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!