Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: The Force Awakens (No Spoilers)

For many of us who grew up as fans of Star Wars, we can easily recall exactly how we felt when we first watched A New Hope.  As I was born 9 years after the movie was first released in theaters, I've only heard second-hand how groundbreaking it was to watch on the big screen at a time when science fiction movies were largely dismissed as low-budget, kid's stuff.

For us lifelong fans, whether we first watched Star Wars on the big screen in 1977, or later on VHS, the movie made a memorable impact, as it captured our imaginations and transported us to a galaxy far, far away.

This may explain why the hype surrounding The Force Awakens has had a certain emotional weight to it.  Quite simply, we remember our first introduction to Star Wars and want our imaginations to be recaptured in that same groundbreaking way.

Here's the thing: this is not a fair expectation to put upon a movie that is also tasked with continuing a well-established saga.  Sequels, by their very nature, are not groundbreaking, because if the purpose of a sequel was solely to break new ground, most or all continuity would be sacrificed in the name of uniqueness. 

As I watched the hype build with each new trailer, each new TV spot, each new tidbit of information, it occurred to me that more than a few Star Wars fans were coming to expect a transcendent moviegoing experience.  I realized that this was neither reasonable for me to expect, myself, nor was it even what I really wanted. 

While Star Wars did indeed capture my 7-year old imagination all those years ago, what has kept me a fan of the original trilogies is how much stinking fun they are.  The riveting action, the snappy dialogue, the struggle between good and evil, the universe populated by creative and quirky characters--(from the familiar heroes and villains, all the way down to the imperial spy at Mos Eisely with the gonzo-like nose--seriously, who was that guy?) all of it was, and is, fun to watch.

THIS is what I was hoping for in The Force Awakens.  I was not expecting something pristine and transcendental, or even necessarily something to recapture the childlike wonder I felt when I watched Star Wars for the first time: I simply wanted something that carried through those traits which made the originals so much fun (and which, I would argue, the prequels all conspicuously lacked).  

And do you know what?

The Force Awakens met and exceeded that expectation.

Is the movie perfect?  Good heavens, no.  But then, neither are any of the originals (although The Empire Strikes Back comes close by many objective measures).  

There are some definite pacing issues, a few key moments that should have lingered, but did not.  The movie moves along at a determined pace and rarely pauses to catch its breath.  A few pieces of expository dialogue felt rushed in the midst of constant action.  I noticed these more in hindsight--they were not enough to pull me out of the movie as I was watching, and I was completely along for the ride for the full 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Several of the earliest reviews criticized Force Awakens as relying too heavily on cues from the originals and in particular, A New Hope, but to that, I can only say that with A New Hope, George Lucas himself was paying homage to the works of Kurosawa, particularly, The Hidden Fortress.  This film was an homage to A New Hope in many ways.  While this would have been problematic if it had done nothing to set up a new chapter in the saga, that's where the movie does break some untouched ground: the new generation of characters is very different from Luke, Han and Leia's characters in the originals, and this will surely take this trilogy in a direction all its own.  As a transitional chapter in the saga, this film did a commendable job of paying its respects to the past while setting its own unique course for the future.  

Daisy Ridley's Rey conveyed a compelling mixture of strength, street smarts, and wide-eyed awe, while John Boyega's Finn and Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron both bring a fresh swagger to the film.  Adam Driver's Kylo Ren is an entirely new type of villain in the Star Wars universe, mercurial, insecure and given to frightening outbursts of temper.  He's the type of complex, sympathetic and unpredictable character that Anakin Skywalker should have been in the prequels.  

John Williams' score reflects the shift to a new generation of characters, as well.  The musical cues from the original trilogy were subtle and poignant in their usage, and those familiar motifs were never overused.  Instead, much of the score is something new entirely, reflecting a world where the force has been dormant for many years, and the adventures of Luke, Han and Leia are as good as myth to the new generation.  

The dialogue was also a return to form, with fun banter sprinkled throughout much of the film.  Without giving too much away, Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron has a line several minutes into the film that sets the tone for the rest of the film in the best way possible.  

While watching The Force Awakens had its moments of nostalgia, nostalgia was not what defined it for me.  What defined it instead was the feeling of looking ahead to the next film and running through a long list of mysteries and questions left unanswered; of quoting the memorable lines on the train ride home with my wife; of wanting to watch it again, and catch more the 2nd time around.  

To those of you who have not watched it yet, I highly recommend it, but caution you not to expect something life-changing or earth-shattering.  Set aside the profound impact that the originals had on your imagination, because it will take something entirely unique (something not Star Wars) to have that kind of impact on you again.  Reflect instead on what has given those classic movies the sort of staying power that makes them relevant and watchable more than 30 (and in fact, almost 40) years later.  

It is my humble opinion that The Force Awakens has that same sense of fun and adventure, and is therefore a worthy chapter in the saga, and a stellar first installment in this new trilogy.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rocking & Rolling, Scoping & Sequencing

I'm all for introspection--I wouldn't keep up this blog if I didn't believe it was important--but teachers (especially high school teachers) need to be careful not to use introspection to justify a navel-gazing attitude.

Unfortunately, the system itself tends to promote self-absorption: the high school classroom is often regarded as the teacher's personal fiefdom, a domain dedicated to whatever subject and grade the teacher happens to be responsible for... and nothing more.

This is the 11th Grade English classroom--Your 10th Grade English currency is no good in here!

As ridiculous as this kind of attitude sounds, not even small Christian schools are immune to such a mentality.  I cringe when I think about the fact that both my 11th and 12th grade English teachers had The Great Gatsby in their curriculum, and yet nowhere along the way did I receive instruction on how to write a thesis statement.  Such overlaps and gaps are the result of a hyper-focus on one's own curriculum, to the exclusion of what's happening in other classrooms.  The fact is, even if an individual teacher's curriculum is brilliant, and that teacher a master educator, foundational learning goals are being compromised in the long-run if that teacher has not worked with his colleagues to ensure continuity and connection within the school's broader curriculum.  An education made up of standalone classes, no matter how amazing each class may be, is disjointed at best, and severely limiting at worst.  Some students may connect the dots themselves, transferring learning effortlessly, but it would be irresponsible to assume that students will just "get it."  We as teachers need to do our part in communicating with each other.

In this sense, CAJ's small campus is a tremendous blessing: due to limited classroom space, we share our classrooms.  At some point, we will have a prep period while a colleague is using our classroom.  Because of such scheduling quirks that have brought colleagues' classes into my classroom during my prep period, I have essentially audited English 9, English 10, Bible 11 and Psychology--four classes with which I now have an in-depth familiarity.

Moreover, we talk to each other.  Between divisional meetings and PLC meetings, we have a fairly good idea of what is happening in one another's classes.  Nobody is completely out of the loop and so our gaps and overlaps are not quite so egregious as repeating the same book in two different English classes, or missing a foundational skill entirely.
The task before us now is to formalize this--to record what we are doing in an intuitive way so that someone from the outside can easily see how each class builds on the ones before, prepares for the ones ahead, and complements the classes alongside in the process of achieving our mission statement.  This may be a new teacher stepping in to teach a class and trying to get a sense of what their kids have already learned, and what they need to learn, or it may be accreditors trying to ascertain how cohesive our overall curriculum is.  In any case, the process is vitally important, as it will expose any gaps and overlaps that are present, however small, and encourage us to think more deeply about how we can organically fit our classes together.

This process is known as "Scoping and Sequencing", and it has been a focus of the Research & Development Team (a committee composed of department heads and principals), and PLCs this year.  It has pretty much been in the back of my mind, constantly, since the start of the school-year.

Charting Scope & Sequence for English at CAJ has been a slow process, but immensely valuable and interesting.  Our English PLC spent two meetings deciding on the broad categories that we felt we needed to chart from elementary school all the way up through high school.  With the input of our Kindergarten teacher and 5th grade teacher (who joined us for one meeting, representing both ends of the elementary school spectrum), we settled on four categories: Reading, Writing, Speaking /Listening, and Language.  Since then, we have dedicated several meetings to creating sub-categories under each of these.
While we have not yet begun to fill in our chart, the process of setting up the categories has forced us to revisit and more clearly articulate our goals (which, in some cases, have differed from what is written in our curriculum maps), and to adopt common vocabulary as we refer to our goals.  Along the way, we have had lively conversations and even some constructive debate as to what is truly important for students to learn as they develop reading skills and writing skills, or how language instruction should happen.  Even just having these conversations has helped to focus us as a department, and unite us around a common goal.

It's a reminder that we do not--that we cannot--succeed on our own as teachers, that we are each a piece of a bigger puzzle.  I am excited to continue to develop our Scope & Sequence when we come back from Christmas vacation!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Seven Years

In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs revealed that she spent seven years living in hiding in a garret crawlspace in her grandmother's house, after running away from her lustful, abusive master.

 When we get to this part of the book in class, I always ask the students to pause and really think about this length of time, to try and grasp what seven full years of hiding would mean to them.

Where were you seven years ago?
In 4th grade, some at CAJ, some not.

Where will you be seven years from now?
23, 24 years old, many finished with college, some married, some not.

It's a staggering thought exercise for the kids.  This year, it was staggering for me, too.

Where was I seven years ago?
I was driving west on I-90, from Iowa, home to Washington, wrestling with the biggest decision of my life.  I'd just finished my student teaching and graduated from college and had been invited to volunteer as a teacher in the resource room at the Christian Academy in Japan.

I was 22, single, and the most foreign country I had been to up until that point had been Canada.

I was inexperienced, and all of the pedagogy and best practice I had studied in college evaporated when I set foot in the classroom for the first time as "Mr. Gibson" earlier that fall.

The students were kind, though, and for that I'm still grateful, all these years later.

I thought I knew what I wanted: a quiet life in a small town; attending the high school football game on Friday evenings; grading at the diner with a bottomless pot of coffee; settling down with a wife with Dutch blood in her veins.

I knew it all.  I had it all figured out.

Then suddenly, my life and my future were thrown into disequilibrium by an opportunity I did not wish for, but could not refuse.
Spring 2009, a month or two after I
arrived in Japan.

That's where I was seven years ago.

In the intervening years, I've made plans and then changed them... again and again.

I've had moments of triumph in the classroom, and moments of defeat.

I've made wise decisions, and I've made foolish mistakes.

I've been content and I've been restless.

I've been confident and I've been insecure.

JAM--April 2009
I've felt belonging and I've wrestled with loneliness.

I've had crushes and I've had my heart broken.

I've fallen in love, and gotten married (she's not Dutch, but I'm more than fine with that).

I've watched my brother, and then my sister-in-law get married, too.

I've made new friends, and I've said goodbye to old friends.

I've been on the edge of a devastating earthquake, and countless small shakes.

Spring 2010
I've said goodbye to my last surviving grandparent as my grandmother passed away nearly four years ago (my other grandmother having passed away 7 years and one week ago).

I've moved four times.
Hong Kong, March 2009

I've crossed the Pacific Ocean 27 times.

I've been to Thailand 4 times, and Hong Kong once.  Guam, too!

I've been visited by each member of my family at least twice; three times for my brother.

I've traveled overseas with my wife five times, including a summer trip that took us through 11 states.

Wedding Day, Dec. 2013
I've "moonlighted" as a youth pastor for several years.

I've sung on my church's worship team.

I've coached middle school cross country and then watched those kids graduate from high school.

I've coached debate.

I've taught 9 different subjects and more than 360 students.

Thailand, March 2012
I've started and now almost finished my Master's.

I've taken 4 summer Japanese classes and a year's worth of weekly Japanese classes at city hall (and I'm still not fluent!).

I've been a learner and I've been a leader.  Currently, I'm both!

I've celebrated an anniversary.  Soon, it will be two.

A lot can happen in seven years.  While there have been storms and squalls along the way, I cannot fathom spending seven years in hiding, as Jacobs did.  God has blessed me richly, and as I reflect on the past seven years, His guidance, His provision, and His faithfulness are abundantly evident.

I do not know what the next seven years have in store, but I know that God is good, and His plans are perfect.  I can do no better than to trust and listen.
Worship team, Jan. 2013

Fall, 2011

Friday, December 4, 2015

Unit Three: Agency and Victimhood (The Evolution of a Unit)

Glossary (just to clarify how we use these terms in the classroom):
Victimhood: Allowing oneself to be ruled by circumstance, constantly shifting the locus of control away from oneself.  Victimhood is characterized by giving up and the feeling that one is out of options.
Agency: Taking responsibility for one's circumstances, placing the locus of control on oneself, to take a stand against oppression and injustice.  In this unit, we sharpen this definition through a Biblical lens, adding that agents are courageous, selfless and proactive not in spite of, but because of their faith.  We recognize that pop culture and society may define agency differently than Scripture.


Just over a year ago, I wrote about Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  When I inherited the Humanities class nearly six years ago, this was one of the key texts in the curriculum.  I thought the book was great, but the trouble was, I didn't know how to teach it.  In my first few years, Incidents fell into the middle of a long unit about the Civil War, a unit that was often bursting at the seams with way too many understandings that I had deemed to be essential for the students to learn.  Incidents itself pulled in about five different directions at once, or at least that was how many prompts the students could write on in their essay afterward.  However, in the process of stuffing this unit with so many themes, I'd caused the students to have a difficult time taking away consistent understandings, and even more difficulty seeing the connections between the history and the literature we were studying.

After all, that's the point of the Humanities block: to examine literature and history in tandem, to engage with bigger themes.

After an underwhelming conclusion to the Incidents unit two years ago, I decided it was time to go back to the drawing board.

One of the many themes of the prior unit caught my eye: Agency and Victimhood.  Previously, this had been part of a short "sidebar" in the unit in which I would invite our Head of School--and the original architect of the Humanities class--to guide the students in viewing the movie Amistad.  He would challenge the students to think through what was historical fact and what Spielberg had fabricated, all with the goal of getting the students to see how Spielberg had "messed with the audience" by making the role of Cinque the slave more pivotal to the Supreme Court's decision to free the slaves--turning a story that could easily have been another edition of "white man savior to the rescue" into a compelling tale of agency.

I latched onto this theme and made it the foundation and even the title of the unit.  From there, everything fell into place.  Here is a list of eleven things that I really like about this unit:

1. I get to lead off by singing "Let it Go" from Frozen.  This is fun, and it also kicks off our opening discussion of how Disney movies have shifted from victimhood to agency over time.

2. The Biblical perspective in this unit is completely organic.  We spend the first two days sharpening our definition of Agency through the lens of Scripture and then use that definition for the rest of the unit.

3. The history we look at organically supports the theme, and the literature of the unit: we look at the history of slavery and abolition to set up the context for Incidents; we look at the various reform movements of the 1800s to evaluate the ways in which average citizens rose up as agents of change; we look at the evolution of the women's rights movement to establish context for (and a counterpoint to) Kate Chopin's heroines.  The historical details are not random or arbitrary and the history itself is not "the point" of the unit.  That's as it should be.

4. Each module is punctuated by an in-class essay.  The students write four in-class essays throughout the unit which serve as a quick check on their understanding, and also as the building blocks for their bigger unit essay on Agency & Victimhood.

5. Our examination of rhetorical fallacies fits well in this unit, too.  Aside from the bizarre and manipulative rationale that slaveowners would use to justify slavery, we can also see the breaking down of old appeals to tradition by reformers, the rejection of false dichotomies by slaves and women at the time who refused to accept "submission or death" as their only options, and the tragic way in which Kate Chopin's heroines so often succumb to those same false dichotomies.

6. We get to have daily student-led discussions on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  It was fun to watch the students wrestle with the themes of agency and victimhood as they come up in the story, and also to watch the students gain confidence in contributing to class discussions.  While our class discussions are still very much a work in progress, we've come a long way over the course of this unit.

7. We get to take a look at the way in which definitions of freedom and equality change over time, and why.  Students get to look into modern examples of slavery and evaluate what is currently being done to fight against them.  We even briefly discussed what it means to be agents ourselves without stripping those we are helping of their agency--in other words, what does it mean to empower and not simply enable?

8. Students get to evaluate works of pop culture over and against our Biblically-informed definition of agency as the presentation for the unit is a short analysis of a book, tv show or movie that shows agency, victimhood, or some distorted version of agency.

9. Students get to practice peer-editing as we do a peer-editing workshop complete with sample essays from past years near the unit's end.

10. There are natural connections to themes and works from previous classes at CAJ.  Students are quick to compare Incidents to Night by Elie Wiesel, and to compare The Awakening by Kate Chopin to A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, both of which they read the previous year in 10th Grade.

11. This unit is a clear and vital component of our overarching theme of "Becoming People of Justice."  The students don't (or at least shouldn't) need to wonder how this unit fits into our bigger picture.

Sadly, I had to make the decision to cut "Amistad" from the unit.  While this was the lesson that inspired me to make this the theme for the whole unit in the first place, it took several full days of class time to watch the movie and I have not been able to carve out that kind of time.  Perhaps in a future year, I'll shorten my first or second unit to open up more time in this unit... but really, it would just underline something that the students already understand.

Overall, I am happy with how this unit has developed.  It is in this development that I really see curriculum design as an art--a craft that I enjoy, and one worth investing in.  I hope I can continue to develop and refine this unit, and others, in future years!