Saturday, June 13, 2015

A Year of Reflective Teaching

I fought to make the closing minutes on the final day of school last as long as I could.  At about the same time that I had slumped down at my desk weary and frustrated a year earlier, I set out to savor all the teacher moments I could before the students would leave for the summer:

I helped a group of rising 11th graders track down summer reading in the library.
I sought out many of my students from this past year, now rising 12th graders, to thank them, and to wish them a wonderful summer.
I chatted and took a selfie with a group of rising 10th graders.
I said some difficult goodbyes to students who would not be returning to CAJ next year.
I received several beautiful letters from students that brought tears to my eyes.

When I left campus for the day, my heart was heavy, though for very different reasons than the year before.  My heart was heavy because I had invested it so deeply in my teaching and in my students, and by stepping out the gates, I was admitting that time had to keep marching on.  The deeper our love for something, the more difficult to let it go.
And yet, this same investment--my love for my job and for my students--was a source of tremendous joy throughout the whole school-year; joy that far outweighed the sadness I felt as I left campus--and the school-year--behind.

This year, I chose integrity.  I taught in a way that was true to my identity.  I was real with my students, and just as importantly, I was real with myself.

A vital component of that realness has been these regular reflections.  Writing is, and has always been the means by which I process what is happening in my life, and this year, it enabled me to process my teaching in particular.  Taking the time to reflect every week or every other week kept me accountable in my quest to teach with integrity.  Regardless of the topic, my reflections brought me face-to-face with my priorities and practices, my strengths and my weaknesses.  It led me to think deeply and intentionally about what I was doing in the classroom and spurred me to continually work harder, to invest more completely, to try new things, and learn from my mistakes.

Though this school-year has ended, my reflection will continue.  I am satisfied with my curriculum, but I still have adjustments to make for next year, new resources to find, new activities and teaching strategies to brainstorm.  I cannot simply repeat what I did this past year--reflective teaching requires a commitment to lifelong learning and personal growth.  I am grateful for the summer vacation that now stretches before me, but deep down, I am already counting down the days until the next school-year begins.  I pray that my teaching next year, too, will be characterized by integrity, and supported by earnest, ongoing reflection.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Becoming People of Justice

"Becoming People of Justice"
These were the words I had scrawled on a poster-sized sheet of paper on a rainy day last June; it was the last in a series of large sheets laid out on my classroom floor, but the only one with anything written on it.  I was setting out to fix up my curriculum.

I knew I needed a theme through which everything else could be filtered, a goal toward which every unit and every lesson would build.

"Justice" had been one of several course themes that I'd used the previous year, but I don't think I'd referred back to any of those themes after the first day of class.  They had been little more than construction paper decorations on the wall at the back of the classroom, pleasant but forgettable.

As I wrestled with the long list of course objectives and learning targets in my curriculum map, it became clear to me that "justice" was the unifying factor--a common tie that provided purpose and direction to the major understandings and skills of my class.

So I started with "Becoming People of Justice", and decided almost immediately that the final essay of the year would ask students to engage with what it means to be people of justice today.  From there, I resolved to work backward and fill in all of the blank sheets with the units and learning experiences that would equip my students to address this question on a deep and meaningful level.

Over the coming weeks, my revised curriculum took shape with units focusing on such subjects as love, agency, stewardship and worldview.

When I talked my students through the syllabus on the second day of school in August, I let them know about the prompt for the final essay up front, informing them that it would be a synthesis of everything that they would study and write about in the coming year.

The essay needed to include 5 literary sources, 5 historical references, 5 Scripture passages, as well as a reference to the global issue that the student would have chosen by then to research for their Senior Comprehensive Project.

Though all of this seemed awfully distant back in August, the year passed by quickly and I now find myself nearly finished grading these culminating essays.

I do not think I could have chosen a better course theme--student buy-in was high, and as the year went on, they began to see connections to the theme of justice in nearly everything we studied.  Just this week as I have held my final book conferences for Guided Outside Reading, I have been thrilled to hear students identifying justice and injustice in the works that they have read on their own, outside of class.

While there is, of course, always room for improvement, and I have in mind several changes to make as I teach toward this theme next year, I am so pleased with the level of thought and engagement that I see in the student essays that I am reading.

Here are just a handful of ideas that have come up in the students' writings:

"...true justice can only be built on a foundation of true love."

"Justice prompted by fear results only in heartbreak, hatred, and increased fear, for simply supplying for someone what that person “deserves” is never the correct option. Vengeance gives birth only to vengeance."

"The meaning of true justice is not to punish the oppressors, but to comfort and support the oppressed."

"I can’t just write about being a person of justice without actually following through with what I am saying. I will wear my cape, and I wear my symbol, and I am the one to choose to fly or not. And I do choose to fly, because justice is not justice if it’s not lived out."

"Author Lois McMaster Bujold profoundly wrote in her book, Diplomatic Immunity, that “[t]he dead cannot cry out for justice. It is a duty of the living to do so for them”, but I ask, “is it only the dead who are left without a voice?” In essence, what Bujold wrote could be broadened to imply that we need to empathize with those voiceless live souls against whom injustice is perpetrated."

"Persons of justice must be careful of such twisted views when striving to be impartial; however, they must also remember that they cannot remain neutral forever if they are truly seeking justice."

"Just as selfless people courageously take action to stand up for others, selfish people too often sit idle and wait for change to happen. To be someone that achieves justice requires a person to be an agent and dictate what they want to see happen."

"In this fallen society of mankind, a person of justice has the duty to view others equally without prejudice, to rise and take action to prevent injustice, and most importantly, to care for the vulnerable in order to impact the world for Christ."

"What is it that makes us human? We are born with a basic set of morality that is blurred, twisted, and deformed by the society we grow up in. But no matter how old we get we can still feel guilt. That’s what makes us human."

"A wise man once said “True love is an act of the will - a conscious decision to do what is best for the other person instead of ourselves.” (Billy Graham) This explains why being selfless is such a noble and just act! To be selfless means to make a conscious decision."

"Although it may seem impossible to make a difference in a world with millions of people, we should always be looking out for opportunities to help others in big or small ways. We are gifted with the opportunity to do good in our lives."

"I find that when we fight, we hear only our voice, when really there is always someone too quiet to speak up that needs help when even they may not know it."

"Ideas of right and wrong are continuously changing, but there is a basis for which we can look to for an answer that will not change. The values that are found in the Bible, do not change due to the time period or society’s view."

"We see how so many humans beings have been lied to about their safety, along with the safety of their environment. We have been taught to praise technological developments before we even consider the fact that we actually might be doing more harm than good. Rachel Carson, author of​ Silent Spring ​changed this thinking for people through her writings. In her book about the hazards of the pesticide DDT, Carson brought to light the fact that we, as humans, often overlook the damage that our developments might have on life."

"Linda, from the book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, first did recognize the need for justice, as she realized that slavery was wrong. 'I had not lived fourteen years in slavery for nothing. I had felt, seen, and heard enough, to read the characters, and question the motives, of those around me. The war of my life had begun; and though one of God's most powerless creatures, I resolved never to be conquered'. She realized, and she used that realization to feed her decision to fight that injustice. She fought that injustice done against her by standing up against her master. 'You have tried to kill me, and I wish you had; but you have no right to do as you like with me.'"

"One should contemplate about how to fulfill his or her responsibilities as faithful stewards who continuously strive to eradicate the injustices that are still rampant in today’s world. I, myself, am planning to involve in the field of electrical engineering to contribute to the development of the industry of magnetic levitation train, a technology that has tremendous potential for restoring the environment polluted by irresponsible abuses of chemicals but requires astronomical costs to build with today’s technology."

One student even wrote her essay as an epic poem:

"In Truth we will become the Person of Justice:
One who believes that the human race, among all the vile
Is Still beautiful
One who still believes that the human race, even through the apathy
Is Still impassioned
One who still believes that the human race, amidst all the adversity
Is Still resilient"

Overall, it has been a joy to read these essays; a celebration of the learning that has taken place in my classroom over the past nine months. Next year, these students will commit to their yearlong project of researching and raising awareness about the global issue they chose in this final unit of 11th grade. It is my hope and prayer that the words they have written for these final essays will become a reality that guides and shapes them next year, and in the years to come.