Friday, December 9, 2016

Modeling Critical Reading

Critical reading is a skill developed over the course of years; a school-career, in fact.  For some students, the holy grail of reading comprehension is a '5' on the AP English exam, an exam for which 45% of the score is determined by a multiple choice reading test.  I don't know that I have ever had a student who has scored perfectly on the multiple choice section, but I do know that there are one or two in every class who come close.  These students all share a key trait in common: they are always--without exception--voracious readers, and have been since elementary school.

These are students who read a variety of material outside of class--not only young adult novels, but also classic works; not only fiction, but also books and articles about politics, economics, science, or math.

These are students who question and seek to verify what their teachers say in class, who will look up claims, studies, or books mentioned by their teachers, sometimes even on the spot, on their laptops.

These are students who know what it is to read something deeply, to struggle tirelessly for understanding, and who have the stamina and resiliency to parse through peer-reviewed studies and scholarly articles when doing research projects, or preparing for debates.

I don't really prepare them for the reading on the AP exam; they're already prepared, and likely have been for a while.  Their skills are the accumulation of years of reading for fun, coupled with years of reading to learn (a distinction which has blended with time).  What began as a love for reading has developed into a particular way of thinking and approaching the world, and they are the richer for it.

As their AP teacher, I simply provide them with practice tests that signal to them the type of reading that they will need to undertake on the AP exam, and which inevitably affirm that they will achieve a high score on the actual test.

What about students who enjoy reading, but feel they do not have the time to read independently?  Or, students who have never enjoyed reading, but are hard workers?

I contend that if students are not reading on their own (that is, outside of class), and have not been reading on their own for the majority of their school careers, they come into AP test preparation at a distinct disadvantage.  They have had neither the practice, nor exposure to variety that their voracious reader classmates have had.  They have not built up the stamina or ingrained the critical reading skills second nature to their classmates who are regularly reading challenging texts.  These students may be high-achievers--they may work hard and attain top grades.  They may be bright and intelligent and talented in a variety of other areas.  What is missing is the breadth and depth of independent reading over the years that a select few of their classmates have had.

Last week, I had a group of students approach me, asking for more support on their reading comprehension.  I was caught off-guard; I've never had students ask for more help on reading before, and frankly, I have not done much in the way of specifically teaching critical reading skills to my AP students.  My unspoken mentality has been "either you've got it by now, or you don't", and I've opted to put 90% of my teaching energy into developing their writing skills instead.

However, when this group of students approached me, the ball was in my court--the question before me was "can I equip these students with the skills and habit of mind necessary to succeed on the AP test?"

Honestly, I don't think so--with any kind of standardized test, there are far too many independent variables to guarantee a certain score: how the student is feeling on the day of the test; whether they slept well the night before; whether they have interest or background knowledge in the passages they read; whether they suffer from test anxiety; whether the questions ask about literary terms or concepts I did not anticipate.  Even subtracting independent variables, could any amount of effort or creative teaching on my part substitute for years of independent reading practice?  No, I cannot guarantee a high score on the AP exam.

However, what I decided I can do is try to train my students to deepen their critical reading ability, and I whole-heartedly believe that time spent on this endeavor cannot hurt, only help.  Moreover, critical reading is a skill far more important than the judgment issued by the CollegeBoard.  It is a life-skill that will prepare my students to be stronger thinkers and consumers of information.

I decided that the place to start was to model critical thinking while reading.  I invited any AP students who were interested to a meeting during lunch yesterday.  15 out of my 29 AP students showed up!

I borrowed an idea I found in "Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response" by Jennifer Fletcher: having the students fill out a checklist while I did a think-aloud.

I chose a fairly engaging, recent piece to read through: "A Confession of Liberal Intolerance" by Nicholas Kristof.  I printed copies for each of the students, but also projected the article onto my whiteboard.  I then distributed a checklist of critical reading actions that I wanted the students to watch for while I read and thought out loud.

Before I started reading, I even wondered aloud what the title, date, and author might tell me about the piece.  I then began to read, one or two paragraphs at a time.  I would pause regularly and comment or ask questions.  I would critique or praise Kristof's use of studies to support his point; wonder about the quality of his sources; highlight his writing strategies--analogies, use of anaphora, etc.

In 20 minutes, I only made it halfway through the article.  When I asked the students how I'd done on their checklists, they told me I'd done everything except disagree with Kristof.  The students seemed to appreciate the activity and several thanked me afterwards.   I told them I'd try to model thinking aloud again using a more challenging piece by Henry David Thoreau after Christmas, and then have them practice thinking aloud together in groups.

It was fun to do the think-aloud; I'd read the article when it was published back in May, so I knew generally what Kristof had said, but I hadn't prepared what I was going to say for the think-aloud, as I wanted it to be spontaneous.  I actually picked up on some new aspects I'd missed the first time around, and even appreciated Kristof's writing more as I verbally worked through the article.

I may not be able to prepare my students to internalize these skills to the extent that they can apply them effortlessly while reading passages quickly on the AP exam, but if I can help them to dialogue with the author as they read, if I can help them to think and ask questions as they engage with a text, I can sleep well at night.

I wish I'd thought to do this sooner--I am definitely going to do this type of modeling more in the future!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Mid-year Revelations: Exciting, but Frustrating

First, an apology: getting sick in early November and missing two days of school set me back on both grading and prep, and it has been a scramble to get caught up.  Sadly, my weekly time for reflection was one casualty of this mad scramble.

This month, I have been teaching my unit on Worldview.  In previous years, I'd taught this unit in the Spring, but I opted to move it to the fall this time, as I felt like it was too foundational to put off until the end of the year.

I enjoy this unit--we trace the literary movements that have occurred throughout America's history--Romanticism (both Gothic and Transcendentalism), to Realism and Naturalism, to Modernism, while considering the underlying shifts in Worldview, and the implications of all of this on culture and society.  There's something fun in contrasting these movements one after another, and perhaps there's some benefit to organizing it this way.

However, as the unit went on, I couldn't help but feel like we were moving too quickly through each movement, each worldview, without much time to savor the poetry, art and literature we were examining, or to really chew on each perspective on humanity, God or nature.  Why rush?  So that I would be able to wrap up the unit before Christmas, and not have to worry about trying to awkwardly pick up again after Christmas vacation.  Moreover, I kept spotting connections to other units that I'd previously overlooked.  Case in point, as we talked about existentialism this week, I realized that naturalism and existentialism are ultimately at the heart of our unit on Agency & Victimhood.  Three years of teaching these units, and this was the first time I'd made that connection.  It was both an A-HA! moment as well as an OH-SHOOT! moment: A-HA! because it's exciting to learn something new, and make deeper connections within the subject I teach, and OH-SHOOT! because in that moment, I could see so clearly how I should've organized my units, just too late.

What if I integrated the examination of worldview into my existing units?
I would lose the rapid side-by-side comparison.  As I mentioned above, there is something fascinating about watching the pendulum swing to and fro when watching history unfold at fast-forward pace.

What would I gain, though?
I would gain time to mull.  To chew.  To savor.  To reflect.  Instead of a whirlwind tour, we'd be able to dig deep and spend considerable time with each perspective.

Moreover, we'd be able to make stronger connections to our major class theme about becoming people of justice, present in every other unit.  My worldview unit was always the odd-one-out.  I considered it foundational and therefore vital, and worldview does indeed have incalculable bearing on how we pursue justice (and perhaps even how we define justice)... we just never had the time to explore those connections in any sort of depth when our study of worldview was organized as a single-unit survey.

All is not lost.  I have a new angle to use as I prepare to teach my unit on Agency and Victimhood in January, and the students will have a point of reference that they wouldn't have had otherwise.  That's exciting.

Still, I'm looking forward to sitting down with my curriculum at length over Christmas and especially next Summer, taking the hood off and engine out for a tune-up.
I wish I'd noticed this while I was working on curriculum this past summer, but I suppose it's these mid-year revelations that drive teaching forward!  I'll choose to be grateful.

Friday, October 28, 2016

DBQs, Part II

October has been a busy month--as the first quarter draws to an end, the pace of the school-year shows no sign of slowing.

My students have continued to work on their DBQ, and I have continued to look for ways to make the planning process more engaging and helpful for them.  Last time, I wrote about the first step, having them do a gallery walk of the documents.  Today, I will share the second and third steps, both of which I tried for the first time this year!

Step Two: The week after the gallery walk, I had the students work in their pairs or groups to categorize the documents.  Because I am asking the students to incorporate 8 of the 11 documents into their response to the question, it is essential that they can group the documents together so that their discussion is framed by ideas, and not by individual documents.

For this activity, I put the titles and authors of each document onto cards, which I cut out and gave to each group.  They then had 15 minutes to put the cards into three or four categories of their choosing.  It was fascinating to see how different groups categorized some of the same documents differently, and also how different groups with similar categories chose different documents to include in those categories.  I then asked each group to share their categories and the documents they included, and wrote the results on the board.

Step Three: This past week, I told the students that the time had come to start tying together the content of the documents with the history we've been studying in this unit.  For this activity, I provided them with a graphic organizer in which they would use categories from the previous activity as their headings, briefly record what the documents they chose had to say about that topic, which historical events and figures fit with that topic, and how the history may have been influenced by the Enlightenment ideals in the documents.

As the students completed these charts, I kept reminding them that even though they had not started writing yet, they were essentially building a thorough outline which would make writing the DBQ much easier.

Next week, we will start writing, and the final product will be due the following week.  This is by far the most guidance I have put into the writing process for a DBQ, and I am excited to see how well the students analyze the documents and make connections between the ideals of the Enlightenment and the realities of early American history!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Can DBQs be interactive?

In my first few years of teaching, I found DBQs (Document-Based Questions) incredibly difficult to teach to.  A large part of the issue was that I was tacking DBQs on near the end of units that I had planned without that kind of analysis in mind.  There were several major problems with this:

Firstly, it meant that there was a serious time-crunch--I expected that students would write their DBQ essays in a single class period.  This is, after all, what students in AP World History and AP U.S. History have to do, to prepare for the AP exam!  The problem is, if students are taking my Humanities class, it means that they have explicitly chosen not to take AP U.S. History, and likely, that they did not take AP World History the previous year.  Most of these students have not written a DBQ essay since 9th grade, and more than a few have some degree of DBQ-phobia.  For most of my students, a time limit was paralyzing.  A few years ago, I asked myself a difficult question: was enforcing a time limit on the DBQ educationally defensible?  I was forced to conclude that since none of my students would be taking an AP history exam in the future, the time limit was absolutely indefensible--there was no sound reason to hold them to a time limit.

The second problem was that I was using DBQs as an afterthought because I was required to use them as a social studies department assessment.  I was treating them as a hoop, and not as a valuable measure of students' analytical or writing abilities.  Because of this, I was not actually teaching to the assessment.  I was teaching about other things, and then essentially saying, "Oh, by the way, do this in-depth analysis of historical documents that are only tangentially related to what we've been studying."  It is difficult to get students to see the value of an assessment when I, as the teacher, do not see the value of an assessment.

In short, my use of DBQs was not a recipe for success, though it may have successfully scarred students' relationships with historical analysis.  I realized that I needed to rethink the purpose of assigning students to write a DBQ.  If I took the time-limit out of the equation, the DBQ could be an ongoing endeavor, an opportunity to practice and build valuable skills of analysis and critical reading throughout a unit, rather than only at the end.

For the past two years, I have allowed students more time to work on their DBQs in class, and to ask me questions if they had them.  In spite of the extra time, I kept running into the frustration that some students were not asking questions about documents they were struggling to understand until the last minute--some students did not even fully recognize their confusion until the time came to start writing.

Today, as I prepared to start my students on their unit two DBQ on how enlightenment philosophy impacted the creation of the American government, I had a brainstorm: what if I found some way for the students to interact with each document in a meaningful way from the start, reacting and questioning to fix misunderstandings?

I printed each document out on A3 paper and created eleven different stations around the classroom, with Post-it notes at each.  I then asked the students to do a "gallery walk" of the documents in pairs, writing reactions and questions down on the Post-it notes as they engaged with each document.  The activity took the entire class period, but it was fun to watch the students wrestle with a variety of enlightenment philosophers, from Locke, to Rousseau, to Hobbes, to Montesquieu.  Sometimes, a student would ask their partner for help in understanding the document.  Sometimes, they would argue about what the document was really saying.  Sometimes, they would find help in the Post-its that had already been left.  Sometimes, they would ask me for clarification.

Afterwards, I compiled the A3 sheets and Post-it notes and placed them at the back of the room--the students have a copy of the prompt and the documents digitally, of course, but they may refer to the physical notes at any time throughout the unit as they reread, analyze and write.  For my part, I feel more comfortable knowing that the students have already started wrestling with each of the documents, and that many misunderstandings or points of confusion have already been uncovered and dealt with.

I'm looking forward to seeing my students make connections between the philosophies they read about today, and the history we will look at over the next few weeks, spanning from the Revolution up through the Constitutional Convention.  I'm also looking forward to finding more ways to make this time of reading and thinking more interactive and more engaging in future units!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Google Classroom: the disruptive technology we've been waiting for?

A disruptive technology is one that changes a paradigm completely.
Reading Steve Jobs' biography several weeks ago was a reminder of just how disruptive a technology the personal computer was in so many ways, fundamentally changing communication, the creation and distribution of media, and the sharing and availability of information.  Just think of all of the fields impacted by these changes!

Curiously, the classroom remains essentially untouched by this disruption, even classrooms with one-to-one devices supplied by the school or BYOT ("Bring your own technology").  Classrooms still tend to be teacher-centered and organized in much the same way that they have been for the past century.  Instead of turning the classroom on its head, computers have awkwardly settled into seemingly unbending classroom environments that are ill-equipped to use them to their full potential.

For all the disruption it has caused to so many other areas of life, the computer has failed to make a substantial difference to how education is done.

Perhaps the burden for disruption is now on those who design software and applications, since the hardware itself has not made the difference it should have.

Perhaps the disruptive technology has already arrived, and has simply not taken told yet.

Personally, I wonder if Google Classroom might be that disruptive technology.  I was struck by a revelation this morning as I worked away in my quiet spot near the window at Tully's.  My task on this cloudy Saturday morning was to virtually "drop in" on each of my students' unit one essays, which they began writing in GoogleDocs on Wednesday.  GoogleDocs are nothing new, of course, but it used to be an unmitigated hassle to get an entire class of students to consistently write essays in GoogleDocs, much less share them with me, and then keep them all organized.

However, using Google Classroom, I simply created a template for the students, and when I posted the assignment, had that template go out to each student as their own editable copy.  Additionally, Google Classroom organized the essays in an intuitive manner--no more searching through my Google Drive or my email to find a student's GoogleDoc: everything is right there in the assignment folder on Google Classroom.  The teacher's draft of the essay is not due until next Thursday, and ordinarily that would be the first time that I would be able to read through what my students had written; my first opportunity to see how their introductions turned out, how their topic sentences and transitions turned out, how their support and commentary shaped up.

This morning, I am reading through my students' work for the second time.  I read through their thesis statements on Wednesday evening and gave them feedback.  Each thesis took five minutes or less to read and comment on.  This morning, most students have their introductions completed, and again, reading and commenting is taking five minutes or less.  Some students even had their essay open while I wrote my feedback, and began to make changes right away!

On Monday, I will workshop topic sentences with the students, and then take another pass through the essays that evening to give more feedback on the topic sentences that they come up with.  I'll do the same with transitions on Tuesday and conclusions on Wednesday.  By the time the students submit their teacher's drafts on Thursday, there should be no surprises--I'll know who is behind; who is struggling with what aspects of their writing.  This will have two impacts on my reading of the completed teacher's drafts next weekend: 1) It will take me less time to read them since I'll have already been reading them in installments over the course of the preceding week, and 2) It will enable me to provide more substantive feedback about their content and logic, since I'll have already given feedback on the technical aspects of their writing and given them opportunities to revise.

Essentially, this technology is enabling me to treat revision as an ongoing process, as it should be, and not something that happens only in huge waves after each draft is submitted.

This, I think, is where there is real potential for disruption to the way we do education.  The ability provide real-time feedback in a clear and efficient way that allows students to adjust and revise immediately has major implications for how both teachers and students spend their time, both in and out of the classroom, as well as implications for how students may be able to collaborate with one another in the future.

Currently, this sort of real-time feedback is most convenient with GoogleDocs, but what if it could be extended to other types of projects and assignments as well?  I saw a glimmer of this potential earlier in the week.  Last Friday, my students submitted their rhetorical fallacy videos--projects they had completed in groups to teach their classmates about different rhetorical fallacies.  I posted the videos on Google Classroom so that the students could access them easily.  Three of the groups had made otherwise good videos, but had forgotten a key element of the prompt: explaining why each example they had shown was a fallacy.  I encouraged these groups to add in explanations and re-submit by this Wednesday.  I was pleased when all three groups opted to do so, and I simply replaced the old links on Google Classroom with the new ones that the students had sent me.

Of course, I had not caught these errors until the students submitted their videos on the due-date, and after catching the mistakes, the students had to go back to iMovie or other editing software to make their changes--platforms I did not have access to--but this would have been far more difficult to do two years ago without Google Classroom, and frankly, impossible to do five years ago.

I wonder if this is a glimpse into the future of education: ongoing projects and essays in which the teacher coaches the students through a constant stream of feedback, and perhaps even peers can coach one another, too.  This may or may not be the change that is coming, and any change is bound to take time, but I do feel, for the first time, like we may be on the brink of a technological revolution in our schools and classrooms... and that is exciting!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Standing at the Intersection

Giving my students time for silent, sustained reading has had the unintended benefit of giving me time for silent, sustained reading, too.  I do walk around the library a few times to see what students are reading and to nudge the occasional student who has dozed off, but I figured that the best use of my time would be to model a love for reading to my students.  And although my students only get one period of reading time each week, I get three :)

This week, I finished Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.  It was a fascinating read about a fascinating, mercurial and truly innovative man, but my biggest takeaway from the book was one of the goals that Jobs carried through his career.  In his youth, Jobs was inspired by a quote he had read from Edwin Land, one of the founders of Polaroid.  Land had emphasized the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of science and the humanities, a call which resonated with the young Jobs.  Apple--and each of its products--was the result of Jobs trying to unite these two fields, and one of Jobs' desires, to his dying day, was that the products he helped to create would facilitate a closer marriage between science and the humanities.

Like Jobs, I was similarly struck when I read the quote from Edwin Land.  The culture at CAJ has shifted in recent years, with more students pursuing higher levels of math and science.  When I first started, classes like AP Chemistry and AP Calculus were populated by only a few of the most dedicated juniors and seniors, but this year, these upper-level sciences, as well as AP Biology, AP Physics and AP Statistics, are full classrooms.

More students than ever before are interested in pursuing careers in the maths and the sciences.  When I first noticed this shift starting to happen a few years ago, part of me worried--what would become of English and History?  Would I still be able to get my students to buy in even if they felt that the humanities were outside of their wheelhouse?

However, I am becoming increasingly convinced that what the world needs is engineers, doctors, chemists, physicists, statisticians, mathematicians and biologists who have a strong background in the humanities; who are able to communicate clearly and effectively in both print and in speech; who understand the interplay of history--culture, politics, and economics, and the bearing that this has had on science and technology; who have an aesthetic appreciation for the pieces of creation that they are studying.

Too often, teachers (and schools) construct a false dichotomy between different subjects, and especially science and the humanities.  What if, in reality, neither were complete without the other?

Every spring, I assign my Humanities class to read excerpts from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.  Carson, a marine biologist, was also an avid reader and writer as a child, and this unique intersection of gifts and interests led her to research and write one of the first, and perhaps the most popular, book about ecology that has ever been published.

As I watch more and more of my students graduate and embark on undergrad studies in engineering or various other branches of science, I cannot help but wonder: have I done my part to help them see the importance of the intersection between science and the humanities?  Have I passed along my love for writing?  Have I nurtured a love for reading?

The more aware of this I become, the more I can do to cultivate this relationship, and to equip my students to stand at this oh, so important intersection.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Weekly Quotes

Two years ago, when I decided on "Becoming People of Justice" as the overarching theme for my 11th grade classes, I decided on a whim to write famous quotes about justice up in the corner of the white board, a new quote each week.  I used the website BrainyQuote and found hundreds of thought-provoking blurbs on justice and injustice.
I was, however, inconsistent in updating the quotes on a regular basis, and more than once left the same quote up for two or three weeks in a row before realizing it was time to put up a new quote.  I never once drew the students' attention to the quotes on the board; as far as I was concerned, the quotes were part of the classroom decor, and not part of the curriculum.
And like so much of my classroom decor, the quotes were little more than part of the background in my classroom.  Good insofar as they were not a distraction, but serving no functional purpose.  Last year, in an attempt to remedy this, I drew my students' attention to the quotes at the start of the year, and told them to keep an eye on the corner of the board for a new quote each week.  For my part, I stayed on top of updating the quotes, and there were indeed a few students at the end of the year who wove quotes from the board into their essays.  However, most students did not notice the quotes, and were surprised when I reminded them about the quotes as they started on their final essays in May ("You mean you've been posting a new quote each week?")

This year, I decided that I would weave the quotes into the fabric of the class as a weekly reminder of our course theme; an opportunity to regularly "check our compasses".  Each Monday, I will set aside the first 10-15 minutes of class for students to write down the quote and reflect on it in a double-entry journal.  The responses to the quote can be gut reactions; they can be paraphrases or explanations of what the quote means; they can be questions or queries; they can be agreements or disagreements; they can be applications to other settings and situations.  My hope is that this new classroom routine will expose the students to a variety of perspectives about justice from throughout time and all over the world, and encourage them to engage in the ongoing historical dialogue about what constitutes injustice and how we ought to respond.  I also hope that it will develop a classroom culture where students feel comfortable discussing and contributing--certainly on a weekly basis we will have more discussions than this, but by making this a set part of our routine, perhaps even my shy students will feel supported in joining the discussion.

So far, we're off to a good start.  Last week, for example, our quote was:
"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."
—Frederick Douglass

In the process of discussing the quote, the students touched on institutionalized racism, vicious and virtuous cycles, and the importance of education as a tool to fight against injustice.  These are all topics that will come up in other units during the year in greater depth, but what a great introduction!

As with my decision to set aside a class period each week for silent, sustained reading, it can feel like a sacrifice to carve out time each week that is not directly connected to our immediate unit or lesson.  However, I believe that the investment will be worthwhile.  I'm looking forward to seeing how this pays off in future discussions and essays!

Friday, September 2, 2016

My Experiment

Confession: I was not a reader when I was in school.

I always loved writing--that was my reason for enjoying my English classes, not to mention my reason for maintaining relatively high grades in my English classes.

Because I had parents who were readers, and who both had extensive vocabularies of their own, I was able to develop a vocabulary that probably made me seem like I was a reader.

But I wasn't a reader.

Sometimes I would begrudgingly read the literature assigned in class, and sometimes I would find myself profoundly moved by what I had read, as I was with To Kill a Mockingbird in my sophomore year.  And, although Mockingbird remains one of my favorite novels to this day, it was not enough to make a reader out of me.  It was not enough to keep me from watching Pride & Prejudice (the BBC version) instead of reading it, or frantically flipping through Crime & Punishment the weekend before it was due, both of which were transgressions I committed in my Senior AP English class.

I didn't become a reader until the summer after I graduated from high school.  I had avoided Harry Potter for six years, and although it had been recommended to me by at least three eager school librarians on as many occasions, I firmly refused to try it on the grounds that it was "a book for nerds" (which must have been confusing, coming from a scrawny kid with large glasses not unlike Harry's).  However, on one family car ride in which my then-11-year-old sister was listening to the audiobook of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I found myself unable to either tune out the story, or mock it sarcastically.  Jim Dale was narrating the scene in which the Weaselys visit the Dursleys to pick up Harry during the summer holiday.  Harry's loutish cousin Dudley had just eaten a bewitched toffee which had caused his tongue to swell to a grotesque size, and I found myself laughing out loud at Rowling's vivid and clever descriptions of the chaos that followed.  My resolve shattered, I picked up Sorcerer's Stone that evening and did not resurface until I had finished Order of the Phoenix (the fifth, and at that time, the newest, book in the series) six days later.

After that, my world was never the same.  I devoured Ender's Game, then the rest of the Ender series, then the Shadow series.  I consumed the Shaara Civil War trilogy.  I laughed as I read The Princess Bride, and wept as I read The Kite Runner.  I tried Crime and Punishment again, and found myself captivated.  Emboldened, I ventured into the Brothers Karamazov and loved that, too.  I revisited Narnia and Middle Earth, Toad Hall and Mole End.  I rode along with James Herriot to farms all over the Yorkshire Dales. I tore through weighty biographies of John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry S. Truman.  This past summer, I picked up a book that had been on my shelf for two years: Book Love, by Penny Kittle.

Kittle, an English teacher, emphasizes the importance of modeling and nurturing a habit for reading and a love for reading to students, particularly adolescents.  This, Kittle maintains, is crucial to empowering the students to successfully read classic texts, and to develop critical reading skills in general.  Before I had even made it halfway through the book, my mind had begun to overflow with ideas for the coming school-year.

I went through my calendar and set aside one class period each week solely for silent, sustained reading.  I made sure to clearly mark those days on the calendar so that I would not forget, and then planned the rest of my units with those dates set apart.

Then, I contacted our school librarian, and in collaboration, worked out the following plan:
On the silent, sustained reading day, the students will meet in the library and not in my classroom.  They will leave class-work behind and only bring computers or phones if they need music in order to focus, or require easy access to an electronic dictionary, with the understanding that they will be held accountable for the use of their devices, should they become a distraction.

Each week, a member of the library staff, or even other teachers, or coaches, will come in at the start of the period and share briefly about something they had read and enjoyed recently.  Of course, I will also regularly share recommendations with the students, as well.

Students may read fiction or non-fiction, sci-fi or fantasy, action or romance; they may even choose a magazine from the library's publications corner--they simply need to find something to read that will hold their attention for an entire class period, so that they can get a feel for reading for pleasure, and at the same time, build up the stamina to engage with the readings (whether speeches, essays, articles or novels) that they will encounter in English and Humanities class.  My hope is that they will develop a love for reading that will extend beyond this school-year and these days that I have set aside.

We had our first reading days this week--Wednesday for my first period English class and today for my Humanities classes.  The students seemed willing, even eager, to give the experiment a try, and for three periods this week, I enjoyed the most blissful kind of silence, as high school juniors all settled down to read something they had chosen for themselves.  After making sure that everyone had something to read, I picked up Steve Jobs' biography from the shelf and found myself absorbed, each class period ending entirely too soon.  I wound up checking out the biography, and look forward to having something to read for fun, myself.

This is my great experiment for the year, and while this is only the beginning, I'm excited and encouraged by what I saw on our first day of silent, sustained reading.  I will definitely provide updates as the year goes on about how this is working out!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ten Reasons I'm Looking Forward to This School-Year

A former colleague of mine wrote a blogpost in which she explained why she was looking forward to the year ahead, and this struck me as a tremendously constructive thing to do.  I don't consider myself a pessimist, but I also know it's far too easy to forget to reflect on what I'm grateful for, or what I'm excited about.

Obviously, the big event in my life this coming year will be the birth of my first child!  This is so big, it bears mentioning at the outset.

However, my list of ten will revolve solely around my teaching.  Without further ado, here are ten reasons why I am looking forward to the year ahead!

1) Year #9
This will be my 9th school-year at CAJ.  Granted, I came halfway through that first year, but all the same--it'll be my 9th graduation to attend here.  This is a strange feeling.  I was still a kid when I came to CAJ, all of 22 years old and only three weeks out of college, and now I'm a veteran, just above the middle of the pack in terms of years of service here.  Moreover, this will be my 7th year of teaching the Junior Humanities and English courses, and my 6th year in my current classroom.  I know the rhythms of the school-year, and have a deep familiarity with my curriculum, as well as a deepening familiarity with the broader Social Studies and English curriculum.  That intimate familiarity has freed me up to take risks and try new ideas--I'm looking forward to year #9!

2) Applying What I Learned in my Master's Program
Similarly, this will be my first year post-Master's.  For the past three school-years, I have been a student as well as a teacher, and while there are definitely benefits to wearing both of these hats at the same time, I'm really looking forward to the mental space to digest what I learned in my Master's program and apply it to my teaching.

3) Three Sections of Junior Classes
This year, for the first time ever, I get to teach three sections of Junior classes instead of two.  The 11th grade class is large--one of the largest classes to come through CAJ in quite a while, in fact--and so rather than dividing them between two sections that would pack my classroom to the gills, my schedule will look like this:

1st period: English 11
2nd period: Prep
3rd period: Humanities A
4th period: Humanities B
5th period: Humanities B
6th period: Humanities A
7th period: Prep

Bear in mind that each Humanities is a two-period combination of English and U.S. History, and Humanities A is one section of students, while Humanities B is the other.  For the first time in six years, I will have class sizes under twenty.  While my daily schedule will be busier and I'll be on my feet more than I was the past two years, it's an ideal trade--I'll gladly take a busier schedule if it means smaller class sizes!

4) New idea for Guided Outside Reading.
I mentioned in #1 that my familiarity with my job has freed me up to try new ideas.  This is one of those ideas.  I'm currently halfway through Book Love by Penny Kittle, and suffering from more inspiration than I know what to do with!  Kittle's main claim is that many students don't read assigned texts effectively, if at all, because they've never learned to read for fun, and missed out on those valuable opportunities to build up the patience and perseverance to tackle increasingly more difficult texts.  This in mind, I've committed to setting aside one class period per week solely for silent, sustained reading.  I have been in communication with our school librarian, who has agreed to let me bring my students to the library for one period a week to read.  I felt like this setting would be crucial--too often in the past when I've given the occasional reading day, students have forgotten their books at home--meeting in the library will provide access to not only books, but also magazines.  My main goal is to get them reading regularly just for fun, and the library seems to me the ideal setting to achieve that goal.  Moreover, our librarian suggested that perhaps we could have various staff members come in and briefly recommend books each week so that the students could get a sense for what their teachers are reading, and possibly find a new book to read in the process.  I've had such struggles with Guided Outside Reading in the past, and am excited and invigorated by the potential that this new idea holds to cultivate a love for reading among the students (or at the very least, plant the seeds by getting the students to read on a regular basis).

5) Unit adjustments
Another risk I'm taking is re-shuffling the order of my units.  My main course theme has been, and will still be "Becoming People of Justice", but I want to create a more logical narrative flow to the how this theme develops over the course of the year.  This goal in mind, I have shifted a unit on worldview from second semester to first semester--I feel like discussing humanity's quest for meaning is foundational--and then second semester will focus more on the injustices that can arise when people pursue wealth, land, or power, as well as the appropriate response to injustice.

6) Teaching debate students
It has now been four years since I last taught 9th Grade World History.  This means, for better or worse, that I'm teaching students for the first time when they get to 11th grade.  Fortunately, I already know a sizable chunk of this incoming 11th grade class very well, having coached them on the debate team.  Nine students from the Class of '18 participated on the debate team last year, and consistently demonstrated to me a curiosity about argumentation, a willingness to work hard, and a willingness to step outside of their comfort zones.  Of course I'm looking forward to getting to know all 55+ students in the class, but I am definitely excited for the opportunity to work with my debate students in a slightly different context in English and Humanities class, and to help them develop and refine their research, speaking and argumentation skills, as well as helping them to grow as leaders both within their class, and also on the debate team.

7) Coaching Debate
On that note, I'm looking forward to another year of coaching debate.  Debate has become part of the school culture at CAJ, and I have had a number of students who weren't on the team last year express interest in joining this year.  The program is thriving, and it's exciting to be a part of it.  I'm also grateful to have a co-coach this year (a colleague who was on leave in America first semester last year), not only because the team is growing but also because two of us will be able to provide better support and guidance for the students than just one of us on our own.

8) Departmental Duties
It will be my second year as the chair of the English and Social Studies departments, and this year, I will be working with a colleague so that he can assume leadership of the English PLC, while I focus on Social Studies.  We are continuing to work on Scope and Sequence, and I look forward to many good discussions about curriculum not only within our PLCs, but also within our Research & Development Team (the curriculum coordinator, department chairs and principals).

9) Clean Classroom
After six years in Room 306, I finally worked up the courage to purge the closets and file cabinets this week.  I have a difficult time throwing things away, myself, and it seems like this was also true of the room's previous occupants, stretching back at least as far as the early 2000s.  I threw out what looked to be a classroom worth of dusty textbooks, outdated files, old student projects, and miscellaneous lost and found items, and am appreciating the fresh, uncluttered feeling of my classroom.  I'm looking forward to another year in this space!

10) New Laptop
Last, but important all the same, I received a laptop upgrade at the end of the last school-year.  My previous laptop was four years old, and could no longer enter full-screen mode when I would show YouTube videos to the class without crashing.  I'm excited for a year with a still-new, fast, and strong computer!

These are my reasons for looking forward to the school year that is now just over a week away.  What are you looking forward to?

My clean, uncluttered classroom!  You can't tell from this picture,
but the cupboards and file cabinets have also been cleaned.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Thoughts on oppression, injustice and reconciliation

It is quite a time to be a U.S. History teacher.

I must confess to a certain level of desensitization as I read the headlines: while my heart still breaks, a small, but growing part of me can't help but think, "yep, it's happened again... no surprise there."  I grew up thinking of racial violence as being a tragic piece of our national history which was squarely behind us, securely bound in the past.

I now realize that this was an illusion--growing up in a school and town with no shortage of blond heads and blue eyes, but very few people with dark hair and dark skin, what else was I to think?

Racial discrimination did not end with the 1960s, as bulky, biased U.S. History textbooks might lead us to believe.  It has been an ongoing reality for so many, and one which I cannot profess to understand first-hand.  But it is undeniable that those tensions have flared over the past few years.  The U.S. of 2016 is not the post-racial America that so many of us wish it were.

It is also quite a time to be a U.S. History teacher in an international school on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

The Christian Academy in Japan is home to a variety of cultural backgrounds, from Korean, to North American, to Japanese, to Filipino, to Australian, to Indian, or some mixture of the above, and even more.  It was so very surprising when I first started teaching there, but over the years, this has become my definition of normal and normative.

While there are occasionally squabbles due to cultural differences, CAJ students are by and large quite sensitive to perspectives other than their own.  It starts, quite simply, as a social skill necessary to survival and thriving in our school, but it ends up being a tremendous asset in academic discussion, debate, and of course, relationship-building well after the students have graduated.

As I process the events of this past week, a few take-aways come to mind:

1) Reconciliation starts with us.  We know how tenuous a relationship is after trust is broken, and this is perhaps amplified on a societal scale.  We cannot assume that reconciliation is someone else's job, and we definitely cannot assume the government will handle it.  No policy, no law, no politician can fix the rift that exists in our nation and it would be both foolish and neglectful to pretend otherwise.  Reconciliation is a calling that we must feel, personally.

2) Reconciliation starts next door.  We don't all live in communities, cities, states, or even countries where the tension between black and white has spilled over into violence, but this does not exclude or exempt us from the task.  Reconciliation is so much bigger than the divide between two given groups--it's a task that involves repairing any broken relationship.  We must be sensitive to who has been marginalized, whose voices have been silenced, whose dignity has been trampled, in our communities and then seek fellowship with those people.  Maybe it will be the poor or the homeless, maybe the single mother struggling to make ends meet, maybe the migrant worker only living nearby for a short while--the "who" and the "how" depend on where we are, and the needs of those around us, but the heart of the task remains fundamentally the same.  I find this particularly convicting, as my comfort zone too often falls short of people I don't interact with on a day-to-day basis.

3) We need to learn how to walk in the shoes of the "other".  So many of my students develop this capacity as a matter of course, but for those of us who have grown up in homogeneous communities, it may take more active effort.  We must recognize that the way we see the world may not be the way that our neighbors see the world.  This is not to say that truth is relative--indeed, if that were true, the Scriptural mandate to pursue justice for the oppressed and the down-trodden would be utterly meaningless!  All the same, we must recognize and attempt to understand such differences in worldview and perspective as we seek to build relationship with those different from us.

4) White guilt is not constructive.  I know that this may not be a popular thing to say right now, but for real, substantive change to happen, we must learn to think more carefully about matters of disparity.  Yes, we must be willing to acknowledge the privileges that we have had, and the opportunities which others have lacked.  Yes, we must be prepared to admit that we have taken comfort and security too much for granted.  But to wallow obsessively in guilt over circumstances we were born into is not only counter-productive, it is dangerous.  We can no more change the circumstances of our birth than we can change the orbit of the planets!  There is a vital difference between "fault" and "responsibility".  The poverty gap, the digital divide, sweeping racial tensions--none of these circumstances are your fault or mine, but it absolutely is our responsibility to do something about them, if we are to take Scripture seriously!  Instead of guilt, our response to disparity ought to be charity--a deep desire to provide those who lack it with a sense of security, comfort and fellowship; a desire to see them provided with opportunities we ourselves enjoy.  All this being said, I offer this qualifier and warning: if you recognize oppression, poverty and want and do nothing about it, you are, in fact, choosing a side.  As Elie Wiesel famously said, "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim."

I close this blog-post so far removed and insulated from the violence in Louisiana, Minnesota, or Dallas, and still fighting the cynical feeling that nothing can be done... but I also feel a renewed call to the broader and ongoing task of reconciliation, a crucial ingredient in justice, and I hope that any who read this may feel similarly called; after all, we are not in this alone!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Curriculum Planning: The Never-Ending Story

I can scarcely believe it has been two years since I physically walked through and rearranged my curriculum on the floor of my classroom.  That was also the point where I started blogging regularly to reflect on my planning, teaching and assessment practices.

One of the major lessons I've learned in the past two years is that my curriculum will always need work, and that's okay.

I used to think that needing to fix something in my curriculum was a sign of complete failure, and my instinct was to throw the whole thing out and start over.  However, now that I am coming to better understand the principles of revision that I constantly preach to my students, I find myself invigorated and energized by the opportunity to patch things up over the summer.

My students' final essays and presentations were very helpful in that they showed me what units were sticking with the students at the end of the year.  Those units--agency & victimhood, worldview, stewardship--likely need less attention from me.  It's the other units that will need re-examination and effort, at least right now.

One unit that has constantly posed problems for me is the first unit of the year, most notable as the unit in which we read and perform The Crucible.  This unit has suffered from tradition, in a lot of ways.  There are a variety of activities in this unit that I like to use at the start of the year, but up to this point I have struggled to find connective tissue to bind the unit together.  I lead off with a discussion of stereotypes and biases (which the students always get into), followed by an economic examination of colonization and conquest, and rounded out with a comparison of the collapse of Puritan society with McCarthyism in the 1950s.  Finding something to focus these various components has been difficult: last year, the unit essay was about justice and mercy, but even that came into play fairly late in the unit and the connections were tenuous at best.

This past week, the pieces fell into place and I found myself with a unit I am really excited to teach: I chose to drop the focus on economics, which I will shift to a later unit.  This freed me up to draw in an introduction to communication as a model, as well as rhetorical appeals and fallacies, which had fit awkwardly into units two and three, respectively, in previous years.

The premise of the entire unit is simple: the failure or refusal to understand the "other" is where oppression begins.  We will begin the unit with an examination of communication as a model, a complex transaction which depends on both speaker and listener.  We will discuss the "noise" that interferes with good communication, which will lead us naturally into a discussion of labeling, stereotypes and biases--often sub-conscious interference that prevents us from communicating successfully.  We will then examine the obligations of both speaker and listener to be clear and honest on the one hand, and to be attentive and careful consumers, on the other hand.  This will set us up for our introduction to rhetorical appeals and fallacies (which of course include scare tactics, ad hominem, and hasty or sweeping generalizations).  We will finish the unit by looking at the factors which have led to scape-goating and oppression throughout history, and the role that demagogues have played in this (this is where The Crucible will come in), an opportunity to start practicing our identification (and analysis of the effects) of rhetorical fallacies right away.  The students will finish the unit by writing an essay in which they engage with why it is important to understand the "other"--those who are different from us--and how we can strive to do so.

It's exciting when the pieces fall into place, and I am looking forward to spending some time revising the next couple of units, now that I've freed up some space by shifting the lessons on communication and rhetoric.  Instead of being a hoop to jump through, I prefer to think of this as a puzzle needing to be put together!

Friday, June 10, 2016

So Long For Now

It was the most important email I ever received.

"Are you breathing?" was how the message ended.  This question followed an explanation of a temporary job opening in the resource room at the Christian Academy in Japan, and was an invitation to serve as a six-month volunteer, as much as it was a reminder to keep breathing.

Brian VanderHaak was several months into his new position as the Head of School at CAJ, and while dealing with this staffing puzzle following the departure of a staff member who was expecting a baby, was reminded by his wife Bette that I had just completed my student teaching at Dordt College days earlier and was looking for something to do in the Spring.

Brian and Bette were good friends of my parents. Long before they lived in Japan, they had lived a five-minute drive from my mom and dad in the countryside just outside of Lynden, WA.  We attended the same church, and my brother, sister, and I grew up friends with their children.  Following their decision to move across the country to teach in Silver Spring, MD nearly 20 years ago, we would eagerly look forward to the VanderHaak family's return each year.  Their return always signaled the start of summer, as our families and several others would gather for 4th of July fireworks, church-league softball, and outdoor steak and salmon barbecues.

At this time, Brian was teaching History and Literature, and my mom would always relay to me the stories that Brian had told about his classes:
"Brian takes his students on a marching tour of Civil War battlefields."
"Brian teaches Romeo and Juliet from the perspective that they were just spoiled brats."
"Brian has his students write themselves into a chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird."
The list would go on.

I was an accomplished complainer when I was in high school, and on the rare occasion when I would bring home a legitimate grievance about my English classes, my mom would shrug and say, "I wish you could take Brian's class."

She had a point--it always sounded like Brian was doing fun and interesting things with his students, but the VanderHaaks lived on the opposite side of the country, and my frustrations were immediate and present--it just wasn't worth wondering how things were in Brian's classes.

All the same, my awareness of Brian's skill as a teacher stuck with me.  When an assignment in my sophomore year of college called for me to interview a history teacher about their use of technology in the classroom, I contacted Brian (who was by then teaching at CAJ).  When I was a senior, I tried unsuccessfully to convince the chair of the education department to let me do my student-teaching at CAJ.  And then, days after finishing my student teaching, I received that email from Brian.
Are you breathing?
I've told the story of that long road-trip from Iowa back home to Washington many times, and even now am still struck by how clear the sense of God's leading was.

Today, I finished my eighth school-year at CAJ, and Brian and Bette finished their twelfth, and final year.  At the end of July, they will move to Taiwan, where they will teach at another international school.

It was a blessing to spend the past seven and a half years with Brian and Bette, and the time has finally come to say "so long for now."

Brian and Bette prefer to serve behind the scenes.  Case in point: they spent their last day at CAJ working tirelessly in the cafeteria kitchen making and serving Navajo Tacos to the CAJ staff and their families.  They do not seek public recognition--that's not who they are.  So, I'm taking it upon myself to bring public recognition to them.

Bette has served as the art teacher for an entire generation of CAJ students.  In addition to teaching Sculpture, Ceramics, Drawing & Painting, AP Studio Art and more, she has had an indelible impact on the aesthetics of CAJ's campus, displaying student artwork in our hallways and atrium and rotating the pieces out with amazing regularity.  As a strong believer in authentic assessment, I know that this is as much a brilliant teaching strategy as it is a means of livening up our campus.  The students have invested their best for Bette knowing that the finished product will be on display, and on occasions when I ask my students to create a project for my classes, I am always astounded at the caliber of artistry that the students bring to their work, something that most are quick to attribute to their art teacher.  In addition to the student work that she faithfully displays for the community, Bette has also started several beloved traditions: a tapestry of Senior tiles (small clay tiles upon which the students etch their names, a memorable quote, and sometimes even intricate designs) in the entrance to the school, and tie-dye T-shirts for the Seniors before they leave for Thailand.  For these projects, Bette tirelessly supervises the students in the art-room and offers her advice and assistance as the students need it.

One thing I have come to find more and more remarkable as the years have gone on is just how much Bette has embraced the art and culture of Japan and drawn this not only into her teaching, but into her own hobbies as well.  Bette teaches kirie, an intricate artform that involves careful paper cutting, and these are among the pieces displayed in the hallway each year.  Bette also uses old kimono to make beautiful quilts which she has given as gifts to friends and family (as I write this, I am admiring the quilt that Tomomi and I received as a wedding present, and which is draped over our couch).

Students say that Bette is unfailingly patient, kind and calm, and I know this to be the truth.  She serves those around her quietly and uncomplainingly, and never draws attention to just how much work she does.  Whether biking one hour to help with early Saturday morning Cross Country meets, spending hours after school supervising students while they work on decorations for school events, spending a weekend preparing Thanksgiving pies, spending weeks on set design and painting for plays and musicals, or helping to organize the annual Artscape event (a region-wide display of student artwork), Bette consistently lives out servant-leadership.

Brian often says he aspires to be like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, the same at home as he is out on the street.  Brian's commitment to integrity is a large part of who he is, and clearly shaped his leadership style as the Head of School.  Though Brian's return to the classroom this fall has been a long time in coming, I firmly believe he was the right leader for our school at the right time: a time of significant demographic changes; a time of deeply examining our mission and identity as a school; a time of adjustment as CAJ changed legal status to gain greater recognition and institutional support from the Japanese government; a time of chaos and grief as we dealt with the double-punch of the earthquake in March, and then the death of a student in May of 2011.  Through all of this, Brian's gift for understanding systems and policies, his ability to remain calm under pressure, and his ability to look ahead to the future of the school were a tremendous blessing to the staff, students and community as a whole.

I owe a large part of my identity as a teacher to Brian's influence and guidance.  I will never forget when Brian called me into his office to talk to me about my upcoming staffing assignment in the Spring of 2010.  He had already told me a lot about his treasured Humanities curriculum, a course that he had designed while teaching in Maryland, which combined U.S. History and American Literature into a blended block.  The 11th grade teacher at that time was moving into more of a guidance role for the next year, and Brian entrusted the Humanities curriculum to me.

Although a school-wide focus on principles of backwards design led me to significantly remodel the curriculum in the years that followed, there are still integral pieces of my Humanities course which can be traced directly back to the files Brian handed over to me in 2010:
-Students still read "Sure, You Can Ask Me a Personal Question" by Diane Burns and then write their own poem talking back against stereotypes that they've dealt with.
-Students still act out The Crucible in class.
-We still read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
-We still discuss Agency & Victimhood
-We still write haiku with the emphasis on ku (theme), kigo (sense language) and kireji (cutting line) rather than 5-7-5.
-We still watch and discuss Atomic CafĂ© during a bigger unit on Science and Technocracy

There are other lessons and activities I have inherited and still use, I am certain, and I am grateful for Brian's mentorship.  For several years, I was even able to bring Brian in for a few days each year to show Amistad to the Humanities class and provide commentary throughout the movie.  Through these opportunities I had to watch Brian teach, long discussions about curriculum and classroom ideas, and weekly Friday morning breakfast conversations, I have enjoyed the privilege to learn from Brian, even if I missed the chance to take his classes when I was still in school myself.  While it is indeed difficult to say goodbye, Brian's students will be gaining an outstanding teacher who daily strives to live out the integrity he teaches, who brings a sense of energy and fun to the classroom, who genuinely cares for his students, and who will challenge them to pursue justice in a broken world.

Brian and Bette:
Because they are a team, and honoring them as individuals does not tell the whole story.  The word that comes to mind is hospitality.  They are among the most generous and selfless couples I know, and I have benefitted from their hospitality more times than I can count.  From giving me a place to live for two years, to long trips to and from the airport, to hundreds of delicious meals and desserts, to a Spring Break trip to Nagasaki, to many memorable vacations at their cabin near Sendai, to hours of help and preparation for my wedding, I can never repay them, save to try to live out this same hospitality in my own life.

I am breathing.  Thriving, in fact.  I have a life here I never once anticipated; a calling I wouldn't trade for the world, and a wife who I love, and who I wouldn't have met had I not received that email on a cold December morning in 2008.

I will miss Brian and Bette, who are no longer simply my parents' friends, but my own dear friends and colleagues.  I hope they know just how many lives they have blessed in their time at CAJ, and just how much.  Not a day goes by that I am not grateful.

Photo credit: Ushio Sawada

Friday, June 3, 2016

Graduation Speech, 2016

Nearly four years ago, I taught the class of 2016 for the first time as Freshmen.  I taught them again as Juniors last year.  Tonight, I had the incredible honor to speak to them at their graduation.  Here is the text of my speech:


Ladies and gentlemen of justice, good evening.

We find ourselves this evening in a setting so familiar to us, the scene of basketball games and beep tests, of Christmas concerts and commencement ceremonies. These events have been constants in your lives at CAJ, reliable mileposts that stay the same from year to year.

What has changed, with each passing year, is you: this year, you are sitting front and center. This year, you are the ones graduating.

Let’s back up four years to an earlier graduation night at CAJ. Whether you were in the audience that night, or somewhere else, you were likely feeling some common emotions: You had just finished 8th grade. You had climbed the middle school social ladder, and survived. Perhaps you were feeling on top of the world, like you had finally figured out this whole school thing--Look out CAJ high school, here comes the class of 2016!

I have a confession for you--I was feeling the same way that evening. I was the graduation speaker that night, too. I had just finished my 3rd full year of teaching, and like you, I felt like I was on top of the world. I felt like I had finally figured out this whole teaching thing--Look out CAJ high school, here comes Mr. Gibson!

God has a funny way of dismantling our pride, though it might not feel so funny in the moment that it happens.

For me, that moment was when God introduced me to the class of 2016.

I remember sitting in my classroom on the first day of school, waiting for my 4th period World History class to arrive, and out in the hall, I heard <DAWWWRP!!> <GRAAAWWP> <BLAAARP!>

...and I wondered what living thing could be making those sounds. My question was answered when a huge group of freshman boys piled through the door and filled the entire back half of the classroom.

To say the least, I was not at all prepared for the school-year that lay ahead of us. I think that if someone had told us then, that I would be speaking to you on your graduation night, we all would have laughed.

But here we are tonight, all the same. I’m standing up here speaking to you by your class’s choice, and by my choice. But more importantly, I think it is by God’s choice, and that our journey from your freshman year to this moment, here and now, holds for us two profound lessons. It is these lessons that I would like to share with you tonight. The first is this:

I. We are all living teacher’s drafts.
For the sake of those in the audience: most of the major essays that CAJ students write go through several drafts before the students submit a final product. The teacher’s draft receives feedback and comments from--you guessed it--the teacher. Now, as you know, the purpose of a teacher’s draft is not to get everything perfect the first time around--the purpose is to receive feedback, and then go back to revise, renew, and rework your writing. This process is incredibly important.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he gave this advice:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Paul was a man who knew a thing or two about renewal. In fact, he had been a bitter enemy to the church until he encountered Jesus for himself.

For Paul, God’s renewing work was not merely a hope, but a firm reality. We can take comfort in this. You see, like us, Paul, was a living teacher’s draft; an essay in need of revision… and God’s renewing work in Paul becomes that much more obvious when we look back at who he was, compared to who he became. Perhaps that’s where we need to start for ourselves, if we want to fully understand what it means to be living teacher’s drafts--perhaps we need to look back at who we were.

Have you ever gone back and re-read essays that you’d written in past years of school?

What did it feel like to re-read these old writings?

I know that for me, personally, the first thing I notice when I re-read things I’d written before is just how many mistakes I made and failed to catch. If you’ve re-read your old writings, you probably know what I’m talking about. But even if you haven’t, just think back to what kind of person you were at different points in your life:

What were you like in...

9th grade?

8th grade?

Even earlier?

You may have fond memories from each of those years, but more likely than not, you did or said things you wish you could take back, made fashion decisions you wish you could erase from your memory, or spent countless hours on hobbies you now find a waste of time.

Maybe this is why our gut reaction to old photos of ourselves tends to be embarrassment. When we come face to face with images from our past, there’s absolutely nothing we can do to change who we were.

Here is a snapshot from a class discussion you had in your freshman year. You were discussing what you felt to be the weaknesses of the class of 2016. These are direct quotes from the transcript of that discussion:

We have boys and girls divided.”


“Everyone’s immature.”

“We lack respect toward teachers and other students.”

Perhaps you remember specific occasions where you saw these struggles in your class first-hand. Perhaps you remember frustrated teachers and principals. Perhaps you remember feeling like you couldn’t trust your classmates, or like your classmates couldn’t trust you.

You weren’t the only ones struggling with fear & doubt, though.

I started that school-year so full of myself. I’d had a couple good years of teaching, and I thought I could just coast on my successes. For reasons I cannot comprehend now, I was expecting teaching to suddenly be easy and effortless. When the personalities in your class started to clash with mine, when I ran into actual challenges in the classroom, my response was to retreat. I invested less and less into my teaching, and invested more in other parts of my life. I met my wife in the fall of that year, and after that for the rest of the school-year, my heart was miles away from my classroom, and from CAJ. Falling in love is wonderful, but so totally disruptive.

When my wife and I got engaged in the Spring of that year, I finally took a serious look at whether or not I was really called to teach. It was a defining moment in my life. Did you know that some studies suggest as many as 40% of teachers will leave the profession within their first five years? That’s the point that I was at. I had two options in front of me: The first was to quit--to say “teaching isn’t the job for me, after all” and then to find something else that would fit better. The second option--and frankly, the more terrifying one--was to admit that teaching was my calling and that I just hadn’t been doing a very good job of it. It was essentially a choice between victimhood and agency. The first option would have been to shift the responsibility from myself onto my circumstances. The second option meant taking responsibility for my struggles and then doing something about it.

So, in the week after I got engaged, I took the GRE--that’s the graduate school entrance exam--I gathered my references, and I applied for an online Master’s program. It was a busy week. But I was certain that God had called me to teach. What’s more, I knew I would have you all in class again when you got to your Junior year, and I desperately wanted to be ready to teach you then. I knew what I had to do.

Tonight, we look back on where we were four years ago, and it is crystal clear just how far we’ve all come between then and now. I shared a snapshot from your freshman year earlier, but I’d like to share a few more snapshots that I had the privilege to witness over the past few years:

I watched as you shared heartfelt stories of struggle with one another at the start of your Junior year. In that moment, there was trust.

I watched as you formed committees to plan an international festival to fight Ebola. In that moment, there was no division between the genders.

I watched as you rallied together to support classmates on a number of occasions, from Dig Teal, to Thrift Shop, to Senior Comps projects. In those moments, there was respect.

I watched as you grew from a class grappling to find its place at CAJ to a class well-loved by the teachers and admired by the underclassmen. Do you know what your kohai say about you? “The class of 2016 always sets the bar so high.”

God has been at work in your class these past four years, making constant revisions, and it shows.

I turned 30 a few months ago, and it occurred to me that God has been revising me, too, from where I was four years ago.

I am a married man now--it’ll be three years in December.

I finished my Master’s thesis this Spring, so I guess I get to say that I graduated in 2016, too!

I was able to teach you again last year, your Junior year. It was a privilege to spend the year together engaging the important question of how we can live as people of justice. It was a good year, and one I’ll remember distinctly decades from now.

But we’re not done growing, and that is vital to understand. You and I both know that none of us has attained perfection. In fact, do you want to know my biggest takeaway from three years of graduate work? We’re never done learning. This leads me to the second lesson I’d like to share with you, and that is,

II. God continues to revise us, so that we can bless the world. 

Tonight is not the destination. This is not the final draft submission space on, or Moodle, or Google Classroom. You are still living teacher’s drafts, and God is not done revising you yet.

Now, some of you might be wondering to yourselves, “ugh--why do we have to go through this process, anyway?”

After all, revision can be painful. You probably know how difficult it is to cut content from an essay that was over the word limit--it’s almost like being asked to perform an amputation on yourself. Yes, revision is often painful.

And if a process is going to be difficult, even painful, there had better be a purpose behind it, right? Maybe you’ve sometimes questioned that purpose as you have revised your own essays: “What’s the point of this, anyway? Can’t I just re-submit the essay as it is and take the grade I got for the teacher’s draft?”

The answer to this question lies in our very mission as a school--the mission of your teachers, your principals, your coaches, your librarians, everyone who has worked with you over the past 12 years--to equip you to serve Japan and the world for Christ.

THIS is why we undergo a process of constant revision. Service is an important task, and one which demands our absolute commitment. To look for life-hacks or shortcuts in the way that we serve misses the point of service entirely; instead, we must constantly seek out opportunities to improve in our ability to serve and bless those around us. It’s a timeless calling, and one which is so tightly interwoven with being men and women of justice in the world today. The prophet Isaiah called the Israelite people to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Service to those who are hurting, to those who are in need, to those on the fringes of society--this is a critical component of what it means for us to pursue justice in this broken world.

I’ve seen glimmers and glimpses of this over the past couple of years in your class, but it cannot stop with a class charity event, a Senior Comps project, or even laying the foundations for a special education facility in Thailand. These are accomplishments to be proud of, to be sure, but they are ultimately raw pieces in an unfinished draft, in what will hopefully be a lifetime of service.

Unlike four years ago, I have no illusions about what tonight means for me, either. I know now that I’m still being revised, myself. I know now that complacency is the enemy of good teaching and that I must constantly, and earnestly confront my weaknesses as a teacher, and seek to learn and grow. I know now that my curriculum will never be perfect--there will always be something to change, something to add, or something to get rid of for the next school-year. 

I’m learning to embrace the journey of learning, this process of constant revision, and I hope you will too. Commencement, after all, is not an ending but a beginning! Think of it this way: if we are living teacher’s drafts and God is revising us, He’s maybe just now finished revising your introduction and thesis; He hasn’t even gotten into the body paragraphs yet! Where will you be four years from now? Eight years? Twelve years? What revisions will have taken place between now, and then?

Now--over the past few weeks, I’ve heard from some of your parents, some other teachers, and even some of you directly, that apparently, you expect me to sing one last song to you. And maybe you were starting to worry that I wouldn’t sing anything. I thought about singing “Let it Go” tonight, but it didn’t really have anything to do with what I talked about… so I re-wrote the words to make it more applicable. Consider this is my final message for you as your English teacher.

Wherever you go and whatever you do, I hope that you’ll continue to write, and continue to revise your writing to make it better with each draft. As you revise, I hope you’ll be led to think about how God is revising you. Thanks for being such wonderful students. It’s been a privilege to teach you, to learn alongside you, and to go through the same journey of revision as you. Never stop learning, and never stop serving--I’m looking forward to reading the next draft.

Closing Song: Just Revise (Frozen Parody)

The lanterns shine bright in the plaza tonight,

And the end is within reach.

It’s CAJ graduation,

And I need to close this speech.

The wind is howling through the cabbage patch outside,

Hope I’ve made my point, heaven knows I’ve tried.

Don’t set it down, don’t let it be,

Right now your thesis is just a ‘3’,

Reword, renew, don’t compromise,

Aim for the skies!

Just revise, just revise,

Don’t settle for just all right.

Just revise, just revise,

Until your words take flight.

I don’t care

If it takes all day,

Bring the feedback on:

The next draft will be better anyway!

It’s funny how some distance

Makes our past drafts look sub-par,

And the marks upon each rubric

Seem like steps to who we are!

It’s time to see what we can do,

To get a ‘4’ and then break through

Use active voice, keep verbs alive, reach for the ‘5’!

Just revise, just revise

You are one with the Pages doc

Just revise, just revise,

Then submit by ten o’clock!

Here you’ll sit,

And here you’ll stay

Bring the feedback on...

Your power flurries through the keyboard to the page,

Your soul is verbalized in letters that will soon engage,

And one thought hits you like an exclamation mark!

You’re never going back,

On a new draft, you’ll embark!

Just revise, just revise,

Let your words give voice to the voiceless!

Just revise, just revise,

It’s anything but pointless.

Here we are,

On graduation day,

Bring the feedback on,

The next draft will be better anyway!

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Celebration of Learning

The past month has been filled with busyness of all kinds, and while I am usually diligent about setting aside time to write a blog-post each week, my spare time and attention during the month of May has been redirected to writing of a different kind.  In early May, I was honored to discover that the Seniors had voted as a class to ask me to speak at their graduation ceremony on June 3.  I accepted, and immediately set to work on writing my speech.  I put the final touches on the speech earlier this week and sent it off to be translated.  A sizable number of parents do not speak English and so having a printed copy in Japanese is vital.

I will post my speech next week after delivering it, but what I can tell you up front is that I am speaking on the theme of renewal, and using the analogy that we are all living "teacher's drafts" (the work-in-progress draft of an essay submitted to the teacher for feedback).  I feel like this is a relevant theme not only for the students, but for myself as well: I taught this class twice, first as Freshmen and then again as Juniors, and... suffice it to say we both did our share of growing up over the course of those three short years.

Speech-writing has accompanied all sorts of end-of-year grading, and over the past week, I have been providing feedback on the teacher's drafts of my 11th graders' Justice essays.  As of this evening, I have finished reading 37 essays, and have 14 to go.  Each one has taken me between 30 minutes and one hour.  Likely if you're not an English teacher, your reaction to those numbers is to feel particularly grateful that you're not an English teacher.

I'm weird.  I am thoroughly enjoying this time-consuming and largely sedentary task.  Granted, some drafts are much better than others, but what I enjoy so much is that each reveals what my students learned throughout the course of the past school-year.  I told my students on the first day of class back in August that our course-theme was "Becoming People of Justice", and that their final writing assignment of the year would be an essay engaging with what it means to be people of justice, and every unit I taught contained some piece of the puzzle.  Now I get to watch the students put it all together.  What is so exciting is that everyone has learned something.  Yes, I am grading these drafts strictly, and no I don't think I've given a higher score than a 'B' to anybody's draft so far.  Most have been in the 'C' range (I figure, this is my last opportunity to give feedback on these students' writing, so I had better make it count).  But everyone has learned something.  Everyone has grown.  Everyone is genuinely thinking through what justice means.

I think we as teachers need to be intentional about treating the final assignments in our class as a celebration of the learning that has taken place just as much as a summative assessment.  Along with these essays, my students are also preparing final projects which they will present to their classmates next week.  The instructions were simple: to choose a topic from class this year that resonated with them and to create a project of some kind that articulates what they now understand about that topic.  Projects can be paintings, sculptures, videos, skits, debates, songs; whatever format each student (or group, if they choose to collaborate) feels represents the best they have to offer.

Simply watching the students get to work planning and making their projects has taught me a lot about what my students took away this year.  For some students, it was our early discussion of labelling, stereotypes and biases.  For some students, it was our study of rhetorical fallacies.  For some students, it was our unit on agency and victimhood (actually, for quite a few students; I learned that this unit had a tremendous impact on a number of students).  For some students, it was our comparison of different worldviews.  I am looking forward to seeing the projects that the students come up with.  I won't grade these as strictly as I am grading the essay drafts, and in fact, my main criteria is whether or not the students clearly and successfully articulate an understanding of the topic they chose.  This, too, is a celebration of learning.

I know, I know... my seeing these end-of-year tasks as a celebration does not mean that the students won't grumble about the work-load, nor does it mean that the students will be filled with profound joy when they sit down to revise their essays or finalize their projects.  But perhaps they will recognize in my joy an invitation to look back at where they were in August and take pride in how far they have come.  Perhaps they will feel encouraged to reflect on moments, lessons or assignments that affected them significantly this year, whether they were difficult at the time, or not.  Perhaps when all is said and done, when my students have cleaned out their lockers, and walked out the door into the humid summer sun, they will be able to smile and celebrate, just a little bit.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Perceptions of International High School Students Regarding Flipped Classroom Strategies in the Humanities Classroom

That was the title of my Master's thesis, a 41-page undertaking which I put the final touches on, and sent off earlier today.

This project represents the culmination of almost three years of studies, and I really cannot think of a better way to have ended my Master's program.

I had been interested in learning more about flipped classroom strategies for a couple years, and this project gave me a reason to commit, and invest both time and energy into using them in my own classroom.

I should explain up front that flipped classroom strategies refer to the shifting of content and information from inside the classroom to outside the classroom, instead favoring higher-level thinking activities (discussions, debates, simulations, workshops, etc) during class-time.  Thus, the sort of application and discovery tasks traditionally assigned as homework become the "meat" of time in class, while the lecture and information acquisition that previously dominated class-time instead become homework.  I chose to do this primarily through the use of short lecture videos, in order to shift historical content outside of my classroom as much as possible.

My Humanities class served as the testing ground for this study, and the students were very helpful in providing their feedback.  I spoke to each student in the class briefly about the use of flipped strategies, and conducted in-depth interviews with six students.

Students were almost universally positive about the use of lecture videos.
Here are some of the reasons why:
1) The videos allowed for a greater degree of flexibility than classroom lecture.  Students appreciated the ability to choose when to take in content rather than having that dictated by the teacher in class.
2) Having access to lectures in video form meant that students could re-watch if they needed to.  For instance, most students re-watched the lecture videos I had posted about the time leading up to the Civil War while working on their Document Based Question (DBQ) essay on the causes of the Civil War.
3) 90% of the class cited the transcripts that I posted along with the videos as being very helpful.  Students in need of English language support said that it helped them to understand the videos more clearly than they would have understood a classroom lecture.  Other students said that the transcript helped when they needed to re-visit the video, to find a particular section to re-watch.
4) Most of the students felt that the videos were the right length, each clocking in at somewhere between 2 minutes and 5 and a half minutes.
5) Several students expressed appreciation for the fact that the videos helped them to better understand discussions and activities we did in class.
6) Students never felt that lecture or details were the point of my class--there was always a bigger picture we were aiming for.

All this being said, there are still bugs to be worked out: I would like to find more resources to offer students, so that lecture videos are not their only option, and I would like to help students feel comfortable accessing further background information on their own (and even, have a desire to access further background information on their own).  I would also like to make my videos less dry and more creative and engaging than a talking head.

Still, the feedback I collected was affirming that this tool has tremendous potential in my classroom, and I hope that my positive experience with flipped strategies will encourage colleagues and other readers to consider how they might use flipped strategies in their own classrooms as well.