Friday, February 27, 2015

EDUC 509: Self-Assessment

I wrote this reflection for my Master's course, having been asked to identify which stage of teacher development I am currently in and what growth options appeal to me:

“When teachers in Track II reach some form of closure with their professional development plan, they and their supervisor build a new plan and establish a new time line" (Danielson). And there you have it—the essence of growth as a teacher is continuous growth as a learner. Being enrolled in this Master’s program has been a tremendous professional renaissance for me. In my 4th full year of teaching in 2012-2013, I was struggling with what I can only assume was some kind of “senior-itis”, burned out on my work and feeling that it was time for some kind of a change (the curse of growing up in an educational system that treats every 4th year as a milestone of sorts). And change came in large quantities in 2013 as I got engaged, then married, and also started my graduate work. What I now realize is that I need to be proactive in my continual growth—complacency is the enemy of good teaching, as it will eventually rot into stagnation. As the end of my Master’s program draws nearer, I have begun to wonder what will come next. On the one hand, I will be happy with what I accomplished; on the other hand, I will be sorry to not have the next course to look forward to. I’m already feeling this, a year before I’ll finish up. On this count, chapter 9 encouraged me, as it affirmed that I am indeed now a “track II” teacher, and that ongoing learning is not merely a possibility, but a necessity.

Time flies. In my mind, I’m still a newbie. My first years of teaching do not feel all that distant, and they are not, really. Yet, I’m clearly in a different stage now than I was when I started, and even than I was two years ago. I’m thinking about aspects of my career and my school context that I wouldn’t have considered two years ago, and I’m thinking about these things on a much deeper level than I would have back then. This is because I’m no longer an inexperienced teacher. This is my 6th full year of teaching; my 5th teaching my current course-load and my 7th in the CAJ community. At graduation in June, when the teachers file into the gym according to years of service, I’ll be somewhere in the middle. I’m a track II teacher. It was my entrance into the Master’s program that initiated this rite of passage. The moment I took initiative for my ongoing growth and development was the moment when my professional identity came of age.

With this new stage of professional life comes new responsibilities, not the least of which is ensuring that I continue to grow in my ability to effectively teach my students. One day, I will pursue a doctorate in education—the question is not ‘if’, but ‘when’. I may pursue another Master’s course to enhance my knowledge of my subject areas, provided I can find a good distance learning program that will allow me to continue to teach at the same time. Then, of course, the options listed in chapter 9 provided a rich trove for me to choose from. Through PLCs, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in curriculum development, work that I relish in. I’ve participated in several book-studies, which is always enjoyable. Yet the rest of these options are ones that I have not yet explored formally: action research, instructional strategies implementation, peer consultation/coaching, professional growth portfolios. I’m not sure what I will choose to pursue after I finish my Master’s—perhaps some combination of action research and peer consultation/coaching, as this would be a structured way for me to keep actively learning and would provide me with others to learn alongside.

Two years ago, the future of my professional career seemed uncertain. I had no idea what lay ahead of me or if I even wanted to continue teaching. Today, I still cannot say for sure what my future holds, but I am secure in the knowledge that teaching will be a part of that future, and with it, ongoing learning.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Unit 5 Poetry, Samples, and The Joy of Writing

I hated poetry in school.  Hated it with a fiery passion that I would have, ironically, communicated with no shortage of figurative language.

I never had a teacher who made poetry come to life for me--instead I had teachers who were so dogmatic in pushing their own personal interpretations of poems as the one correct interpretation that I came away resentful of the whole enterprise.  Somehow, my reflections and analysis never seemed to be what my own English teachers were looking for.

As a result, I have walked my classroom, a living paradox: an English teacher who doesn't like poetry.  I am open with my students about my history with poetry, but I always make it clear to them that I want to discover the joy.  This year, I discovered some of that joy.  Allow me to share how.

As part of Unit 5 (which as I've previously mentioned is all about humanity's quest for meaning), we are examining various shifts in worldview and the resultant shifts in art and literature.  Yes, the labels are somewhat artificial, but the shifts are real and provide a reminder that history and context have just as much of an impact on art and literature as art and literature do on history.

Specifically, we examined the shift from enlightenment thought ("Meaning can be found in human reason and logic!") to romanticism ("Not everything can be explained, and sometimes your intuition and emotions tell you more than your brain!"), and especially transcendentalism ("Humans are naturally good and can learn purity, self-reliance and connectedness if they commune with the natural world!").
Then we did a brief detour to explore the medium of haiku (de-emphasizing the 5-7-5 rule, emphasizing the capturing of a moment using ku--theme, kigo--sense words, and kireji--a cutting line or phrase).
We then looked at the shift to realism and naturalism ("What we see is all there is; nature can be cruel and unpredictable and is always beyond our control!") and finally the shift to modernism ("Make it new!" as Ezra Pound would say).

To help the students fathom these shifts, I asked them to write a set of poems in four different styles, but all revolving around the same theme (which they could choose).
The four styles are transcendental, haiku, naturalist and modernist.

The students struggled for a few days and I worried that I'd only passed on my dislike for poetry, despite my great pains to be fair and diplomatic.  So today, I decided to provide them with a sample.  I sat down as my students were working and wrote up my own poetry set revolving around the theme of "school".  At first, I wrote out of a sense of duty as a teacher, but soon enough I was genuinely having fun mimicking the form and perspective of each style.  I excitedly shared my samples with the class, who seemed bemused at my enjoyment.  I won't know until I read their submissions whether or not my samples helped--perhaps I thought of this idea too late.  Still, I feel good about the fact that I could model a joy in poetry for my students, rather than a discomfort or dislike.  Who knows?  If I could discover enjoyment in poetry at age 28, maybe my own skeptical students will one day discover that same enjoyment.  And maybe, just maybe, my enjoyment of poetry will continue to grow!

Here is the poetry set that I wrote based around the theme of "school":

I. Transcendental Piece (Think Emerson, Thoreau or some of Walt Whitman's poetry)

The Best Teacher
The desks in pristine rows,
Crisp worksheets fresh off the copier,
A syllabus heavy with classics written by the wise-men of the ages.
The scene was perfectly and carefully set for the first day of school.
And I skipped.
My desk would be the old log by the river.
My worksheets, the whispering of the breeze across my forehead.
A syllabus prescribed by the creator and etched into every leaf, every branch, every flower.
I daresay it was I who came away with the truest education.

II. Haiku
Suntanned hugs subside
into desks with good-natured groans.
Another school year has begun.

III. Naturalist Piece (Think Jack London or Edward Arlington Robinson)

Old Professor Michaelson
Old Professor Michaelson was the smartest man I knew,
When he spoke up, the room went still
And how our knowledge grew!

Old Professor Michelson, a Harvard man was he.
And then to Oxford he had gone 
To earn his PhD.

He had degrees in philosophy, advanced degrees in math,
To wisdom immemorial 
We thought he’d found the path.

But then one day, while teaching, his heart just ceased to beat,
Professor Michelson dropped dead.
His journey was complete.

For all of his great learning, erudition in every breath,
There was one thing his learning 
Could not stop, and that was death.

IV. Modernist Piece (Think William Carlos Williams or Ezra Pound): 

The dictionary sits
on the shelf
full of knowledge
rich in definition,
covered in dust, 
as children construct 
with their fingertips.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Teacher Evaluation and Servant Leadership

I wrote this reflection for my Master's course this morning.  We were asked to reflect on connections between the four domains of the Danielson model (Planning and Preparation; The Classroom Environment; Instruction; Professional Responsibilities) and servant leadership.  Although I teach students about servant leadership every year on Wilderness camp, I'd never stopped to think about what this might mean for my teaching.  It was a worthwhile exercise, and I thought I'd share what I wrote:

Servant leadership has permeated so many different aspects of society, extending even into secular business models.  Cautious optimism tells me to hold out hope that western education, too, will one day adopt this framework for leadership.  Christian educators need not wonder at what this might look like—our schools and the policies that drive them are the perfect testing ground.  What if teacher evaluation consciously prized and promoted servant leadership?  In truth, the four domains specified in the Danielson model connect perfectly with a model of Biblical servant leadership as teachers are called to establish and communicate a clear vision with integrity while simultaneously exercising selfless service within their communities.

A clear and carefully articulated vision is crucial in servant leadership.  In order to effectively support and serve his followers, a leader must know first where he is going and then share that sense of purpose with those he is leading.  Christ lived this out from the start of His ministry as he described in memorable detail characteristics of the Kingdom of God and those who will inherit it, a vision that His disciples may not have fully understood, but embraced all the same.  Similarly, effective teaching requires planning and preparation.  The teacher must have clear objectives in mind, and must be able to share this road-map with the students so that they, too, understand where they are going, why they are going there, and how they will get there.  The amount and quality of planning that a teacher accomplishes before stepping into the classroom is both an aspect of servant leadership and quality teaching.  

Moreover, servant leaders must have integrity.  A servant leader is true to himself, is proactive in cultivating trust with his followers and is quick to acknowledge his own shortcomings and mistakes, seeking repentance.  Christ is the paragon of integrity and in Him we can observe some truly spectacular pedagogical and management strategies. Christ told stories and occasionally provided direct instruction to His disciples; Christ demonstrated acts of healing and mercy in front of His disciples; and Christ sent His disciples out to perform such acts on their own.  His pedagogy developed a climate of trust with His disciples and when He needed to chastise and admonish them, it was effective by virtue of the learning environment He had crafted.  Likewise, in the establishment of a learning environment and in classroom instruction, a teacher must cultivate trust by establishing clear boundaries to be enforced consistently, and must engage in teaching practices that are true to the teacher, that develop trust with the students and that ultimately prepare the students to be sent out on their own.  The piece of integrity which I’ve not yet touched on—repentance—requires a different approach.  We must look to one who was merely human to observe repentance in action.  King David was a man after God’s own heart, yet his heart was swayed by his lust for Bathsheba.  David’s response to Nathan’s confrontation is instructive for us: when we err—and we surely will—we must own up to our mistakes in humility and ask for the forgiveness of our followers who may have been hurt by our wrongdoing.  Despite traditional teacher-centered models of education, the teacher does not have all the answers.  Quite the contrary.  Our students will mess up and so will we.  Our humility in those situations will not undo what we did, but it will rebuild broken trusts and it will provide students with a living model of what it looks like to repent and move forward.

Finally, a servant leader must be selfless and committed to serve within the broader community.  Christ lectured His disciples on this point, telling them that if one would be great in God’s Kingdom, he must become the servant of all.  Christ demonstrated this, washing His disciples’ feet, and Christ then commissioned the disciples to do the same for one another (His pedagogy in action yet again!).  Today, feet-washing does not carry the same weight that it would have in Israel at that time.  Still, we as teachers function in communities with plenty of tasks to be taken on, families to be communicated with, professional growth to be engaged in.  We must approach these tasks not with an air of superiority, but with one marked by a desire to bless and a desire to learn.  We must be the ones to reach out to our students’ parents and ought not to wait for them to contact us.  We must seek to support our colleagues and engage in productive collaboration, even when that feels inconvenient or demands that we change how we teach.  We must continually seek to grow as educators ourselves with the recognition (and celebration of the fact!) that we are lifelong learners.

Teacher evaluation, in effect, is not merely about being held to professional standards.  It is about accountability to a much deeper calling, and one that is inextricably bound to the profession of teaching.  Teachers are leaders—this is inevitable and indisputable—what makes all the difference in the world is the breed of leadership we aspire to.  Evaluation, both formal and informal, both summative and formative, must remind us, challenge us and call us to serve.  To serve our students, to serve their parents, to serve our colleagues.  It is through these acts of service that the Christian teacher ultimately serves God.

Graphic courtesy of

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Humanities and Community Engagement

As I wrote about several weeks ago, our current unit in Humanities is, at its core, about the human quest for meaning.  Not all of my unit objectives fit perfectly with this, but most of them do.  So what do I do with the objectives that don't quite fit with the quest for meaning?

Just because I decided to base this unit's essential theme on only some of the objectives doesn't mean I don't value the others.  It just means that I will teach and assess them a little bit differently.

In this unit, the odd objective out was about the ways in which different cultures interact with each other.  I chose to include this objective in this unit because even though it isn't central to our theme, it comes up organically in the process of examining the theme.  Our discussion of the American Dream inevitably included discussion of immigration and the struggles that immigrants to America faced: discrimination, nativism, pressure to assimilate.  As I planned out this unit, I realized that my goal was not for students to remember facts about American immigration specifically, but to understand immigration as a concept--the reasons why people might immigrate, the challenges they might encounter, the joys, the ways in which they blend with their new culture, the ways in which they remain distinct.

"But how can I make this come to life for my students?" I wondered.
"How can I make this come to life for my students in this international setting with people from all over the... wait a sec--"

At that point, the assignment basically created itself:

I asked the students to pair up and interview someone in the community (whether a staff member or family member) who immigrated to Japan as an adult about their reasons for coming to Japan, their experiences, and how living in Japan has impacted them.  The students had to receive approval on their interview questions from me ahead of time (so that they could practice the skill of writing interview questions) and then had to video tape and edit the interview to show "the big ideas" that came up in their interview.

The product was a set of 5-6 minute videos featuring a variety of people from our community talking about their experiences in moving to Japan.  I am using these videos, one per day, as an opener for class, and each day begins with my students hearing about another teacher or parents' personal experiences in immigrating to Japan.  Though everyone's experiences are different, there are some commonalities such as the feeling of not quite fitting in, memories of embarrassing misunderstandings, and mistaken impressions of Japan that were corrected over time by living here.

Will this understanding come up on a test?  No.  My students are living it, are surrounded by it, and I hope that watching these videos will encourage them to think more deeply about the unique cultural situation at CAJ, and how they fit into the puzzle.  At the end of the unit, I'll ask the students to reflect on issues related to immigration, but that will be the extent of the assessment.  They will, of course, have a much bigger assignment to work on as they tie together various aspects of humanity's quest for meaning from literature, history and Scripture.  Even so, I hope that the students will not forget the interviews that they conducted and that they listened to; this may not have been the central theme of our unit, but it was a worthwhile understanding that forged deeper connections between my students and the community that they live in.  In the end, isn't that community engagement a vital part of becoming people of justice, too?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Learning to Manage Classroom Management

This module in my Master's course is about teacher evaluation, and has prompted me to think a lot about self-assessment and reflection.  My blog is all well and good, but I tend to humble-brag about my strong points, or ideas I tried that worked out well.  This week, I'm going to reflect on an area of need.

I'll be completely honest: Classroom management is, without a doubt, one of my weak points as a teacher, and has therefore been one of my least favorite parts of teaching.  I am a non-confrontational guy.  In fact, I am apparently not all that intimidating, period.  A couple months back, I asked one of my students to do his best Mr. Gibson impersonation and he responded by broadening his smile and walking with a jaunty bounce in his step.  Evidently, I am as menacing as Mr. Rogers.  (By the way, I truly enjoyed the impersonation--I figure, I put so much time and energy into impersonating my own teachers when I was in high school that I might as well have a sense of humor about what comes around).

My trouble is, at the start, I had a tough time separating discipline from an emotional response.  In my first year of teaching, I allowed every little thing, every little challenge to my authority to bother me and wound up breaking the cardinal rule of "never lose your cool" time and again.

My reaction since then has been to practice patience--to not allow defiance or off-task behavior to bother me personally.  And boy, have I learned patience!  Anyone who knew me in my childhood knows that I'm not a patient person by nature and that I can have a fiery temper (that's true of all red-heads, right?).  Patience is good.  I am a better person for having developed this patience.  Unfortunately, in the classroom, this has come at the expense of me consistently setting and enforcing rules like I know I should be, out of a fear that I will get angry in the process.

My philosophy after that unfortunate first year has been one of treating my 11th graders like college students: they can make their own decisions about time use (including bad ones) and then must live with the natural consequences, and I won't stop them.  If they want to waste a class period of work-time, then they must be prepared to do that work later with the full recognition that their stress was their own making.

This sounds sensible on paper, but here's the blinding flash of the obvious that recently struck me:
Most 11th graders are not ready for this.
I love my students dearly and have seen Juniors accomplish some truly remarkable things in and out of class, but most--not all, mind, but a definite majority that includes otherwise bright and thoughtful kids--cannot make the connection between their misuse of time and their stress later, or at least they stubbornly refuse to.  It comes out in the complaining, or more subtle suggestion that I did not allow enough time, or that I picked a bad time to give an assignment, or that their other teachers gave too much work.  I should note here that this 11th grade class has been fairly responsible on the whole and no specific incident caused me to have this revelation--it just dawned on me during class earlier this week as I observed my students making decisions about how to spend in-class work time, and had the eureka moment that I could be teaching them better habits.  I realized that if I allow students to make bad choices and they are not actually taking responsibility and learning from those bad choices, and are blaming myself or someone else, then they are not ready for that level of freedom to begin with.  Again, no judgment at all on the quality of their character--it's a developmental thing.  They need time, training and feedback to grow into that level of responsibility.

I tell each class of 11th graders I teach at the start of the year that 11th grade is my favorite age level to teach and that's the truth.  I tell them that in essence, they start the year as sophomores and they end as Seniors.  They begin as underclassmen and emerge with their Comps topics selected and a list of colleges in mind that they will apply to in the fall.  If Senior year is a test-run for the freshman year of college, then they need to be ready for the experience at the end of their Junior year.  Yet, I now recognize that Junior year must be about preparing them, not only academically, but also in terms of their habits and their citizenship in a classroom setting.  I cannot simply assume they are starting out with this level of independence, diligence and initiative.  Would I have been ready for that level of independence as a high school Junior?  Not remotely.

So, my own understanding of classroom management has deepened.  I can see now that I must absorb classroom management into my curriculum.  It, too, must be part of the journey of Junior year, and must be backwards designed and taught to, just as my course themes, enduring understandings and major skills must be taught to.  This, I think, is the key to separating discipline from visceral emotion--it's part of the teaching in the same way that thesis writing, timeliness, or an understanding of economic systems are part of the curriculum.  When students struggle with thesis writing, I don't get upset, nor do I simply let it slide.  I provide feedback and ask the student to try again.  If knowing how to communicate clearly through an orderly thesis is part of becoming a person of justice, how much more-so is good decision making and positive behavior within a community?

This revelation was a simple one, but will have profound implications on how I frame classroom management in the remainder of this year, and in years to come.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fleshing Out Unit Five

My Humanities class started our fifth unit of the year this past Tuesday.  This was the unit that I'd spent the least amount of time on during my intensive summer planning, and was therefore the least-fleshed out, and consequently, the unit I was most worried about.  I knew it was going to be about the American Dream, and that several enduring understandings needed to be included, regarding such topics as comparative economic and political systems, various reactions to immigration, the ways in which authors use literary devices and the relationship between literature and society.
At first glance, these understandings seemed fractured, disconnected from one another and I wondered if maybe I would have been better off including them in other units.  

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that each understanding fit in with the larger course theme of humanity's quest for meaning.  Really, that was what this unit was all about, all along and I simply had not recognized it until then.

With that in mind, I created these essential questions and divided the unit up into five modules:
Where do humans seek meaning?
Can cultures coexist without clashing?
Is national pride a dangerous thing?
How does a good communicator convey meaning?

Module One: The American Dream and Immigration
This module explores the lure of the American Dream, asking what the American Dream promises, and then whether or not the reality lives up to the dream.  In the process, this module examines the plight of various immigrant groups and the tension between blending into the melting pot, or remaining distinct.

Module Two: Meaning in Nature
This module explores the connection that so many writers have had to the natural world, considering why humans might look to nature for significance and why rooting one's significance in nature is ultimately insufficient.

Module Three: Meaning in Self
This module explores the temptation to make oneself the ultimate end, wrestling with the seductive idea that life is about the meaning we give it with the time that we have and why this, too, is ultimately insufficient.

Module Four: Meaning in Nation
This module explores the temptation to imbue one's nation with ultimate significance, looking at the relationship between patriotism and nationalism and addressing the dangers inherent in nationalism.

Ongoing Module: The Green Light
This module revolves around the reading of The Great Gatsby, and in addition to making connections with the ongoing theme of the quest for meaning, analyzes the ways in which Fitzgerald used symbols to bring this point across in his story.

The major assessment will, of course, be a unit essay evaluating the ways in which history and literature reveal humanity's quest for meaning in light of a Biblical worldview.  Most everything else will serve as a formative piece of that puzzle, or will target understandings not covered in the essay.  

From this starting point, the unit has been incredibly easy to plan, and has turned out to be the most even balance between history and literature that I have struck to date.  This past week was fun and there's not a day of this unit that I am not looking forward to.  

All of this is a reminder of the power of a unifying theme, supported by solid essential questions which can frame the unit--a lesson I already knew, but needed the reminder on!