Friday, November 17, 2017


I’ve never been much of a basketball player. In spite of this--or more likely, because of this--I have a profound admiration for talented basketball players. A skilled player knows precisely where to be on the court, and when. They can think ten steps ahead and see a clear path to the basket even when an inexperienced spectator like me cannot. When they pass the ball, they know where to pass it without needing to stop and look around first. To my eyes, this almost looks like magic, but the technical term is court sense. Players with court sense may have been particularly quick or coordinated to begin with, but they have also put in countless hours of practice over the course of years, often starting with pick-up games when they were children. As they played, mastering the basics, learning the rules of the game, and improving their form, they also developed an awareness of the court and the players on it that has essentially become instinctive.

While writing and reading may seem incomparable to the game of basketball, I believe that word sense exists in much the same way that court sense does. Writers with word sense express complex ideas in a way that illuminates rather than obscures. Their diction dances and their sentences sing. Their paragraphs pulse with dynamism, every word, every clause, every sentence purposefully developing the main idea. They know precisely when to pause, when to pivot, when to drive forward. And then, like players on defense, readers with word sense pick up on nuance and subtleties to determine exactly where the author is going. They quickly ascertain the author’s purpose and detect the strategies the author will use to achieve that purpose. They spot the relationship between the words and phrases on the page and know when the author is pausing, pivoting or driving the point forward. They keep up a constant inner dialogue with the author, agreeing, disagreeing, questioning, critiquing.
Here we come to the crux of the matter: just as court sense is not built overnight, neither is word sense. Basketball players develop court sense through years of practice, shooting hoops with friends, learning the rules of the game, watching professional players, mastering the basics before trying more complex maneuvers and plays. Court sense is not a formulaic sum of all of these elements, but rather the organic byproduct of years dedicated to working on them.

Readers and writers, likewise, develop word sense through years of practice, writing for fun, actively acquiring vocabulary and grammar, reading voraciously, and trying out styles, words and phrases that they’ve picked up from their reading. I know that I as an 11th grade teacher cannot take credit for my students with word sense. That credit must be shared among the students’ other teachers starting as early as elementary school, the students’ parents, and most of all, the students themselves.

These are the students who will ace reading comprehension tests, who will pick up on argument analysis the first time around, who will get A’s on the essays I assign, who will receive 4s or 5s on the AP exam. I’m adding a square to the mosaic of their word sense, but I did not magically make them into exemplary writers or readers over the course of one school-year.

This has implications for the students who have not developed word sense, as well. It means that they should not expect A-grades if they have not invested the years into developing word sense that a handful of their classmates have. For me to give out A’s for work that is simply competent or basic would be unfair to those whose work is truly exemplary, tantamount to comparing a player who has finally figured out dribbling, passing and shooting with a player who mastered the basics long ago. I’ve been guilty of this in the past--it has resulted in grade inflation, where an ‘A’ in my class did not mean what it should have meant. This year, I’m consciously fighting that. This means that students need to adjust how they view the grades we as teachers give. A ‘B’ is not a bad grade for students who have finally gotten the basics. In my mind, ‘B’ shows that the students are competent, that they have met the standard, but are perhaps not quite ready to go beyond it. I will do whatever it takes to help my students grow as readers and writers, but I also recognize that my first priority is to help them become competent, and then to find ways to push them beyond mere competency--not necessarily to get them to an ‘A’ level. I want my students to look beyond the nine months they will spend in my class to the future. For those who have a vibrant word sense, how can they use that in whatever calling they pursue? For those who have not developed that word sense, is that something they want to develop? If so, what will that goal require of them in the coming years?

Not all of my students will attain word sense during their lifetime, and perhaps even the majority will not. However, I hope that my students, regardless of their writing or reading abilities, will come away with an admiration for word sense as I have an admiration for court sense. I want them to recognize the hours, months and years of engagement and investment that goes into truly exemplary writing or perceptive reading. And, I want them to realize that if they genuinely want to develop word sense, it’s never too late to start trying.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Teaching Logic

When I was a sophomore in high school, taking Integrated Math, I hated proofs.  For some reason, I just couldn't see the value in outlining the logic of a solution step-by-step.  To me, it seemed redundant--like a waste of time: if a conclusion was obvious to me, why on earth would I need to explain the reasoning?

Fast-forward 16 years: as a teacher, I never thought to teach logic.  As far as I was concerned, if students had a good enough grasp on a concept or theme, they would be able to arrive at logical conclusions about the topic at hand.

Here's what I have realized, though:
1) Being intelligent does not guarantee that one will arrive at logical conclusions.
2) The ability to arrive at logical conclusions does not necessarily mean that one is thinking logically.

In other words, the process of logic needs to be taught and practiced, even for students who consistently arrive at logical conclusions.

I have set aside time on Mondays and Tuesdays each week to study rhetoric in my Humanities class, and the past month has been dedicated to an in-depth study of logos--an appeal to logic.

We spent some time on syllogistic reasoning, the classical example being:
Major premise: All men are mortal.
Minor premise: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.

We then looked at enthymemes, which condense syllogisms into a single statement, typically leaving out the major premise.  For example, "Socrates is mortal because he is a man" (the unstated assumption being that all men are mortal).

I had the students practice converting syllogisms into enthymemes and vice versa, the main purpose being to root out and explicitly identify the major premise inherent within each claim.  I also had the students practice evaluating each syllogism for its validity (whether or not it followed a logical form) and its truth (whether or not its premises were true).

This was where we observed the limitations of syllogistic reasoning: for a syllogism to be sound, it not only needs to follow a logical pattern, but it also needs to start from categorically true premises.  Most debates in real life are far messier, resting on premises and assumptions that are, themselves, controversial.

This was where the Toulmin model came into play.  Stephen Toulmin was a British philosopher who created a model for argumentation that he believed would fit the messiness and ambiguity of day-to-day discussion and debate.  The Toulmin model is comprised of six parts:

I. Claim (The proposal made by the speaker or writer)
II. Reasons/Evidence (Their reasons for making the proposal and the evidence supporting the reason)
III. Warrant (The underlying assumption connecting the reasons and evidence to the claim)
IV. Backing (Evidence in support of the warrant)
V. Rebuttal (Anticipating and responding to potential counter-arguments)
VI. Qualifiers (Words and phrases that qualify and limit the claim in order to avoid sweeping generalizations such as "every", "all", "always", "never", "none", etc)

We spent a day going over these terms together, and since this was my first time teaching it, I decided I'd try assessing the students right away.  I gave them a short, two-paragraph write-up arguing in defense of a proposal for a tax on sugary drinks and junk food and asked them to analyze it according to the Toulmin model.

A few students immediately identified each part of the Toulmin model correctly, but most students struggled, particularly with the warrant, and distinguishing the backing from the reasons and evidence behind the claim itself, not to mention identifying qualifiers.

So, we spent a class period reviewing and analyzing that passage together.  The next day, I offered another chance to analyze a passage, this time, arguing for a ban on smoking in public places.  The improvement was astounding: all but a few of the students correctly identified the warrant and the backing.  The greatest area of difficulty lay in the qualifiers: while many students did identify qualifying words such as "if", "few" or "sometimes" during the passage, they failed to identify how the writer qualified the claim itself.

Still, it was incredibly exciting to see something as complex as warrants and backing click with the students--the students now understand the importance of examining, identifying and defending their own assumptions as they make arguments, and identifying and critiquing the assumptions in arguments that they encounter.

This is a part of my curriculum that I hope to develop and deepen in coming years, and I regret that I did not recognize the importance of teaching logic and argument structures sooner.  As the debate season starts up in the next week or two, I am looking forward to seeing how my 11th graders on the team apply what they've learned!

Friday, September 15, 2017

A News Routine

We are now three weeks into the school-year.  As a former cross country runner, these first few weeks have felt like the start of a long race where the pistol goes off and a period of chaotic sprinting follows as each runner seeks to find a good starting position in the pack before settling into their race pace.

For me as a teacher, some of the chaos (and I mean that in the best way possible) has come from putting into action plans which only existed on paper (or at least on GoogleDocs) until three weeks ago.  I made some big adjustments to what a typical week of class looks like in an effort to utilize the time more effectively, and introduce a clear routine.

Already, I can tell that one of my ideas is a keeper: news circles.

I first had this idea after a conversation with my principal near the end of the previous school-year, as we and one of the Senior teachers were brainstorming ways to improve the Senior Comprehensives process.  We realized that if we could get the kids to follow the news before their Senior year, that habit would go a long way towards preparing them to choose a global issue for their Senior year which they had some level of investment in.

So after no shortage of brainstorming, tooling and retooling over the summer, I came up with the idea of starting class on Tuesdays through Fridays with a 10-15 minute news circle time.

I divided the students into seven regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle East, North America, South America and Oceania.  We simply rotate through the regions on a day-by-day basis--for example, this past week, we heard from Africa on Tuesday, Asia on Wednesday, Europe on Thursday and the Middle East on Friday.

The students assigned to a particular region must coordinate to ensure that they are all reporting on different stories.  Once they have found a news story to report on, they must read about it from at least two different news sources, and then prepare a one-minute (ish) summary to share with their classmates, hitting the basic journalistic questions--who, what, when, where, and why.  They must also talk about what differences, if any, they observed between the news sources they examined.

The catch?  The students are not allowed to read from a script.  They must prepare a note-card using the template below:

While their classmates share their stories, the rest of the class takes notes on a note template I put together for them, and they may ask questions at any time during the activity.

We have now made it through one full cycle--each region has presented once.  Though there were some bumps and glitches the first few days (no note-card, students forgetting to mention the differences between the news sources, students reporting on the same story), it went tremendously well over all, and I have been pleased to see how engaged the rest of the class is, diligently taking notes on the news they receive each day.

This is a formative assessment--in other words, its intent is not to measure student understanding or skill, but build it.  For this reason, it is not a big grade in the grade-book, and it is binary (either they submitted a notecard to me, or they did not).

However, the purpose I hope it will serve (and which it is already starting to serve) is profound:
1. I hope that it will keep the students up-to-date with the news around the world this year.
2. I hope that it will make following the news into a habit for my students.
3. I hope that it will make them more cautious as they read the news, and more aware of the various biases inherent to different news sources (and even which news sources to avoid entirely).
4. I hope that it will boost their confidence as public speakers to have a near-weekly, low-stakes chance to practice speaking to their classmates.
5. I hope that it will sharpen their presentation skills to regularly practice speaking from notes and not a script without the fear of me marking them down for their expression.

I'm excited and invigorated by what I've seen and heard so far, and am looking forward to watching my class' global awareness deepen as the year goes on--I'll definitely write an update on this later in the year!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Opening Day Activity

How do you use your time when the first day of class is a half day, and each class only lasts for 25 minutes apiece?

For most teachers, that is just enough time to talk through the syllabus and field questions.

This is often the first time in the year, of many, that I feel so fortunate to have the students for two periods a day.  25 minutes may not be much time, but 50 minutes allows for more flexibility.

This year, for the first time, I tried an activity instead of just talking at the students about the importance of our class theme.

I posted six images around the room: a photo of four hands, each gripping another around the wrist; an equal sign; a shot of the barricades from Les Miserables; a drawing of Lady Justice holding up her scales; a photo of a Black Lives Matter rally; and a clip-art of a stick figure in a jail cell, behind bars.

When the bell rang, without any other sort of introduction or fanfare, I instructed the students to walk around the room and look at each of the images.  As they took in each image, I asked them to think about which image most closely matched their understanding of the word "justice".

After deciding, I asked the students to spend five minutes journaling on scrap paper I'd distributed, stating which image they chose and why.

After five minutes, I asked the students to stand by the image they had chosen.

In both sections, there was at least one student standing at every image, though some had larger groups crowded around them than others.  The students then needed to find someone who had chosen a different image from them, share their reasoning and hear the reasoning of their classmate for why they had chosen the images they did.

When the students had shared and returned to their seats, I briefly explained the point of the exercise.  We today hear the terms "justice" and "injustice" almost constantly.  We hear them in the media, used by politicians, used in movies and TV shows, and the challenge is, the terms seem to have very different meanings depending on the setting.

Is justice unity?  Is justice equality?  Is justice revolution?  Is justice law?  Is justice activism?  Is justice punishment?

I neither praised nor condemned the definition of justice implied in each image, but simply pointed out that these definitions are all around us, and that whether or not we are aware of it, they shape how we view (and attempt to pursue) justice.

We also hear a lot about justice in Scripture.  In Generous Justice, Tim Keller states that some form of the Hebrew word for justice, "mishpat", occurs more than two hundred times throughout the Old Testament.  If we are to take Scripture's repeated call to do justice seriously, with the ultimate goal of "serving Japan and the world for Christ" (as CAJ's mission statement reads), we absolutely need to have a good grasp on what Scriptural justice means.  Each of those images reflect a cultural definition of justice, and while each has elements of truth to be found, none of them tells the complete story, and if each becomes an idol unto themselves, they can actually cause quite a lot of damage.

Justice is a rich and complex subject, worthy of a year's worth of study and time in class.  Moreover, we need to understand that those who we work with as we pursue justice in the future may have a completely different operational definition of justice from us, and we need to know how this may affect our pursuit of justice--how to find common ground while also holding firm to truth.

Next week, we will start reading chapters from Steve Monsma's Healing for a Broken World and Tim Keller's Generous Justice, which taken together present us with a thoughtful, Scriptural definition of justice.  Monsma defines justice as protecting that which is due to others as bearers of God's image.  Keller connects this act with mercy and generosity on a basic and intimate level.

My hope is that by having examined their own impressions about justice, the students will be in a better position to engage with these readings and think through the implications of a rich, textured, Scripturally-based definition of justice.

This activity and the follow-up took about 20 minutes.

I spent the second half of the class introducing myself in a way that has become a tradition six years running, by telling the tragic (but also humorous) story of my attempts to raise ducks when I was in elementary school.

If you haven't heard the story, ask me some time.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Coming School year in Numbers

Over the past two weeks, I have put in about 60 hours of intensive planning and preparation for the coming school year (and yes, most of those were spent at Tully's).

This seems to have been the magic number--over the past few days in particular, I'm feeling more and more ready for classes to start so that I can test out the revisions I've made to my curriculum; to put my plans into action.

Tonight, I couldn't help but think about some of the other numbers which the coming year represents:

This will be my...

  • 10th school year at CAJ (I came halfway through the year in January 2009), which in turn means it will be my...
    • 10th time to advise a community group, and my...
    • 10th time to watch a Senior Talent Show, and my...
    • 10th CAJ graduation, and my...
    • 17th time to attend Thrift Shop at CAJ this October (my 18th time next April)

    This will also be my...
    • 9th full year of teaching.
    • 8th year teaching 11th Grade Humanities and AP English.
    • 8th time to go on the 11th Grade Wilderness Camp.
    • 3rd school-year as a department chair, and member of the Research & Development Team
    • 2nd full school-year after finishing my Master's.
    • 4th season to co-coach debate.
    • 4th full school-year as a married man.
    • 1st full school-year as a daddy. 

    By the end of this year, I will have taught somewhere between 450 and 500 CAJ students in the course of my career so far, and will have clocked about 5,400 hours in the classroom. 

    That number is a very rough estimate, and only includes class periods.  It does not include the prep and grading I have done during the school-year, or the planning and curriculum work I have done each summer (I'm not sure how I'd even go about calculating that!).

    One week from tomorrow, the students will come back to campus for book check-outs, fire-drills and class mixer games.  Summer will officially be over.  While this summer felt like it went by more quickly than usual, I can confidently and enthusiastically say I'm ready for school to start up again.

    Year number ten, here we go!

    Here's my tentative weekly schedule for my Humanities class.  After writing my previous blog-post, I had the brainstorm to divvy up and spread out the news circle and reading times throughout the week, favoring a more varied agenda each day compared to what I'd originally planned. 

    Friday, August 4, 2017

    The Challenges & Opportunities of a Two-Period Class

    One of the greatest blessings of my teaching career has been the flexibility to teach U.S. History and American Literature as a two-period Humanities block, instead of teaching them as separate subjects.

    The challenge is to use that time wisely; to make the most of it; to ensure that there's a rhyme and reason to the way in which the time is allotted.

    Sometimes, it makes sense to have several completely different activities in a single day, for the sake of variety.  Other times, it makes sense to focus on completing one single lesson.  I've long-since learned that two full periods of lecture (heck, even one full period of lecture) is not a good use of the time available to me.  Even within a single lesson, there needs to be some level of variety.  The two periods a day are a gift, and this summer, I want to be more intentional about structuring the time as best I can.

    My schedule for the coming year looks like this:

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

    To clarify, it's the same group of students 3rd and 6th period, and the same group of students 4th and 5th period. The Humanities A group doesn't quite get a block class in the way that the Humanities B group does, but scheduling has its limits.  It worked fine last year, so I'm not worried!

    Here are a few things I have been thinking about as I have planned this week, including something I tried last year, and a few new things I'd like to try this year!

    Something I tried last year:
    Last year, for the first time, I set aside one class period each week for silent, sustained reading.  I did this every Friday, during 5th period for one of my Humanities sections, and 6th period for the other.  While there was something I really liked about ending the week with quiet reading time, it did mean that Friday basically became a one-period day, and regardless of what we were working on during 3rd or 4th period, respectively, we'd drop what we were doing and head down to the library for our weekly reading time.

    Meanwhile, due to the late-start schedule each Wednesday, the fact that Wednesday classes are only 35 minutes long, and the fact that 4th and 5th period are separated by lunch that day, Wednesdays always felt a little too choppy; a little too start-and-stop to carry on a single lesson through both periods.

    My idea for Wednesdays this year:
    3rd and 4th period will serve as a weekly news circle--students will come prepared to discuss current events from different regions in the world in order to stay informed about global issues.  This was something I was planning to try anyway, and it just happened that Wednesday emerged as the natural day for it!

    5th and 6th period will serve as our silent, sustained reading time, just as they had been on Fridays last year.  While this means that I will lose the relaxing feeling of closing out the school-week with reading time, this shift will make Wednesdays far more worthwhile than they ever were in the past.

    Plus, this will give the students a weekly routine--something they can count on every week.

    Another routine I want to try out:
    Rhetoric has been a big part of my curriculum, at least on paper.  In practice, however, teaching rhetorical analysis skills has tended to take a back-seat to my unit themes and understandings.  Plus, it has always felt forced and awkward to try and include a different rhetorical analysis skill in each unit map, and justify why that skill fit with the themes and focus of that particular unit.  To remedy this, I'm creating an ongoing year-long unit dedicated entirely to rhetoric, to helping the students grow as critical consumers and effective communicators.  I am planning to set aside at least one period each Monday, at the start of the week, to teaching and practicing rhetorical analysis skills.  While each rhetoric lesson will be distinct from the unit we are studying in class at any given time, we will look for ways to use readings and materials based on the themes we are studying as we practice and apply rhetorical analysis skills.

    This leaves me with Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for substantive lessons that will take advantage of the two-period arrangement.  I am going to try to plan each lesson more consciously around the 90-100 minutes I will have on those days to make sure all of that time is well used.

    Three days each week may not sound like a lot of time, but this will force me to focus my curriculum more than I have in the past--to make sure my lessons are concise and easy to follow, and that they are accomplishing what I want them to accomplish.

    It may be that I'll emerge on the other side of this school year resolved never to try this again, but the only way I can grow as a teacher is to be willing to try new things!

    Saturday, July 15, 2017

    Grinding the Lens: Developing My Perspective and Pedagogy of Justice

    My professional summer reading started with two books that had nothing to do with teaching at face value, and yet upon finishing them, I find myself with a much clearer sense of purpose as I set in on my annual curriculum revisions.

    Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy by Steve Monsma, and Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just by Tim Keller functioned as complementary texts, which taken together, helped me to develop a more solid theological framework for understanding justice, as well as a more solid framework for teaching my students about justice.

    In Generous Justice, Keller offers a sound Biblical defense for the importance of social justice, one which is intertwined with (rather than separate from, or opposed to) an evangelical outlook.  Keller acknowledges in his introduction that many orthodox Christians have resisted earnest discussion about social justice due to the way in which the term has been politicized, perhaps even dismissing it out of a perceived connection to a broader decay in doctrinal soundness in particular, and societal morality at large.  Keller does not deny that popular perspectives on social justice are problematic, but is emphatic in his contention that Christians simply must have a heart for social justice, in fact, that a true understanding of grace will inevitably lead to a life spent pursuing social justice.

    In Chapter One, Keller explores the definition of justice as it appears in the Bible, and particularly the link between "chesedh" (mercy), "mishpat" (justice), and "tzadeqah" (righteousness).  In Chapter Two, he examines the role of justice throughout the Old Testament, and the abiding validity that laws of release, gleaning, and jubilee can and should have on our social consciousness today.  Keller demonstrates in Chapter Three that justice is not merely an Old Testament concern, and examines how Jesus' life and ministry fulfilled and clarified Old Testament teachings about justice.  Chapter Four focuses in on the parable of the Good Samaritan, considering "who is our neighbor", and drawing extensively from Jonathan Edwards' commentary in responding to common objections/excuses for not helping the poor.  Chapter Five asks why Christians ought to have a heart for justice.  Keller touches on the human dignity due each person as image-bearers, but spends most of the chapter discussing how a genuine understanding of grace and redemption will inevitably result in a lifestyle marked by justice.  Chapter Six deals with how we are called to do justice, looking at different levels of action (relief, development, social reform), the importance of preserving the agency of those in need, and the need for racial reconciliation to ensure diverse leadership in addressing matters of injustice.  Chapter Seven emphasizes the need for Christians to work alongside others who may not share a Christian perspective on justice, in order to see justice done, emphasizing both the importance of empathy and cooperation, as well as the willingness to boldly and firmly bring our Scriptural perspective to the table, to engage rather than avoid conversations about how our faith informs our understanding of justice.  Chapter Eight, the final chapter in the book, connects justice back to shalom--the peace and beauty of the world as God intended it to be.

    As I mentioned earlier, Keller's examination of justice helped to sharpen my own personal framework for understanding justice--what it is, why I should care, and how I should proceed.

    Healing for a Broken World by Steve Monsma offers a practical application of justice to issues in the world today, and therefore serves as a natural companion piece to Keller's more philosophical examination of justice in Generous Justice.

    The first half of Monsma's book digs into key principles for Christians to consider as they seek to do justice.  Chapter One explores some basic traps into which Christians and churches can easily fall, from failing to recognize how cultural, non-Biblical factors can and do shape our perspectives on contemporary issues for better or worse, to the fallacy of equating the United States to Old Testament Israel, to the trap of despair that may set in when we fully grasp the brokenness of the world, along with our own limitations.  The second chapter offers a concise overview of the creation, sin, redemption framework, focusing in on the role that government and its citizens ought to play.  Here again, Monsma warns against the extremes of triumphalism (the idea that we can, by our own efforts and gumption, make the world perfect) and pessimism (the idea that we can't truly change anything for the better).  Chapter Three defines and outlines justice from a Biblical perspective, focusing in particular on the ways in which government may contribute to injustice, either directly or by its inaction.  Monsma also explores what a thoughtful, Scriptural approach to justice ought to look like, revealing it to be much broader than the short-list of moral issues that automatically come to mind for many Christians.  Chapter Four explores solidarity--what loving our neighbors does and does not look like.  Here, Monsma warns against individualism, advocates for a division of labor among and within churches to address problems that "hit closer to home" (in consciousness, if not in geography), and cautions against paternalism, advocating, as Keller does in Generous Justice, for preserving the agency of those being helped.  Chapter Five examines the role that civil society ought to play in pursuing justice--families, churches, non-profit organizations, sports leagues, etc.  He discusses the Kuyperian notion of sphere sovereignty (the idea that each sector of society has its own distinct responsibilities which it, and no other, is best equipped to carry out), and the Catholic notion of subsidiarity (the idea that "social tasks should be performed on the lowest level consistent with a just order and the common good"--in other words, the federal government should not try to do what the state government is best equipped to do, and the state government should not try to do what local governments are best equipped to do, and so on).  Using these principles, Monsma attempts to offer a framework for deciding when an issue in society is best addressed on a policy level, as well as a framework for how the different levels of society can work in tandem to address issues in the world.

    The second half of Monsma's book applies these principles to specific contemporary issues, from church and state issues, to life issues, to poverty, to caring for creation, to violations of human rights, to disease and poverty in Africa, to war and terrorism.  Monsma's perspective, as with Keller's, seems to transcend partisan lines.  Monsma himself served as a political science professor at Calvin College and later Pepperdine, with a decade-long career as a Democratic Michigan state senator in between, but his perspectives, including a nuanced pro-life approach and a thoughtful and active environmental record, defy binary partisan definition.  In every case, Monsma encourages careful and deliberate thought about the role of individuals, communities, churches, local, state and national government in prioritizing and addressing injustice.  I should note that while Monsma is up-front with his own perspectives, he is far more interested in asking questions and encouraging earnest thought in his readers than he is in pushing a specific political agenda.

    Monsma's book is shorter, and while no less valuable than Keller's, it does lend itself more naturally for use in a high school humanities classroom by virtue of its structure and its frequent connections to tangible and pressing world issues.  The second half of the book, with each chapter focusing in on a particular issue, has the feel of a menu--a selection from which students can choose to read about issues that particularly resonate with them, while letting others be.  This is consistent with a point Monsma makes early on, that we as individuals cannot (and should not) try to address every global issue--some will land closer to our hearts than others, and it is these that we are called to address.

    Keller's book was instrumental in "grinding my lens"--deepening and developing my theological framework for justice.  I would certainly recommend the whole book to any students who are interested in the theology of justice, but given the time constraints of the school-year, I plan to use only two chapters (Chapter One: What is Justice? and Chapter Six: How Should We Pursue Justice?) as required classroom readings.  I plan to check out some of the commentaries and writers that Keller cited, and hope to continue to deepen my understanding of justice itself, something that will inevitably come out in my teaching, my conversations with students, and in the feedback I am able to provide.

    Monsma's book, on the other hand, has sharpened my understanding of how I teach about justice on a very practical, structural level.  I think my Humanities curriculum will have a stronger internal sense of logic and sequence having read Monsma's book.  One of my projects for the summer is to re-organize my units to highlight key ideas from Monsma's book more naturally.  Tentatively, this is my unit guide for the coming school-year:

    Unit One: Imago Dei and Human Dignity
    (Setting the foundation, distinguishing between human rights and civil rights, formulating a working definition of justice and how it connects to being image-bearers)

    Unit Two: Triumphalism and Fatalism
    (Exploring the ways in which worldview shapes our understanding and pursuit of justice, and the pitfalls that so many can and have fallen into.)

    Unit Three: Solidarity and Agency
    (Wrestling with what it means to "love our neighbor", the dangers of paternalism and the importance of respecting the dignity and agency of those we are seeking to help)

    Unit Four: Stewardship and Technocracy
    (Recognizing that our calling as stewards is vital, as it has bearing on not only the way we love our neighbors now, but future generations as well.  This unit will also explore some of the unique issues raised by rapidly developing technology in our world today, and what what it means to pursue justice as stewards at a time when so much is changing so fast.)

    Unit Five: Citizenship and Civil Society
    (Reflecting on what it means to be a citizen on a variety of levels, the workings of organizations, communities and governments, and the proper way to pursue lasting, substantive change).

    Unit Six: Becoming People of Justice
    (Tying it all together--articulating a personal plan for pursuing justice and actively debating contemporary policy issues with respect to the principles we've discussed throughout the year).

    To do this, I do not need to reinvent the wheel--I can keep many of my lessons, resources and assessments with fairly minor adjustments.  What will change is my ability to connect each lesson, each activity, each assignment, back to the bigger theme of justice in more substantive ways.

    Now I get to start in on my summer planning in earnest, and I am excited by the clearer sense of direction I have, having finished these books.  To anyone interested in thoughtful Christian perspectives on justice, I cannot recommend both of these books highly enough.  To any teachers looking to develop their own curriculum, what guiding principles can you read up on over the summer to help "grind your lens"?

    Monday, June 26, 2017

    The Humanities Treatise

    Few would argue with the statement that teachers shape the courses they teach, but I would add that this is a reciprocal relationship: the courses shape the teacher, too. Indeed, teaching the 11th Grade Humanities block has profoundly shaped me as a teacher. Combining history and literature has challenged me to recognize that true learning extends beyond a single classroom subject. History and literature are not ends unto themselves, but means to understanding more fundamental themes and truths. This coming year will be my eighth teaching Humanities. Over the past eight years, and through no shortage of trial and error, I have sought out the “fundamental”. However imperfectly, I have molded my curriculum from a disparate collection of ideas and activities that I find interesting, to a cohesive whole with a clear sense of purpose. My biggest breakthrough happened prior to the 2014-15 school-year when I chose “Becoming People of Justice” as my central course theme. With that theme at the core, the past three school-years have been good ones.

    This said, I fully recognize my need to keep developing my curriculum, and to that end, I am writing this treatise to better encapsulate and articulate my goals. Our mission at CAJ is “equipping students to serve Japan and the world for Christ”, a mission which we assess through our Senior Comprehensives. I view myself as the set-up before the serve--the Senior Comprehensive process is as valuable as the level of investment the students bring to it, and I need to make sure they are in the right place to make the most of the experience. To prepare students not only for their Senior Comprehensives, but for life beyond the walls of CAJ, I desire for my students to become critical consumers, effective communicators, and thoughtful problem-solvers who feel a personal responsibility to do justice.

    My goal of critical consumers stems in part from my responsibility to teach AP English: Language and Composition, which emphasizes argument analysis. I never want argument analysis to seem like a purely academic exercise--instead, I hope my students will understand that the news they keep up with, the songs they listen to, the books they read, the movies and TV shows they watch all make an implicit (sometimes explicit) argument for a particular way of seeing the world. Essentially, everything is an argument, and it is vital for students to be aware. They must avoid passivity and resist the temptation to let information wash over them. To this end, my students must be aware of the influences that make up their own worldview, and know how to identify the worldviews at play in the media they encounter. They must strive to put themselves in the shoes of the speaker, author, essayist, director or producer and consider where he or she is coming from.

    Recognizing worldview is only half the battle, though. My students must also be able to dissect the ways in which authors, speakers, etc. structure and support their argument, and the effects of these structural, substantive or stylistic choices. Students must know what constitutes a sound argument, and distinguish between genuine persuasion and manipulation, honesty and dishonesty, truth and fallacy. This will serve them well, of course, in their research for the Senior Comps, but the value extends far beyond school. These skills are particularly critical in our current media landscape, where news is fragmented as never before and the Internet enables people to remain in echo chambers in which bias is presented as objectivity and opinions are presented as facts. In a world where consumers far too easily decry information that doesn’t align with their political beliefs as “fake news”, I want my students to be brave enough to cross no-man’s land, to dare to listen to and evaluate viewpoints other than their own. My hope is not that they will change their minds on every issue, but that they will understand the context, the reasoning and the emotions at play on the other side. Only then, can my students facilitate real dialogue.

    Opening channels for honest discussion will be a vital skill in the coming decades, and such a skill requires effective communicators. While I certainly want my students to hold fast to their values, I also want their first instinct to be to ask questions and listen carefully, rather than talking just to hear themselves talk. This is a skill I strive to impart in both class discussions and debates, and it takes practice. My students also need to have a firm awareness of how they are communicating--what their purpose is, who their audience is, and how best to achieve that purpose. They must seek to communicate with integrity, avoiding manipulation and fallacies. They must utilize and cite credible evidence. They must embrace clarity and organization, not merely as lines on a rubric, but as an obligation to their audience. They must be on the lookout for places in which their communication may be disrupted, or perceived differently than they had intended. They must approach communication with humility, and be the first to try and repair understanding when it does break down.

    One major temptation is to assume that these skills only apply to students for whom English is their “thing”--the future authors or journalists in the class. That is simply not the case. I like to tell the students that Humanities is really for those who feel more at home in math or science classes, who hope to one day become engineers, doctors, nurses, physicists, chemists, or programmers. My students who already feel at home in humanities courses likely do not need convincing, and they are likely to invest out of a pre-existing love for the subject. However, there are many students for whom English and History courses may seem like a waste of their time--time that could be spent taking that extra science or math AP that they just cannot fit into their schedule. These students are my target--Humanities is for them. I want them to understand the value of communication skills in contexts beyond the English or History classroom. I want them to feel equipped to write an analysis of their Comps issue and present their topic to the community as Seniors, but again, this is only the start. My hope is that regardless of the field my students will one day work in, they will distinguish themselves as confident, clear, precise and engaging communicators. In fields in which communication skills have not traditionally been emphasized in the past, I hope that my students will find opportunities to lead and shape their fields by virtue of their communication skills.

    Shaping the world in which they live--that is perhaps the ultimate goal. Problem-solving sounds like a skill that belongs in a math course, but I want my students to be able to apply their problem-solving skills to other arenas, and to constantly work to develop and sharpen those skills. One of the fundamental truths in Humanities class is that there’s a gulf between “what ought to be” and “what is”. Certainly, this is the crux of American History: one of the few nations in the history of the world to be explicitly founded on the ideals of freedom, equality and justice has consistently failed to live up to its own lofty ideals. I don’t mean to target America, because this is, in actuality, the story of humanity: we were created in God’s image, part of a Shalomic network of relationships with ourselves, others, creation and God that was wholly good, but sin has disrupted and distorted that perfect peace. The world is not as it was meant to be, and our task as those who bear God’s image is to serve as agents of restoration.

    This is a task I want my students to take seriously; to hear clearly the call to participate in restoration. This requires a desire to see justice done, as well as a capacity for thoughtful problem-solving. I hope my students will come away from my class bothered by injustice--bothered by poverty, bothered by oppression, bothered by the exploitation of others or the earth itself. Throughout the year, my aim is to expose my students to a number of issues in the hope that at least one will needle their sense of justice to the point where they can say without my prompting, “that’s not right!” Perhaps they will even decide on an issue for the Senior Comprehensives before the end of their 11th Grade year.

    Getting my students upset about injustice cannot be where my class ends, though. I need to provide a framework for action. I want my students to develop a thoughtful approach to addressing injustice, one which presses on, even as it accepts that the process will not be easy, and that human solutions will always be imperfect or incomplete. I want my students to develop an understanding of what citizenship, and participation in civil society will mean for them, considering what action a problem warrants. I do not want my students to automatically assume every issue in the world is the government’s responsibility to fix, nor do I want my students to automatically assume that every issue in the world is the responsibility of the individual to fix. I want my students to engage in the arduous and complex task of considering how the efforts of individuals can complement the actions of communities, churches and organizations, and the role that policy plays in all of this. Throughout all of this, I want my students to look for opportunities to take personal action so that pursuing justice is not simply an intellectual ideal, but a practical reality.

    If my students leave my class with nothing else--even if they don’t remember the symbols in The Great Gatsby, or the difference between the First and Second Great Awakening--I hope that they will leave with a greater capacity for critical thought, effective communication and thoughtful, justice-driven problem-solving. I don’t think I would have dismissed any of these qualities as unimportant eight years ago, but over time, they have emerged as truly essential to why I teach, what I teach, and how I teach. I look forward to planning with these goals more squarely at the center, and to being shaped myself, even as I continue to shape my Humanities course.

    Friday, June 16, 2017

    Summer Planning

    One of the things I appreciated most about my Master's program was that it provided focus and structure to my summer planning.

    Without some level of structure, I find myself easily overwhelmed by the sheer amount of books I'd like to read, most of which provide many ideas I'd like to incorporate into my own teaching.  

    The trouble is, when I try to do everything, I am unable to do anything.  

    So, I'm learning to set goals for myself to create the structure that I need to grow.

    This summer, I have three principal goals:

    1) Deepen my perspective on worldviews and justice. 
    After three years of teaching with justice as my central course theme (and worldview as a major focus along the way), I'm finding myself satisfied with these themes.  I feel like what I'm teaching is important, and most of the students seem to buy in.  With those themes firmly established, I want to develop my own understanding.  I'm asking students to articulate a personal perspective of justice in their final essays, and I think that if I were to try my hand at this same task, it would lack nuance.  I have three books on my reading list for this summer that I hope will bolster my foundation in teaching to these themes, and possibly provide me with solid classroom readings for the students:

    I read this book in 2010, but was too new to teaching for the ideas to really sink in and affect my teaching.  I've tried picking it up again several times over the years, but haven't made progress until now.  I read the first two chapters this morning, and already the book has touched on worldview, justice, agency, and various levels of action (personal, local, national and global), all of which are topics of study in class.  It's so good so far, I'm thinking about making it a required text for 11th grade!

    I've used the first chapter in class for the past two school-years, but haven't read further than that before.  I have always appreciated Dr. Keller's perspective, and find him to be more readable than many theologians tend to be.  This is next on the list after I finish the Monsma book. 

    The first semester of my Humanities class has developed into a study of worldviews.  Necessary and good changes in the CAJ Bible curriculum mean that the 10th graders are not doing an overview of worldviews as they were in the past, which is fine since 11th grade is a more developmentally appropriate age for this kind of thinking anyway.  It provides a natural context for looking at the relationship of literature to culture, and the various literary/artistic movements that have come and gone.  It also provides an opportunity to engage with utopian and dystopian views of humanity and society, which have incredible bearing on our discussions about justice second semester.  Tim Keller recommended this book on his Facebook account a while back, and trusting his recommendation, I have added this to my list, too. 

    2) Sharpen my ability to teach rhetorical analysis.
    Rhetorical analysis is perhaps the cornerstone of AP English: Language & Composition--being able to dissect and evaluate someone else's argument, while also being able to construct one's own.  This is a skill-set with value that extends beyond students taking AP English--this is a key component of good reading comprehension and even critical thinking in general.  It has tremendous implications for productive debates and discussions, both of which play a large role in my class.  The trouble is, this type of reading is something that comes easily to me, and always has.  Ever since high school, I've tested well on critical reading without ever really having to stop and think through the steps (which is nothing short of a miracle, considering how little reading I did during my school-years).  This means that I have an expert blind-spot--I've expected my students to just "get it", and have grown impatient or discouraged when many do not.  I want to do now what I should have done long ago--break the process of critical reading and argument analysis down into its component steps, first so that I can better understand what my brain is doing while I read, but also so that I can more effectively teach students to read in this way, and look out for where in the process understanding is breaking down.  I have two books that I hope will help me develop a stronger understanding of rhetorical analysis:

    There has been a 1970s edition of this book on my classroom shelf since before my time.  I cracked the book open this Spring, and while it was very outdated in its examples, the table of contents looked promising.  So, when I found out that the authors had released updated editions over the years, I asked our librarian to order the 2009 edition.  What's appealing to me about this book is its direct focus on debate, as this is something I can use in class, as well as with the debate team.

    Everything's An Argument by Andrea Lunsford, John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters
    This is evidently the textbook on rhetorical analysis.  This, too, has been on my shelf for a couple of years, but I have not committed to sitting and reading it yet.  My hope and plan is to get around to it this summer. 

    3) Align my curriculum more closely to carefully chosen standards. 
    I've grown increasingly settled on my overall course themes, but it had been a few years since I had looked closely at my standards and benchmarks.  What I realized is that I had listed way more benchmarks in my curriculum map than I was actually teaching; way more for each unit than I would ever have time to cover.   So, my campaign for this summer as far as actual curriculum work goes is to pare down my standards and benchmarks to what I believe to be absolutely necessary to my course themes (and by extension, to preparing students for their Senior Comprehensives after they finish my class).  I would like to use the benchmarks on my rubrics this year, something I haven't done before, and to make that worthwhile, I need to be much choosier than I have been.  As I said at the start of this post, when I try to do everything, I am unable to do anything--better to choose fewer benchmarks, but teach them well!

    While there may be other things I think about this summer (for instance, I hope to meet with one of my colleagues who teaches math to brainstorm ways to further integrate Humanities and STEM), these larger goals should hopefully provide me with the structure I need to move forward!

    Friday, June 9, 2017

    The Art and Science of Teaching

    As I write this post, it is the afternoon of Saturday, June 10, and I am sitting in the CAJ plaza.

    Yesterday was the last day of class for the school-year, and 24 hours ago, the plaza was packed full of students excitedly beginning their summer vacation and saying their goodbyes, sometimes cheerfully and sometimes tearfully.

    Today, the plaza is empty and the school feels like a ghost town.  The only sound on campus is the leaves of the Sakura trees rustling in the summer breeze.

    I am grading essays.

    I will have grades finished up by Wednesday, and then I will embark on my summer curriculum planning.

    Teaching is both an art and a science, and the longer I teach, the more I realize that I need to approach it from both angles.

    Summer is the time when teaching is mostly art.  My curriculum is a canvas, and I get to dream big--imagine what I want to be on the canvas, and then spend time figuring out the hues, the brush-strokes, the shading.  Summer is a time when I am in no rush--I can think deeply about teaching as a craft; a painting to be refined; a sculpture to be chiseled just so.  I've compared my summer curriculum work to restoring an old car, or tuning up an engine, but whatever the exact analogy, summer planning requires an artist's hand.

    The school-year is the time when teaching is mostly science.  The classroom is a laboratory, and with my students serving as researchers, we test the curriculum like a hypothesis.  Day-to-day teaching involves trial and error, the collection of evidence, the consideration of constants and variables to create precise conditions.  There are patterns to be discovered, theories to be proven, and new hypotheses to be made.  Regardless of whether the hypotheses hold true, we all step away having learned something.

    Now I know that this analogy may feel overly simplistic, and of course, there are elements of science to the summer planning, and art to the day-to-day teaching, but the fact remains that to thrive as a teacher, I must be both artist and scientist.

    Grading is where those facets meet--the place at which the art informs the science, and the science, in turn, informs the art.

    Each happens in their season--it's a wistful feeling to sit in this empty plaza, but at the end of a school-year, I'm ready to return to the drawing board!

    Saturday, June 3, 2017

    Graduation Blues

    I've attended enough graduations now to know that I'll walk away from the evening with a strange, gnawing feeling, an odd mixture of joy and sadness.  Of course, graduations are bittersweet events, as much farewells as they are celebrations, but I believe that for teachers, the emotion is more complex than "bittersweet".

    Perhaps the feeling defies definition, but I'm going to attempt to pinpoint why graduation is such a strange evening for teachers, anyway.

    First of all, it is vital to understand that teaching has an element of "wash-rinse-repeat" to it.  We arrive at graduation night, only to reset to the start of a new school-year in August, with a new group of students.  It's not repetitive in the way that the movie Groundhog Day is repetitive--we teachers learn and develop our curriculum from year to year; each class has a unique personality; job assignments shift... it's not as though each year is a carbon copy of the previous one.  Yet, the cycle itself repeats and becomes intensely familiar with each passing year.

    Years ago, I wrote a blog-post about how with certain traditions, time seems to fold over itself rather than fly by.   Nowhere is this more evident than on graduation night.

    The event itself doesn't change all that much from year to year.  Here is what one can expect at a CAJ graduation:

    • 40-55 students, clad in blue robes, will crowd around nervously in the school plaza, taking pictures with friends and family before the ceremony begins.
    • We teachers will line up at 6:45 in the hall near the academic office before filing into the gym just before 7.
    • The orchestra will play "Pomp and Circumstance" as the soon-to-be graduates march in.
    • We will start the ceremony by singing the CAJ alma mater.
    • The awards given out (and even the script for announcing the awards) remain largely the same.
    • We will sing the same hymn between the addresses by the student speaker and the staff speaker**
    • Five or six parents from the class will read the benediction in their native languages.  
    • Everyone will exit the gym to the same orchestral recessional piece, and the same frantic process of chair-stacking and table-moving will take place, to set up for the reception.

    **When our current graduation coordinator took over the job several years ago, and replaced the hymn we had sung each year with another one, it was a jarring feeling at first, but even that "new" hymn has settled in as a comfortable tradition. 

    The structure of the evening is consistent from year to year, and each graduation night is full of familiar beats.

    What changes are the faces, and this is, I think, the main reason why graduation night packs such a strange emotional punch.

    Past, present and future all collide on graduation night in a packed gym for a whirlwind three hours.

    The Past--the alumni who return from university, or even possibly jobs of their own.  Some have younger siblings who are graduating, but most gravitate back to CAJ in the hopes of reuniting with old friends, catching up with favorite teachers, and for a brief moment, stepping back into a community that was home for part, or all of their childhood.  They return full of stories to share, but the time is scarce, and the reunion, brief.
    Last night, I spoke with several former students who had graduated in 2013, one of whom had been in my class as a freshman during my first year of teaching.
    One of them remarked, "This must be your eighth or ninth year, right?"
    "Yep, this is my 9th CAJ graduation."
    "Whoa, so you must have been really young when you taught us."
    "Well, how old are you guys now?"
    "That's how old I was when I came to CAJ."
    My response was met with an odd combo of shock, amusement, disbelief, and "We're getting so old!"

    I was also able to catch up with a few students who graduated last year, and who had finished their first year of university.  We wondered aloud where the past year had gone, as it felt like only yesterday that I had addressed their class from the podium as their commencement speaker (and singer!).

    Outside the gym on my way home, I ran into a large group of alumni from the class of 2015 who were clearly delighted to be reunited with each other.  I wound up having a 20-minute conversation about the culture on college campuses in America and Canada before I realized that it was getting late, and I needed to go home.

    I remember when these students were in high school, even middle school--it doesn't seem all that long ago--and enjoyed the opportunity to hear what they are up to now, however brief.  There's so much joy and satisfaction in hearing that your former students are thriving!

    Nonetheless, I wasn't able to catch up with everyone.  I wasn't even able to say 'hi' to all of my former students who were there!  It was, for all intents and purposes, a glimpse into the past--a reminder of times gone by.

    The Present--The students who transition from being seniors to being alumni at about 8:30 pm.  The honorees for the evening, it is downright impossible to have a real conversation or say an adequate goodbye in the packed and noisy reception.  The seniors scurry about taking final photos and hearing "congratulations" a hundred times or more before loading up onto the bus at 9:30 for a long drive to the beach to watch the sunrise--a tradition made possible by the Senior parents.  Although I miss each class, and each year, I struggle at first to wrap my head around the idea that they won't be around school each day anymore, I'm also filled with pride at what so many of them have accomplished and how so many have grown; filled with joy for the new adventure they are about to start.  Soon enough, they'll be "The Past"--part of the mass of alumni who flock back to CAJ for some future graduation for an all-too-brief reunion.

    The Future--The Juniors--my current students, who, under the supervision of the PTA, are responsible for setting up for graduation, preparing and serving food, and cleaning up the gym afterwards.  In one year, they will be the ones graduating.  On Monday morning, I'll step into the classroom and they'll still be there--we have a couple days of class left to go before summer vacation officially starts.  However, I realize what they might not fully understand, that the next year will go by in a fraction of an instant, and soon, they'll be the ones walking across the stage.  Soon, they, too, will be part of the alumni throng.

    Ask most teachers, and they will tell you that the school-year, as a whole, goes by very quickly.  In the blink of an eye, one year ends, the next begins, and the cycle continues at a break-neck speed.  The thing is, similar to the smooth velocity of a shinkansen, we don't realize just how fast we're going when we're in the thick of grading, prep, school-improvement, curriculum, collaboration and coaching.

    Graduation night is where time catches up with us, where we watch life unfold in front of us, past, present and future, as though we were fast-forwarding through our favorite movie.

    Maybe that's why I come home from graduation with a strange, gnawing feeling each year.  It's already starting to fade as I finish writing this post.
    It'll come back, though, same time next year.

    The lanterns are another tradition--a symbol of the passage of time.

    Thursday, June 1, 2017


    As has become my tradition, I wrote a letter to the Juniors this week thanking them for the school-year that is now swiftly coming to a close. In my letter, I wrote that "a milestone year for a teacher means a more difficult year for his students"--I mentioned the year I met my wife, and the year that I got married as other examples of such "milestone years"; years where changes in my life affected my ability to teach--and thanked the Juniors for their incredible patience as I struggled to balance teaching and fatherhood this Spring.

    Change is inevitable. I'm in a different chapter of my life now than I was when I started teaching, and I've changed, too. I see the world differently as a husband and father in his 30s than I did as a single guy in his 20s. I see my job differently with my Master's completed than I did before I started my Master's.

    My circumstances have changed, and as a result, I'm nearing the end of an era, professionally.

    I have taught every 11th grader since the class of 2011, and as a result have taught every student to have graduated from CAJ in the last seven years (with the exception of the few who came to CAJ as Seniors).

    Moreover, from the class of 2012 on, I taught every student for either Humanities or English 11 (in the latter option, the students take English and U.S. History separately, with another teacher for history). For those years, I have been the only 11th grade teacher to see every student every day.

    Two years ago, I became a department chair, a role I have been striving to grow into ever since. As the role of department chairs and the Research & Development team at CAJ have expanded, the expectations have expanded along with them. Next year, one period of my school-day will be set aside for departmental responsibilities, which I'm incredibly excited about!

    However, this time will not magically materialize out of thin air--the trade-off is that I'm giving up my 1st period English class so that I have that extra period in my schedule free. I'll still teach two sections of Humanities (my two-period English and U.S. History blend), but giving up the "orphan" English class is a big change: I'll no longer teach all of the 11th graders. There will be a handful of students who graduate from CAJ each year who I will never have taught. Letting that go is an emotional thing for me.

    However, this is the right time for that change.

    Now that I've started looking at the bigger picture as the social studies department chair, I cannot help but think about our program as a whole. The ways in which our curricula fit together like puzzle pieces; the way everything builds (or at least, should build) toward our Senior Comprehensives--this kind of thinking fascinates me, and it makes me so much more conscious of my own teaching, and how my class needs to build on 9th grade World History and 10th grade English, and build to Japanese Culture-Global Issues (our 12th grade social studies) and English 12.

    Having an hour each day to think, to meet with colleagues, to collaborate and plan--what a treasure that will be!

    At the same time, I need to have one foot in the classroom. I would become bored and restless if I wasn't able to put my curriculum into action, and go through that exhilarating, never-ending process of refinement and adjustment, trial and error that comes with actually teaching the units and lessons I have planned. I would feel isolated and disconnected if I didn't get to work with the students themselves, sharing with them a love for words and cultivating a sense of justice.

    Giving up 1st period English will be difficult, but the door it opens will make me a better teacher, and a better program leader. I don't know what the future holds, whether I'll ever go back to full-time as a classroom teacher, or ever pursue a full-time administrative role, but for now, having a schedule that allows me to work with students, colleagues, and curriculum is just right. This is where I need to be.

    Although I'm sad to see this chapter come to an end, I'm excited for the coming chapter, and grateful to be working at a school where I can continue to learn and grow in new ways each year!

    Thursday, May 4, 2017


    I enjoy being the Social Studies department chair.  It gives me a feeling of stewardship over the Social Studies curriculum that I simply didn't have before, and it helps to break down the mentality that I think can be so tempting for high school teachers, that our classrooms are our own personal kingdoms.  Looking at the big picture has pushed me to look at how our classes all connect, and where it is we are going.

    Sometimes, this means being extra-flexible and adaptable.

    We have been updating our standards this year.  Not a dramatic change, really--just updating to the most recent edition of the standards we already had.  However, this process has sparked discussions of tremendous value, and prompted some serious introspection on the part of the Social Studies PLC (Professional Learning Community).

    We observed that each year, our Seniors tend to perform at a lower level than we would like to see on their political analysis for their Senior Comprehensives process, particularly in comparison to their cultural analysis.  We noted that while economic analysis had been another area of weakness, it has substantially improved with the addition of a popular AP Economics elective for Juniors and Seniors two years ago.

    The reason for this gap has much to do with our international school setting.  Although we adhere to an American-style education in many respects, it simply doesn't make sense to teach an American Government course--a standard requirement for students in the US--when only a handful of students in each class have a U.S. passport.  In short, it can be a challenge to teach civics and the responsibilities of citizenship to a diverse group of students who may not feel much connection to the countries listed on their passports.

    We agreed that a comparative politics course would be ideal, but limitations on scheduling make that impossible for the time being.

    This is where my deep feelings of stewardship as the department chair kicked in: at the time of this discussion in late March, I was in the process of finalizing my April unit for my 11th Grade Humanities class.

    I made the decision to scrap several of the activities and assessments that I had originally planned (revolving around the concept of the American Dream, and immigration to the United States), and instead created a week-long exercise in which the students would need to examine a current issue of their choice from a local, national and global perspective.  This would involve looking into the workings of governments and organizations at each level, and assessing the advantages and limitations of pursuing solutions at each level.

    Because this was a last-minute addition on my part, it was an awkward fit in my unit on the American Dream, and I didn't have the time to prepare to do any real instruction or modeling of what this kind of analysis would look like.  However, I felt like the process itself would be valuable, even with minimal instruction up-front, and it was.

    The students struggled.  I reminded them time and again that this was a formative, and not a summative assessment, something designed to build their understanding rather than issue a final judgment.  To this end, I weighted the assignment to be worth only one point in the grade-book, and adjusted the grading scale so that a '3' (Meeting the Standard) would be 100%.  The only reason I was putting it in the grade-book at all, I told them, was to hold them accountable for doing it.

    Even so, the students struggled, agonized and wrestled.  This was something new for them, and for many, that newness was an uncomfortable feeling.  A number of students asked good questions as they worked:
    Is this a national or a global organization?
    What if the U.N. doesn't address my issue specifically?
    What does it mean if there aren't any local groups or organizations trying to solve my issue?
    Can I compare two different countries' responses to the same issue?
    Isn't my issue just the symptom of a bigger issue?
    How do I find out how a nation's government works?

    I definitely didn't have the answers to all of these questions, but I enjoyed the chance to sit down and talk with students, and help them think through answers, or at the very least, where they could find answers.  Last Friday, when the write-up was due, I emailed the students telling them to submit the assignment regardless of whether it was complete or not, that they had done the mental legwork I wanted them to do.    I'm in the middle of reading and responding to the students' write-ups, and while they are far from perfect, I take comfort in the fact that the students are starting to think in terms of political implications, and that they are beginning to recognize the differences between action on a local scale, national scale and global scale.  I'm glad that I did this activity, and that when the students need to engage in this kind of political analysis in their Senior year, they'll have something to stand on.

    Next year, I will rearrange my curriculum to make room for an entire unit on citizenship and action.  This is a need I'm committed to addressing; a gap I'm committed to closing.  Maybe someday, we will be able to require a full-year comparative politics course (hey, I can dream, can't I?), but for now, I'll look for ways to adapt, building on what the students have learned before, and building toward what the students need to do before they graduate.

    Coupled with the massive change in my routine with a baby daughter in the house, I feel like I'm learning flexibility and adaptability left and right these days!

    Friday, March 17, 2017

    Atomic Café

    In the seven years since I inherited the 11th Grade Humanities course, I have made some sweeping changes to the curriculum.  In the process, I have removed some activities, lessons and materials that I really enjoyed, but which did not have a clear connection to my course themes.  Other lessons and materials, however, have stood the test of time, finding their way back into my syllabus year after year.

    Atomic Café is one such example.

    I love teaching Atomic Café, but I feel like it has been only in the last year or two that I have gotten to the point where I teach it well.

    For those who aren't familiar, Atomic Café is a 1982 documentary directed by Jayne Loader, and brothers Kevin and Pierce Rafferty.  Eschewing such popular documentary techniques as voice-over narrations and contemporary interviews, Loader and the Rafferties instead spent five years sifting through thousands of hours of archival footage from the 1940s and 50s: military training videos, newsreels, government propaganda, Duck and Cover drills, and more.  Exclusively using these old clips, underscored by a soundtrack drawn from Cold War and A-Bomb-inspired songs released in the 40s and 50s, the filmmakers put together a brilliant 85 minute glimpse into the early years of the Cold War, and the alternating enthusiasm and hysteria over a world with atomic weapons.

    I learned through several painful years of even usually responsible students sleeping through the documentary that it requires extensive set-up and commentary on my part to ensure that the students appreciate and learn from it.

    Context--not only on the Cold War, but also on the cultural climate in the late 70s and early 80s when the film was produced--is a must.  I now do this through a set of lecture videos that I assign the students to watch before we view the documentary; these videos do not go into great depth, but provide a basic framework for engagement.

    I've also learned that while we are watching the documentary, I need to comment regularly on the strategies used by the filmmakers, pointing out what makes the best moments of the documentary so good.

    One reason that I love teaching Atomic Cafe is that it is an incredibly layered documentary.  It fits well within our unit on Stewardship, Science and Technology, as it shows how society's faith in science and technology can shift and change, and as it emphasizes the importance of thinking for oneself, and not merely accepting propaganda at face value (something we discuss in an earlier lesson on Rachel Carson and DDT).

    It is also a masterful satire, a dark comedy that provides laughs even as it tackles serious subject matter.  Deconstructing how the filmmakers manage this is a feat in film analysis as well as argument analysis.

    Early in the documentary, the filmmakers use an audio track of commentators comparing the desolation of Hiroshima to "Ebbets Field after a double-header with the Giants."  These flippant remarks are played over footage of the rubble, including several shots of charred corpses.

    In a clip of unedited newsreel, President Harry S. Truman can be seen laughing and joking with someone off-camera before suddenly becoming grave, to make the announcement about the dropping of the first bomb.

    The jingle from the famous "Burt the Turtle" Duck-and-Cover tutorial is played over clip after clip of children diving under desks, couches, beds and teeter-totters.

    A propaganda reel about fall-out shelters is inter-cut with a scientist describing how the intensity of the fire-storm created by the atomic blast would incinerate or asphyxiate anyone hiding in a fallout shelter.

    And of course, there's the film's soundtrack--I make a point of printing the song lyrics for the students to refer to as they watch.  These songs have not stood the test of time, and come across as unsettling or ridiculous to modern ears.  Consider, for example, "When They Drop the Atomic Bomb" by Jackie Doll and his Pickled Peppers, released in 1951:

    There will soon be an end to this cold and wicked war
    When those hard headed Communists get what they're lookin' for
    Only one thing that will stop them and their atrocious bunch
    If General MacArthur drops an atomic bomb

    There'll be fire, dust and metal flying all around
    And the radioactivity will burn their playhouse down
    If there's any Commies left they'll be all on the run
    If General MacArthur drops an atomic bomb

    Or this bit from Carson Robison's "I'm No Communist":

    The bureaus and departments have been busy night and day
    They're figuring out just how we gave our secrets all away
    And Congress has appointed a committee so they said
    To find out who's American and who's a low-down Red

    These lyrics are strikingly played over footage of men in suits looking through a pumpkin patch and scrutinizing each pumpkin carefully.

    Because the music at first feels seamlessly integrated with the clips chosen by the filmmakers, the viewer can easily forget that they were not originally paired together, and possibly miss out on the lyrics, so I intentionally draw attention to the music and the lyrics as the students watch.

    This year, we followed up our viewing of Atomic Café with a discussion of what the filmmaker's point of view was, and how they managed to convey that point of view.  The students were able to identify the critique of government propaganda, the call to think for oneself, and the bleak perspective on a world with atomic weapons, and perhaps just as importantly, they were able to identify specific moments and strategies throughout the documentary that had revealed the filmmakers' point of view.  

    Atomic Café can feel like a bit of a slog initially, with its grainy black and white footage, its lack of a guiding narrator's voice, and the degrees of separation that my international classroom has from post-war America, by virtue of time and distance.  However, with the right set-up and commentary, it can be a rich and engaging teaching tool.  I'm already looking forward to using it again next year!

    Saturday, February 25, 2017

    Encountering Grace and Truth

    We went into February 23rd with tempered expectations: after all, how many babies actually arrive on the due-date?

    Tomomi's weekly checkup that morning seemed to confirm that we would be waiting a while longer, though perhaps not as long as we feared--the doctor told Tomomi that if the baby had not arrived by Sunday, they would induce labor on Monday.

    Still, I was a ball of nervous energy at school that day, and checked my phone compulsively for the message from Tomomi.

    My students seemed almost as jumpy as me--when I put on my jacket to go out and get lunch, one girl asked if the baby was coming.  Later, as I checked my phone, another student asked, "is it time?"

    Tomomi and I had recently started taking long afternoon walks based on the belief that regular exercise might speed things along (and, if we're being honest, to help me burn off the nervous energy).  I came home at 4:15, ready to go for a long walk when I found Tomomi standing hunched, eyes closed, leaning on the arm of the couch for support, breathing sharply.  

    "Contraction?" I asked.

    She nodded.

    "This is different than before, isn't it?"


    Half a minute later, she visibly relaxed, sat down on the couch, and tapped the screen of her phone.  I sat down next to her.

    "They started earlier this afternoon." She pointed at her phone, on which she had been tracking the contractions.  For the past hour or so, they had been coming every 8-15 minutes.  

    "I don't suppose you're up for a walk today?"

    "I don't think so.  I need to finish making dinner, anyway."  Tomomi had been slicing vegetables for crock-pot curry when the contractions had started several hours earlier, and the whole process had become a start-and-stop effort since then. 

    I offered to help, but Tomomi told me that she needed the distraction, that sitting and waiting for the next contraction was kind of scary. 

    "Is it kind of like when you have the hiccups and you spend the time between hiccups worrying about the next hiccup?"  Before I had even finished asking the question, I felt foolish.  Had I really compared labor pains to the hiccups?

    But Tomomi just smiled patiently.  "Yeah, kind of like that."

    Over the next two hours, the contractions kept coming, though they were still between 8 and 12 minutes apart.  Each time a contraction would hit, Tomomi would stop what she was doing and take a knee.  By the time we sat down to eat, I had the distinct feeling that we were in for a long night.  

    We ate Tomomi's delicious chicken curry and watched an episode of House on Netflix.  For the record, I do not recommend watching House when you are anticipating a trip to the hospital.

    As we were finishing our dinner, we received a Facebook message from our friend and downstairs neighbor Kiko, who offered to bring us up a plate of pepper beef and rice.  This turned out to be sharp instinct on Kiko's part--she knew it was the due-date and that we might need extra meals soon, but when she came up to drop off the plate and saw Tomomi's face as a contraction hit, she told us that it looked like the real deal, and that Tomomi should take a bath and then call the hospital.  Kiko also prayed over us, which was a tremendous encouragement. 

    So, I ran Tomomi a bath, and put together notes for a substitute teacher for the next day, just in case.  Afterwards, Tomomi called the hospital, who told us to be there by 9 pm.  I sent my sub request, and emailed my students to let them know I wouldn't be in school the next day.  Tomomi had already packed a travel bag for her hospital stay a few weeks earlier, but double-checked to make sure she had everything she needed.  

    We then walked the 15 minutes to the hospital--Tomomi felt like she could handle that, and she powered through four contractions on the way, the first and last of which occurred precisely as we walked out the door of our apartment, as precisely as we arrived at the hospital, respectively.  

    Friends had cautioned us not to be disappointed if we were sent home, whether due to false labor, or to arriving when the labor was still in too early of a stage to stay, so I mentally prepared myself for this possibility as the midwife monitored the contractions.  

    After 30 minutes of waiting in the hall, the midwife summoned me back to a labor-delivery room, explaining that the baby was on its way.  She predicted that the baby would arrive by the next morning, "hopefully by 7am".  

    The contractions were still 6-8 minutes apart, and the midwife's prediction was not terribly encouraging.  

    The contractions became more severe, and the image I'd concocted of spending the night sitting at the head of the bed, holding Tomomi's hand soon shattered.  Instead, my job became to push forcefully against Tomomi's lower back during each contraction, as that was where the pain seemed to radiate from.  The midwife helpfully demonstrated how to time the pushing and how to coach Tomomi on the breathing, and this became my one valuable contribution--at first, every 6-8 minutes, but eventually, every 3-5 minutes.  I gained a new appreciation for the term "labor"--I cannot even imagine the hard work that Tomomi was doing, but I know that I worked up a sweat and sore muscles as I swiftly took my position at Tomomi's back with each contraction to push her lower back and try to help her through.  (And just to be clear, when I say 'push', I mean PUSHING with all my might.  I tried just pressing her back, but Tomomi made it clear right away that I needed to put some real force into the motion). 

    The midwife returned just after midnight to check Tomomi's progress.  She was a stern, but patient and calm woman who looked to be in her 50s, and seemed as though not much could surprise her.  However, I thought I noted a hint of surprise as she checked the read-out from the monitor.  She explained that everything was moving along quickly and that the baby would arrive sooner than she had predicted. 

    Several friends later suggested to me that the quicker pace meant that probably labor was a little bit more intense and painful than if it had progressed as slowly as the midwife had originally thought.  This realization gave me all the more admiration for what Tomomi accomplished.

    Early in the evening, we were able to talk and joke between contractions, but it became clear after midnight that trying to lighten the mood with a joke would not be terribly helpful.  Instead, with each rest, I handed her water bottle to her, told her she was doing an amazing job, and prayed with her.  Eventually, there wasn't even time for that, and it even became challenging to catch my breath between contractions, myself.  

    One time, when a particularly big contraction ended, we heard a woman in the room next door shrieking in pain.  Tomomi and I just looked at each other--was that what we had ahead of us?  Several minutes later, we heard a baby's cries coming from that same room.  

    Tomomi managed to say "I envy her" before another wave of pain hit.  

    There are a few things I'll never forget about those hours: how warm the room was (we agreed that it was too warm), how dry the air was (we both came away with scratchy throats), and the quiet classical music playing over the room speaker, which seemed so jarringly incongruous with the intensity of each contraction.  

    At some point just before 2am, the midwife returned and asked me to wait in the hall while they set up the room for delivery.  I came back in, and four or five big pushes later, Emma Sophia Gibson entered the world, at 2:37 am. 

    The first moment I saw my daughter was indescribable--I started crying almost immediately, and looked at Tomomi, who had a look of total joy on her face for the first time since labor had started. 

    Tomomi looked Emma over as she held her in her arms, turned to me and grinned.  "Black wins."

    We'd had a running bet about whether her hair would be black or red, and the odds weren't exactly in my favor to begin with (curse you, finicky redhead allele!).  To be fair, on later inspection, we realized that her hair was a dark shade of brown with some light brown streaks.  

    I was then promptly ushered out to the hall, so that the midwife and nurses could check Emma over, and tend to Tomomi's battle-wounds.  

    I Facebook messaged my parents and emailed my brother and sister, telling them her name and sending a picture I'd snapped as Tomomi held her.

    When I was allowed back into the room, the nurses snapped a family photo of the three of us, and gave us some time with Emma, before taking her to the hospital nursery so that Tomomi could rest.  

    The next few hours were surreal--we were both still feeling some adrenaline, and talked and joked about the labor.  Then, Tomomi began to nod off, and I sent out emails to friends, students, and the CAJ community.

    Soon enough, I began feeling drowsy, too.  However, there was no place to sleep, and so I spent a tedious hour or so sitting in the overly warm, dry delivery room wondering what to do.  When Tomomi woke up, she asked a nurse if there was a place I could sleep.  Unfortunately, there wasn't--not without a prior reservation, and I wondered silently whether anyone could actually predict something like this enough in advance to make a reservation.  So, I kissed Tomomi goodnight, told her she had done an amazing job, and I was proud of her, and I loved her, before walking home in a stupor.

    There's much more I could say about my precious Emma, but I really just wanted to write about the hours leading up to her birth--the labor and the delivery--before it becomes a blurry memory.  

    I'll close by sharing the email I sent out to the CAJ community and posted on Facebook:

    恵真 (Emma) Sophia Gibson was born at 2:35 am this morning, Friday, February 24!
    She weighs 3046 g (6.7 lbs).

    Her name has special significance:
    We chose the kanji 恵 (pronounced 'eh'), which means grace, and 真 (pronounced 'ma'), which means truth. "Growing in Grace & Truth" has been our school theme this year at CAJ, and it is indeed what we hope for our daughter as she grows. Emma was also my grandmother's name, and she lived a life marked by grace and truth. It's a blessing beyond measure to make my daughter--her great-grand daughter--her namesake.

    Sophia, we chose because we desire for our daughter to grow in wisdom, along with grace and truth, qualities we believe to be inextricably bound to one another. We also liked the sound of the name "Emma Sophia"--that was an English teacher thing ;-)

    Mother and daughter are resting after a long night, and although I cannot claim to have done any of the hard work, I feel in need of a rest too. We are so incredibly grateful for all of your prayers throughout the pregnancy, and covet your prayers as we begin life as a new family of three!


    The evening of February 23rd and the wee hours of February 24th are a night I will never, ever forget.  I'm so grateful to God for bringing us safely through, and bringing Emma into this world.  Now begins the new adventure called parenthood.  I'm terrified, I'm ill-equipped, but I couldn't be more excited!

    Our first family picture!

    Emma-chan, 30 minutes old

    Emma-chan, 36 hours old