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.