School


We missed last year’s graduation, foregoing the celebration in favour of our own graduation for our Master’s degree in Pasadena. I hate to miss out on seeing the kids that I have struggled so hard to educate and prepare for university graduate from high school. It was therefore a great joy to be at this one last Thursday. I know that this is an event that is considered by many as unworthy of celebration. Forgive me if I mount an argument in its favour.

I think graduation from high school is one of the most important events in a young person’s life. For many it marks the end of childhood and adolescence and the beginning of life as a young adult. It marks the end of friendships and family structures that have been a source of comfort and security for 18 years. It marks the end of teachers that have always been willing to listen and modify their expectations in order to help their students succeed. There is virtually never a “final” anything in elementary or high school, until that final exam at the end of Grade 12. I will remark everything that is submitted. I will always allow a second test or a rewrite up until the moment I must submit my marks. Most teachers at this level will do the same. This is rarely true at university.

Those final exam results will not be in for another month or so, but based on what we have seen in them so far, this cohort will do well. With only one or two exceptions, these students are fully ready for the next step in their lives. It has been a real joy to have had them as part of my life for the past two years. I have fought very hard for their success, willing as I ever am, to put my relationship with a student on the line for their greater good. Invariably students understand that this is what a truly caring teacher must do. There are teachers – and there are always some, even in a good staff – who would rather just be friends with their students, never challenging them to dig deeper or try harder or undertake to go the next step. These teachers do their students no favours, even if they end up being temporarily more popular. I will trade my students’ success in university for my own popularity any day of the week and consider it a good deal.

There is no moment greater in a teacher’s life than having a student who has worked and struggled with some aspect of their learning finally gaining mastery. In English that ‘moment’ is likely a process, such as being able to analyze text in a coherent and persuasive manner. Usually that process that has taken months and the road has been marked with disappointment and frustration. When they do finally master their own writing it is not like some formula that they memorize and forget. Learning how to write with insight, skill, and polish is an accomplishment that will last a lifetime. I love it when my students finally feel confident in their own skill. I love it even more when they come back from university and tell me, as they often do, how invaluable that skill is in all their subjects at university.

There are days when my age wears on me and I come home exhausted and spent. I just don’t have the stamina I once had and this old body has begun to betray me in subtle but unmistakable ways. But there are times, such as this past weekend, when all of this effort seems not only worthwhile, but invaluable to someone else’s success. I have taught since I was a young adult myself, and I have nothing left to prove or gain. But if I can help another to succeed in this important transition in their young lives, that is motivation enough.

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Cayman is remarkably rich in musical and dramatic talent for such a small island. There are only 60,000 of us tops, yet there are dozens of shows, dances, and musical events each week. Far too many for us to go to everything. So we typically tend to prioritize those events that involve friends, colleagues and students.

A few weeks back we saw a production of Annie put on by the middle and elementary students of Cayman International and several other schools on the island. At the best of times the musical is a silly little bit of fluff that glamourizes the hard-luck life of an orphan that is adopted by a billionaire. Tell that story to any one of the 30 million refugee children in the world and see what kind of reaction you get. Swimming upstream against that improbable script is a tough slog at best, but the kids did a wonderful job, and we had a very pleasant evening, despite the first-world/third-world disconnect.

The following weekend we went to see Grease, which despite its enduring popularity neither of had ever seen. This was an older group of students, high school and some recent graduates, and the song and dance routines had considerably better polish. Again, the score doesn’t rise to the level of Richard Rogers or Leonard Bernstein, but it was a fun evening, and the players’ spunky enthusiasm compensated for the limitations of the production.

Grease

We topped that off with an evening at the Westin Hotel on Seven Mile Beach that hosted the local orchestra and choir doing an evening of Broadway musicals. There was no shortage of excellent music at this event, and the choir was in excellent voice going through a repertoire of songs from West Side Story, Phantom of the Opera, South Pacific and The Wizard of Oz. They sang and played for over two hours and the quality, especially in the solo performances, was most impressive for an assembly of volunteers, some of who were friends and colleagues from CIS.

With just a few weeks left before the end of the year, there are still a number of events coming up that look to be equally enjoyable, if somewhat tiring. Island life has its limitations, but a lack of music and drama is not one of them.

Last evening we had the great joy of attending the Golden Apple Awards to see our dear Ms. Nimmi Sekhar accept her Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Education. A gala, black tie event, it was held at the Ritz Carlton and Nimmi was supported by about forty or so family and friends from CIS. At the ceremony, Nimmi was honoured for her contributions to education over her thirty three years as a teacher, tutor, and administrator.

Nimmi began her teaching career in India, following her graduation with a Master’s degree in English Literature. Nimmi and her husband then moved to Jamaica, where Dr. Sekhar set up his practice. After a two year stint in academic support in Jamaica, she and her husband moved to Cayman Brac, where Nimmi began volunteering in a government school which led quickly to a full time teaching position in the Brac. When she and her husband moved to Grand Cayman, Nimmi supported the existing government schools by tutoring students with moderate to profound special educational needs.

In April of 1990, Nimmi teamed up with Dr Elizabeth Faulkner, a child psychologist working with special needs children and adults. Sensing a need that was not being met in the government school, Nimmi and Dr. Faulkner borrowed $60,000 to set up a school to meet the needs of these special kids. In 1994 Nimmi became the first Administrator of the newly founded Faulkner Academy. International School Services bought the school when Dr. Faulkner wished to retire, but Nimmi stayed on as an administrator of the renamed Cayman International School where she has served up until the present as our Vice-Principal and facilities manager.

Nimmi’s love of teaching and educating others is renowned here in Cayman and her commitment to excellence in education has impacted the lives of many students and the community as a whole, including Daniel Nicholson-Gardner, one of my many favourites. All who have been through CIS know her as an understanding, kind-hearted and selfless leader and friend and are constantly in awe of her determination and persistence.

It was wonderful to spend an evening with colleagues and friends all dressed in their finest for an evening that began with a reception prior to the awards ceremony. In fine Indian tradition, following the ceremony, Dr Sekhar hosted the entire group of Nimmi’s friends, family, and colleagues to a dinner in Camana Bay. We loved the opportunity to celebrate not only Nimmi but educators in general and we look forward to even more events next month to mark the end of an era at CIS.

The decorations are up, supplies laid in and school is winding down. Despite the complete lack of snow, or even a hint of cooler weather, we are ready to celebrate Christmas.

The students, families and staff at CIS are all into the Christmas spirit as well. The Giving Tree was decorated this year by the Grade 5 classes. It is placed in the reception area and each of the hand made “decorations”  have the name and age as well as the Christmas wish of a less privileged child in Cayman.

The CIS community is incredibly generous and by the time the Christmas wishes of all the children were filled there was barely room to get to our offices. Families tried to choose children the same age as their own child and went above and beyond the requests, adding their own touch to the gifts. Every child who requested a bike also got a helmet to ensure their safety.

The annual “12 Pubs of Christmas” crawl was much less sedate but great fun. We started out in Camana Bay at King’s Head and partied around the block. I think we made it to the tenth pub, which happens to be at the end of our street. It seemed like a good idea to walk on home at that point..

Our staff party was held at the “Great House” on an open air patio by the sea. It was a beautiful but blustery evening and the sea was wild, with waves crashing over the seawall.

wildnight

This fall I started my third year in IB Literature at Cayman International School in the Cayman Islands. CIS was pretty decent about hiring me for the IB Lit program when I had never taught IB before. They were gambling that with my experience in both internationals schools and English that I would be able to make the transition. They were right, but it has not been easy.

The first thing I needed to do was a survey of the assessments used in IB. I know it is a dreadful commentary on education in the 21st century that this is where you need to begin, but that is the reality and you just have to face it. Assessments don’t just determine where the kids get to go in the fall: Harvard, or Happy Valley College of Advanced Basketweaving. Success in assessments is also a means of assessing your success in teaching the program.

IB assessments are pretty much all external, so as a teacher you need to find out quickly what the program is looking for and how you can deliver on those assessment criteria. In IB Literature nearly 50 percent of that mark comes from two exams at the end of the two year program. Hit those targets and the rest will fall in to place. Miss that target and whatever you did that was valuable will be looked at with a jaundiced eye. One of those exams, what IB calls a ‘Paper 2,’ is based on just four texts. IB doesn’t care if those four texts are plays, poetry, or novels, so long as all four are in the same genre.

I am going to reveal some real literary prejudice here by saying that I would be hard pressed to name four plays – outside of Shakespeare – that I would consider worth studying. And finding thematic similarities would be even more daunting. The same holds true for collections of poetry. Given the constraints of IB Lit, it would mean looking at four poets and 48 to 60 poems. Not for this guy. So novels then. Alright. Now choose four novels that are 100 to 200 pages in length, of enduring literary value, that cover the time from Dickens to DeLillo, that reveal a range of narrative voices, that are on the IB Proscribed List of Authors, that have enough thematic similarity that they will serve for a comparative essay on a Paper 2 exam, and that 17 year-olds would find interesting. I’ll give you a minute.

It took me a month in the first year. I choose Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. It was well worth the time it took to be careful for all four have been instrumental in facilitating comparative essays on the Paper 2. The other exam, the ‘Paper 1,’ is a literary analysis of a sight passage in either prose or poetry. That is something that takes two years of practice in critical literary analysis to get ready for, and text here really doesn’t matter as long as there is a good variety. I try to cover Aristotle, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, Anouilh, and Schlink, and as wide a variety of poets as I can squeeze in. I am pretty happy with those choices as well.

All of this has to be housed somewhere, and these days that somewhere is Google. For the first two years I used folders in Google Drive to house student work, and Google Sites to post lessons, articles, and study guides. This year I am moving it all to the revamped Google Classroom, which automatically links to Google Calendar and the email addresses of both students and parents. So far the transition has been seamless, and a vast improvement over Sites, which had to be cobbled together with Drive, Calendar, and Google mail in convoluted ways.

So, how am I doing? Well the first year was basically survival. In the final exams my students all scored either an IB Level 4 or Level 5, with the balance slightly in favour of Level 5. But I had inherited these kids from the previous IB teacher and didn’t have enough time in just one year to change them. I was grateful that no one scored a 3 and disappointed that no one scored a 6. By the end of the second year this had improved dramatically. Nearly 80 percent scored a Level 5 or higher in Lit, and no one scored lower than a four. It was the highest percentage of any of the IB subjects at the school.

This is year three. Now I have all of my ducks in a row and things are falling into place the way they should. The kids know what they have to do and so do I. I have moved my novel study up to give the students plenty of time to review for the final exams and have study protocols in place to keep them on task. From an unknown quantity two years ago, I am now regarded as an experienced veteran whose opinion is sought on matters of curriculum development in other grades of English. Student confidence is up, and student writing has improved. I haven’t had an incident of plagiarism in over a year as these protocols are so well established and well-known that the kids don’t even try.

In short, I am a happy camper. The marking load will never decrease, but the preparation load has been reduced to near zero. I have more time to read, to walk to work, to swim at the beach, or even to blog, which I have solely missed. I am writing this now in some of that free time. Next year will be even better, and at the end of that, who knows. Maybe I will ready to finally retire!

October 2017

The Children’s Heart Project arranges life-saving operations for hundreds of children in need of heart surgery, who live in countries where the required medical expertise and equipment are not available. In the Cayman Islands, the Have a Heart organization, in partnership with Health City Cayman Islands, has helped 104 children from all over the world receive free, life-saving heart surgeries.

Holly Thompson, one of our CIS students has established a ministry called Impact 345. She provides each child with a back pack filled with toys and gifts and maintains a “closet” that provides clothing and personal supplies for family members. Young people, organized by Holly, also visit and play with the children while they are hospitalized.

Samaritan’s Purse has partnered with this project by sponsoring children from countries in which they work and can provide on-going support for the children and their families. They have brought children from other Caribbean  countries, Bolivia, Uganda and Mongolia. The children are admitted directly to hospital on arrival, where they stay until they recover from surgery. After discharge they must stay on island until they are cleared to return home. Our church got on board about two years ago by hosting the children, their Mom’s and an interpreter for the 2- 6 weeks need for complete recovery.

Anjee, is a young Canadian scientist working here in Cayman who is a member of our Community Group. She felt the Lord had equipped her to reach out to these kids, so purchased a home with the express purpose of hosting these children. We, as a Community Group, have enjoyed the opportunity to help Anjee when she has visitors. In October, she hosted Enkhujin and Munkhbat, two little sweethearts from Mongolia along with their Moms and interpreter. What a blessing it was to have this little group join us on Thursday evenings in our home.

The Mom’s are both herders from rural Mongolia who have had no previous contacts with Christians. Their children were born with life-limiting heart defects and they had little hope that they would ever see their kids happy and healthy. They traveled halfway around the world with very sick children, experienced the love and care of complete strangers and headed back home with rambunctious, silly, normal kids. And we were all blessed by the opportunity to get to know them. They will have continued relationships with Samaritan’s Purse and we pray for the day their spiritual hearts will be healed.

Pharrell Williams had a hit a few years back called “Happy.” Now that you’ve read that you’ve got that catchy little tune in your head again, haven’t you! Well for me it is not the tune that runs around in my head, but the feeling. I am happy. I am probably the happiest I have been in my entire life. The school where I teach is a happy place to work. The kids are nice, the admin is supportive, and the teaching staff are among the most accomplished colleagues I have ever worked with. After two years of going flat out at the peak of my capacity and endurance, I have finally mastered the IB Diploma Literature curriculum and just now finished what was for me the easiest and most successful term since I got here.

I have a very nice classroom that is well equipped with shelves and cupboards. I have my own little coffee bar set up, and a sink to clean the desks. I have a nice large desk myself with a decent computer, fast internet and easy access to my files through a central server. I have a state of the art SmartBoard which I use constantly, and down the hall a tech lab to help with the video recording I have to do for IB. Just further down the hall is a well-stocked library for the novels and plays that I must teach. I have a view of the soccer field from my desk, and a courtyard outside my door where I can listen to the parrots and mockingbirds in the trees. And finally! after near freezing to death in Malaysian classrooms, full control over the aircon in my own room, which I keep at a comfortable 25.

After some initial trepidation, Pam is pretty much up to speed on the teaching aspect of her ‘School Nurse’ responsibilities. I even had the joy of helping her this week on a student activity she wanted to run in her class. With the cooler weather it is now possible to walk to work again, and with Pam driving the car, I can get a ride home at the end of the day. I have lost some weight as a consequence, and am feeling a little lighter in my body, as well as my spirit. I even got a very nice hit on the ‘Welcome Friends’ portion of this website recently from a former student at Locke’s, where I last taught ten years ago now, expressing his appreciation for my “unique” approach to teaching which still resonates in his life. These notes, as anyone in this profession will tell you, are the sweetest words a teacher can hear. And after two years of touch and go, our finances here have finally come to grips with the cost of living on this island now that Pam is making an income. And despite the creaks and groans of late middle age (I flatter myself, I know), I am still in good health. I am a happy man.

I read a while ago about a Princeton study in which Nobel Economist Angus Deaton sought to find a link between happiness and wealth. It was a large study, 450 thousand respondents, and it indicated that above a certain family income – $75,000 for Americans – people were no happier even if their wealth ran to the millions. Lower incomes did increase stress and impacted happiness, but above a certain threshold, it apparently doesn’t matter.

While acknowledging that a certain level of income is important in reducing stress, I would argue that a sense of fulfilment, of doing what you feel called to do in life, is equally, if not more important. Frederick Buechner a most insightful Christian writer put it this way: Happiness is finding the place where your deep gladness (giftedness and passion) meets the world’s hunger (need, longing). I was fortunate. I found that place early in life, and have tried my best to remain there through a long and winding path of teaching in six countries on four continents. Now, as my career starts to wind down, I must tell you, it has been a life of increasing happiness with every passing year. May I encourage you, dear reader. Find the thing that a loving God has called and equipped you to do. Do it, and be happy.

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