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!