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.