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!