving across the country, we listened to stories about moving across the world.  We listened to stories about struggles fitting in, we listened to stories about the power of friendship.  We listened to stories about speech impediments, learning disabilities, torn ACLs, and the sting of not making Varsity basketball.  We heard stories that made us laugh and stories that made us cry.  Nobody was tuned out; nobody was sleeping; nobody was furtively working on something else.  Everyone was riveted.
We started school only ten days ago, but 1st period English 11 and 3rd-4th period Humanities 11 no longer feel like new and unfamiliar groups chaotically clustered by dint of fate and scheduling.  Instead, these groups have become communities.  When we hear another person's story, a piece of their experience becomes part of our story.  When we laugh with someone, we are invited into the joke.  When we cry with someone, their hurts become ours.  It can be terrifying to be so vulnerable, but the result is a connection nourished by empathy.
My students' newfound appreciation of their class community will be tested next week as we gain two new students, and another new student returns after nearly two weeks away.  Will my students apply what they've learned?  Will they seek out and listen to the stories of these new classmates?  Will they make the space for these students to tell their stories?

Perhaps not everyone will, but I am confident that many will.  I saw inclusion happening around me today after my classes were over: an invitation for a new student to sit with the Junior group in Study Hall; an ever-so-slight shuffling of seats in the cafeteria; conversations between classmates who usually do not talk to each other.  I am satisfied with how this year has started, and I firmly believe I've found my stride as a teacher after several years of trial and what sometimes felt like lots of error.  As I finish this blog-post at Tully's on Friday evening, I am exhausted on many levels and my eyelids are heavy.  I will cherish a weekend of rest at home with my wife.  Yet, I'm also excited to dive into the next week of school.  It's wonderful to look forward to each day!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Community Through Story

"I never knew Mrs. A. was a legendary prankster--she always seemed so quiet to me!"
"I'm gonna ask Mr. F for a story, I bet he has some good ones!"
"Did you know that one time Ms. L drove her motorcycle down the elementary hallway of the last school she taught at?"
Did you know Mrs. E. had a summer job where she had to cut up chicken parts?!"
"Oh my goodness... Mrs. F's proposal story..."

These were snippets of conversations that I heard in my classroom over the past few days.

With the overarching theme for 11th grade Humanities and English being "Becoming People of Justice", our first unit focuses in on what it means to live in community (more specifically, what it means to live as a genuine "City on a Hill").  Our first discussions brought us into confrontation with labels and assumptions--not only the labels used by others to define us, or the assumptions which others make about us based on our appearance, culture, family or interests, but also the biases we harbor, often unbeknownst to even ourselves.

We agreed that to push beyond our own biases, our own human tendency to categorize and label even the people around us, we absolutely need to get to know our neighbors and allow them to get to know us.

With this goal in mind, I turned the students loose on a pair of assignments related to story:
The first requires the students to prepare to tell their classmates how they came to be in the class of 2016 at CAJ.
The second requires the students to collect 6 stories from people in their lives--two from CAJ staff, two from classmates, two from family members--and write a brief summary of each.

I gave my students Post-it Notes which would serve as Story Collecting Hall Passes, and sent them out on a different kind of scavenger hunt.

I strolled the halls and was pleased to see groups of students listening raptly to not only their teachers, but also librarians, administration and office staff as these staff members shared significant stories from their own lives.

The excitement in the air was palpable and it was clear that each student emerged with a deeper understanding of the staff member they talked to, confirming that there is, indeed, more to people than meets the eye.

The students agreed during our class discussion that chipping away at bias and rising above labels and assumptions would require making an effort to get to know others.  Then they did just that, and found that what had only been an idea from an in-class discussion had become a reality.

My takeaways from the success of this assignment are two-fold:
First, this assignment would not have had the weight that it did without backward design.  Without being rooted in our unit goal of building community and our course goal of pursuing justice, this may have come across as a fluff-piece.  Because the assignment came after identifying and discussing our bigger goals, and after wrestling with the problems presented by bias and stereotypes, the action had a more profound meaning for the students.

Second, there's so much power in giving students the opportunity to apply what they learn.  Even more-so when it happens on a community level.  If our learning had ended with the discussion, I might have been satisfied.  After all, it was a good discussion.  However, as the weeks roll on, I wonder what kind of staying power the ideas from a discussion on the second day of class would have had.  I doubt the students will forget the stories they heard any time soon.  The stories they collect will be a link to the understanding they uncovered in our discussion; a means to ensure that they remember this small piece of what it means to build community; what it means to be people of justice.  Why?  Because the assignment called for them to actively build community.

I am excited to apply this realization to upcoming units, to make sure that each learning experience rings with the authenticity needed to cement the understandings arrived at in class.

All in all, it was a good first week!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Initiating Year 7

Because I first came to CAJ part-way through the '08-'09 school-year, measuring my time here has always been somewhat murky.  Do I round up or do I round down?  Part of me is motivated to round down, because I didn't start as a classroom teacher until the following August.  Recently, however, I've felt a stronger urge to round up.  I realized that this will be the 7th school-year I have been a part of at CAJ; the 7th High School Community Group I will advise; the 7th Senior Talent Show I'll watch; the 7th graduation I will attend.  For all intents and purposes, I'm calling this year 7, even though my six-year anniversary of arriving in Japan is not until January.

Today was orientation day, which entailed class mixer games, book check-outs, the annual fire-escape drill, and a brief assembly in the gym.  It was a day that somehow managed to be laid-back and brimming with excitement; perhaps a fitting transition from summer into the new school year.  This evening, I sent out an email to students who wish to join AP English, but made the decision just now and therefore missed out on the summer reading I had assigned back in May.  I explained that the summer reading/writings would be due at the end of September, and then offered to help the students plan out a schedule for finishing their work on time, if they wanted.

To my surprise, I had several responses within half an hour, asking if I would help them organize a work-schedule.  My first thought was "Wait, since when was I in a position to help anybody with organization?"  I am notoriously disorganized, myself, though I think the "method" shines through the madness just a bit more brightly with each passing year.  My second thought was, "I wonder how many of my non-AP students need help organizing their schedules?"  I may make this a standing offer going into the school-year.  I want my students to succeed, and perhaps the obstacle for some is not a lack of motivation or understanding, but rather a struggle to plan or organize their time... a struggle to which I can definitely relate!

I approach this task (and my 7th year of teaching as a whole) with awe and humility.  I am grateful that God sees fit to use even crooked sticks to clear a straight path!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Reflection on the value of teaching from a Biblical worldview

This is a reflection I wrote on the importance of worldview in education (and the impossibility of "neutral" teaching) for one of my Master's courses:

And the house on the sand went SPLAT! While my NIV words this a bit differently, Jesus’ point remains the same: foundation matters. The core beliefs that we choose to build our lives around? These matter. Moreover, it is clear that there is always a foundation. We cannot help but build on something. This is why a claim of neutral teaching is as ludicrous as a carpenter claiming that they can build a mansion atop a cloud. No indeed, every teacher is building on something--some set of core beliefs which filter, shape and inform every aspect of our classroom. The popular claim of neutrality in public school education is not only impossible, but in fact destructive, and it is crucial for Christian teachers to make sure that the Bible provides the basis for their teaching. 

It is both fascinating and disheartening that the myth of a neutral public education persists. There are few in education today who would not acknowledge the influence of Dewey on modern public education. Even elementary school children pick up something of Dewey as they learn to navigate their school libraries. And, none can deny that Dewey himself was anything but neutral on the subject of religion. Why, then, do contemporary proponents of public education so effortlessly ignore the influence that Dewey’s anti-religious views have had on public education? Why do people, whether principal, professor, pupil, politician or parent find it so easy to take a carving knife to Dewey’s beliefs and demarcate those which have endured in education and those which haven’t?  Dr. Robert Marzano tried to do exactly this in a 1992 speech by separating Dewey’s worldview from his views of education. In another, later context, Marzano acknowledged that worldview and teaching are inextricably bound. One can almost hear the masses try to justify the discrepancy: Oh, of course, this is a logical thing to suggest in general... but surely it cannot be true in Dewey’s case! For some reason, this seems to be the predominant perspective on public education. Unfortunately, under the compelling guise of neutrality, faith has been trivialized by insistent and inconsistent removal from the classroom. Insistent because anything that whiffs of Christianity is swiftly stifled, and inconsistent because so many other worldviews are given time and consideration not given to Christianity. The result is that a century’s worth of children have received an education that they are told is fair and unbiased in its perspective, but which actually paints the world with colors disdainful of faith. Worldview and education are inseparable--what we believe shapes what we teach, how we teach, even why we teach. So what, then, are we teaching, as Christian educators? 

We criticize the compartmentalization conducted by Dewey’s followers as they draw a line between his personal beliefs and his teaching, and yet many Christian educators fall into the same trap. We pray, we do devotions, but then our actual teaching may be indistinguishable in practice from teaching in the public school classroom. I have some personal experience with this: in my first few years, I never intentionally started planning with Biblical principles in mind and as a result, had to tag on a Christian perspective later. Aside from those tags, which felt about as relevant as hangnails, my teaching was secular. This was perhaps the most meaningful discovery I made during the process of creating my curriculum map for one of my Master’s courses last summer: as I properly engaged in backward design for the first time, I realized that I was not allowing my beliefs to enter into the equation until far too late. The project offered a wake-up call and an opportunity to do better: for each unit, as I crafted my essential questions and enduring understandings, I tried to determine the Biblical perspectives which lay at the foundation of my own beliefs about each topic. When I made these principles a core part of my curriculum, they came up organically in class, and wove through the curriculum in a way that they hadn’t before. The Bible simply has to be our foundation, our starting place, as we build our curriculum. Of course, we have standards and goals that are given to us that we need to build around, but these are not antithetical to a Biblical worldview. Rather, our task is to interpret these goals through the lens of our Biblical worldview and let that drive our planning, our assessment and our instruction. 

Going forward, I am committed to making sure that my teaching is distinctly Christian and that I am actually fostering Christian thinking and Christian action rather than just stapling on a perfunctory Christian Post-it. My students will not remember everything that I teach. In fact, it’s likely that 10 years from now, much of the content will have escaped them. What they won’t forget is how I taught them; what will stick with them even years later is the foundation that I impart to them. I better make it good.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Review: "S" by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

The glossy black book jacket has an ornate letter "S" across the front, but when you remove the book, you find a simple, gray, worn-looking library book from 1949: The Ships of Theseus by V.M. Straka.

Opening the book, you can't help but do a double-take, because the margins are filled with scribblings in black and blue ink: a written conversation between two strangers who have found the book and are trying to get to the bottom of the enigmatic circumstances surrounding Straka, about whom there are many theories.

Meet "S": the protagonist in The Ships of Theseus, an amnesiac man on a quest to discover his identity.

Meet Straka: the author and suspected anarchist whose identity is shrouded in mystery, the only apparent clues to which have been left behind in his writings.

Meet F.X. Caldiera: Straka's translator and editor who seems to be leaving coded messages in the footnotes.

Most importantly, meet Jen and Eric.  She's a college senior who found the book during her shift working in the library, and he's the Straka-obsessed ex-graduate student who left the book.  Read along with Jen and Eric as they puzzle through the novel, the footnotes and the dozen supplemental materials they've left in the book, including a clipping from the college newspaper, postcards from a faraway place, a napkin with a map sketched on it, and much more.  Watch as the duo realizes that the mysteries surrounding Straka are much more sinister than they ever imagined, even to their own endangerment.

Truly J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst have done something special here.  Abrams, of course, is best known as the TV producer and filmmaker responsible for creating "LOST", as well as directing the recent "Star Trek" films, not to mention the upcoming "Star Wars" sequel.  While Abrams' film credentials may be a turn-off for some avid readers, it is clear that he has a deep and abiding appreciation for the written word.  In an interview, Abrams revealed that the inspiration for S came from an airport layover years ago where he picked up a book that had been left on a seat at the boarding gate, and found a written message inside instructing whoever found the book to enjoy it and then leave it for someone else.  In Doug Dorst, novelist and professor of creative writing at Texas State University, Abrams found the right writer to realize his vision.

The reading experience is richly layered: one story unfolding in the text, another in the footnotes, another in the margins, and all three somehow connected.  The Ships of Theseus itself is a surreal and at-times creepy polemic against heartless corporations, rich with subtext that is not always immediately decipherable.  The footnotes are alternatively informative and fallacious, and serve to paint a back-story not only for Straka, but also for Caldiera, the editor.  Jen and Eric's conversation in the margins helps to illuminate both the novel and the footnotes as they immerse themselves in the collective body of Straka's works, researching what they can about the author and the editor and sharing their findings in several passes through the book.  The reader can even tell the chronology of the margin notes based on the color of ink used by Jen and Eric.  First, blue and black, next green and orange, etc.

I found it impossible to put the book down, but unlike Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was unable to finish this in one sitting.  In fact, it took me 10 days to finish S.  Though it is not a particularly long book (at roughly 450 pages), it is a long read.  Each page spread took between 5 and 10 minutes to read, depending whether or not there were footnotes, and on the amount of margin notes.  It does not take long for the reader to become immersed in the mysteries around Straka, just as Jen and Eric have, and that makes the time and effort seem worthwhile.

I rarely write book reviews, and I tend to only do so when I find a concept creative and worth commending.  The last review I wrote was for David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas several years ago.  Like Cloud Atlas, S presents the reader with an imaginative and brilliant premise which involves versatile writing on the author's part.  Each piece of the book is so distinct: Straka's personality comes through in his novel, Caldiera's personality comes through in the footnotes, and Jen's personality comes through in her loopy cursive script and Eric's personality comes through in his neat and orderly handwriting.  As someone who takes a deep joy in writing, I cannot help but admire a work such as this one, imaginative, thoughtfully planned and versatilely written as it is.

I would highly recommend S to anybody who loves reading for the sake of reading, or writing for the sake of writing.  It will not disappoint.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tactile Unit Planning: A "Vlog"

I spent most of the morning and early afternoon working on my English 11 curriculum.  I was excited by the progress I made (one and a half units in four hours), so I decided to do a brief video blog showing and telling about what has worked for me.  If you're not a teacher, this might not interest you; if you are a teacher and you have other ideas about what has worked for you while planning, please feel free to sound off in the comments!  I hope this is helpful!

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: Tactile Planning in Action