Friday, November 21, 2014

Cultivating Thankfulness in the Teaching Life

Cultivating thankfulness (The Message, Colossians 3:15) is on my mind this week as Facebook feeds blossom with various gratitude challenges. Since I asked my department members in our Wednesday meeting to share recent moments from their classes that they were thankful for, I set out to share some of mine here. Then my list got way too long, so I had to cut it off after 3.

This week, I'm thankful that...

  1. Uncovering student misunderstanding reminds me not to assume mastery without evidence. Like “inference.” I got lazy this year and skipped over a lesson on inference, just referring to it as if students understood. Because it seemed like they did. Then I got this response to quiz question asking students to identify one of 3 reading strategies they’d used on a certain passage (inferring, asking questions, envisioning images) and give a specific example: “I interfered sometimes for a disagreement. I also sometimes couldn’t help myself from saying an opinion because I might forget without interfering.”
  2. Engaging lessons can be very low tech. One day this week, half the students were out on a Japanese field trip. The remaining students were to do a Biblical perspective lesson to prepare for the essay on the human dignity unit structured around the Holocaust memoir Night. In the past, I’ve used a highly structured online group worksheet…but students seemed to miss the main points—they just filled in the blanks. This year, I simplified: I divided the students that remained into groups of 4 or 5, gave them a piece of poster paper and a handful of markers, and told them to represent on the poster what they could learn about the Biblical concept “love your neighbor as yourself” by reading the NIV Study Bible study note on Lev. 19:18, each of the 7 verses mentioned in it, and each of those verses’s study notes. On a day when half their classmates were out of class, I was expecting to have a difficult time getting the remainder to focus on learning. But they were all engaged, on task, and asking good questions. I got to answer one girl’s question on the meaning of a sentence in the study note, and then watch her go back to her group to explain. One group proudly showed me that they’d come up with an additional related passage—Jesus on the cross praying for God to forgive his killers. And one group asked me, “If we have to love our neighbors, and we have to love our enemies, then do we have to love Satan?” Now, at first I thought that was a silly question, but then I tried to answer it…. Seriously. Try it. I sat and discussed it afterward with 3 other teachers for about 10 minutes. 
  3. Technology offers additional ways for students to engage with material and with each other. For the Night/human dignity current application follow-up, I offered students a choice of 5 articles to read, and assigned them to write one online Moodle forum post responding to their article and how they could use it in their essay, then one response each to a person who had read their same article and to a person who had read a different article (see “Making It Real” post for structuring a literature unit around a life question). They shared excitement, made connections, and asked each other great questions. Here are some of the things they said:
  • It's really sad how we sometimes make decisions based on other people's decisions and opinions. We often go with the crowd, and hurt the people getting hurt by our friends. It's all under our control, but we still choose to do things that hurt others.
  • This article had lots of interesting information that even now I do not understand all of it. I am glad to have read this article.
  • I agree that people turn away from others and try to protect themselves. Do you think that this is a defense mechanism or is it our morality that causes this? 
  • I feel that people are scared of the consequences that come from being the one to blame so instead we blame others. Plus it is easier for us to blame others rather than accepting that we have done something wrong.
  • Everyone has the ability to do bad things if anger or any other feeling consumed them. This also brought me to think about Hotel Rwanda. The author of An Ordinary Man  [autobiography of the protagonist of Hotel Rwanda] states how he saw his friend who was known to be "cool" become a killer. I could use this in my essay to state that inhumane behavior can cause people to act that way, but others, like Juliek [a character in Night], could still remain human and stand for his rights.
  • I too believe that we have a certain sense of wrong and right. But from reading the previous articles, I saw the morality being broken down. Do you think that the people lost their morality because they weren't Christians? Do you think that it is possible that the people who have faith in God will lose their morality?
  • We have the capacity to determine what is right or wrong, a gift from God. It is also very hard to live a pure life and an innocent life, because sin entered into this world.
  • I also found it sad when the author quoted a small boy saying he would rather hurt a Chinese delivery guy instead of an old lady. We choose to have specific people who we want to sympathize with, and people who we choose to dehumanize and alienate from ourselves.

Sometimes—in the middle of stacks of marking—it’s a discipline to cultivate thankfulness in the teaching life. But like other disciplines, it becomes second nature with practice. I’m so thankful for my students, for their enthusiasm for learning, and for the opportunity I have to channel it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Quest to Separate Timeliness and Competence

We took the plunge. This year my school eliminated a grade penalty for late work. The high school faculty had been reading about the role of homework and grades, and discussing this step for a year or two. We maybe took the plunge without thoroughly thinking through all the implications of what structures would support the change, and it has been a headache of galactic proportions for those in charge of taking attendance at the after-school study hall mandatory for all students with missing assignments, and for those in charge of chasing down those who choose not to attend. Kudos to them—their pain has supported better learning in my class. 

The good effects in my 10th grade English class include holding students accountable and motivating them to be proactive about getting late work in. They also include holding me accountable to more actively monitor students with late work (my colleagues will know I have 20 students with late work…what kind of a teacher will they think I am?), and has motivated me to rethink why timely work is important, and how to teach them about and assess them on not timeliness, but how excellent preparation drives their own and others’ learning by creating vital academic conversation. 

Here’s what those effects have looked like in my class.

One student had to go to the after-school study hall one time during the first week of school. He seemed a little startled that he actually had to go, but I met him there and made sure he understood the journal entry he was supposed to have completed. Fifteen minutes later the entry was done, he was free to leave, and he hasn’t had a late assignment since. And only one other student has had to attend.

Two different students initiated conversations with me about an assignment that wasn’t done, with an alternate proposal from the student about how she could complete it without having to attend the after-school study hall. I figured that kind of taking of responsibility was the goal of the policy.

One student fell behind on the first draft of an essay and stayed behind through the entire process, having to attend the study hall every day for several weeks. I met her there a couple of times to talk through questions, I touched base with her occasionally about her essay when I saw her in class, and as we begin the next essay, I will be very aware of her progress in order to identify whether this was a one-time slip-up or an indicator of an underlying pattern that needs to be dealt with.

Finally, I’ve had to reconsider some of my grading practices. Without the “power” of taking off points for undone reading-response journals, I realized I had to assess the assignment in the context of the reason students were doing it: the following day’s small-group discussion. In an earlier blog I wrote about developing a rubric for these discussions collaboratively with the students. 

I continue to look for more effective and valid ways to use that rubric to assess the discussions, but the results in what the students are learning in collaborative skills and in content from focusing on vibrant academic discussions seems far more important than how I’m grading. I mean, simply that I’m assessing is significant—it focuses both the students and me on defining, observing, and practicing the skills, on actually experiencing the learning that comes from a productive academic discussion, and on setting goals about how to do it even better.

When I returned the student rubrics on the first novel study’s discussions, I asked students to respond to 3 questions:

  1. What is something you saw someone in your group do that really helped the discussion go better?
  2. What is something you want to continue to do or do better in your next small group to help the discussion go well?
  3. If there is a line on the rubric that you think you should have scored higher on, which one is it and what did you do well that I didn’t see?

It was a delight to see students name other students in their groups and specific things they had done well. Often it was the same students that I observed as good discussion drivers. Sometimes it was a student that I had missed, but when I started paying attention, I noticed his comments weren’t verbose, but when made, were concise and insightful. 

Another student made an appeal about how curious she had been about the book and how she had related parts of the book “with the current society.” I gave her the higher mark because (1) maybe she had been and I had just missed it, and because (2) if she could articulate positive inquiry that clearly, then at least she knew what it looks like and would be more likely to do it next time. 

Now it’s next time, and whether she is more talkative because she articulated it, or I am more aware because she told me, I’m noticing that her group of 4 is having good discussions—always on task, making good connections, asking good questions of each other.

On the other hand, I was also able to correct misconceptions for a couple of students who thought that excellent listening was only nonverbal behaviors and asking their own questions—not the verbal active listening skills of paraphrasing others’ input, asking clarifying questions related to others’ input, and offering and requesting feedback. 

Finally, there was the window into a developing servant-leader: every member in his group mentioned him by name, and he was the only student who mentioned not one other person in his group, but each one, and something each had done well in the discussion.

So, many thanks to all of my high school colleagues for passing this new policy, and especially to those who have taken on the responsibility for making it work. It is working in my class.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Integrating Learning and a Faith-Full Life

Here’s a hypothesis: the challenge of Christian teaching is not integrating faith and learning; it’s integrating faith and life (the challenge of every Christian), and then integrating learning and life (the challenge of every teacher). Shorter yet: Integrating learning and a faith-full life. 

In English class, opportunities abound. If great literature deals with the significance of human life and action, and if faith permeates all of life, then faith cannot be separated from any significant issue with which literature deals.

I’m celebrating how my 10th grade students have been able to articulate this as I’m reading their final essays on the novel Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. The book is set in South Africa in 1946, just before apartheid became the officially consolidated law of the land. Though race relations feature prominently, the underlying questions of the book have to do with how humans can live with each other, with themselves, with the land, and with God in the flourishing peace and justice that the Bible calls shalom.

Students have written about how the novel deals with some aspect of this biblical theme, and they were required to include an application they have seen in the world today or in their own lives. I’ve read good thesis statements, good literary support, and application—from recovery efforts in the tsunami-stricken area of Japan to relationships with parents to the community found at our school after experiencing bullying elsewhere.

Here are some of the thesis statements:

  • Cry, the Beloved Country demonstrates, through pastor Kumalo’s relationships, that reconciliation and healing are possible despite brokenness if people face their own fears, choose to love, and strengthen their faith in God.
  • Out of the many characters in Cry, the Beloved Country, Stephen Kumalo is Alan Paton’s hero, showing how a flawed human can still maintain shalom with individuals, society, and God.
  • Alan Paton’s book Cry, the Beloved Country demonstrates how the people were able to restore and keep shalom through honest prayers, humble repentance, and faithful allies.

Some of the literary analysis:

  • When Kumalo encountered hardship, God did not speak directly to him. No revelation, no burning bush, no army of angels. But through the boldness of Msimangu’s words, through the hospitality of Mrs. Lithebe, the mercy and kindness from the father of the victim his son had murdered, Kumalo felt God’s love.

A beautiful conclusion:
  • Like a sculptor chipping at a block of marble to create something, through our actions we can be assured that God can heal the world, but an act at a time, no matter how long it takes.

And a powerful insight:
  • How can we overcome our fears like Kumalo did?…Trying is the most important part because we can always gain something from it, even if we don’t get what we expected. Many parents and teachers in Japan tell children that they should not do things to others that they don’t want them to do to them. I remember hearing this from adults ever since I can remember. Recently, I found a Bible verse that sounds similar to it: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). At first I thought that these two statements mean the same thing, but soon I realized that they don’t. The former one that tells you not to treat people how you don’t want to be treated is much easier than the latter one in the Bible since we don’t have to do anything in order to accomplish it. It is all about avoiding conflicts…. We have to do good things to people like the verse says. We need to take action in order to make a difference. 

Teaching English is a great job—choosing good literature, setting a significant purpose, training students in some reading and writing strategies, then cheering from the sidelines as they learn, think, read, write, grow.