Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: The Force Awakens (No Spoilers)

For many of us who grew up as fans of Star Wars, we can easily recall exactly how we felt when we first watched A New Hope.  As I was born 9 years after the movie was first released in theaters, I've only heard second-hand how groundbreaking it was to watch on the big screen at a time when science fiction movies were largely dismissed as low-budget, kid's stuff.

For us lifelong fans, whether we first watched Star Wars on the big screen in 1977, or later on VHS, the movie made a memorable impact, as it captured our imaginations and transported us to a galaxy far, far away.

This may explain why the hype surrounding The Force Awakens has had a certain emotional weight to it.  Quite simply, we remember our first introduction to Star Wars and want our imaginations to be recaptured in that same groundbreaking way.

Here's the thing: this is not a fair expectation to put upon a movie that is also tasked with continuing a well-established saga.  Sequels, by their very nature, are not groundbreaking, because if the purpose of a sequel was solely to break new ground, most or all continuity would be sacrificed in the name of uniqueness. 

As I watched the hype build with each new trailer, each new TV spot, each new tidbit of information, it occurred to me that more than a few Star Wars fans were coming to expect a transcendent moviegoing experience.  I realized that this was neither reasonable for me to expect, myself, nor was it even what I really wanted. 

While Star Wars did indeed capture my 7-year old imagination all those years ago, what has kept me a fan of the original trilogies is how much stinking fun they are.  The riveting action, the snappy dialogue, the struggle between good and evil, the universe populated by creative and quirky characters--(from the familiar heroes and villains, all the way down to the imperial spy at Mos Eisely with the gonzo-like nose--seriously, who was that guy?) all of it was, and is, fun to watch.

THIS is what I was hoping for in The Force Awakens.  I was not expecting something pristine and transcendental, or even necessarily something to recapture the childlike wonder I felt when I watched Star Wars for the first time: I simply wanted something that carried through those traits which made the originals so much fun (and which, I would argue, the prequels all conspicuously lacked).  

And do you know what?

The Force Awakens met and exceeded that expectation.

Is the movie perfect?  Good heavens, no.  But then, neither are any of the originals (although The Empire Strikes Back comes close by many objective measures).  

There are some definite pacing issues, a few key moments that should have lingered, but did not.  The movie moves along at a determined pace and rarely pauses to catch its breath.  A few pieces of expository dialogue felt rushed in the midst of constant action.  I noticed these more in hindsight--they were not enough to pull me out of the movie as I was watching, and I was completely along for the ride for the full 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Several of the earliest reviews criticized Force Awakens as relying too heavily on cues from the originals and in particular, A New Hope, but to that, I can only say that with A New Hope, George Lucas himself was paying homage to the works of Kurosawa, particularly, The Hidden Fortress.  This film was an homage to A New Hope in many ways.  While this would have been problematic if it had done nothing to set up a new chapter in the saga, that's where the movie does break some untouched ground: the new generation of characters is very different from Luke, Han and Leia's characters in the originals, and this will surely take this trilogy in a direction all its own.  As a transitional chapter in the saga, this film did a commendable job of paying its respects to the past while setting its own unique course for the future.  

Daisy Ridley's Rey conveyed a compelling mixture of strength, street smarts, and wide-eyed awe, while John Boyega's Finn and Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron both bring a fresh swagger to the film.  Adam Driver's Kylo Ren is an entirely new type of villain in the Star Wars universe, mercurial, insecure and given to frightening outbursts of temper.  He's the type of complex, sympathetic and unpredictable character that Anakin Skywalker should have been in the prequels.  

John Williams' score reflects the shift to a new generation of characters, as well.  The musical cues from the original trilogy were subtle and poignant in their usage, and those familiar motifs were never overused.  Instead, much of the score is something new entirely, reflecting a world where the force has been dormant for many years, and the adventures of Luke, Han and Leia are as good as myth to the new generation.  

The dialogue was also a return to form, with fun banter sprinkled throughout much of the film.  Without giving too much away, Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron has a line several minutes into the film that sets the tone for the rest of the film in the best way possible.  

While watching The Force Awakens had its moments of nostalgia, nostalgia was not what defined it for me.  What defined it instead was the feeling of looking ahead to the next film and running through a long list of mysteries and questions left unanswered; of quoting the memorable lines on the train ride home with my wife; of wanting to watch it again, and catch more the 2nd time around.  

To those of you who have not watched it yet, I highly recommend it, but caution you not to expect something life-changing or earth-shattering.  Set aside the profound impact that the originals had on your imagination, because it will take something entirely unique (something not Star Wars) to have that kind of impact on you again.  Reflect instead on what has given those classic movies the sort of staying power that makes them relevant and watchable more than 30 (and in fact, almost 40) years later.  

It is my humble opinion that The Force Awakens has that same sense of fun and adventure, and is therefore a worthy chapter in the saga, and a stellar first installment in this new trilogy.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rocking & Rolling, Scoping & Sequencing

I'm all for introspection--I wouldn't keep up this blog if I didn't believe it was important--but teachers (especially high school teachers) need to be careful not to use introspection to justify a navel-gazing attitude.

Unfortunately, the system itself tends to promote self-absorption: the high school classroom is often regarded as the teacher's personal fiefdom, a domain dedicated to whatever subject and grade the teacher happens to be responsible for... and nothing more.

This is the 11th Grade English classroom--Your 10th Grade English currency is no good in here!

As ridiculous as this kind of attitude sounds, not even small Christian schools are immune to such a mentality.  I cringe when I think about the fact that both my 11th and 12th grade English teachers had The Great Gatsby in their curriculum, and yet nowhere along the way did I receive instruction on how to write a thesis statement.  Such overlaps and gaps are the result of a hyper-focus on one's own curriculum, to the exclusion of what's happening in other classrooms.  The fact is, even if an individual teacher's curriculum is brilliant, and that teacher a master educator, foundational learning goals are being compromised in the long-run if that teacher has not worked with his colleagues to ensure continuity and connection within the school's broader curriculum.  An education made up of standalone classes, no matter how amazing each class may be, is disjointed at best, and severely limiting at worst.  Some students may connect the dots themselves, transferring learning effortlessly, but it would be irresponsible to assume that students will just "get it."  We as teachers need to do our part in communicating with each other.

In this sense, CAJ's small campus is a tremendous blessing: due to limited classroom space, we share our classrooms.  At some point, we will have a prep period while a colleague is using our classroom.  Because of such scheduling quirks that have brought colleagues' classes into my classroom during my prep period, I have essentially audited English 9, English 10, Bible 11 and Psychology--four classes with which I now have an in-depth familiarity.

Moreover, we talk to each other.  Between divisional meetings and PLC meetings, we have a fairly good idea of what is happening in one another's classes.  Nobody is completely out of the loop and so our gaps and overlaps are not quite so egregious as repeating the same book in two different English classes, or missing a foundational skill entirely.
The task before us now is to formalize this--to record what we are doing in an intuitive way so that someone from the outside can easily see how each class builds on the ones before, prepares for the ones ahead, and complements the classes alongside in the process of achieving our mission statement.  This may be a new teacher stepping in to teach a class and trying to get a sense of what their kids have already learned, and what they need to learn, or it may be accreditors trying to ascertain how cohesive our overall curriculum is.  In any case, the process is vitally important, as it will expose any gaps and overlaps that are present, however small, and encourage us to think more deeply about how we can organically fit our classes together.

This process is known as "Scoping and Sequencing", and it has been a focus of the Research & Development Team (a committee composed of department heads and principals), and PLCs this year.  It has pretty much been in the back of my mind, constantly, since the start of the school-year.

Charting Scope & Sequence for English at CAJ has been a slow process, but immensely valuable and interesting.  Our English PLC spent two meetings deciding on the broad categories that we felt we needed to chart from elementary school all the way up through high school.  With the input of our Kindergarten teacher and 5th grade teacher (who joined us for one meeting, representing both ends of the elementary school spectrum), we settled on four categories: Reading, Writing, Speaking /Listening, and Language.  Since then, we have dedicated several meetings to creating sub-categories under each of these.
While we have not yet begun to fill in our chart, the process of setting up the categories has forced us to revisit and more clearly articulate our goals (which, in some cases, have differed from what is written in our curriculum maps), and to adopt common vocabulary as we refer to our goals.  Along the way, we have had lively conversations and even some constructive debate as to what is truly important for students to learn as they develop reading skills and writing skills, or how language instruction should happen.  Even just having these conversations has helped to focus us as a department, and unite us around a common goal.

It's a reminder that we do not--that we cannot--succeed on our own as teachers, that we are each a piece of a bigger puzzle.  I am excited to continue to develop our Scope & Sequence when we come back from Christmas vacation!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Seven Years

In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs revealed that she spent seven years living in hiding in a garret crawlspace in her grandmother's house, after running away from her lustful, abusive master.

 When we get to this part of the book in class, I always ask the students to pause and really think about this length of time, to try and grasp what seven full years of hiding would mean to them.

Where were you seven years ago?
In 4th grade, some at CAJ, some not.

Where will you be seven years from now?
23, 24 years old, many finished with college, some married, some not.

It's a staggering thought exercise for the kids.  This year, it was staggering for me, too.

Where was I seven years ago?
I was driving west on I-90, from Iowa, home to Washington, wrestling with the biggest decision of my life.  I'd just finished my student teaching and graduated from college and had been invited to volunteer as a teacher in the resource room at the Christian Academy in Japan.

I was 22, single, and the most foreign country I had been to up until that point had been Canada.

I was inexperienced, and all of the pedagogy and best practice I had studied in college evaporated when I set foot in the classroom for the first time as "Mr. Gibson" earlier that fall.

The students were kind, though, and for that I'm still grateful, all these years later.

I thought I knew what I wanted: a quiet life in a small town; attending the high school football game on Friday evenings; grading at the diner with a bottomless pot of coffee; settling down with a wife with Dutch blood in her veins.

I knew it all.  I had it all figured out.

Then suddenly, my life and my future were thrown into disequilibrium by an opportunity I did not wish for, but could not refuse.
Spring 2009, a month or two after I
arrived in Japan.

That's where I was seven years ago.

In the intervening years, I've made plans and then changed them... again and again.

I've had moments of triumph in the classroom, and moments of defeat.

I've made wise decisions, and I've made foolish mistakes.

I've been content and I've been restless.

I've been confident and I've been insecure.

JAM--April 2009
I've felt belonging and I've wrestled with loneliness.

I've had crushes and I've had my heart broken.

I've fallen in love, and gotten married (she's not Dutch, but I'm more than fine with that).

I've watched my brother, and then my sister-in-law get married, too.

I've made new friends, and I've said goodbye to old friends.

I've been on the edge of a devastating earthquake, and countless small shakes.

Spring 2010
I've said goodbye to my last surviving grandparent as my grandmother passed away nearly four years ago (my other grandmother having passed away 7 years and one week ago).

I've moved four times.
Hong Kong, March 2009

I've crossed the Pacific Ocean 27 times.

I've been to Thailand 4 times, and Hong Kong once.  Guam, too!

I've been visited by each member of my family at least twice; three times for my brother.

I've traveled overseas with my wife five times, including a summer trip that took us through 11 states.

Wedding Day, Dec. 2013
I've "moonlighted" as a youth pastor for several years.

I've sung on my church's worship team.

I've coached middle school cross country and then watched those kids graduate from high school.

I've coached debate.

I've taught 9 different subjects and more than 360 students.

Thailand, March 2012
I've started and now almost finished my Master's.

I've taken 4 summer Japanese classes and a year's worth of weekly Japanese classes at city hall (and I'm still not fluent!).

I've been a learner and I've been a leader.  Currently, I'm both!

I've celebrated an anniversary.  Soon, it will be two.

A lot can happen in seven years.  While there have been storms and squalls along the way, I cannot fathom spending seven years in hiding, as Jacobs did.  God has blessed me richly, and as I reflect on the past seven years, His guidance, His provision, and His faithfulness are abundantly evident.

I do not know what the next seven years have in store, but I know that God is good, and His plans are perfect.  I can do no better than to trust and listen.
Worship team, Jan. 2013

Fall, 2011

Friday, December 4, 2015

Unit Three: Agency and Victimhood (The Evolution of a Unit)

Glossary (just to clarify how we use these terms in the classroom):
Victimhood: Allowing oneself to be ruled by circumstance, constantly shifting the locus of control away from oneself.  Victimhood is characterized by giving up and the feeling that one is out of options.
Agency: Taking responsibility for one's circumstances, placing the locus of control on oneself, to take a stand against oppression and injustice.  In this unit, we sharpen this definition through a Biblical lens, adding that agents are courageous, selfless and proactive not in spite of, but because of their faith.  We recognize that pop culture and society may define agency differently than Scripture.


Just over a year ago, I wrote about Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  When I inherited the Humanities class nearly six years ago, this was one of the key texts in the curriculum.  I thought the book was great, but the trouble was, I didn't know how to teach it.  In my first few years, Incidents fell into the middle of a long unit about the Civil War, a unit that was often bursting at the seams with way too many understandings that I had deemed to be essential for the students to learn.  Incidents itself pulled in about five different directions at once, or at least that was how many prompts the students could write on in their essay afterward.  However, in the process of stuffing this unit with so many themes, I'd caused the students to have a difficult time taking away consistent understandings, and even more difficulty seeing the connections between the history and the literature we were studying.

After all, that's the point of the Humanities block: to examine literature and history in tandem, to engage with bigger themes.

After an underwhelming conclusion to the Incidents unit two years ago, I decided it was time to go back to the drawing board.

One of the many themes of the prior unit caught my eye: Agency and Victimhood.  Previously, this had been part of a short "sidebar" in the unit in which I would invite our Head of School--and the original architect of the Humanities class--to guide the students in viewing the movie Amistad.  He would challenge the students to think through what was historical fact and what Spielberg had fabricated, all with the goal of getting the students to see how Spielberg had "messed with the audience" by making the role of Cinque the slave more pivotal to the Supreme Court's decision to free the slaves--turning a story that could easily have been another edition of "white man savior to the rescue" into a compelling tale of agency.

I latched onto this theme and made it the foundation and even the title of the unit.  From there, everything fell into place.  Here is a list of eleven things that I really like about this unit:

1. I get to lead off by singing "Let it Go" from Frozen.  This is fun, and it also kicks off our opening discussion of how Disney movies have shifted from victimhood to agency over time.

2. The Biblical perspective in this unit is completely organic.  We spend the first two days sharpening our definition of Agency through the lens of Scripture and then use that definition for the rest of the unit.

3. The history we look at organically supports the theme, and the literature of the unit: we look at the history of slavery and abolition to set up the context for Incidents; we look at the various reform movements of the 1800s to evaluate the ways in which average citizens rose up as agents of change; we look at the evolution of the women's rights movement to establish context for (and a counterpoint to) Kate Chopin's heroines.  The historical details are not random or arbitrary and the history itself is not "the point" of the unit.  That's as it should be.

4. Each module is punctuated by an in-class essay.  The students write four in-class essays throughout the unit which serve as a quick check on their understanding, and also as the building blocks for their bigger unit essay on Agency & Victimhood.

5. Our examination of rhetorical fallacies fits well in this unit, too.  Aside from the bizarre and manipulative rationale that slaveowners would use to justify slavery, we can also see the breaking down of old appeals to tradition by reformers, the rejection of false dichotomies by slaves and women at the time who refused to accept "submission or death" as their only options, and the tragic way in which Kate Chopin's heroines so often succumb to those same false dichotomies.

6. We get to have daily student-led discussions on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  It was fun to watch the students wrestle with the themes of agency and victimhood as they come up in the story, and also to watch the students gain confidence in contributing to class discussions.  While our class discussions are still very much a work in progress, we've come a long way over the course of this unit.

7. We get to take a look at the way in which definitions of freedom and equality change over time, and why.  Students get to look into modern examples of slavery and evaluate what is currently being done to fight against them.  We even briefly discussed what it means to be agents ourselves without stripping those we are helping of their agency--in other words, what does it mean to empower and not simply enable?

8. Students get to evaluate works of pop culture over and against our Biblically-informed definition of agency as the presentation for the unit is a short analysis of a book, tv show or movie that shows agency, victimhood, or some distorted version of agency.

9. Students get to practice peer-editing as we do a peer-editing workshop complete with sample essays from past years near the unit's end.

10. There are natural connections to themes and works from previous classes at CAJ.  Students are quick to compare Incidents to Night by Elie Wiesel, and to compare The Awakening by Kate Chopin to A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, both of which they read the previous year in 10th Grade.

11. This unit is a clear and vital component of our overarching theme of "Becoming People of Justice."  The students don't (or at least shouldn't) need to wonder how this unit fits into our bigger picture.

Sadly, I had to make the decision to cut "Amistad" from the unit.  While this was the lesson that inspired me to make this the theme for the whole unit in the first place, it took several full days of class time to watch the movie and I have not been able to carve out that kind of time.  Perhaps in a future year, I'll shorten my first or second unit to open up more time in this unit... but really, it would just underline something that the students already understand.

Overall, I am happy with how this unit has developed.  It is in this development that I really see curriculum design as an art--a craft that I enjoy, and one worth investing in.  I hope I can continue to develop and refine this unit, and others, in future years!

Thursday, November 26, 2015


For teachers and students alike, November can be a drag.  The school year is well underway, but Christmas vacation seems far off.  Winter illnesses start to hit, and as the work piles up, everyone is bound to feel spread just a little bit thin.

Perhaps this is why it is all the more critical to take time in the middle of this long stretch to reflect on the blessings--there's always something to be grateful for, but in the midst of busy lives and a hectic schedule, it can be all too easy to overlook these good things.

Today was a half-day of school, a Thursday noon dismissal for a long Thanksgiving weekend.  I rode up to Takayama with my wife and some friends, and am now sitting in a warm cabin by the beach.

Of course I am grateful for the break in the routine, however brief, and the fact that I get to spend it with my wife, but for this post, I want to focus on the blessings related to my teaching.

I'm grateful for the classes I teach and the students I get to work with--even when I'm feeling tired and worn, I'm excited for each new day.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to grow professionally through my Master's courses.  It can be hard work, but going back to school was the right decision in every way.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to grow professionally in new roles at CAJ.  I've thoroughly enjoyed serving as a PLC (professional learning community/department) leader and a member of the R&D (Research & Development/curriculum) team this year, and the many thought-provoking and fun discussions I've been able to have with my colleagues in those capacities.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to coach debate.  It is so much fun to brainstorm ideas with the students as they research, organize their arguments and write.  I'm amazed by the hard work the students have already put in, and I'm looking forward to the first competition next Wednesday.

I'm grateful for the discussion my Juniors had earlier today after finishing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  They all shared their lasting impression of the book and I was encouraged to hear so many students say how powerful the book was in opening their eyes to the horror of slavery.

I'm grateful for the progress that my yearbook staff has made even though we are still five months from our deadline.  We're way ahead of schedule!

All in all, I'm grateful for my job.  I'm fast coming up on 7 years at CAJ, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Importance of Authentic Learning Experiences

We should legalize the sale of human organs.

This is the topic for the debate team's first competition, coming up on December 2.

There are 25 students on the team this season, 17 of whom are either freshmen or sophomores, and in a mere four days of practices, the students have already amassed a GoogleDoc full of resources, which they have started to read through and take notes on.

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to talk the students through some basic rules for research, including how to use Google Scholar and EBSCOHost effectively.  Yesterday, we briefly covered rhetorical appeals (something students usually do not learn about until they take my 11th grade class).  Next week, we'll practice public speaking skills, and strategies for making effective rebuttals.

The students have worked diligently during our practice times, and have asked great questions:

"This article is in favor of legalization, but they keep talking about another study that was against legalization.  If I find that article, can I use it as a source?"

"Does legalizing the sale of human organs only apply to organs that will be transplanted?"

"What are some alternatives we could propose if we are arguing the negative side?"

"What effect might legalization have on the altruistic donation of organs?"

"How might legalization affect rich and poor differently?"

"If I tell a story about a friend who had a heart transplant, would that be a good appeal to pathos?"

I have been thoroughly impressed with the students' patience as they read through articles from medical journals and law reviews alike, their diligence as they share findings with one another, and their curiosity as they ask questions and seek to dig deeper into the issue.

It's very different than a class environment where students' preconceived ideas about English or History, as well as their own abilities may stand in the way of a desire to learn.  Everyone in debate wants to be there, wants to learn, wants to grow.  It's a quiet atmosphere this week as the students have been researching, but it is an exciting one.  Making this all the more exciting is that this is only our third year to have a debate team, in recent history (CAJ had a debate team when I first arrived here in 2009, but it died out for a variety of reasons), and the biggest debate team we have ever had.

In some ways, it's not so different from the Robotics Club, an extra-curricular activity new to CAJ this year.  The students who participated on the robotics team did so out of a love for math and physics, as well as a deep curiosity about the way things work.  My colleague who coached and advised them cited the same kind of excitement in the room, even when everyone was quietly working out equations or simply thinking.  It's the excitement of applying one's understandings and skills in the service of an authentic goal, the opportunity to demonstrate learning not simply for the sake of the teacher but for the sake of solving a real-life problem.

While not every student has the time in their busy lives to join something like debate (or robotics, or speech), it's important that such opportunities are available, and that a culture is built up within a school that values such activities.  Moreover, the authenticity embedded in experiences such as these should inspire teachers to think through ways to make their own classroom activities and assessments more authentic.

All in all, I couldn't have asked for a better start to the debate season, and I'm glad to be involved!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Using In-Class Essays Formatively

In-Class Essay.

The term is enough to send a chill up my spine, even 12 years out of high school.  
I have always preferred to have time to think--to sit and mull before I write.  Having a strict time limit is intimidating to me because I can either get my ideas out onto paper, or I can spend the whole time planning out how I want to write an eloquent, organized essay.  Needing to do both?  Well, let's just say that the very thought puts my blood pressure through the roof.

It is perhaps for this reason that I've always been somewhat leery about using in-class essays as an assessment tool in my class.  Of course, they are inevitable for AP students preparing for the exam, but this seems to be pretty well understood by the students, and anyway, in-class essays are really a drill for AP students, more than anything else.

But what about as a teaching or assessment tool in the average unit in Humanities class?  Might in-class essays have a purpose?

I believe they do, as long as it is clear in both the teacher's mind and the students' minds that the in-class essay is formative--a tool in the learning process to help them grow as writers, or to prepare their thinking for a bigger summative assessment later on.  

This was where my own English teachers had dropped the ball, and where I, myself, have dropped the ball in the past: the weight of an in-class essay needs to be small, and the emphasis needs to be on thinking, not on mechanics, or even organization (unless the purpose of the essay happens to be to workshop those particular skills).

On Monday, my Humanities class started a unit on Agency and Victimhood.  Our unit essay which will be due in December will ask the students to evaluate historical, literary and popular examples of agency against a Biblical definition.  We spent the first day of the unit defining agency and then sharpening the definition by looking at a variety of stories and passages in the Bible.  On Tuesday, I gave the students one class period to write a 200-500 word explanation of agency, incorporating at least 4 passages from Scripture for support.  I told them up front that the in-class essay would only be weighted at 1% of their total writing grade, and that I would only grade them on their supporting details, their use of Scripture, and their commentary--not their thesis or their transitions, not their spelling or their grammar.  

The students were somewhat anxious--a number had not written an in-class essay before.  Yet I was pleased with the results.  Though I had explicitly told the students that I would not grade on whether or not they had a thesis or clear pattern of organization, many of the essays did include these things, which tells me that the students are starting to internalize their thesis-writing skills.

Moreover, it was a great way to very quickly check their understanding so far and to see if the students had tracked with me through our opening discussion of agency.  I was able to catch a handful of students who had not understood and either ran stuck on the essay or had charged boldly in the wrong direction.  Most, however, had tracked fairly well and offered good working definitions of agency.

It did not take me long to grade the class set of essays and provide a sentence or two of feedback, and even the students who had struggled did not drop more than a tenth of a point in the grade-book (plus, I was able to give advice to these students and even had good follow-up conversations with several of them).  The students were able to put their thinking into words, and I am certain that these short essays will play a foundational role as the students begin to write their unit essays in a few weeks.  We will write three more in-class essays in this unit: one on agency and victimhood in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one on agency and victimhood in feminist literature, and one on agency and victimhood in the reform movements of the 1800s.  It is my hope that with this clearer formative purpose and the emphasis on ideas rather than form, the students will become less anxious about not only timed writing, but also their final unit essay as well!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Teaching and Learning in a Changing World

It's a Friday afternoon, and I'm sitting under the crisp falling leaves in the CAJ plaza, sorting through the 40 or so tabs that are open and loading in my mental browser.  Among other things, I am now in the process of assembling my topic proposal for my Master's Thesis on the topic of flipped classroom strategies.  A colleague wisely reminded me that the  concept of the flipped classroom can easily be misunderstood, reduced to the use of outside-of-class lecture videos instead of traditional classroom lecture, when in fact that is but one possible characteristic of a flipped classroom.  More important by far is the shift in mentality.  I knew this, but I appreciated the reminder to take a step back to look at the bigger picture.

This is my attempt to look at that bigger picture.


Picture a classroom.
Were the desks in neat and tidy rows?

Picture a teacher.
Was she lecturing in front of a white-board?

Picture a student.
Was he listening carefully and taking painstaking notes?

Even after nearly 7 years of teaching, these are the images that come to my head when I hear these words.

These images are not normative; they are memories--the conditioned response of the thirteen years spent in the classrooms of my childhood and adolescence.

It is only upon deeper thought that scenes from my own classroom replace these images.  Still-deeper thought brings up images of what could be, and what should be.

Images of students debating, discussing, creating, questioning, researching, synthesizing, revising, puzzling and pondering--this is what should be, and I celebrate when such possibilities are fulfilled in my classroom.

What does this mean for me, as the teacher?  What does this mean for my classroom?  How can I create an environment of wonder, the sort of truth-centered classroom that Parker J. Palmer describes, where all members of the class community revel in the journey of learning?

The answer is not to be found by looking back, but by looking ahead.  The world has changed far too much for traditional assumptions about the role of teacher and student, and the nature of the classroom to be kept on life-support.

Nor is the answer to be found, as some would suggest, in technological innovation in and of itself.  In his discussion of motivation in Teaching Redemptively, Donovan Graham characterizes technology as an extrinsic motivator; such reforms lack transformative power without a more fundamental shift in mindset.

If the mindset does not change, no amount of technological innovation or creative pedagogy will unlock the potential of our classrooms.

So where are we, now?

We live in a world where the whole of human knowledge, the good and the evil, lives alongside our phone numbers in our front pockets.  (The parallels to the Garden of Eden become even more unsettling when one considers that the leading brand of smart-phone is named after a fruit.)

Our students do not need us to give them more information.

They need us to teach them how to find information, how to sift the wheat from the chaff, and how to make sense of the information.

We are called to be shepherds, facilitators, modelers, the providers of feedback and challenge, encouragement and love.

Though there is room for sharing information with our students--good stories and the the occasional lecture have their place--we are not called to be one-way transmitters of data.

To pretend that this is our calling is to ignore the true nature of our students, and the true nature of the world we live in.

Any reform that I, or anyone else, would strive to bring about in our classrooms and in our schools must start from the foundation of these understandings.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Teacher Leadership

This week, I wrote a problem statement for my Master's class.  This statement will serve as the first part of what will become a full topic proposal for the action research project that I will do in the Spring--when I complete this project, I will have completed my Master's degree in Teacher Leadership.

No longer a newbie, I will be a Master teacher, at least according to my certification.

This year, I have had the opportunity to start applying what I have been learning in ways that I never could have imagined even a year ago.  I am serving as the chair for the English and Social Studies department, which entails leading the English/Social Studies PLC (Professional Learning Community for those who don't speak teacher-ese), participating in the Research & Development curriculum team (R&D, or "RAD" for short), and helping to orient the new staff members in my PLC.

This has proven busy at times--I've lost count of the number of meetings I have had over the past two weeks--but it has added a dimension to my job that was not there before, a challenging, exciting and above all, fun dimension.  It has given me the opportunity to look beyond my classroom walls to examine CAJ's curriculum as an entire puzzle.  It has given me the opportunity to both facilitate and be a part of rich discussions about scope and sequence, talking through how each class at each grade level fits together in service of our mission.  It has given me the opportunity to think about the future of the school, and to take part in meaningful planning and preparation for the future.

Because of this new role, which has me working with ideas as much as it has me working with my colleagues, I know that my personal education and learning will continue even after my Master's course has wrapped up.  Simply having a certificate saying that I am a Master teacher will not give me license to rest on my laurels.  In fact, the certificate ought to be a reminder that as a teacher, I am a lifelong learner, and that to be a leader within my school community, I must be committed to professional development, and committed to sharing what I learn with those around me.

It's a calling that came at the right time, in the right circumstances--I would not have been able to rise to this challenge two years ago or even last year, nor would I have wanted to.  God has a sense of humor, and He also gives us strength equal to the tasks He calls us to.  I'm perhaps more tired at this time of the year than I was last year, but I also know that I wouldn't trade what I am doing right now for anything in the world.  God is good, and I'm ever-grateful to be here at CAJ, at this time!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Finding a Working Structure for Classroom Debate

I don't think I participated in a legitimate class debate until I was in college.

For whatever reason, my high school teachers did not use debate as a teaching or assessment tool, and Lynden Christian did not have a debate team, so I simply was not exposed to debate until quite late in my career as a student.

Perhaps because of this, I was not comfortable teaching debate skills in my first few years as a teacher.  I could never get the structure right:  I probably went through 5 or 6 different debate formats in as many years of teaching and found each clunky and ineffective.  Sometimes I would have the class debate just one topic, with half the class on one side and half the class on the other side.  In this structure, students could only talk for a minute or two each, teams ended up repeating themselves a lot, there was little to no organization to the arguments, and there was not much time for good rebuttals.  Even when I started to divide the class into two debate topics, with 5 or 6 students on each side of both issues, the students still found it difficult to work in such large groups and to find unique points for each team-member to bring up.  Because these attempts at structured debate were so difficult to grade, I found myself struggling mightily to provide feedback that would be helpful in any way, and as a result, the students did not improve from debate to debate.

I also found it enormously challenging to write a good debate prompt.  I started by having the debates revolve around questions, but discovered this to be too open-ended.  I then moved toward prompts based on specific historical incidents, but found this to be too narrow and disconnected from my larger goals.  

Only last year did I find the magic structure and the magic prompt.

It all started, ironically, with another failed attempt at debate in Humanities class.  The structure was a mess and the prompts were too specific.  The students gave up partway through and I ended up not even grading it.  Refusing to let the failure of my classroom plans discourage me, we talked as a class about where the debate had fallen apart.  One girl, who had participated on the school's debate team the year before, kept saying, "Well on the debate team, we..." and that's when it hit me: why not use the structure and style of prompts that the Kanto debate league uses?

As it happened, I had already agreed to be the assistant coach for the debate team that year, and so when the season started in November, I set out to learn as much as I could from the students and my colleague who was the head-coach so that I could apply what I found out to my own classroom debates.

The Kanto Plains debate league uses structure and rules from the Australian school system.  Each team has three students: an opening speaker who introduces the team and presents the first point, a second speaker who rebuts the opposing team's first speaker, and a third speaker who both rebuts the opponents and supports the first two speakers without themselves introducing any new points.  

The opposing team is allowed to interrupt whoever is speaking with a "point of information" (or POI) once the speaker is at least a minute into their statement.  The speaker may accept or decline the POI, and if they accept, the student who brought up the POI must immediately ask a question or ask the speaker to respond to a contradictory piece of evidence.  A POI may also be used to ask the speaker to cite their sources--something that is quite necessary if the speaker rattles off a list of statistics without mentioning where the statistics come from.  This serves as a strong motivator and reminder for the speaker to provide verbal citations.

The prompts are phrased as positive statements with one team arguing the affirmative and the other team arguing the negative.  The affirmative team is tasked with setting the definition and parameters for the debate, and so long as these are reasonable, the negative team must accept and respond to the terms set by the affirmative.  

By this structure and these rules, each member of the team has a clear role, each member has ample opportunity to both present their points and support them, and each member has ample opportunity to rebut, both through formal rebuttals as well as POIs.  

My last failed attempt at organizing a class debate had been in October.  I tried out the above structure in January and it was a night-and-day difference.  Predictably, the POIs were rough the first time, and many students forgot to verbally cite their sources, but overall the debates were much smoother, and also much more engaging for the classmates who were watching each round.  Our final round of debates for the year in April were better still.

Therefore, I was excited to see how things would go this year, starting off with this structure.  Our current unit in Humanities class is entitled "Rhetoric, Revolution and Human Rights", using the history and rhetoric of the American Revolution and early days of American nation-hood as a spring-board for bigger questions about human rights and government structure.  Our debate topics were as follows:

1. The solution to gun violence is stricter gun control laws.
2. The freedom of speech should have limits.
3. The freedom of religion should protect certain kinds of discrimination.
4. The government sometimes has the right to invade citizens' privacy.

When I introduced the debate, I had several students assist me in putting on a skit about how to use POIs.  I put a lot of energy into emphasizing the importance of verbal citations and letting the students know that it would be very embarrassing to be caught without sources to support facts or data.  This clearly made an impact because a majority of the students did a stellar job of verbally citing their research as they delivered their statements--they must have been determined to avoid being POI'd on missing citations!

It was a strong round of debates, especially given that it was the first round of the year, and that most of the students had not done a debate since their freshman year.  For each debate, I had the non-participating students fill out note-sheets tracking the claims, evidence and rebuttals as they watched their classmates, and then had them decide the outcome by voting based on the evidence.  The students took this seriously, and after one debate, a desk-group debated amongst themselves about which side had been more convincing for several minutes before finally deciding which way to vote!

While not every student enjoyed the first debate, an equal or greater number discovered that they had a talent or passion for debate that they had not recognized before.  It was fun to watch several usually quiet and reserved students come to life as they powerfully defended their team's position.  

I was also able to provide more specific feedback on the rubrics as I listened and evaluated the students' performance.  I made the decision to copy and paste the rubrics into emails that I sent off to the students later in the day--I hope that the timeliness of the feedback will encourage them to think through my feedback more carefully, even though we still have several months before our next round of debates.  

All in all, it was a fun week and one that affirms to me that after so much trial and so much error, I have finally found a good way to facilitate and teach classroom debate.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Bringing "Guided Outside Reading" Into the Classroom

One of the year-to-year mainstays of English class at CAJ from Middle School on up through High School is Guided Outside Reading, or G.O.R. for short.

The intent behind G.O.R. was originally to ensure that students were reading on their own time, outside of class, and when I started teaching at CAJ back in 2009, we as teachers tried to be consistent about emphasizing the outside part of Guided Outside Reading.  I personally did not provide time in class for G.O.R. and adamantly refused to have book conferences with students during class: I expected them to sign up for a 10-minute conference with me before or after school, during study hall or during lunch.  During those book conferences, I would ask a variety of questions about what stood out in the students' minds, how the book impacted them, what reading strategies they used, and how they could apply a Biblical perspective to what they read.  All worthwhile questions--unfortunately, 90% of the students would inevitably sign up for book conferences during the last two or three weeks of the semester, and a handful would simply not sign up, and therefore lose a lot of points off of their final reading grade for failing to complete G.O.R.

Students would cut corners, using SparkNote summaries instead of actually reading the book, or superficially skimming rather than really getting into the book.

Instead of developing within students a love for reading that would carry over outside of class, it was quickly becoming an annoyance--a hoop to be jumped through.

It became clear to my colleagues and me that Guided Outside Reading needed a bit more rooting inside the classroom.  

This year, one of my personal challenges has been to set aside the occasional class-day for reading.  Of course, this is tremendously hard to do--so many different activities compete for our precious in-class time--but I finally offered students a free reading day on Thursday this week.  The rules were simple: they had to bring their G.O.R. book and they had to keep electronic devices and other homework in their bags so that they would not be distracted.  I informed them that I would come around and talk briefly with each student as they read to find out a little bit about what they were reading.  What followed in both my English and Humanities class was a fascinating 40 minutes of short conversations with my students:

I heard from several students about books that they had just finished, and we were able to make connections with themes from class.

I heard from a number of students who had just chosen a book the day before when I had sent a reminder email about our reading day.  I was able to talk with them about why they chose the book, what they expected the book to be like, and if they had already made it a chapter or more in, what they thought about the book thus far.

I heard from many students who were in the middle of the book they had chosen, and we were able to talk about interesting moments in the books up to that point, predictions about what would happen next, and what reading strategies they were currently using to make progress.  

I made recommendations to students who had finished and were looking for a new book to read, and suggestions for students who were struggling or stuck.  

In each class, I managed to speak with 17 or 18 kids.  While I did notice a few kids who had dozed off, noses pressed against the pages, most were reading carefully and none were working on other homework, or on their computers.  

I am willing to bet that even with this one day of reading, a number of students found traction in reading their books that they would not have had the opportunity to find if it had been a purely out-of-class expectation.  I realize that I cannot stop at just one reading day.  While I cannot afford to set aside a day each week for reading, I intend to set aside at least one reading day each month.  Each time, as the students march further into the books that they are reading, I hope that our discussions about their reading will also become deeper and richer.  

And maybe, just maybe, my self-professed "non-reader" students will stumble upon that book--the book that makes them into readers--and reading outside of class will become not a chore, but a joy!

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Power of Timely Feedback

If you were to ask a group of teachers to share the part of their job they enjoy the most, likely nobody would say grading.  In fact, chances are that more than a few would cite grading as their least favorite part of teaching.  This is understandable on one level--most of us went into teaching because we enjoy working with students, and grading seems a rather solitary endeavor.

Certainly, this was my mentality in the first few years of my teaching career:
I HATE all this grading--I wish I could just focus on teaching!

I now realize that I was setting up a false divide between grading and teaching, as though the two were fundamentally separate.  Indeed, grading is a vital part of teaching.  When I grade an essay, I have the opportunity to give focused, specific feedback that I would not have the opportunity to give on a normal day in the classroom.

And while it's true that time spent grading is certainly different from time spent interacting with students face-to-face, it is not, at its heart, a solitary task.  When I grade an essay, I engage in a meaningful dialogue with each and every one of my students.  I react to their ideas.  I share what their  supporting examples reminded me of, and recommend additional articles, books or movies that they made me think of.  I bring up concerns or challenges.  I ask questions of clarification.  Sometimes, I ask questions that I don't know the answer to, myself, but want my student to wrestle with when they revise.  I get to affirm what my students are doing well as writers, and make suggestions for the areas in which they are weak.  It may not be a live conversation, but it is a meaningful one.

Or rather, it can be a meaningful conversation.

For the dialogue of student work-teacher feedback to truly have an impact, the teacher must be prepared to commit to a quick turnaround time.  Any more than two weeks is essentially a loss--really, it shouldn't be any more than a week.

I actually discovered this firsthand from a student's perspective, in my Master's program.  I found myself deeply benefiting from the feedback professors would leave on my essays or reflections when they returned them within a week.  Any longer than that, and I would struggle to remember the assignment itself, even as I read through the professors' comments.  Having experienced this myself, I resolved to do everything I could to get student writing back quickly, knowing just what a vast difference timing could make.

My first set of Humanities essays started coming in a week ago, and my first set of 1st period English essays started arriving yesterday.  As of this morning, I had read and commented on every Humanities essay I had received.  Because of our new late policy, I was receiving late submissions (all of which fell within our 5-day grace period) throughout the week.  Though I would not have wished for so many students to submit work after the due-date, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was able to read and return essays as they came in during the week.  With the submissions staggered in this way, my turnaround time was no more than 2 days per student.  I was even able to get a start on essays that students in my 1st p. English class had submitted early yesterday evening.

A number of students have expressed amazement to me, and I told them that if I was going to make reading their essays a priority, then I hoped they would make reading my feedback and revising accordingly a priority.

This is my sincere hope--that my students will engage with my comments, questions, suggestions, and challenges while their original writing and thought processes are still fresh in their minds, and start thinking through how to improve the quality of their discussion as they revise.

I won't know for sure how carefully my students will read my feedback until I receive the final drafts in mid-October.  Currently, I have finished reading and commenting on 26 of the 51 essays, just over halfway through.  I am happy with the pace I have set, and hope to have the rest returned before heading off into the woods on Wilderness Camp on Tuesday!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Teaching Responsively

Teachers often talk of learning as a journey, and it may be tempting to think of that journey as being wholly separate from teaching.  Yet the truth is that teachers are still very much on their own journey of learning.  Complacency is the enemy of experienced teachers, a feeling based upon an illusion of total self-sufficiency: there is, in reality, always room for growth; always room for innovation; always some way in which we can stretch ourselves.

What I've learned over the past few years of my Master's program is that we need to embrace this fact.  It keeps us engaged in our calling; keeps us vital.  If we are fearful about discovering our areas of weakness, our teaching will stagnate.  While it's also important to celebrate our successes, the moment we look at our teaching and say "good enough", we bring our own journey of learning to a grinding halt.

In my early years of teaching, I did not dare look too deeply into the areas in which I needed to grow.  Asking my students for feedback on my class would have been out of the question--I was far too self-conscious.  For the past two years, however, I have made this a part of each unit.  On the last day of a unit, before moving on to the next unit, I ask the students to complete a brief reflection.  Aside from considering what they learned about justice in the unit, and sharing what their major take-away from the unit was, I also ask the students to share what worked well for them in the unit and what did not work well--what "clicked" and what didn't.

I'm always pleased with how honest the students are, even though the posts are not anonymous.  Today, my Humanities class did their reflection for the first unit and I read through their feedback after lunch.  I learned that many students really benefited from being able to read The Crucible out loud, or watch it being acted out by their classmates.  I learned that many students enjoyed our simulations--a meeting of the colonies, and a day in a Puritan schoolhouse.  I learned that many students appreciated the thesis-writing workshop, and the way that I broke down the essay into regular in-class work-times.

I also learned that several students felt lost while we were reading The Crucible in class--they struggled to follow along, and the prospect of reading a part themselves was so intimidating that they couldn't track with the plot.  Perhaps these students would benefit from an audio-book--something that they can listen to at their own pace, pausing as needed.
Mainly, I learned that many students have difficulty maintaining focus during times of lecture and note-taking in class.  In my mind, this is as good an argument as any for flipping a classroom, and as luck would have it, I have already prepared a series of flipped lectures for next week, as we start off our second unit.   I put these together last week, before I had received any feedback, out of a suspicion that I was losing students in my lectures, and the feedback I read today validated my decision.  The videos I made are 2-3 minutes each, and break the history leading up to the American Revolution into small, hopefully manageable chunks.  Ideally, I'd like for my students to be able to watch a video or two at a time on the train, waiting for friends after sports practice, or some other situation where they have a couple minutes handy--I do not want them to feel compelled to watch them all at once.  Responding to the feedback in an email I sent out before the end of the school-day, I asked the students to let me know how well the videos work for them, whether they prefer this to in-class lecture or not, and what I can do to use the videos more effectively.

I'm invigorated by the challenge, and the opportunity to do something creative and new!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Workshopping the Writing Process

It's wonderful how I have the opportunity to refine and develop good ideas into good practice with each passing school-year.  Last year, I had the idea of having my students write out their thesis statement and start outlining their essay more than a week before the teacher's draft was due.  This year, I have extended and developed this into a more formal writer's workshop.

We started at the same place as last year--I had my students choose the prompt that they wanted to respond to.  We then reviewed characteristics of an excellent thesis statement (clear, specific, debatable) and looked over samples from the previous year.  For several of the samples, I identified the main points and the organizational pattern for the students, but for the final sample, I asked them to identify the main points and the organizational pattern themselves.  So far, so good--the students could all correctly identify the thesis statement within the introductory paragraph, could identify the main points of the essay in the correct order, and could identify the logic behind the order of the points at first glance.

Here is the final sample that the students had to figure out on their own:

Sample Introduction and thesis:
The old saying goes, "you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family."  In reality, we can replace the word "family" with the word "classmates", "neighbors", or "colleagues" and the statement still holds true.  Unless we exile ourselves from society as hermits do, we cannot avoid life in community.  What is within our control, however, is the way in which we interact with those around us, and it is in this choice that community either grows or suffers.  The growth of community is dependent upon a personal willingness to humble ourselves, a commitment to accepting others, and a common mission to serve the world beyond the borders of our community.

Point #1: (Personal willingness to humble ourselves)

Point #2: (Commitment to accepting others)

Point #3: (Common mission to serve the world beyond the borders of the community)

Organizational pattern: (Internal to external/personal to interpersonal)

Then, I had the students write their own thesis statements using our trusty Moodle journal tool.  I promised that I would provide feedback on each of their theses before class the next day, a promise I managed to keep.  Going over the samples ahead of time clearly helped to refresh the students' memory and I found myself making smaller, pickier suggestions for improvement--the wording of certain points; why not switch point 2 and point 3 for a more natural sense of flow?; etc.  Everyone wrote a passable thesis the first time around, and by the second round, most of them were fairly good, some outstanding.

Here are a few that my students wrote:

Communities can be broken by individuals undermining the community, groups of people discriminating other groups, or entire governments abusing their power at the expense of the community.

We must give mercy by encouraging friends with compassion, forgiving enemies with kindness, and serving the community with love.

Granting mercy does not show one's weakness, but instead displays the courage to restore relationships, repair a community, and stand up for God's love which heals the world.

In order to be a "City on a Hill", law by itself is too regulating, yet love in human terms is too accepting, laws must be motivated therefore by love, and love must be regulated by laws.

Being greedy with one's own rights leads to inequality in relationships with others, which results in a community that doesn't trust each other.

In order to be both just and compassionate, you must first be able to see in yourself right from wrong, then you must be able to fight for justice with compassion, and finally, you must be willing to show compassion to the unjust.

As with last year, my next instruction was for the students to take their main points and begin building a bullet-point outline, brainstorming examples from history, literature and Scripture which they could use as evidence for each point.

Today, I gave a brief tutorial on how to structure a body paragraph (topic sentence, examples/commentary, transition) before setting the students to work.  

To provide an extra layer of modeling, I am writing an essay of my own along with the students, and have my computer connected to the projector so that the kids can see my thought and writing processes in action.  This has been good, as it allowed me to remind the students (and teach to the new students for the first time) how to set up an MLA formatted Pages document--something I may have neglected to do, otherwise--as well as various other odds and ends.

Just like last year, the kids are all at very different places: some of them were still working on their outline today, while others already had a few paragraphs written.  What was good, though, was the fact that I did not monopolize the time--my tutorial on how to write a body paragraph was brief, and after I finished, the kids could get to work where they were at, and ask me for clarification on body paragraph writing later, if need-be.  Perhaps this is something that I can flip--that is, record and post a short tutorial video on--in the future.

I was impressed at the number of high quality questions I was asked while the students were working.  In fact, I barely had time to make progress on my own essay today, as so many students were asking me about the logic of their points, the hook in their introduction, the transition between their first two points, their topic sentences, what would be the best examples to use for a given point, and much more.  

There were, of course, students who did not make much progress.  Some students find it more difficult to focus on sustained writing during class-time, and my being busy answering other students' questions does not exactly lend itself to helping students for whom this is the case to find traction (this is where a co-teacher would be wonderful!).  Nonetheless, even the students who struggled to write more than a few sentences during class today have all completed thesis statements that have received feedback from me, and have all written a basic outline to help guide their writing.  Nobody will be starting from scratch next Thursday evening, the night before the teacher's draft is due.  

Once more, I am excited to read this first round of essays.  Increasingly, I am enjoying the opportunity to edit and give feedback on my students' essays.  It's a dialogue of a slightly different variety than I typically get to have with the kids in class.  There are plenty of opportunities to encourage and affirm, to challenge and critique, to suggest and direct.

I'm sure I'll have even more ideas for how to keep developing this re-introduction to writing at this time next year--I am looking forward to it already!!

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Amazing Potential of Inductive Inquiry

When I started teaching, I had two gears: lecture, and assigning independent work.  There was little rhyme or reason to which I would employ in a given situation, and even less nuance to the execution.

I remember the first time I taught my students about the Noble Savage narrative.  I was excited to teach it, because I found it really interesting--there seemed to me to be so much potential for good discussion in the idea that man is more pure living in a state of nature--but I had not spent much time thinking through my bigger purpose, or even necessarily how to teach it.  The result was a disjointed lecture with awkwardly phrased questions for the students.  Instead of lively discussion, painful silence.

A few years ago, I had the brilliant brainstorm to have the students identify how the Noble Savage narrative came up in film and literature, looking at movie trailers for "Dances With Wolves", "Pocahontas", "Tarzan", "The Last Samurai" and "Avatar", and reading the first chapter of Deer-slayer by James Fennimore Cooper.  This proved more engaging than the lecture--especially when I made the decision to actually sing "Colors of the Wind" rather than just show the YouTube video--but it was still detached from a bigger purpose, and clumsily executed: the task grew tedious quickly, and the first chapter from Deer-slayer proved too lengthy to read in a single class period.

Last year, the lesson on Noble Savage finally found its place in a module on labels and assumptions, in a larger unit about the relationship of love and mercy to justice.  I also made the conscious decision to not tell the students about the Noble Savage narrative right off the bat--they had to wrestle with each of the movie trailers, as well as short excerpts from Deerslayer and Washington Irving's Traits of Indian Character without knowing what the unifying thread was.  It turns out that this simple switch makes a big difference!  When the students are left a little bit off-balance, not knowing exactly what thread unites all of those movies and those excerpts from literature, they are more motivated to find the answer.  Deduction (starting with a general rule and applying it to specific examples) has its place, to be sure, but induction (starting with the specific examples and finding the general rule based on the examples) is more engaging in the classroom.  When I made the switch last year, it was an arbitrary decision that happened to work out well.  This year, I intentionally played up the disequilibrium by telling the students at the outset what the common theme wasn't: not all were love stories; not all were about a war; not all were about Native Americans.

It was fun to listen to the students wrestle and try to make sense of things.  In both the Humanities and 1st period English class discussions, students caught on to the right answer quickly, having very nearly (or in one case, completely) arrived at the Noble Savage narrative with their small groups.

It's exciting to realize that something as simple as the type of inquiry I ask the students to do (inductive as opposed to deductive) could have such a profound impact on engagement with the task. Already, I can think of a few other lessons and activities that I can restructure so that they follow this same pattern.  It is my sincere hope that my students will hold onto these understandings more closely as they have been earned by actively seeking to overcome confusion, rather than simply passed down to them by me.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Community Through Story, Revisited

One year ago, I blogged on a class assignment in which my students needed to share significant stories from their lives.  One year later, and another class is in the process of sharing their stories.
When I told some students from the class of 2016 that the 11th graders were doing this assignment right now, they replied that this was one of their favorite assignments from Junior year and that it had made a big difference in the way they started the school-year.

Once again, we are hearing all kinds of stories, but the thing that really amazes me about all of them is how open and vulnerable the students are willing to be.  Though some students are telling amusing stories that are important to them, the majority are baring their phobias, their deepest struggles, their insecurities, pain that they've felt and pain that they've caused and now regret, for all to see.

I cannot think of a better way for the students who are listening to practice our newly-minted classroom rules and policies--this is where trust is either built or broken, and indeed before the first students presented their stories in each of my classes, I shared this reflection on trust that I wrote in 2011.

So far, the students have been amazing listeners--attentive, encouraging, respectful.  My Humanities class has only one student left who needs to present, and my 1st period English class is more than halfway through.  I hope my students will keep up the maturity and kindness they have already shown in the first two days of story-telling.

However, the building of trust and the shattering of old assumptions is only the beginning.  Even more than last year, I am learning a lot from these stories.  I had taught the Class of 2016 when they were in 9th grade, and so I knew them fairly well when they returned to my class last year for English or Humanities.  The class of 2017, on the other hand, is brand new to me.  I'd coached a few in Middle School Cross Country several years ago, and worked with a few more on the yearbook staff, but that was it.  So, the past two weeks have been a whirlwind of learning names (done!) and getting to know personalities (making progress!).  With nearly every story I have heard so far, I have found myself going, "Ah, okay... I'm glad I know that."  I'm discovering about learning struggles, perceptions, past experiences with school, both good and bad... and I'm realizing that it might have taken me all year to learn this information without the storytelling, if ever.

Once more, I feel affirmed in this choice of a first major assessment--it not only has the potential to set a good tone and break down barriers, but it also helps me to get to know my students on a deeper level.  This was an aspect I feel I underestimated last year, but which I'm sure will be tremendously valuable in coming years.

As I settle down for a much-needed weekend (read: time to work on Master's homework, grade the first round of AP essays I received today, and maybe rest a little bit, too), I am looking forward to the week ahead, and hearing the rest of these stories.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Committing to Classroom Management

People are people, and in particular, kids are kids.
Human nature is distorted by sin, and on top of that, adolescence carries challenges all its own.
Assuming these statements are true, does it follow to say that schools are schools?
Perhaps, in the sense that no school is perfect, and every school has its own issues.
Perhaps not, in the sense that some schools are just plain healthier than others.

Classroom management means something completely different for me than it did for my brother during his time teaching on the Pineridge Reservation, and something completely different than it does for teachers in many inner-city schools in America.

My classroom management is not dictated by an urgent concern for students' physical safety, for the prevention of fights in the classroom, or for keeping students from simply leaving school mid-day.

Indeed, by these criteria, my record is spotless.

However, my students have their own challenges, and this is where my classroom management must be directed.

I have students from all over the world and I treasure this diversity in a single classroom.  However, in a setting where different perspectives are inevitable, students can be reluctant to speak up for fear of ridicule--even something so subtle as rolled eyes or a quiet sigh from a classmate.  This is what classroom management needs to address in my setting.

I have students who by and large have access to technology at all times: the laptops they are loaned by the school, home-computers, smart-phones, video games.  Varying levels of addiction to their screens, whether it be YouTube, a certain game, or a certain social networking site are not uncommon.  This is what classroom management needs to address in my setting.

I have students who desire to do well in school, but tend to over-commit, trying to tackle one or two too many AP classes along with co-curricular activities.  Setting goals and managing time do not always come naturally.  This is what classroom management needs to address in my setting.

Interestingly, the students are just as aware of this as I am.  For their first assignment in my class, as mentioned in last week's post, they had to read my course syllabus and then post to a discussion forum on our course Moodle suggesting a classroom policy that would support one of our two major classroom rules: 1) Respect and 2) Cultivating a Comfortable, Healthy Learning Environment.

I read through nearly 50 posts.  50 policies would be too many, so I looked for repeats, recurring themes or policies that could be combined.  In the end, I was left with the following set of policies:

  • Expect that others will see things differently--disagree respectfully, agree supportively ("supportively" meaning: have reasons for agreeing--don't just say, "I agree").
  • No putdowns of classmates’ ideas or character--this includes nonverbal cues (rolling eyes, making faces).
  • Listen carefully and attentively to whoever is speaking or contributing--no chatting or interrupting.
  • Encourage and challenge one another, and yourself.
  • Put yourself in others’ shoes--be understanding and gracious.

Classroom environment:
  • Food is allowed, but keep the classroom clean!
  • Only use computers when instructed.
  • Computers are a tool to be used for classroom tasks; don’t misuse! 
  • Phones, off-task books, other homework should be stored in your backpack or locker.
  • Use your time well, and if you finish your work, look for ways to help classmates who are behind.
This is the product of the students' work, and not mine--I simply boiled the list down from the policies they recommended.  On Thursday, the students signed their names to a poster sheet with these policies written on them, effectively entering into a contract to consciously work on, encourage and protect these things.   We agreed upon a warning-consequence structure, though the details may vary depending on the policy.

I intend to refer back to these policies regularly with the students to review and reflect upon how we are doing, and to determine how we could be doing better.

My hope and prayer is that by the end of the year, the students will not need me to warn them or police them, that they will be able to hold themselves and one another accountable.  Already, I am seeing evidence that many of the students feel invested in these policies--ownership is exactly what I was going for in inviting them into the process of writing them.  I am committed to doing my part to help the students make these rules and policies genuine, internal values.  It won't always be easy, but then, the most worthwhile lessons rarely are.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Resolutions for a New Year

It never ceases to amaze me how much the atmosphere on campus can change in just a week's time.

One week ago, the campus was practically deserted save for the window-washing crew and a plaza full of noisy cicada.

Today, the cicada chorus was overpowered by the constant hum of anticipation and activity: staff physicals in the mini-gym, last-minute meetings throughout the day, a staff family barbecue in the evening, tennis and volleyball practices on the courts and in the gym.

In just a couple days, campus will be full, and a new year will be fully underway.  Excitement is in the air.

In connection with what I learned in my summer Master's classes, I have two main resolutions for this new school-year:

The first is to use technology to free up class-time for more activities, discussion, work-shopping and especially independent reading.
For a project this summer, I read Flip Your Classroom by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams to learn more about how I could transfer more technical and dry aspects of class to be completed outside of class.

In the end, I settled on the idea of video-recording an explanation of my class syllabus, unit guides and all assignment prompts so that they can be watched (and re-watched) outside of class rather than taking up class time with me mostly just reading information to the students.

I posted my course syllabi for both English and History earlier this week.  I asked students to respond to a syllabus discussion forum by the 2nd day of school to indicate that they had read the syllabus and watched my explanation.  I've already gotten several responses, and I am excited to be able to dive right into important discussions about our theme for the year on the first day of class rather than spending the entire period reading my syllabus.

I think my idea has good potential moving forward and I hope to improve my video-making skills as time goes on.

My second resolution is to actively teach and work with the students on the development of time-management strategies.  For my summer class on learner development and principles of learning, I researched classroom management and came away with the conviction to really focus in on time-use with my students.  While other years in school receive a lot of attention as pivotal years of transition, I truly believe that 11th grade has been too often overlooked.  In essence, 11th graders must make the jump from underclassmen to Seniors, preparing for college or career.  That's quite a lot of ground to cover in one year, but I also firmly believe that 11th graders are up to the challenge.  They just need guidance, feedback and encouragement, and I would like to make that an integral part of my job this year.

In my syllabus, I outlined my two main rules for the classroom as being "Respecting one another" and "Cultivating a comfortable, healthy learning environment".  I told the students that since these rules were fairly broad, we would need to come up with a list of specific policies that would help support these goals and ensure that they are realized in practice.  Therefore, one of the posts that the students must complete in order to show that they've read the syllabus is to recommend at least one classroom policy.  So far, we have policies prohibiting bullying & put-downs, and policies calling for students to help classmates who are behind or struggling.  I'm looking forward to reading more of these as they come in and then boiling them down into a succinct list.  We will also spend some time in class creating a consequence structure, and discuss strategies for holding one another accountable.  I plan to revisit our classroom rules, policies and consequences with the students on a regular basis in order to reflect on how we are doing, make any necessary adjustments and practicing the ability to self-monitor.

I put the lion's share of my time and energy into my curriculum last summer.  While I have certainly spent quality time over the past week touching things up, and will continue to make adjustments as the year goes on, I feel that for the first time ever, I will be able to dedicate myself to classroom practice and maintenance as never before.  While I love working with ideas and thinking about the big picture (a trait that I think is helping me to develop as a resident curriculum geek), all of that would be meaningless without the human element: I love working with the students and am excited to help them grow not only as students of English and History, but as people.

The old year was amazing and I've got a feeling that the new year just around the corner will be even better.  I can't wait to get started!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Initiating Year 8

It was a strange feeling to step back into my classroom this morning for the first time since June, and remember that I already have a good curriculum in place.

You see, in my first few years of teaching, I had the unfortunate habit of completely scrapping what I had done the year before, and trying to build something new (which I would just end up scrapping the next year, and so on).

This pattern of futility stopped when I was assigned to map out my curriculum for one of my summer Master's courses two years ago.  That summer, I spent a good 36 hours on my Humanities curriculum, applying principles of backwards design as I'd never done before.  Though the school-year that followed was not an easy one, it affirmed to me that my planning was on the right track, and also revealed some significant gaps (especially in my essential questions and assessments) which would need my attention during the next summer.  Fortunately, an assignment for one class asked me to research and apply learning about essential questions to a unit in my class, and the other asked me to research and apply universal design to a unit.  These helpful tasks gave me the momentum to apply what I learned to my entire curriculum, and it was during this planning time that I decided that I ought to make "justice" the central theme of my 11th grade classes.

This summer, my Master's classes revolved more around philosophy--of educational technology, of learner development.  These have been tremendously helpful in developing personal frameworks and perspectives on the way I teach, and the way my students learn.  Because of the nature of these courses, I have not worked on my curriculum until just this past week.

I find myself in the odd and unprecedented position of really liking what I did last year.  That's never been the case before.  I suppose that if I wanted to, I could just kick back and relax for one more week and just use the same materials as last year... but that's not who I am.  I thrive on a feeling of growth and development.  This manifested itself in unhealthy ways when I would tear down my entire curriculum and rebuild from the ground up, but I think this impulse is fundamentally a good one, and that the benefits will show now that I have a curriculum I want to hold on to.

This morning, I spent an hour setting the stage for the next week's worth of preparation.  I must confess that I'm not all that productive planning and brainstorming in front of a computer (reflection is a different story--this blog should provide evidence of that!).  In order to think creatively and think through how my curriculum fits together, I need to actually step into my curriculum and walk around.  So, I'm returning to a strategy I used in my planning last summer:
I wrote out my unit titles on A3 sheets of paper which I laid out on the floor of my classroom.  Then, I wrote out my essential questions on smaller sheets of paper, and set those around the units that they are attached to.
Over the next week, I will literally walk through my curriculum with Post-It notes in hand in order to fix up a few things in particular: a few of my essential questions are not related to my standards and I need to change those; some of my assessments connected to those superfluous essential questions will need to be revised or removed; one of my units needs a clearer focus.

The difficulty with this odd-unit-out is that it's my shortest unit at 4 weeks (the first unit after Christmas Break), and the focus is split between the Civil War--with essential questions about root causes/inevitability of conflict, the proper role of compromise, the use of terror or civil disobedience to achieve worthy goals; and U.S. Foreign Policy--with essential questions about isolationism, interventionism, and what it means for a nation to be a "good neighbor".  Both sides are important, but they do not really "gel" together in the same unit, and so I need to perform cosmetic surgery to make everything work in a way that makes sense with regard to the bigger theme of justice.

I know what I need to accomplish, and this will happen much more effectively if I'm able to write notes to myself, rearrange sheets of paper, physically add or remove essential questions.

The beauty of all this, though, is that I'm not starting from scratch: my final unit is still titled "Becoming People of Justice", and five of the six units leading up to that point have a clear theme that helps build toward that goal.

I suppose this is the kind of focus and ease that comes only with experience!  While I'm grateful for one more week to work, plan and prepare, I am excited to start the new school year.  Those challenging early years of surviving day-to-day are behind me, and I can look forward to growing and thriving as a teacher, standing on a solid foundation!