Friday, January 29, 2016

The Role of U.S. History Content in the International School Classroom

In less than four months, an important chapter in my life will come to a close as I finish up my Master's degree once and for all.
The decision to start my Master's back in the Spring of 2013 was one that revitalized me, personally and professionally.  My Master's courses have been instrumental in my growth as a teacher, and indeed in the satisfaction I increasingly take in my job.

One task remains: my action research project.

I'm researching student perceptions of flipped classrooms.

There were a lot of topics I was interested in researching; many different directions I could have gone, but I decided that something to do with flipped classrooms would dovetail most closely with changes I was looking to make in my own teaching, anyway.

The fact is, with each passing year, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to gauge both the amount of detail I should go into on U.S. History with my students, and also how I should present it to them.

One thing I do know: the history itself is not the point of my Humanities class, and I need to do more to make this clear in my teaching.

When I started teaching 11th Grade Humanities in 2010, about half of the students in my class were single-passport North American, and most had some basic familiarity with U.S. History either from having taken a class in elementary or middle school in the States (perhaps while on missionary furlough), or just from family discussion.

I found it much easier to go into high levels of detail that year--I felt like most of the class was tracking with my lectures, though in hindsight, I worry that I made life difficult for my students who had no background familiarity with U.S. History.

CAJ has changed dramatically since then, and there are far less single-passport North American students than there were in 2010: now, only a couple of students have a background knowledge of U.S. History when they come to my class.
I used to be able to open up units by asking for students' perceptions of different historical events or historical figures in order to ferret out misconceptions, but now, aside from George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, the bulk of the class doesn't have misconceptions, let alone any prior conceptions of the people or the happenings of U.S. History--it's all a blank slate, for better or for worse.
Moreover, most of these students will not need to know the level of detail that I used to teach--a large number will attend university in Korea, Japan or elsewhere, and even those who will attend university in the U.S. may not necessarily choose to live there.

This has forced me to grapple with a crucial question: exactly what role should the content of U.S. History play in my class?

Since I settled on my overarching course theme of "People of Justice" last year, and have accordingly refined sub-themes for each of my units (love & mercy; human rights & just war; agency & victimhood; civil disobedience; worldview; stewardship & sustainability), I've come to recognize that the details of U.S. History are only important insofar as they support and illuminate these themes.

This is where flipped classroom strategies come in: I do not need to give students a play-by-play account of U.S. History, and in fact I strongly believe that to do so would actually be counter-productive to their education.

My course is still structured chronologically, Native migration theories to the modern day--I am a firm believer in the value of knowing context, and feel like that piece would be lost (or at least, much more difficult to teach) if I went to a purely thematic structure.  Yet, within each time period, I am increasingly narrowing down my selection of talking points to only what I believe to be essential to understanding & addressing the bigger question.

While flipped classroom strategies are not limited to just using lecture videos, this is where I have chosen to begin: I have been making somewhere between 10-20 short lecture videos for each unit, each video between 2 and 4 minutes in length.  This way students can watch them on their phones while on the train, or in chunks between other activities, if they so choose.  While I'll grant that there are kinks I still need to work out, these videos are designed to do exactly what I want them to: set up context for the essential questions we are discussing, and provide a basic level of detail that the students can draw from in beginning to engage the questions.  My class will not prepare students to take the AP U.S. History exam, nor is that remotely my purpose.

This means some level of sacrifice.  I chose this year to completely bypass any discussion about the Civil War itself.  In the unit we just finished, we focused on the time period leading up to the Civil War as we considered how to engage questions upon which historians disagree, and also found a launching point for discussions about civil disobedience through Thoreau's opposition to the Mexican-American War.  It was difficult to let go: I enjoy telling the story of the battles and politics, the human egos and the human tragedies that make the Civil War so fascinating, but it simply did not fit with my goals for the unit, and to try and make it fit would have wrecked the unit and thrown off the pacing or the next unit.  I enjoy those stories, but I needed to acknowledge that they are not what my students need.

So my task now is to determine how students respond to this style of history teaching: minimalist, theme-oriented, with the information truly playing a supporting role to the bigger themes and skills I want students to take away.

It means that most days, I am not going to spend more than a couple minutes at the front of the class, talking at the students.  I still do try to tell the occasional story, sing the occasional song, lead the occasional Socratic discussion or throw in the occasional thematic lecture, as I do derive energy and joy from getting to perform.
Lecturing daily on U.S. History, however, was becoming an increasingly joyless activity in which I became painfully aware that I was leaving most of my students lost in the woods, and boring most of them to tears even though I was trying to be as clear, animated and interesting as possible.  Something needed to change.

So this is where I am as I look ahead to my project.  Students at CAJ have, in the past, been vocal in their dislike for receiving content outside of the classroom, but I wonder:
-If the alternative is a tedious slog through history in the middle of the school-day...
-If the lecture videos are short enough chunks to hold the students' focus from start to finish...
-If the lecture videos are clear and well-made...
-If the lecture videos are easy to access and re-watch as needed...
-If class-time is instead dedicated to interesting activities, worthwhile follow-up and an increased amount of teacher support on class assessments...
-If the course themes are truly made the priority...

...maybe the students will come to appreciate this style of teaching.

I'm eager to see what observation, research, and student perspectives will tell me!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Works in Progress

Among a variety of other tasks this weekend, I'm finalizing my next unit for Humanities class.  I wrote about this unit almost a year ago, and was happy with it at the time.  I'm still happy with it, and intend to keep it this year, but coming back to it after a year's distance has helped me to see some holes that were not so obvious a year ago.

I recognized that the unit needed a stronger, more explicit tie back to the theme of justice.  Looking back on last year as a whole, this unit felt a bit out of place.  This has meant some tweaking and readjusting--the focus is now less on where humans look for meaning, but why worldview matters; what difference it makes to our actions.  Perhaps none of my students would disagree that justice is a noble, worthy goal, but the question of why we should pursue justice would almost certainly spark discussion.

The structure will remain largely intact, but my hope is that by shifting more of my class content from inside to outside the classroom through the use of flipped classroom strategies (which pairs beautifully with my Master's research), I will be able to use in-class time to push the students into a deeper analysis of how each worldview would define justice, and what that would mean for their actual pursuit of justice.

Such thinking is framing my process of revising this unit.  The truth is, I'll almost certainly do this again next year, not only with this unit but the others, as well.

Each year teaches me something new, whether about the content, about ideas for pedagogy, or realizations about the students' needs.  My curriculum may well be "up to baseline" (a checklist of requirements we worked to meet when mapping our curriculum a few years ago), but this does not mean that it's perfect.  I encourage my students to treat writing as an ongoing process: the teacher's draft is all about receiving feedback from the teacher.  Even the final draft is not truly final--students learn lessons to apply to the next essay, which will then hopefully be a little bit better.  Better, but not perfect--never perfect.

There's something of an object lesson in this process of refinement, whether in the curriculum I keep updating, or the essays my students keep revising.  We are drafts, works in progress.  We learn from trial and error, feedback and experience, and grow continually as we learn.  Our growth will never stop, so long as we live.  We will never reach a point where we can claim perfection; always, there will be some hole in need of filling or some leak in need of patching.

What a blessing it is that we serve a perfect Savior who gave His life so that we don't have to be ashamed of our imperfection! This isn't to say sanctification is unimportant--as we pursue relationship with our Savior (and well we must), we will find ourselves continually revised and updated.  What a blessing it is that we can look ahead to a day when we will cease to be works in progress and become works complete and whole, edited lovingly by The Writer who makes no mistakes!

This is of particular encouragement to me as I sit down to work on my wholly unholy and hole-y curriculum.

Friday, January 15, 2016

When Something Needs Fixing

Yesterday was the last day of the semester.  It came and went without much fanfare--we only got back to school from Christmas break last Wednesday, and our culminating events--the summative assessments intended to measure what the students learned over the course of the first semester--happened before Christmas, nearly a month ago.

Still, the knowledge that we're now on our way out of the school-year rather than into it is cause for reflection.

There's a lot that I can look back on and celebrate from the past few months, but most of those things, I've already written about.

Instead, I pause now to think about what has not worked as well--what needs work and attention.

There are two things in particular:

1) Guided Outside Reading:
I tried something new for GOR this semester.  Rather than doing summative book-talks when the students finished a book, I set aside three class days over the course of the semester for the students to read, and had conversations with them during these times.  These informal talks took the place of the book-talks, and students simply needed to email me a log of their reading when they finished up.

While I did enjoy the conversations I had with students mid-book in some ways more than I enjoyed the formal book-talks in past years, my main reason for setting aside these days (giving the students traction on their outside reading through limited, yet focused reading time in class) was never truly realized.

As with past years, I noticed far too many students rushing to finish up their books this week.  Once again, GOR became "that annoying hurdle to clear at the end of the semester" instead of the relaxing activity capable of sparking a passion for reading that I wish it was.

I have no solutions in mind for next semester.  I certainly don't want to return to the days of having 30+ last-minute book-talks.  I could, I suppose, set regular checkpoints that the students need to meet, or make a bigger summative assignment that would force the students to work ahead, but neither of these options would be likely to inspire an intrinsic love for reading, and may in fact make students all the more resentful.

The question I need to examine is this: what is the purpose of GOR?  Is it primarily for students to demonstrate their reading comprehension?  Is it primarily for students to connect reading to class themes?  Or, is it primarily for students to develop a love for reading, and comprehension development and connections to class themes are just icing on the cake?

I personally like the idea of that third goal.  The trouble is, it's just so blooming hard to structure in a way that doesn't end up feeling forced.  Muddying the waters is the fact that I have a number of students in AP English, for whom the page requirement per semester is 800 rather than the 400 that their classmates need to read, and for whom young adult novels probably won't be all that helpful in preparing for the AP test.

Colleagues have been recommending Book Love by Penny Kittle to me for more than a year now--maybe I need to carve out the time to finally sit down and read.  At any rate, I need to do something; if there's one thing I can't stand, it's using a practice that I don't believe in simply because "tradition".

2) Vocabulary:
In my first year as the 11th grade Humanities and English teacher, I was hyper-diligent about teaching vocabulary.  I would write five new words, drawn from an SAT study list, up on the board every day, and we would start class by going through the definitions and examples of those 5 words, followed by a short quiz on scrap paper.

Every week and a half or so, we'd have a full vocab test over 25 words at a time.  I wrote the tests myself: it was an elaborate fill-in-the blank test in which the vocab words came in context in a suspense story that I myself spent well over 15 hours writing.

The students enjoyed the story and most did fairly well on the test, but there were two major problems:

1) At student-parent-teacher conferences in November, I would ask students to tell their parents what we were learning about in class.  More than half of the students said "Vocabulary" without any hesitation, but then struggled to name anything else we were learning.  I realized that for something that was only worth 5% of the students' total grade, I was dedicating 5-10 minutes a day (plus the better part of a class period every 10 days)--a wildly disproportionate amount of time.

2) The students were performing well on the tests, but a number were unable to use the words correctly in their essays.  More jarring was the fact that many students who had started learning English later in their school careers were missing an entire set of mid-range vocabulary that their peers had picked up in their late elementary and early middle school years.  This resulted in more than a few student essays that were a combination of simplistic vocabulary and SAT vocabulary not always used properly.

It took me two years to decide to phase out my tests.  It was difficult for me to do, as I'd spent so much time writing a serial with weekly cliffhanger endings and I hated to let it go, but it was the right thing to do.

For two years, I required the students to keep an independent vocabulary log, but found this to be forced and artificial.

This year, I made vocabulary logs an extra credit option to supplement the students' reading scores.  Nobody has taken me up on the offer.

I do teach some vocabulary informally in the context of the readings we do in class throughout the year, but feel it would be time-consuming and disruptive to the flow to formally assess students on these words.

Again, I need to get back to the basic goal.  I want my students to expand their tool-kit as writers so that they have more ways to express a given idea, depending on the context.  In particular, I want my students to have access to descriptive and interesting ways to express their thoughts (I despair when I see students leap at every opportunity to use SAT vocabulary in their essays, and compare this practice to using a nail-gun to staple papers together).  I also want my students to have an increasing level of comfort in decoding vocabulary in the reading they do.

It bothers me when students treat vocabulary like Calvin does.

The trouble is, I have 51 students who are at 51 different places when it comes to their readiness to learn vocabulary.  Some are ready to tackle complex vocab lists while others really do need heavy remedial practice in the basics.

I have no ideas for how to accomplish my goal without it becoming an unwieldy and disproportionate focus of my class as it was in my first few years.  If my readers have suggestions for ideas, or even suggestions for resources to read that might provide me with inspiration, I welcome these heartily.

Though these two areas of my teaching have given me some level of frustration this semester, I am grateful for the many things that have gone well.

As I sit at Tully's on this Saturday morning to finish the odds-and-ends of my grading and finalize my semester grade-book, I do so with a profound sense of gratitude.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Managing Humanities

Teaching Humanities has been one of my greatest joys and also one of my greatest challenges.  I've explained before, but just to recap, Humanities is a double-class blending 3rd period English and 5th period U.S. History into a single subject.  In previous years, the class periods were back-to-back and it was essentially a giant block.  Though I no longer have the luxury of an uninterrupted stretch of time, I still do have the luxury of two class periods a day.

This luxury does not come without challenges.  Early on, the units I taught tended to be unbalanced.  The unit leaned too heavily on history, and literature/communication skills were either missing or awkwardly crammed in, or vice versa.  I consistently bit off more than I could chew, assigning a unit essay in addition to history reports or DBQs, debates in addition to presentations.  Inevitably, I'd end up scrapping one or more of the unit assignments due to a lack of time, and even so, I still found myself falling far behind on my grading.

Last year, I finally figured out a rhythm for the class that seemed to work, and this year has only confirmed this to me.

There are 7 units in Humanities class:

Units 1, 3 and 5 are a little bit longer, and culminate in a unit essay that asks the students to draw from Scripture, literature and history to answer an essential question (synthesized from smaller class writings or in-class essays throughout the unit).  Students must also deliver a more traditional presentation, based around one of the themes from the unit.

Additionally, units 1, 3 and 5 feature a longer work of literature.  In Unit 1, we read The Crucible in class (and the AP students read The Scarlet Letter), in Unit 3, we read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (and the AP students read Huckleberry Finn), and in Unit 5, we read The Great Gatsby, along with assorted American poetry.

Units 2, 4, and 6, by contrast, are a bit shorter.  Instead of a unit essay, the students write a DBQ, and instead of a traditional presentation, the students do a debate.  Instead of longer works of literature, we read an assortment of essays, speeches, or excerpts from bigger works in these units.  

Unit 7 ties everything together with a final course essay, final project and final presentation.

This 'every-other' rhythm keeps things fresh, keeps the workload manageable for the students, and keeps the grading manageable for me, while at the same time making sure that the students are developing both writing and presentation skills in every unit.  

The challenge now is to more intentionally assess and provide instruction so that these skills can be deepened in meaningful ways from unit to unit, so that the students are as prepared as they can be for the culminating assessments in unit 7.

All in all, it's a good feeling to have hit this stride!  Having now found this solid foundation, I look forward to building on it more in future years!

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015: A year of professional growth and physical diminution

2015 was a year of professional growth and physical diminution (the good kind).

Part One: Professional Growth
About a year ago, I looked over the syllabus for the Master's course I'd be taking that Spring with some apprehension. Until that point, each course I'd taken had directly connected to the day-in, day-out of my teaching; much of my coursework till then had asked me to develop and refine curriculum, lessons, and assessments that I would actually use (and would have needed to work on, anyway).  However, this course was entitled "Teacher Leadership: Field Experience", and browsing the syllabus told me that the course was largely going to be about matters broader than my own curriculum and pedagogy--matters such as school vision and mission; the scope & sequence of the school curriculum; facilitating and participating in professional development.  I'll confess that at the moment, this did not seem all that relevant or interesting to me.  In only one sense was the course what I expected it to be: as I thought, it did not double up with, or complement the prep I was already doing.  I was surprised to find that I didn't care.

It was exactly the course that I needed at that time.  It challenged me to take a step back and look beyond the walls of my classroom in a way that I'd never done before.  It forced me to think about the bigger picture of education at CAJ, something I found I not only enjoyed, but which came naturally to me (in hindsight, I suppose it makes sense, since details are definitely NOT my thing!).

The course culminated in me putting my name in for the role of department chair for English and Social Studies which had just opened up.  It's remarkable: a year ago, I would not have thought myself up to the task, nor would I have been remotely interested in taking on that sort of responsibility.  Now, it's one of my favorite parts of my job!  While it is certainly challenging, and it means more work and more meetings (including leading monthly PLC meetings), I get to facilitate discussions within the department about issues I care about.  I get to participate in discussions about the vision and future of the school with committed, caring colleagues.  I can see how my course fits into a bigger puzzle.  I have learned that the success of my teaching is predicated upon my willingness and desire to keep learning, both on my own, and in the context of community.

I will embark upon the last leg of my Master's course this Spring, conducting my action research project.  I started the program back in 2013, and each step of the journey has left a profound impact on me.  I hope to maintain a reflective, willing-to-learn attitude by continuing to regularly reflect on my practices in the coming months, both for my research project, and also this blog.

Part Two: Physical Diminution
When I was in high school, my metabolism was lightning-fast.  I was not merely slender--I was scrawny; wiry.  I could eat an entire large Little Caesar's pepperoni pizza and a full order of Crazy Bread on my own, and indeed, a few of my friends' parents would order an extra pizza if they knew I was coming over.

When I had a pre-college physical in the Spring of my Senior year, I was roughly 160 pounds (approx. 72 kg).

Then I went away to college and everything changed.  I kept up the eating habits that had promised no consequences only a few months earlier, but the combination of less exercise and leaving my teenage years behind meant that my body just wasn't keeping up with my consumption.  I knew I was putting on weight and became fearful of the scale.  My fear did not translate into action, just avoidance.  I simply preferred not to know how much I weighed, if I could help it.

Although I have had several stretches in which I exercised regularly (several seasons of coaching cross country), I never made any conscious changes to my diet, and so those physically active periods only kept me from gaining more weight--a stop-gap solution at best.  Getting married only added to my poor eating habits: I started finishing food off of my wife's plate when she got full, in addition to my own portion.  Worse yet, having stepped down from coaching cross country, I was getting less exercise than ever.

Particularly in the first half of 2015, I sensed that my weight gain was getting out of control.  I knew that I'd have to face the music when the annual staff physicals rolled around in August.  So, I stepped on the scale on August 13 to find that I weighed 210 pounds (95 kg, roughly).  In just one year, I had gained more than 20 pounds, and I knew I needed to do something.

On August 14, I subscribed to Weight Watchers and downloaded the Weight Watchers app on my phone.

I had built up in my mind a rather warped image of dieting, perhaps influenced by media's portrayals of weight loss, and so was surprised to find that Weight Watchers mainly worked by asking me to record the food and drink that I took in, in a single day (easy to do on my phone!).  Because I was thinking intentionally about my eating habits, I cut out snacking (which I had been doing constantly without even realizing it), and stopped eating my wife's leftover food.

Although the weight disappeared much more quickly in the first month or so, I am still slowly and steadily dropping weight.

As of this week, I am down to 176 pounds (80 kg).  My goal is to get back down to 165 pounds, just a little more than I weighed when I graduated from high school.  I will turn 30 in March, and I'd love to be able to start my 30s in better physical condition than I was in when I started my 20s.

My personal challenge to myself--a resolution of sorts--is to exercise regularly this year.  Keeping an eye on what I eat is only half the battle--I need to be proactive about making physical activity a part of my routine.  Health is something I have more or less taken for granted, and the sluggish feeling I had at my heaviest point this summer was a wake-up call.


Of course, above all else--more than my professional development, and my physical wellness--I need to leave time for spiritual growth, which is something I failed to do consistently this past year.  I need to spend time in the Word and time in prayer, even if simply to listen to God.  The busier I get, the easier it is to forget that it's not by my power or strength that I can succeed in these things, but by God's.

All in all, I am grateful for the wonderful year that 2015 was, and look forward to seeing what 2016 has to bring!