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!