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

Saturday, June 7, 2014

EDUC 505: A Window's View

I have just started my online education courses for the summer.  For EDUC 505, which is about inclusion of students with special needs in the classroom, we were asked to introduce ourselves by talking about a view from a window that is special to us.  Using a word-picture, we were asked to share a bit about ourselves.  Here's what I wrote:


I've tried to count the buildings. Tried, I say, because I've never succeeded. Somewhere along the way, I always lose count: "Did I already count that short skyscraper?" "Is that just one building with two towers, or two separate buildings?" "I don't think I can even distinguish individual buildings on the horizon."

The city-scape stretches all around me in a dazzling panorama of office windows, pinprick taillights and headlights, radio towers and neon signs. This is what I see from the living room of the 22nd floor apartment where my wife, Tomomi, lived before we got married in December. After our wedding, she moved into my apartment in Higashi Kurume, the quiet Tokyo suburb, which is home to the Christian Academy in Japan, the international school where I've taught high school English and History for five years. Higashi Kurume is about an hour's train ride away from the Tokyo waterfront, where Tomomi had been house-sitting for some missionaries from our church, while they were on home-assignment in America. In Higashi Kurume, it's easy to forget that I am living in the biggest city in the world, but in Tsukishima, the evidence is always there, just outside the living room window.

The view is an odd mixture of tranquility and bustling activity. Tranquility, because 22 floors up, very little noise from the street level reaches the balcony. The twinkling city lights and their shimmery twins reflected in the bay may as well be stars in a vast night sky--endless, uncountable, and silent. Yet the view is also bustling, because the reality is that inside each of those illuminated windows are offices full of salary men and women working late. Behind those neon signs are clubs and bars where the night has only just begun. The pointillist painting of taillights and headlights indicate cars, taxis and buses filled with commuters. Within my range of vision, millions upon millions of people are living their lives.

I'm so far from the kitchen window of the home I grew up in just outside of Lynden, Washington, with our old red barn, the fields where my family's horses are grazing, and snow-capped Mount Baker watching vigilantly, a silent sentinel.

I miss the countryside sometimes. Yet as I look out over Tokyo, I know I am where I need to be. This is a nation in need. Less than 1% of the population identify as Christian, and of that number, only a small percentage regularly attend a church. The city lights remind me of the many people in Tokyo who are lonely, hopeless and lost. In 2012, over 27,000 Japanese people took their own lives. Somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million young people have withdrawn from society altogether, rarely leaving their parents' homes or even their bedroom. The city lights remind me of the tremendous devastation of the 2011 triple-disaster in which thousands died, and thousands more lost their homes and livelihood. I'm just a country boy. My time at Dordt, living in North Hall, Covenant Hall and finally Southview represented the most populous community I'd lived in up until that point. On paper, I do not seem a likely candidate to live and work in Tokyo. Yet, God uses us despite our weakness. He alone gives us strength, and that strength is always sufficient for the work He calls us to. I sigh as I look out over the vast city that has become my home. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would live here.

Teaching With Integrity

One quirk of a teacher's world is that December 31st is only the end of the year in an honorary sense.  We all know very well that the year really ends in June.

This means that our new year's eve is two months long, and like the evening of December 31, it is a time marked by celebration of the year that has ended, anticipation of the year to come, and also introspection.  I have now completed my 5th full year of teaching.  During the year, I made the transition from 'young, single teacher' to 'young, married teacher'.  I also spent this past year teaching in the light of Master's courses, which I started last summer.  With graduation past, grading mostly finished, and only one round of presentations left to hear, I cannot help but wonder what I, myself, have learned this year.  Indeed, I believe I learned more in this year of teaching than in any other since that dreaded first year.  This year, I was challenged to rediscover my identity in the classroom, a process which has been crucial to my integrity as a teacher.

Last summer, I read The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer.  In this book, Palmer carries forward threads of thought started in To Know As We Are Known, perhaps his most famous work, and certainly a favorite of my headmaster and principal.  Palmer argues that before a teacher can know his students and engage them in the dance of truth in a "subject-centered classroom", a teacher must first know himself.  He must teach in line with his values and gifts.  This, by Palmer's definition is integrity.  Integrity is lost when a teacher tries to be something they are not.  It occurred to me during the course of this year that I have not been teaching with integrity to who I am.  In fact, I've worked very hard to suppress who I am.

Who am I?  I am a performer.  I love doing voices, I love giving speeches, I love making up songs, I love telling stories, I love playing characters, I love parody.  This is me.  And over the past two years in the classroom, I had actively been fighting back that side of myself.  I rationalized: "I'm too weird, my students won't get me"; "My students should be the ones 'on stage', I should be behind the scenes"; "A constructivist classroom is best practice, anyway."

Like any of the lies we tell ourselves, mine were injected with half-truths: Yes, I am weird.  No, not all of my students will "get" my weirdness.  Yes, my students do need to be "on stage", and no, I shouldn't make myself the star of the show.  Yes, constructivist learning is an important life skill and no, I shouldn't just tell my students what to think.

Unfortunately, I was marching into my constructivist classroom having left behind my weapons, my shield, my helmet, my armor, and ultimately, myself.  That was not always the case, though!  One story of many comes to mind: In my 2nd year of teaching, I staged a performance in the classroom where I interviewed myself (in a pre-recorded video clip, wearing a cowboy hat and speaking in a bad Texan accent) on the Mexican-American War.  I am pretty sure my students thought I was a little crazy, but to this day that class environment remains the best I've worked in.  Maybe because I was being authentic, the students felt at ease being authentic, themselves.  I'm not sure when, but somewhere along the road, self-consciousness sunk its talons into me and I lost my authenticity.  

While I'll grant that I shouldn't always be in the spotlight, that my classroom should not be "The Gibby Show", I absolutely do need to be on stage, performing.  If my job consists primarily of supervising my students at work or answering questions as they come up, I'll wither.  I know.  I have withered.  Worse still, my students won't invest their fullest.  Students have a radar for B.S.  They might not even completely realize that what they are seeing is a facade, but something--some intangible thing--will strike them as not-quite-right.  It's the same reason why I can't just waltz into the classroom and do a spot-on impression on some of my own excellent teachers from my school days (which, trust me, I am perfectly capable of doing) and expect to impact my students: it's just not me.

To use a metaphor close to my heart as a singer, I am the high tenor voice.  Everyone hears the high tenor part, everyone knows it is there, and if it is done well, the audience will "ooh" and "ah".  But the high tenor part mostly functions to make the lead singer sound better.  Without the lead, the high tenor is stranded, without a melody to attach to.  It's precisely why Art Garfunkel's solo career was unsuccessful, while Paul Simon made a name for himself on his own.  That's me as a teacher.  I need to be visible, need to perform, need to do my (quirky) thing.  At the end of the day, though, it's about bringing out the best in my students.  They are Paul Simon, I am Art Garfunkel.  I'm pitching in the high notes until they embark on a solo career or find a new band to be a part of.  

I need to embrace this about myself.  In March, I asked my Juniors to give me honest feedback on my teaching.  One boy said he wished I would lecture more often, and his classmates all made noises of agreement at this statement.  At the time, I mentally dismissed it with the excuse of "my students just want to be told what to think."  However, in giving it some thought, and weighing it back against what I'd so admired in Palmer, I realized my student was touching upon something more true than he perhaps knew.  

My resolution for the new year is not to lecture more.  Nor is it to do more independent learning activities.  My resolution for next year is simply to teach with integrity.  To teach not according to who I think I should be or who I think my students want me to be, but according to who I really am.  This means letting my creativity roam free, letting it take me where it takes me.  God gave me these unique gifts for a reason, and if I am not using them in my teaching, they become little more than decoration.  I look back not with regret, but with gratitude at what I've learned.  I look ahead not with trepidation, but with excitement at what the new year holds.  

Friday, June 6, 2014

I'm Not Dead!

I'm not.  I promise.  It's just been a while since I posted.  It turns out that married life pretty much doubles the speed at which time passes; not a complaint--the time Tomomi and I get to spend together in the course of a typical week is precious to me, and of course the moment we decide a certain time is precious, the faster it seems to pass by.  Factoring in work, and a newly discovered sense of duty toward household chores (particularly cooking), it has been very easy to let certain healthy habits like blogging and exercise go.  The effects of one of these lapses has been more noticeable than the other.

It happens that today, Tomomi is required to be at work.  Saturday is usually our date day; either we go for a walk, or we settle in a quiet cafe together, so needless to say, this was an unwelcome disruption.  Her company will have a 飲み会--drinking party--tonight and in addition to working at the office today, she is expected to make the arrangements and reservations ahead of time.  She is also required to actually BE at the drinking party, which will go until 9 or 10 pm.  And, she will not receive a compensatory day off for coming in today.  This is the point in the blog-post where I made several starts at a lengthy, raging rant against Japan's company culture.  Nothing I verbalized could adequately capture my frustration, though it's worth noting that the words 'counter-productive', 'misogynistic', and 'unjust' came up in every iteration.  **sigh** I love Japan dearly and so much is good here, but this is something that is just... backwards.  If you find it upon your heart to pray for Japan, please take some extra time to pray for the working culture, which I believe to be the catalyst for many other significant social issues in this country.

Anyway, Tomomi being away working leaves me with a choice: either I spend the day stewing in a pot of loneliness and bitterness at the work culture here, or I spend the day exercising muscles I haven't exercised in a while.  Since it's raining hard, I am opting for creative exercise over literal exercise.  I will get some grading done, and hopefully do a bit of writing, too.  Stay tuned!