Friday, August 31, 2012

Modeling Writing

End of the first full week of school: but my learning doesn't stop when my students' starts. Now I'm practicing my reading and reading my students.

One of the big resolutions: modeling writing. So I modeled brainstorming a list of topics for a narrative assignment and possible stories to go with the topics. I did not model the actual writing. (1) Because by that time students were antsy and ready to get on with their own writing. How long can they sit there and watch me write? (2) Because I feel I need to walk around, monitor, answer questions, and provoke concentration by proximity and by words if necessary.

But I did write after class. And that night. And the next morning. On a different topic each time. The first one, as it turned out, didn’t really address the prompt. The second one would not have been interesting to most of my students. But with the third one, I think I nailed it. Wish I could have modeled that process...but it was way to long. Your first, or even second idea is not necessarily your best. Maybe it would be worth sharing with them on Monday. 

I did at least have my own sample of writing to show the students on which I could model some revising: noting where I had and where I could add concrete sensory details, specific actions, and actual thoughts/words of characters (dialogue or internal monologue). Commenting on what was good and what still needed to be done with purpose, opening, and closing. Tinkering with some word choice and modeling my thought process as I did.

Did I execute perfectly? No. But I did it. Did it revolutionize my classroom? No. But there were interesting questions--like about how you can give exact words if you don't remember exactly what someone said. And students were engaged with revising. Besides, nothing really good lives up to its entire potential the first time through, and as a one-time “drive-by” event. 

I’m happy I took a step, and I’m looking forward to getting more skillful at the teaching practice as my students get more skillful at writing.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Not Reading, Still Learning

The temperature is 91, the heat index is 105, the sun is beating down, and I am spending the last afternoon before school starts in what is turning out to be the best way I’ve ever spent it--a way I will volunteer to spend it every year after this.

Last Monday, the first day of teacher meetings, the high school principal asked for volunteers to help with student orientation on Wednesday, the day before school was to start. Hands shot up for helping all grade levels with textbooks and with emergency drills. The space for volunteers to oversee student council led games on the playground stayed oddly blank. 

“I’ll do anything with 10th grade--I’ll help with the games,” I said. I was puzzled by the hearty thanks I received. Until Wednesday afternoon as I head outside for the games and realize that the other responsibilities are all in the air conditioned classroom building.

Now I’m standing in the shade of the cafeteria veranda nursing my bottle of water, squinting through my sunglasses. Students are playing water games--some chasing each other with paper cups full of water, others standing on the sidelines catching up with friends and meeting new students. 

It dawns on me that this is the perfect opportunity to review the student names I’ve been studying from last year’s yearbook pictures. When I start getting stuck, I ask a student standing nearby for help. 

I learn so much. I learn that Namjung goes by NJ, and I learn how to tell the twins apart. I move over to the swings and strike up a conversation with 3 girls there. I learn that Cielo (pronounced chee-EL-oh) is from the Philippines, and her name means “heaven.” 

Best of all, I have no first-day-of-school nightmares that night, and no butterflies the next morning. I’m looking forward to this school year--to getting to know these students more and to helping them engage with literature from around the world, develop their communication skills, and do the verse posted in my classroom: “Love the Lord your God with all your...mind” (Luke 10:27).

Monday, August 6, 2012

Hunger Games under the Sun

Futility is not new topic in literature--I just didn’t expect to find it in YA lit--and especially in a work that is sweeping the scene like The Hunger Games series. 

There’s lots to love about these books--as a jawdropping number of my 10th grade students, even ones who claim to never have enjoyed reading a book before--have found. Something for everyone, from a fast-paced plot with a little romance and a lot of danger to really deep themes like identity, freedom, power, and the places where those issues intersect: If a creature like the mockingjay, created by power for its own nefarious ends, can escape that power and create its own beauty, then there is hope for all of us, even when we find we are not as much self-created free agents as we had thought. 

The current appeal has also been connected to a longing for someone to stand up against the modern global economic system of “bread and circuses” in the way that Jesus did. But I found the 3rd book, Mockingjay, deeply disturbing. I just wasn’t prepared for so much confusion and futility in a YA book. It’s disturbing enough in Brave New World. At least Fahrenheit 451 ends with a small band of enlightened ones emerging from the decadence to carry the hope of thought and civilization.

But life is disturbing. Even futile. Apart from God. Mockingjay actually provides a gripping modern gloss on Ecclesiastes, lodging deep in the readers bones the truth about life “under the sun.” As the Teacher says, wisdom is better than folly, so we struggle for the better, but the same fate overtakes the wise person and the fool--both die, both are forgotten. It was the NIV Study Bible note on 2.17-23 that made the connection blindingly clear to me: “To pursue human fulfillment through work done ‘under the sun’ grievous and meaningless and leads to despair; its fruits must be left to others whose character one cannot predict” (1009-10). 

This is just as true when the work is the pursuit of justice and freedom. Even with God, we do not know what will prosper or for how long: maybe the freedom and justice we fight for will be just the rest between wars, when people say “never again” until they forget, as a cynical character in Mockingjay claims. But what we do know is that we are joining with God in his passion for seeing the wounds of this fallen world healed until he brings the final and complete healing.

I do that--join with God in that project of healing--by sharing my love for and skill with communication with 15-year-olds in a classroom setting and challenging them to grow their use of those skills to enjoy the beauties of creation and to bring wholeness to its brokenness. 

School gets a lot of bad rap these days (scratch “these days”--it goes back at least as far as Charles Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times with his “facts, facts, facts”). Modern Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in his Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World continues the critique:

“Grandfather says that schools are too inefficient to produce top material. What do you think?” she asked.
“Well, probably so,” I answered, “I want to school for many years and I don’t believe it made that much difference in my life....” /
“So why didn’t you quit school? You could have quit any time you wanted, couldn’t you?”
“I guess so,” I said. “I could have quit, but I didn’t want to. I guess it didn’t occur to me to do anything like that. Unlike you, I had a perfectly average, ordinary upbringing. I never had what it takes to make a first-rate anything.”
“That’s wrong,” she declared, “Everyone must have one thing that they can excel at. It’s just a matter of drawing it out, isn’t it? But school doesn’t know how to draw it out. It crushes the gift. It’s no wonder most people never get to be what they want to be. They just get ground down.” (Murakami 191-192)

In my annual summer search to prepare to bring more wholeness in the next school year by getting just a little better at drawing out that gift in each student rather than crushing it, I’ve started what will probably be my last 3 professional books of the summer: Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement by Ceri B. Dean, et al; Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing through Modeling and Mentor Texts by Kelly Gallagher; and Revision Strategies for Adolescent Writers: Moving Students in the Write Direction by Jolene Borgese, Dick Heyler, and Stephanie Romano. Couldn’t through them all in time for this week’s blog, so I took a bit of a time-out from the writing about professional reading to writing about some of my fiction reading. Though the line between gets rather blurred since my profession is to share what I love. 

Everything becomes grist for the mill.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Summer Reading Reaches Critical Mass

Yesterday was the day my summer reading reached critical mass.  Isolated connections had been firing off here and there. For instance, problems raised in an article on women’s rights in China in the book The Unfinished Revolution falling into the framework for analyzing markets proposed by Daniel Finn’s The Moral Ecology of Markets. But yesterday all of my reading coalesced into one glowing, pulsing, energy-producing mass.
I was sitting on a lawn chair in the speckled shade of a cherry tree on a cliff overlooking the Pacific ocean surrounded by the sound of crashing waves and singing cicadas, reading the closing chapter of Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World. I was thinking, “I still don’t know exactly what the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank are and whether the role they play in the world economy is good or evil. But Daniel Finn equipped me with a framework that will help me ask the questions to pursue that line of inquiry.” 
I don’t know much about genetically modified food or patented crops, either--both topics in the previous chapter, “Just Food.” But maybe I don’t need to. Maybe I don’t even need to have a final answer on whether it’s right or wrong. Maybe, in fact, it is better to introduce students to the issues, brainstorm the questions and possible sources, and model working alongside them to find answers to real questions. 
My thinking is confirmed by Thomas McCann and his colleagues in Teaching Matters Most: A School Leader’s Guide to Improving Classroom Instruction. Among other “key factors in teaching that will advance learning and foster positive learning environments,” they list the following: 
  • “Learners engage with each other in purposeful conversations that support inquiry and involve them in practicing the procedures that are important to the discipline and can transfer to new problem solving, thinking, and performance occasions” (38).
  • Instructional activities provide students with “learning experiences that help them to gain a deep understanding of the content, advance their communications skills, and learn procedures that they can apply in challenging real-world situations” (39).
This year is the perfect opportunity to tackle hard questions like these in our classes at Christian Academy in Japan (CAJ) because our theme is Do Hard Things, based on the book of that title by Alex and Brett Harris (subtitled A Teenage Rebellion against Low Expectations). The teen twin authors tell many stories of young people running political campaigns, starting non-profit organizations, and speaking before large audiences for causes they care passionately about.
I like those stories. And I like that the book doesn’t limit to newsworthy activities the hard things it challenges teens to, but identifies 5 different types of hard things in chapters 5 - 9:
  1. Things outside your comfort zone
  2. Things “beyond what’s expected or required”
  3. Things that require collaboration because they are “too big for you to do alone”
  4. Things that are so small they don’t seem important because the payoff in in the long-term
  5. Things that require you to take a lonely stand 
On the other hand, I do have to admit to the same love-hate relationship with this book that I have with inspirational teacher movies like Freedom Writers, Stand and Deliver, To Sir with Love, and all that ilk. First response: “Yea! Someone caring and making a difference!” Second response: “Wait, you think no teacher ever tried student journalling before?” They ignore all those before who have cared passionately and labored skillfully and faithfully. 
Which brings me back to Rethinking Globalization and an essay it contains adapted from a speech by a 13-year-old boy addressing a crowd of nearly 3,000 at the 1996 American Federation of Teachers convention. He had founded the anti-child-slavery organization Free the Children. Alex and Brett were 7 years old. This young man challenged his audience, “As educators, you are such a powerful group. You have the power to motivate people, to stand up, and to bring about a change....Today, if I leave behind one message with you, it will be to believe in us, the young people of today. Don’t be afraid to challenge us to play a greater role in society, and please, don’t under-estimate who we are or what we can do. Our generation may just surprise you” (326).
By the way, the particular example of child-slavery mentioned in the speech was Nike, which, largely in response to bad press in the 1990’s, is now making efforts at transparency and social and environmental accountability. People have been motivated to care what happens to other people far away, and to vote with their purchasing power in such a way that an international brand name chose to invest in an ethical mode of operation.
May Alex and Brett Harris inspire this generation because each generation needs its own inspiration. And may I and my colleagues at CAJ (and in other Christian schools around the world) grow even better at the excellent teaching practices that will continue to challenge our students to master the content, skills, and ways of thinking that will enable them to impact the world for Christ.
Bigelow, Bill, and Bob Peterson, ed. Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2002. 
Finn, Daniel K. The Moral Ecology of Markets: Assessing Claims about Markets and Justice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Harris, Alex and Brett. Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2008.
McCann, Thomas M., Alan C. Jones, and Gail A. Aronoff. Teaching Matters Most: A School Leader’s Guide to Improving Classroom Instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2012.