Monday, March 30, 2015

Total Teacher: Reflection

I wrote this reflection for my Master's course.  We are reading a book entitled What's Worth Fighting for in Your School?  Chapter two maintains that a teacher's personality and background, a teacher's working context, and a teacher's purpose all contribute to who they are as a total teacher (and that these aspects have been traditionally overlooked, to the detriment of teaching and change in schools). The prompt called for us to briefly reflect on these areas for ourselves, and how they relate to our role as a teacher-leader in our school.


Everybody comes back to Lynden.  This isn’t true, obviously, but it is a perception shaped by a high rate of returnee-ism not uncommon in small towns in America, and perhaps even more common in Dutch-American communities.  I thought for sure I’d be among that number when I finished college.  I enjoyed my years as a student at Lynden Christian and over the course of four and a half years living in landlocked, flat Iowa for college, I came to romanticize my Washington hometown.  After all, I’m a Pacific Northwest farm-boy at heart, in love with the countryside, provided there are mountains and evergreen trees within view, and the ocean within driving distance, of course.  Maybe this is why God saw fit to send me to teach in the middle of the largest city in the world.  
That’s me—the farm-boy in the big city; the home-body who didn’t return to the nest.  Seven years ago, I wouldn’t have chosen this life for myself, couldn’t have even imagined it, but today I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  I am a product of my Lynden upbringing, to be sure.  Even after six years, I still marvel each day at the diversity of my classroom, compared to the sea of Vans and Vanders that I grew up in.  I get particularly excited when I get to introduce a new group of Juniors to the great outdoors on our annual four-day Wilderness Camp.  The students enjoy my stories about farm-life and small-town life because such a lifestyle is as foreign to them as Tokyo would have been to me when I was in high school. 
At the same time, there’s much that is familiar about CAJ.  It’s a small Christian school, with all that this status entails.  While Tokyo and the international school scene were completely new to me when I started working here, I came in well-versed in the ins and outs of life at a Christian school.  Perhaps this point of connection helped me feel comfortable staying.  In any event, the differences have shaped me in profound ways.  I am irreversibly more internationally-minded than I was growing up.  While I’ll never feel that I fully belong in Japan, I also feel as though I no longer fully belong when I’m in America. When the 2011 triple-disaster hit, I found myself sharing a deep feeling of solidarity with Japan and a deeper solidarity with the CAJ community.  No matter what happens, or where I go, Japan and CAJ will always be a part of me.  Certainly, as my wife is Japanese, even if we eventually were to move to America, we would regularly return to visit Japan, and CAJ.  I don’t have plans to return to America, though.  It’s not as though that’s the goal, or the dream.  For now, this is the dream.  This is home.  
I love America, but I have enough objective distance to see clearly her many faults.  I am not Japanese, but I’m tied to Japan through marriage and I belong to an international community.  These factors of background and context have done much to mold my purpose as a teacher.  “Becoming people of justice” is not merely a convenient catchphrase for me—it’s what I genuinely want for my students to aspire to.  They have a privilege that I did not, growing up in a place where diversity is as natural and valued as the sakura blossoms that are right now blooming in our school plaza.  A place where service is part of the culture.  A place where they are being trained to think and function as global citizens.  Yet, the students cannot take CAJ with them when they graduate, and in some senses that makes our wonderful environment a bit like a hothouse.  I share what knowledge and experiences I can (though I’ve spent most of my adult life here at CAJ) and encourage the students to think deeply about their place in the world; how they will use their gifts and their passions to pursue justice in some fashion or another.  
God has used this combination of my own history, my current context and my purpose to build me into the teacher that I am.  The road has not always been smooth, the journey not always easy.  Yet, I now appreciate more fully that I have a part to play on staff at CAJ.  I am the farm-boy in the city; the home-body who found his element by leaving his element; the graduate of a small-town school where “if ya weren’t Dutch, ya weren’t much”.  My experiences, coupled with my deep hunger to learn more about the art of teaching, have equipped me with much to offer as a leader in my community.  I may not be the most organized or detail-oriented teacher on staff (if I had to guess, I'd say 30th percentile), but just how special CAJ is, and how vital our mission, is not something I take for granted.  With these truths close to my heart, I cannot isolate myself; I must engage my colleagues in professional dialogue; I must share what I’ve learned, and seek to learn from them, in turn.  I must do my part to encourage a desire for ongoing growth and learning among my fellow teachers so that we can better prepare our students to pursue justice; to serve.  This is who I am, and who I am becoming.  I’m a world away from Lynden, but exactly where I need to be. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Passport to the World

In September, my 11th graders finished our first unit of the year on community.  We discussed the factors that break community down and the role that love can play in building community up.  In our final discussion, I encouraged the class to consider what they might be able to do as a community to serve the world.  I offered a few examples of service activities that classes had done in years past, but told them that it was ultimately their own decision.

The StuCo representatives organized a class meeting during lunch on the first of October to gauge interest in doing something as a class.  The turnout was incredible--more than 40 of the 47 members of the class attended the meeting and those who were not there had prior lunch commitments.  I sat in on that meeting as a fly-on-the-wall.

The feeling at that meeting was abundantly clear: everyone was in favor of doing something.  I encouraged them to decide on a charity to support before starting to plan an event.  Several ideas were considered, among them raising awareness and funds for Ebola research.  The Juniors knew that Ebola was an issue that was not only affecting so many people, but also that it was largely misunderstood by the United States media, which was contributing to Stateside panic (such is the advantage of observing U.S. media from overseas!  A little distance helps to see the truth of a situation).  

As luck would have it, the high school principal knew someone working with the SIM Organization, a branch of which is dedicated to fighting Ebola, and connected the students with that contact. 

Later in October, the students decided that they wanted to host an international festival--a practice common in Japanese schools, but which had not been done in recent memory at CAJ.  They brainstormed the types of games, food, activities and performances that could be featured. The class divided into committees and set about planning. 

One of the greatest obstacles they encountered was setting the date.  As the leaders looked through the calendar, it became clear that there were relatively few open Fridays upon which the event could be done and that even the open Fridays came between other major events.  In mid-January, the Juniors settled on March 12, a Thursday, with the festival lasting from 4:00-6:00.

With the date set, the committees doubled down on their efforts and the event began to take shape.  In February, the Junior class had a tremendous opportunity: through their contact at SIM, they were able to connect with Dr. Rick Sacra, a Christian Ebola doctor who had worked at Elwa Hospital in Liberia, had gotten sick with Ebola in the fall and then survived to return to his work.  The class leaders arranged a Skype interview with Dr. Sacra on February 25.  They set up the projector in the classroom and filmed the hour-long interview.  Dr. Sacra was helpful, gentle and very informative and the students came away, in the words of one girl, "star-struck".  

In the weeks leading up to the event, the committees went above and beyond: the arts committee and decorations committee spent hours after school putting together signs and planning how they would transform the cafeteria into an international carnival.  The food committee spent hours in the Home Ec room, preparing food to be baked ahead of time.  The advertising committee created signs and posters, received permission to hang them up not only around campus but also around Higashi Kurume, and also received permission to pass out tracts at the station.  The activities committee planned out unique and interesting games for children to play, both indoors and outdoors.  The performance committee lined up a solid variety of acts that would reflect the diversity of our school community.

When the day finally arrived, the committees were ready to go: they knew what needed doing and who was responsible for each facet of the set-up, and the execution.  I released my 3rd-4th period Humanities class to assist with the set-up, recognizing that there would be at least a few students who would be too nervous or anxious to make much progress on their unit essay.  At 2:00, the whole class met for final instructions and then went their separate ways to finish the preparations.  All 47 members had something to do: everyone was working hard.  

By 4:00, a long line had formed, winding back past the auditorium and the event began.  It was well-attended, and the Juniors (all wearing either traditional clothes from various countries, or sports gear from their home country) gave the two-hour festival their all.

The final tally of the funds they raised is not yet complete, but every indication says that the class exceeded their goal of ¥150,000.  

Parents, staff, and peers alike conveyed their amazement and appreciation for what the class of 2016 put together.  This will not be an event soon forgotten!

It was my exquisite privilege to observe the Juniors at every stage of this process.  This was not a requirement; no grade or school credit would be given for this.  Yet it was an extension of our class discussions from that very first unit, and an application of the theme I hold to be central to my 11th grade classes: Becoming People of Justice.  Yesterday, and in the six months leading up, the 11th graders invested in something much bigger than themselves, coming together as a class community with common purpose, sacrificing both time and energy, and seeking opportunities to serve and bless not only the local community, but the world at large.  They may well write about this experience in their final essays at the end of the year.  I hope they do.  But even for those who struggle on that last assignment, for those who always struggle to formulate and articulate their thoughts, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that they lived out our theme firsthand.  I sincerely wish such moments were easier to recreate.  This year, I merely set the possibility before the students and they ran with it.  Next year, with this charity event still fresh in their memories, the class of 2017 will undoubtedly feel pressured or overwhelmed if I treat this in any way like an expectation.  Service, and by that same token, a genuine pursuit of justice, must come from the heart and not from the burden of tradition or expectation.  

The best I can do is to instill within my students, this year, next year and all the years yet to come, a deep desire to pursue justice.  Frustrating, for a teacher who wishes he could just plug "Junior service project" into his curriculum map, but oh, so crucial for a teacher who hopes for his students to leave his classroom with a heart to serve.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Writing Alongside

One thing I did not do enough as a Cross Country Coach, but which my runners always appreciated, was actually running the work-out with the team.  My final season of coaching, I did this consistently and I found it motivated my runners and it meant less groans when they found out their work-out for the day.

There's an element of this that can be brought into teaching, too.

My AP students are busy right now.  A number of them were away from school yesterday for a long Honor Choir rehearsal, and even more will be away from school tomorrow for the Kanto Plains Choir Festival.  The class charity festival is next Thursday and Spring sports have just started.  Not to mention, for many of them, English is not the only AP that they are taking.  With 24 students taking the AP English test, we've divided into three different groups that meet for weekly prep sessions at different times during the week.  As I waited for my Wednesday lunch group today, I felt a pang of guilt--it was 19˚C outside, the sun was shining, and here I was asking them to come inside during their lunch break and spend 50 minutes writing a practice essay.

The kids filed into the classroom one-by-one, good-natured, but looking distinctly beleaguered.  After a minute or two of small-talk, I introduced their practice essay prompt for the session and made a split-second decision:
"I'm going to write this essay, too!"
"Who would do something like that?" one boy asked incredulously.
"Me.  I feel like writing."

So as my students settled down to their task, I, too, put pencil to page and wrote a rhetorical analysis essay on how Mark Twain conveys his attitude in an excerpt from his classic "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses."  As I collected the essays at the end of the session, I told the students I would type up my essay and send it out as a sample.

I was not happy with the conclusion, I told them, but felt as though I'd held to and supported my thesis fairly well.  In the end, joining them on this timed essay served a three-fold purpose:
1) It enabled me to model what (I hope) a decent rhetorical analysis essay should look like.
2) It demonstrated my love for writing.
3) It showed the students that I was willing to join them in the trenches.  Hopefully, it communicated a desire to empathize with them.

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but one I felt good about.  Just for fun (for better or for worse), here is my analysis essay on Twain's criticism of Fenimore Cooper:


Styles change. What's popular now may not be popular in 50 years, 10 years, or even next week. So it was that Romantic author James Fenimore Cooper, with his copious descriptions, epic tone and cast of noble savages fell under Mark Twain’s keen eye. In this excerpt, Twain conveys a critical, satirical attitude, logically dismantling Cooper’s style with detailed examples, pointed cause-effect, and characteristic sarcasm.

Twain wastes no time in getting to the heart of the matter: “IF Cooper had been an observer…” While Twain maintains that Cooper “saw nearly all things as through a glass eye”, Twain proves himself to be far more observant as he brings detailed examples into his analysis. In particular, Twain points out Cooper’s inconsistency in describing the stream in “Deerslayer”. Twain has numbers at the ready: initially, Cooper describes the stream as 50 feet at its origin, but later reduces that measurement to 20 feet. Twain then goes on to speculate on the dimensions of Cooper’s ark, based on the description of a “modern canal boat.” 16 feet wide and more than 100 feet long, Twain assumes, and therefore conjures a ridiculous picture in the readers’ minds of a boat far too big for the stream it’s in.

These details and examples set up for a brilliant cause-effect. Twain supposes that Cooper “shrunk” the stream to accommodate the Indians who were waiting on a limb across the river to drop stealthily onto the 90 ft-long “house” portion of the boat. Given the dimensions, Twain establishes, the leap ought not to have been a problem: the house-boat is a wide, 16x90ft slow-moving target! The effect should not have been in question—each Indian should have made the leap easily. However, Twain points out that not only did all six Indians MISS the boat, all but one fell into the water (which, Twain reminds, accounted for less than two feet on either side).

Twain brings up all of these facts in his trademark sarcastic tone, asking mocking rhetorical questions: “Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there?”; “Now then, what did the six Indians do?” Then, he fields his own questions with barely contained glee (“He was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them!”) and hyperbole (“It would take you 30 years to guess and even then you would have to give it up, I believe.”) He concludes with stinging anaphora as he describes the successive failures to land on the boat: “Then No. 2…,” “Then No. 3…” The cumulative effect of these strategies is that an epic moment from Cooper’s work now looks unrealistic and silly.

The times, they had changed. Out was the romantic literature of Cooper’s day and in was the clear, concise, realistic work of Twain and his fellows. Though both Cooper’s and Twain’s works have endured, one cannot help but admire Twain’s witty determination to dismantle the old set and introduce a new scene in the great drama of American literature.