Thursday, November 26, 2015


For teachers and students alike, November can be a drag.  The school year is well underway, but Christmas vacation seems far off.  Winter illnesses start to hit, and as the work piles up, everyone is bound to feel spread just a little bit thin.

Perhaps this is why it is all the more critical to take time in the middle of this long stretch to reflect on the blessings--there's always something to be grateful for, but in the midst of busy lives and a hectic schedule, it can be all too easy to overlook these good things.

Today was a half-day of school, a Thursday noon dismissal for a long Thanksgiving weekend.  I rode up to Takayama with my wife and some friends, and am now sitting in a warm cabin by the beach.

Of course I am grateful for the break in the routine, however brief, and the fact that I get to spend it with my wife, but for this post, I want to focus on the blessings related to my teaching.

I'm grateful for the classes I teach and the students I get to work with--even when I'm feeling tired and worn, I'm excited for each new day.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to grow professionally through my Master's courses.  It can be hard work, but going back to school was the right decision in every way.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to grow professionally in new roles at CAJ.  I've thoroughly enjoyed serving as a PLC (professional learning community/department) leader and a member of the R&D (Research & Development/curriculum) team this year, and the many thought-provoking and fun discussions I've been able to have with my colleagues in those capacities.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to coach debate.  It is so much fun to brainstorm ideas with the students as they research, organize their arguments and write.  I'm amazed by the hard work the students have already put in, and I'm looking forward to the first competition next Wednesday.

I'm grateful for the discussion my Juniors had earlier today after finishing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  They all shared their lasting impression of the book and I was encouraged to hear so many students say how powerful the book was in opening their eyes to the horror of slavery.

I'm grateful for the progress that my yearbook staff has made even though we are still five months from our deadline.  We're way ahead of schedule!

All in all, I'm grateful for my job.  I'm fast coming up on 7 years at CAJ, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Importance of Authentic Learning Experiences

We should legalize the sale of human organs.

This is the topic for the debate team's first competition, coming up on December 2.

There are 25 students on the team this season, 17 of whom are either freshmen or sophomores, and in a mere four days of practices, the students have already amassed a GoogleDoc full of resources, which they have started to read through and take notes on.

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to talk the students through some basic rules for research, including how to use Google Scholar and EBSCOHost effectively.  Yesterday, we briefly covered rhetorical appeals (something students usually do not learn about until they take my 11th grade class).  Next week, we'll practice public speaking skills, and strategies for making effective rebuttals.

The students have worked diligently during our practice times, and have asked great questions:

"This article is in favor of legalization, but they keep talking about another study that was against legalization.  If I find that article, can I use it as a source?"

"Does legalizing the sale of human organs only apply to organs that will be transplanted?"

"What are some alternatives we could propose if we are arguing the negative side?"

"What effect might legalization have on the altruistic donation of organs?"

"How might legalization affect rich and poor differently?"

"If I tell a story about a friend who had a heart transplant, would that be a good appeal to pathos?"

I have been thoroughly impressed with the students' patience as they read through articles from medical journals and law reviews alike, their diligence as they share findings with one another, and their curiosity as they ask questions and seek to dig deeper into the issue.

It's very different than a class environment where students' preconceived ideas about English or History, as well as their own abilities may stand in the way of a desire to learn.  Everyone in debate wants to be there, wants to learn, wants to grow.  It's a quiet atmosphere this week as the students have been researching, but it is an exciting one.  Making this all the more exciting is that this is only our third year to have a debate team, in recent history (CAJ had a debate team when I first arrived here in 2009, but it died out for a variety of reasons), and the biggest debate team we have ever had.

In some ways, it's not so different from the Robotics Club, an extra-curricular activity new to CAJ this year.  The students who participated on the robotics team did so out of a love for math and physics, as well as a deep curiosity about the way things work.  My colleague who coached and advised them cited the same kind of excitement in the room, even when everyone was quietly working out equations or simply thinking.  It's the excitement of applying one's understandings and skills in the service of an authentic goal, the opportunity to demonstrate learning not simply for the sake of the teacher but for the sake of solving a real-life problem.

While not every student has the time in their busy lives to join something like debate (or robotics, or speech), it's important that such opportunities are available, and that a culture is built up within a school that values such activities.  Moreover, the authenticity embedded in experiences such as these should inspire teachers to think through ways to make their own classroom activities and assessments more authentic.

All in all, I couldn't have asked for a better start to the debate season, and I'm glad to be involved!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Using In-Class Essays Formatively

In-Class Essay.

The term is enough to send a chill up my spine, even 12 years out of high school.  
I have always preferred to have time to think--to sit and mull before I write.  Having a strict time limit is intimidating to me because I can either get my ideas out onto paper, or I can spend the whole time planning out how I want to write an eloquent, organized essay.  Needing to do both?  Well, let's just say that the very thought puts my blood pressure through the roof.

It is perhaps for this reason that I've always been somewhat leery about using in-class essays as an assessment tool in my class.  Of course, they are inevitable for AP students preparing for the exam, but this seems to be pretty well understood by the students, and anyway, in-class essays are really a drill for AP students, more than anything else.

But what about as a teaching or assessment tool in the average unit in Humanities class?  Might in-class essays have a purpose?

I believe they do, as long as it is clear in both the teacher's mind and the students' minds that the in-class essay is formative--a tool in the learning process to help them grow as writers, or to prepare their thinking for a bigger summative assessment later on.  

This was where my own English teachers had dropped the ball, and where I, myself, have dropped the ball in the past: the weight of an in-class essay needs to be small, and the emphasis needs to be on thinking, not on mechanics, or even organization (unless the purpose of the essay happens to be to workshop those particular skills).

On Monday, my Humanities class started a unit on Agency and Victimhood.  Our unit essay which will be due in December will ask the students to evaluate historical, literary and popular examples of agency against a Biblical definition.  We spent the first day of the unit defining agency and then sharpening the definition by looking at a variety of stories and passages in the Bible.  On Tuesday, I gave the students one class period to write a 200-500 word explanation of agency, incorporating at least 4 passages from Scripture for support.  I told them up front that the in-class essay would only be weighted at 1% of their total writing grade, and that I would only grade them on their supporting details, their use of Scripture, and their commentary--not their thesis or their transitions, not their spelling or their grammar.  

The students were somewhat anxious--a number had not written an in-class essay before.  Yet I was pleased with the results.  Though I had explicitly told the students that I would not grade on whether or not they had a thesis or clear pattern of organization, many of the essays did include these things, which tells me that the students are starting to internalize their thesis-writing skills.

Moreover, it was a great way to very quickly check their understanding so far and to see if the students had tracked with me through our opening discussion of agency.  I was able to catch a handful of students who had not understood and either ran stuck on the essay or had charged boldly in the wrong direction.  Most, however, had tracked fairly well and offered good working definitions of agency.

It did not take me long to grade the class set of essays and provide a sentence or two of feedback, and even the students who had struggled did not drop more than a tenth of a point in the grade-book (plus, I was able to give advice to these students and even had good follow-up conversations with several of them).  The students were able to put their thinking into words, and I am certain that these short essays will play a foundational role as the students begin to write their unit essays in a few weeks.  We will write three more in-class essays in this unit: one on agency and victimhood in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one on agency and victimhood in feminist literature, and one on agency and victimhood in the reform movements of the 1800s.  It is my hope that with this clearer formative purpose and the emphasis on ideas rather than form, the students will become less anxious about not only timed writing, but also their final unit essay as well!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Teaching and Learning in a Changing World

It's a Friday afternoon, and I'm sitting under the crisp falling leaves in the CAJ plaza, sorting through the 40 or so tabs that are open and loading in my mental browser.  Among other things, I am now in the process of assembling my topic proposal for my Master's Thesis on the topic of flipped classroom strategies.  A colleague wisely reminded me that the  concept of the flipped classroom can easily be misunderstood, reduced to the use of outside-of-class lecture videos instead of traditional classroom lecture, when in fact that is but one possible characteristic of a flipped classroom.  More important by far is the shift in mentality.  I knew this, but I appreciated the reminder to take a step back to look at the bigger picture.

This is my attempt to look at that bigger picture.


Picture a classroom.
Were the desks in neat and tidy rows?

Picture a teacher.
Was she lecturing in front of a white-board?

Picture a student.
Was he listening carefully and taking painstaking notes?

Even after nearly 7 years of teaching, these are the images that come to my head when I hear these words.

These images are not normative; they are memories--the conditioned response of the thirteen years spent in the classrooms of my childhood and adolescence.

It is only upon deeper thought that scenes from my own classroom replace these images.  Still-deeper thought brings up images of what could be, and what should be.

Images of students debating, discussing, creating, questioning, researching, synthesizing, revising, puzzling and pondering--this is what should be, and I celebrate when such possibilities are fulfilled in my classroom.

What does this mean for me, as the teacher?  What does this mean for my classroom?  How can I create an environment of wonder, the sort of truth-centered classroom that Parker J. Palmer describes, where all members of the class community revel in the journey of learning?

The answer is not to be found by looking back, but by looking ahead.  The world has changed far too much for traditional assumptions about the role of teacher and student, and the nature of the classroom to be kept on life-support.

Nor is the answer to be found, as some would suggest, in technological innovation in and of itself.  In his discussion of motivation in Teaching Redemptively, Donovan Graham characterizes technology as an extrinsic motivator; such reforms lack transformative power without a more fundamental shift in mindset.

If the mindset does not change, no amount of technological innovation or creative pedagogy will unlock the potential of our classrooms.

So where are we, now?

We live in a world where the whole of human knowledge, the good and the evil, lives alongside our phone numbers in our front pockets.  (The parallels to the Garden of Eden become even more unsettling when one considers that the leading brand of smart-phone is named after a fruit.)

Our students do not need us to give them more information.

They need us to teach them how to find information, how to sift the wheat from the chaff, and how to make sense of the information.

We are called to be shepherds, facilitators, modelers, the providers of feedback and challenge, encouragement and love.

Though there is room for sharing information with our students--good stories and the the occasional lecture have their place--we are not called to be one-way transmitters of data.

To pretend that this is our calling is to ignore the true nature of our students, and the true nature of the world we live in.

Any reform that I, or anyone else, would strive to bring about in our classrooms and in our schools must start from the foundation of these understandings.