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!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Summer 2015

Not only was it my longest stay in the States in four years, it was Tomomi's longest stay in the States ever, not to mention our longest stay as a married couple.

Whereas with past visits, it felt like we had barely unpacked before we were on our way to the airport to return to Tokyo again, this time we were able to get comfortable and make ourselves at home.

And yet, the past 52 days slipped by swiftly and silently.

In retrospect, we fit quite a lot in during our time in the States:

We visited my brother and his wife on the East Coast.  Ben had just finished up his first year at Yale Divinity School, and we were able to fly out at the end of June and spend a few days with him, and a day with Hilary (who had been away at a wedding for most of that week).  Highlights of our time on the East Coast included a day of sight-seeing in NYC, the opportunity to tour around Yale, spending time at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where Ben works part-time training high-school aged "interpreters" who show visitors around and deliver presentations on various exhibits, attending church at St. John's Episcopal, eating legendary New Haven pizza (really--it's a thing!), going to see Inside Out, and of course, having plenty of time to visit and catch up with Ben & Hilary in person for the first time in nearly a year.

Next was our cross-country road-trip!  On June 30, we flew to Minneapolis, where we met up with my parents (who had flown in from Seattle an hour before us).  We rented a car and drove out to Rhinelander, Wisconsin.  We spent the next day visiting my sister at Honey Rock, a beautiful summer camp affiliated with Wheaton College.  Lea had just started her job as an administrative assistant and even though she had the day off, it was still interesting to have a glimpse into her world for the summer.  She showed us around the camp and took us out on the lake in a canoe.  We even got to watch her perform in a skit for the campers!

The next day saw us back on the road, heading west toward Washington.  Highlights of our road-trip included singing hymns to stay awake on our first night of driving, visiting with my dad's 98-year-old Aunt Lois and cousin Tim in Mankato, MN, visiting Dordt College and one of my professors for the first time since 2008, rediscovering the beauty of South Dakota (visiting the Badlands, the Needles Highway, Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore), visiting Yellowstone for the first time and catching up with my 75-year old high school biology teacher who still works summers as a park ranger (and still teaches Senior Biology the rest of the year, for that matter), visiting my mom's 95-year old Aunt Betty and cousins in Eastern Washington, and taking the scenic Cascades Highway home on the last day of driving.  Most of all, it was a precious time for us to spend with my parents, showing Tomomi a much larger portion of America than she had ever seen before.  She has now been in 14 states!

We arrived back at my parents' house on July 8.  At that point, it was time for me to really buckle down on my Master's coursework.  Woods Coffee became a daily destination, and to ensure that we weren't just sitting all the time, Tomomi and I began an enjoyable routine of walking 5k along Lynden's lovely walking trail each day before settling down to work at Woods.  It was primarily at Woods that I finished work for my two summer classes: one on the usage of educational technology, and the other on learner development & principles of learning.

Over the past month, we also had the opportunity to celebrate both of my parents' birthdays, catch up with extended family at my great-uncle's 80th birthday celebration, celebrate my pastor and his wife's 50th anniversary, complete two 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles, enjoy a day-trip to Seattle, catch up with several of my own teachers, enjoy meals with several good friends, and watch many-a sunset from the hill in the field behind my parents' house.

Nearly every day, Tomomi and I would climb into my old Ford Taurus, a trusty car which served me well for three and a half years of college in Iowa.  We would drive to Lynden taking the back-roads.  While these quiet country roads add a few minutes to the drive, the extra time has always been worth it, in my mind.  As long as I can remember, I have preferred this route to the quicker and more direct drive down Hannegan Road.  There is something magical about being one of the only cars--and sometimes the only car--on the road; something peaceful about the sight of cattle grazing and resting in a pasture to the side of the road, watched over by Mt. Baker and the Twin Sisters on the Eastern horizon.

I came to a powerful realization as I drove this route just a few days ago: I may live in the biggest city in the world, but I am, and always will be a country-boy at heart.  Tomomi wrote on my mom's birthday card that she feels ready to move to America at any time, and that it all depends on my feeling, and our sense of calling... so what is my feeling, exactly?  What is our sense of calling?

Let me be clear: I still feel called to my work at CAJ.  We still feel called to our life in Tokyo, to our home-church (and Tomomi's work) at Grace Harbor.

At the same time, as we talk about the future, we talk about Tomomi's visa as an eventuality.  We talk about a house with a big yard.  We talk about planting a garden.  We talk about owning a dog.  We talk about raising our future children in close proximity to nature.
Deep down, we fully expect that one day, we will move to the States... we just don't feel that God is calling us to make that move quite yet.

And so, we cling to God's calling and rely on His timing.  Getting on the plane tomorrow may be more bitter than sweet (especially as we anticipate the nasty heat and humidity we are returning to), but we rest in the assurance that we are going back to where we are supposed to be for now.

We also know that this is not 'goodbye' to Washington--we will be back to visit soon enough.

And one day, we will come back for more than just a visit.