Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Putting Canned Comments Back on the Shelf

I remember the excitement I felt as a middle schooler when my first report card arrived in the mail.  This was my first real report card--no more of the elementary system, with its narrow range of S+, S and S-!  I distinctly recall a feeling of pride washing over me when I read the typed comment at the bottom: "A pleasure to have in class."
It wasn't until junior high, when I saw that not one or two but three teachers left that exact same comment--a pleasure to have in class--that I suspected something was wrong.  By high school, I had become fully aware of canned comments.  One time, a few friends and I even made a tongue-in-cheek list of canned comments that we suspected were in the system, but rarely used.  At any rate, the feeling of pride was gone.  Seeing a pleasure to have in class had become meaningless to me at best, and insulting at worst.  "If I'm really such a pleasure to have in class, why not tell me in your own words?" I wondered.  "Or, even tell me what I can improve on... Just give me something REAL."

When I became a teacher and was confronted with the waking nightmare that is the first year of teaching, I came to sympathize with my own teachers.  I was just barely getting my grades in on time--who could sit and write personalized comments for each student?!

This year, I felt up to the challenge.  I know that some of my students value the final letter grade above all else and that likely, some of the comments I wrote on essays and presentation rubrics throughout the year have gone unread.  A report card is different--the parents see the report card, and the comments are hard to miss.

I could have gotten my grades in two days early, but I was committed to the task--I spent roughly two hours over the past couple of days writing personalized comments to my students.  I wanted to affirm specifically and challenge specifically, and most of all, I wanted the students to see that I had taken the time to write something meaningful to them.

Will some of my students have preferred that I just write a pleasure to have in class?  Possibly.  Do I feel that the two hours I spent writing comments were worth it anyway?  Definitely.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

EDUC 509 Reflection One: The Unifying Power of Mission

My Spring Master's course has begun and so I'll share my reflections as the course goes on, in addition to the occasional post about my classroom practices.  The prompt for this was to write a one page reflection responding to our reading from A Vision with a Task: Christian Schooling for Responsive Discipleship for this week:

Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “I am a rock! I am an island!” Although I am fairly certain the song was about isolating oneself rather than risking heartbreak, it has been all too easy for teachers to embrace this solitary philosophy, too. We treat our classrooms like islands in an ocean when rather they ought to be allies with shared borders. Herein lies the value of a mission statement created through the collaboration of the school community and intentionally articulated: a common vision reverses continental drift as it weaves the community together through the power of shared purpose, and in turn focuses the development and maintenance of curriculum.

I doubt that any Christian school teacher would disagree with the statement that there are many different interpretations of Scripture. CAJ, which identifies itself as a “big-tent school”, has as diverse selection of church denominations as it does passports. Perhaps this is why nobody questions the necessity of a strong mission statement: our preferences for worship music, our opinions on liturgy, our definition of a good sermon may vary, so we know that as a staff, we must seek out what is truly fundamental and make that our foundation. Any teacher at CAJ could tell you that our mission is to equip students to impact the world for Christ. From next year, this statement will be revised to say equipping students to serve Japan and the world for Christ. Our mission statement serves as our North Star, orienting us regardless of where we are in the school, regardless of whether we are teachers or administrators, business staff or support staff. All major decisions are vetted through our mission: Will this help students to impact the world? and soon, Will this prepare students to serve Japan? The broader world?

What particularly struck me in the readings for this week was the connection that I saw between mission and curriculum. As teachers, we operate within a sequence of all that the students learned before they set foot in our classrooms, and a scope of all that the students learn across the disciplines. If we were indeed lonely atolls, our curriculum would likely be disjointed, repetitive, perhaps even contradictory. We might teach some powerful lessons and utilize stellar pedagogical technique, but detached from mission, even the best teaching practices would lack impact. It is only when our individual curricula fit together like a puzzle, supporting, supplementing, reinforcing, that the students will graduate as the kind of young men and women that we as a school hope they will become. The authors’ discussion of the role that play and problem-posing present was fascinating, but such decisions must be rooted in a common understanding of, and investment in mission. Only then, with the end objectives in mind, can the component bricks be securely laid into place.

Teaching in a secluded corner of the third floor, the temptation to be a rock or an island is ever-present. I’ve been fortunate that I have had the chance to share my classroom with the 10th Grade English teacher, the 11th Grade Bible teacher and the Psychology teacher, have had a chance to get to know these colleagues well and become familiar with their curriculum. Daily, I am reminded of our broader mission, and challenged to think through where I fit in the scope and sequence of CAJ.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

So this is what a good class discussion looks like!

This is my 5th year to teach Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and as I mentioned in a previous post, I've always been somewhat disappointed with the lack of engagement.  This time, something finally clicked into place.

My 1st period English class tends to be somewhat quiet and reserved, perhaps due to the combination of personalities making up the class personality, and perhaps due to the fact that I see them first thing in the morning and more than a few students are not quite firing on all cylinders at 8:30 am.

One pitfall from teaching this same unit in my Humanities class before Christmas vacation was that I was way too involved in the discussion.  I interrupted too often, asked too many of my own questions, and as a result, the students I'd selected to be each day's discussion leaders were never fully in control of the discussion.  Though my intentions had been good--wanting to make sure students considered points I worried they would miss--I had ultimately stood in the way of the discussion really coming to life.  This time, I resolved to step back and only speak up if invited, or if my instincts told me that my commenting would spur and not kill further discussion.  I trusted that my students would make it through, but knowing my English class, I suspected that the students would enjoy the experience about as much as a root canal.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

The students took the discussion and made it their own, openly wrestling with the concepts of agency and victimhood.  Everyone was engaged, sitting alert, books open, reacting to the speaker.  Most students even spoke up at one time or another!  Each day's leaders have done a splendid job of initiating and moderating the discussion, offering their own insights to get things going, drawing out quiet students, asking for reactions and questions.

Several students had their computers out, intently jotting down notes and quotes in their double-entry journals for Incidents.

Here are just a few of the quotes and ideas that have come up (and that I have thought to write down):

"The chapter about the three slaveholders reminded me of Hotel Rwanda... it seems shocking, but every human is capable of this cruelty."

"Linda chose to get pregnant because her situation forced her. She sacrificed her purity to maintain her dignity."

"Linda getting pregnant was not really agency, because she thought it was her only option. Can we really say that the only two options were being raped by Dr. Flint and getting pregnant with somebody else?"

"It's hard to pinpoint what's agency and what's victimhood in desperate situations. How you take control of the situation is what makes a difference."

"All of chapter 10, she knows that her audiences' understanding of what she did (getting pregnant outside of marriage) depends on how well she explains her situation."

"She expands her audience by pointing out that slavery is not only horrible for black people, but also the white people who own the slaves."

"Your atmosphere really can affect who you are and what you will become. Being in the situation of slavery changes who you are and what you are."

"There are so many ironic things in the book, so many paradoxes. Slave kids and master children play together as kids but when they grow up, the masters treat them like animals."

-"What Linda is doing reminds me of Elie Wiesel in Night: He experienced hardships and through that, he was able to stand up for what he believed in so that future generations would not experience that again."

"I think even agents experience moments of victimhood; it's impossible for humans to be perfect agents."

"She said that it was the last time she would share a bed with her grandmother... it's interesting how she puts suspense in her own autobiography!"

"No one wins in slavery."

Furthermore, many comments or questions began with such specific cues as...
"In Chapter 16..."
"On page 73..."
"When Linda was sick, she said..."

These were the notes I thought to take--mostly I have been sitting, watching, listening, all the while grinning from ear to ear.

In each discussion, I'd think of comments and questions that I would ask once the discussion was over.  Each day, my list has gone from five or six things to one thing, and today, nothing.  The students were that thorough.  They have surprised even themselves!

We are now five discussions in, not quite halfway done.  I'm excited to listen and learn, and think through exactly what ingredients conspired to make this discussion so good so I can set my students up for success next year, too.

Friday, January 9, 2015


Teaching is marked by the re-set.  The school-year ends, the students move on, and the teacher stays put, preparing to start from square one with a new group of students in the fall.  I can see where teaching could become repetitive, or perhaps even discouraging with the inevitable "letting go" of students whose learning and growth you've been personally invested in for the past 9 months.

I sometimes feel these things, but I think more than anything else, I view each year as another chance to do better.  Each school-year is a new beginning, filled with promise, and the opportunity to apply what I learned through the successes and struggles of the previous year.  

Sometimes when I finish a lesson, I have a really great idea or staggering realization for how I could have done something differently.  Usually, I have to wait nearly a whole year to put my new plan into action.  This time, I only had to wait a month.

In November and December, my Humanities class went through a unit on Agency and Victimhood.  For the most part, I was pleased with how the unit went, but even near the end I felt as though the class was struggling to articulate a Biblical view of agency, especially as a standard by which to compare "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" and the works of Kate Chopin.  Upon reflection, I realized that it all came down to the fact that I had not provided time for follow-up and reflection on the Scripture passages we'd discussed on the first day of the unit.  I'd brought up several Scripture passages, we talked through each of them together and then we moved on.

My English class (who differ from the Humanities class because their U.S. History class is separate, with another teacher, and therefore are on a slightly different schedule) started the unit on Agency and Victimhood at the beginning of this week.  This time, I had the students spend one class period writing an in-class reflection after our discussion on Biblical agency, asking them to identify and explain three crucial characteristics of an agent.  Already, one day into our "Incidents" discussions, I can tell that these students have a firm grasp on the concept, having had to go through the process of reflection and to firm up the definition of a Biblical agent in their own minds.  I am excited for the rest of the unit as having a firm grasp of Biblical agency will enrich the rest of our discussions from here-on out.

There are certainly other small changes I'll make from my last run through the Agency and Victimhood unit, but this seems to have fixed the most pressing concerns I had from last time!

Sometimes, it's nice to have a do-over!