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.

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