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!