Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Omens and Portents?

I am not sure that I believe in omens, but if I did today might not have been the best beginning for the school year for me.

I went back a little early to start setting up my room. I am scheduled to report back to work on Monday, but will be on--Jury Duty! Isn’t that fun? It was postponed from the end of school last year, for some reason. As it is now occurring during the week of meetings, I am not too heartbroken. But it does necessitate a little early work.

I got to my classroom during a nice steady downpour. It took a while to find a place to park where I could unload the supplies I bought for the classroom. Yup. That’s right. I spend my own money on classroom supplies. This year it was “found money.” I got an extra check for travel expenses that I had not expected.

Anyway, I got to my room and decided to set up the lights and computers. I don’t use the fluorescents during the year. I use incandescent lighting. I like it better and it doesn’t seem to set off ADHD behaviors as much as those harsh, white fluorescents do. But, to see what I was doing, I needed the overhead lights to get it set up. I was literally halfway through that when the lights started blinking on and off randomly and repeatedly.

As I poked around the building a bit I discovered that some classes had no power, some had full power, and some had intermittent power. I tried to get the rest of the class set up; apparently the sockets in the walls were working in my room. At least somewhat. I got the incandescent lights on and set up the rest of the room with those.

As I could not use the elevator, I had to go out and move my car to a back entrance on the bottom floor to unload my supplies. And, returning to the room from that, I found that some of the bulbs had blown out. Or at least stopped working.

At that point I gave in for the day. I put up the stuff I bought and headed for home and lunch.

If the chaos of the first day is an indicator of things to come, I really don’t wanna know about it. I’ll try to finish tomorrow.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Poems from Homeroom--Review

I am always on the lookout for books that I can use in the classroom. Sometimes novels or nonfiction. Sometimes poetry. Poetry written specifically for teenagers, poetry they would pay attention to, takes special skill. It requires that the poet connect or reconnect with a lot of adolescent emotions that most grown-ups would love to forget.

With Poems from Homeroom: A Writer’s Place to Start, Kathi Appelt has done a laudable job of delving into those feelings. She writes in the introduction that, with the exception of the opening poem, each is based on an individual person from her life, someone special she had in mind to make the poem work for her on an emotional level. In itself, not bad advice to an aspiring poet. Appelt mixes free verse with more structured forms, such as acrostics, haiku, and a sestina.

The acrostics in particular are good models. This form of poetry is often used as an ice-breaker in classrooms--a quick this-is-who-I-am assignment. Unfortunately, in my experience, many of these poems lack any depth or originality. They skim the surface of the student/poet or just consist of the quickest, easiest words that came to mind (or could be found in a dictionary). In her book Appelt writes seven acrostics, each about a dead rock legend. In each she tried to incorporate something of that legend's voice. These are powerful examples to share. Deep and insightful. Thoughtful.

The haiku is another of the most assigned and least understood forms of poetry. Too many teachers get in the 5-7-5 mindset and look for nothing more than syllable count. This misses the true power and beauty of traditional haiku, which juxtapose some small, intimate descriptive image with a larger idea. In Japanese each haiku uses a kigo, or season word, to let the reader know which of the four seasons that haiku represents.

Unfortunately, Appelt also seems to fall into this trap. Although she uses haiku in a clever way, interlocking several to create one completed idea, she missed a couple of nuances. Namely, she wrote senryu--not haiku. Senryu has the same 5-7-5 count but is not locked into nature. It is more often used to look at humans and our foibles. Also, tradionally, each haiku/senryu should stand by itself, a complete idea, although a haiku sequence such as she has here is not unheard of.

The sestina is one of the harder forms to write. The need to repeat key words in a different sequence in each of the stanzas is exacting and effortful. Making it seem effortless is even harder. Appelt’s “Research Paper Sestina” was fun to read and a fresh example to share with your students: one on a topic (research papers) that they can easily relate to.

And all this is only the first half of the book.

After the last poem comes the second section, where she writes about the inspiration for each poem and has several questions to get young poets (or even older ones like me) thinking. These are excellent jumping off points into writing original poems.

This was an accidental find in the public library. I am glad I decided to peruse the poetry shelves as this book is going to be valuable to me in the future. After I get my own copy, of course.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Because Writing Matters--Review and Discussion Questions

To be honest, I got roped into reading this one. There was a kerfluffle having to do with two different workshops my writing project site was hosting this summer. One was an online book discussion group and one was based on the NWP publication Because Writing Matters. In the turn of events the book discussion group wound up reading this also.

I started the book with a great deal of reluctance. I expected it to be dry and dense. It was neither. The NWP and Carl Nagin did an excellent job of making the case for why there should be writing at all grade levels and in across the curriculum. He used case studies of real teachers and schools that used writing to improve their students academic achievement. Often these improvements were was about as subtle as news coverage of Michael Jackson’s funeral.

To help make the case to administrators and central office personnel, he focused some chapters on what they, by virtue of their jobs and the current political climate, must focus on: test scores. He also made sure that all the facts in the book were products of and backed up by research--not just the anecdotal evidence of a few classrooms. This is also mandatory today, as it should be. If teachers don’t use research to inform their instruction, they are doomed to Santayana’s vicious circle.

In reading the book I was reminded of practices that I need to promote more in my classroom and was constantly stopping the reading to either make notes about changes to my classroom site (or just going ahead and making the changes I wanted to see in my online world).

While the information here is nothing that an NWP member would not expect, it is still an excellent summation of the current research as well as a powerful argument for the need to make the teaching of writing all-pervasive in our schools, at all levels.

It would make excellent reading for staff development, especially via the format of professional reading groups. And, with that in mind, I would like to offer some of the pre-reading, reading, and post-reading questions that we developed in my book study group.


1. Describe your view of the teacher's role in the teaching of writing.

2. Describe your view of the student's role in the teaching of writing.

3. Describe your view of the administrator’s role in the teaching of writing.

4. How would you rate the importance of writing in education in general, and your subject in particular?

(These would also make excellent post-reading questions. The participants could compare their original answers with those they hold after reading the book.)


1. Should there be a required course for all teachers on writing pedagogy?

2. How could it be "sold" to the students as being important in their particular discipline?

3. Should there be a stronger composition requirement for Language Arts majors? It seems that the stereotype of an English teacher has been someone who loves the literature so much they want to re-experience it and share it with others. Would a stronger writing component, maybe requiring courses in writing from the English department as well as literature, help?

4. What book on writing pedagogy has most influenced your instruction of writing in the classroom? I would be interested in more than the title and author, but also in the hows and whys of this book's importance to you. For the purposes of the question limit yourself to one (or at most two) books.


1. If writing is a subject that can never truly be completely mastered, what should our goals as writing instructors be?

2. How do you deal with the ambiguity in writing instruction--the idea that there is no guaranteed formula for success every paper? How do you get students to deal with it without becoming so frustrated they quit writing?

3. How can we teach, maybe just can we teach, students to write “powerful, memorable, provocative, [and/] or moving” papers?

4. How would your faculty respond to a mandatory inservice (or series of inservices) on writing pedagogy? Can you think of any ways to promote more of a “buy in” by faculty members who are not specifically responsible for writing scores?

5. What are your assumptions about writing?


1. Were you taught writing as a process or as a product? How did this influence your development as a writer?

2. How do you see the reading-writing connection as it relates to what you reach? How can you use this connection to improve your teaching?

3. Can technology improve the teaching of writing in your classroom? If so, how--if not, why not?

4. How can we help students who lack knowledge of “Standard English” to become better at that without making them so frustrated with writing that they rebel?


1. Think of a writing assignment that you gave that maybe didn't go as well as you had hoped. Using the information in this chapter, what could you do to improve that lesson before you teach it again?

2. If you don’t have any lessons that include a writing component, pick a lesson that you could use writing with. How would you include writing in teaching that lesson?


1. How do we get our fellow teachers to buy into ongoing professional development on writing? What objections could you foresee to such a professional development plan? How can these objections be overcome?

2. How can school districts make it easier for teachers to do this kind of professional development? I know they could just order us to, but that produces attendance--not results. What can administrators and central office personnel do to help create acceptance of professional development for writing?


1. What is the impact of mandatory writing assessments in your classroom? In your school? In your district?

2. Beyond essay questions and research papers, how can you use writing in your classroom to assess student progress in your subject area?

3. How useful are rubrics? Should they be absolute or more flexible?

4. Should holistic assessments be more focused on content or correctness?


1. What do you think about the concept of assigning writing vs teaching writing? Do you find the criteria valid? Using these criteria, which would you say you do in your classroom?

2. What lessons do you draw from the two case studies? Do you think they could (or should) be adapted for your school?

3. How can we get administrators and central office personnel to understand the importance of teaching writing across the curriculum at all grade levels?


These questions were posed on pages three and four of the book. They are good questions to keep in mind as you read and make excellent post reading discussion questions.

Why does writing matter?
What does research say about the teaching of writing?
What do we mean by “writing processes"?
What are some features of an effective writing classroom?
How can writing be used to develop critical thinking?
How does writing fit into learning across the disciplines?
What kind of professional development prepares teachers to teach and use writing?
What does a school wide writing program look like?
What are fair ways to assess writing?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Writer's Book of Wisdom--Review

Every summer I go on a reading orgy. I read lots of books that are what I call brain candy. They are quick, fun, and not in any way taxing on my brain. I tend to read of lot of  urban fantasy--fantasy novels set in the contemporary world.  

But, eventually, I start to think that, for some reason, I really ought to read some professional books. I love to read books about writing. I can read books on pedagogy and theory, but I am frankly not as patient with them. I like to get to the nuts and the bolts. So, after reading ten or twelve fantasies (and some graphic novels, too--almost forgot those), I pulled out a book I purchased in May with a birthday book card I received and began to read it.

And a few days ago I finished reading The Writer’s Book of Wisdom: 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft by Steven Taylor Goldsberry. It is set up as a list of rules. The author himself acknowledges at the end that some of the “rules” contradict each other. That is okay. Different people need different guidance. There is something in here for just about everyone. With each rule lasting only a page or two long, the book reads quickly. That is, if all you do is read it.

It is intended to be more than a quick read. It is intended to be inspirational--get the reader energized to trade reading for writing. As I usually find in these books it tends to slant heavily to narrative fiction. That is somewhat useful to me professionally, as I need to teach narrative writing. It is not as useful to me as a writer. I tend to write poetry and nonfiction. There were some ideas that I found useful for those genres as well.

Some of the rules are gems that I am going to use with my writing classes next year. They will be easy to build mini-lessons around. For instance, in discussion of dialogue, Goldsberry breaks that topic into three of his rules. It reminded me that, as a teacher I need to break down the processes more for my students. It also, by its very structure, exhibits and promotes the idea of strategic writing. Have a plan going in. Know what you want to accomplish. Think of your audience to help figure out the best way to accomplish the goal you set yourself.

I am working on getting a list of nonfiction writing titles together for inclusion in a classroom library. While I would not put this book in the same league as Writing Down the Bones or Writing Toward Home, it is in some ways more accessible to beginning writers, I think. It is informative, interesting, casual in tone, and well worth the time.

©2009-Art Belliveau

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hemingway Stole a Urinal

I haven't posted here for a while.  Since this poem is about Hemingway, and I am an English teacher, I think  I can justify posting this here.  It comes from a story I heard when I was recently in Key West.  It is purportedly true.  

Hemingway Stole a Urinal

Hemingway stole a urinal,
That’s how the story goes.
Hemingway stole a urinal,
While helping move Sloppy Joe’s.

Joe decided to move his bar,
To save a buck a month in rent.
He figured a way to make the move,
Without costing him one red cent.

He closed the bar at two o’clock
(That’s early for Key West)
And offered free booze to everyone
Who honored one request:

Help him move all his stuff,
Half a block to the new location,
And he would make sure that all who helped
Would be rewarded with inebriation.

And so the patrons of the bar,
Picked up every table and chair,
And balanced their drinks as they moved the stuff,
Through the humid Florida air.

In order to get another free drink
They had to back for another load,
And carry it down half a block
To the new site across the road.

Joe opened the bar at nine the next morn
And kept his business in the groove.
But there was at least one accoutrement
That didn’t make the move.

Young Ernest went into the john
To recycle some of Joe’s beer.
And as he stood there he was struck by an urge
To make the urinal disappear.

After all it was only fair,
Reasoned his semi-pickled brain,
After all he’d paid for that urinal
With all the profits he’d sent down the drain.

And he reached out a drunken hand
And tore it from the wall.
Then he left the party
And headed home with his haul.

He put in the front yard
Not caring if he appeared the fool.
He was getting back at his wife,
Who secretly put in a pool.

She tried to to make him take it out,
But she never won that fight.
And so she tried to dress it up,
With a fountain and tiles bright.

And that stolen urinal
Still sits there to this day.
And that’s the tale of the urinal
Stolen by Ernest Hemingway.

©2009-Art Belliveau

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

For Louise M. Rosenblatt

For Louise M. Rosenblatt

Together in class
We read a story

It is the same story
Printed in every copy
Of every book
In the classroom

Yet—and this is what
I love about reading—

It is a slightly different tale
Inside every head

As the words on the page
Collide and combine
With the life experience
Of each person
Reading the story

©2009-Art Belliveau

Friday, May 1, 2009

So Much for Planning

So Much for Planning

I was going to give a test today
On Greek and Latin roots
I was going to ask for final drafts
Of my students’ movie reviews
I was going to accomplish things
But my plans, reality outstrips
All my plans are junked today
Because of five field trips
This class now is half empty
The next two look much the same
But I’ll just bend like a reed in the wind
I know how to play the game
Those here today will have the chance
To make up work they’ve missed
Or maybe even to get ahead
With me here to assist
The end of the year is coming fast
(It’s in three weeks—right to the day)
And here we are just kicking back
Another wasted day

©2009-Art Belliveau

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Home Stretch

The Home Stretch

Looking at the calander.
Looking at the clock.
Looking out the window.
Looking down the block.

Waiting for the summer.
Waiting for the end.
Waiting for the last school day;
It’s right around the bend.

Less than four weeks left now.
It’s shorter every day.
The students are excited--
Want to leave without delay.

The students all are restless.
That you can’t ignore.
They are ready for vacation--
We teachers are ready more!

©2009-Art Belliveau

Thursday, April 23, 2009


as the other students in the class
chat in quiet amiability while
working on their writing project
these young ladies just sat and talked
their volume rising slowly
almost imperceptibly
but steadily nonetheless

if they are going to refuse to work
why can't they at least do it quietly
like the ones who sleep so soundly
through the class every single day

but no
they insist on sitting there
publicly emoting to each other
the dramas of their lives
and their day at school

to be honest
some of them do indeed
live through a great deal of real drama
too much to contend with
at their young age)

i wrestle with myself
as i observe them
heat slowly rising
in my face
in lockstep with
their increasing volume

i could do something
to make them quiet down
i could get up
and just sit near them
make them nervous
tenth graders detest
a teacher's propinquity

but my stomach is roiling
and jumping inside me
feels like i've been
repeatedly gut-punched
should have stayed home
but felt obligated
to come and teach them

most students are working
or at least appearing to
knowing that negative attention
lowers their grades
just these four loud talkers
inconsiderately interfering
with everyone's thought processes

so i reach to my left
and grab for the stack
of preprinted forms
ones i have prepared for
just such an occasion
and fill out detentions
for my chatty friends

see you all soon

©2009-Art Belliveau

15 Sentence Portrait

One of my favorite writing exercises is one that I was introduced to about ten years ago. The 15-Sentnece Portrait was developed by the late Wendy Bishop. It is an extremely guided writing exercise. Each of the 15 sentences in the writing assignment has an instruction on what to include in that sentence. It could be a color, a wish, a body part, a specific number of words, etc.

In the abstract, it sounds like a straight jacket, but I have seen it produce some really excellent writing from my students over the years. And this year is no exception. I have an instruction page for it on my class website and even created a step-by-step PowerPoint to guide my students through writing one.

I have shared this idea with others, and have had reports of similar good results. Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Empty Classroom

The Empty Classroom

It waits in darkness

Soon enough it will again be
A lively, raucous place
Filled with life
Filled with sound
Filled with direction

Once the break is over
And school begins again

©2009-Art Belliveau

Friday, April 3, 2009

National Poetry Month and My Students Are Publishing

In honor of National Poetry Month I am featuring quotes by poets on my Almost Daily Quote blog. I am also going to do my best to write a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo). I will keep these on my poetry blog. Any feedback is always welcome.

I am not the only one publishing this month. My students are at that point as well. Last week I got them to start typing up some of their assignments on Google Documents. Even with my prior rant on Google Docs, I still find the service to be very valuable. After my students write up their assignments I require them to add me as a collaborator so I can help them edit their work.

Then, this week, I had them join My class website is located there. After they join wikispaces, I have them join my class wiki so they can add their own content to it. Each student is provided with their own webpage. On that page, so far, I have had them write a brief intro (this was freestyle--no explicit instruction past no last names used). Then they were to type in "Table of Contents," "Portrait Poem," and "Memory Paper."

Then we went back to Google Docs. I showed them how to publish their documents as webpages and had them copy the URL. Then back to wikispaces, where I showed them how to link from their webpages to their documents.

Most of them have at least made a start on doing this and are at various stages of completion. But, if anyone is interested in taking a look and leaving a comment, please feel free. Please try to keep comments constructive, these are beginning writers.

Happy National Poetry Month!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Inspired teachers... cannot be ordered by the gross from the factory.  They must be discovered one by one, and brought home from the woods and swamps like orchids.  They must be placed in a conservatory, not in a carpenter shop; and they must be honored and trusted. -John Jay Chapman

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Google Sometime Sucks

Maybe they have gotten just too $!&$*# big for their own $%^$#^ good.

I am trying, really trying hard, to sign my students up to Google so we can use Google Docs in my classes. Google, in a measure of corporate responsibility, has set up a program that if too many addresses are being set up from the same IP address too quickly, then no more can be added for about 24 hours. Ten seems to be the limit. I can live with that. I can use several different computers with several different IP addresses.

However, as a way to just annoy the @$#%$^& out of me, there is also something that makes me reenter info for a student anywhere from 3-20 times before accepting it. This is maddening. I recopy the passwords and type in the capcha word. Then I do it over and over and over and over and over and over and over... ad nauseum.

There is no number to call. There is no address to email. Google remains totally aloof from the problems its users encounter. It is not even slightly amusing. It is frustrating and aggravating. I doubt that anyone at Google will give a flying flip about the problems I am having, but wouldn't the universe be better place if they did.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Annual Standardized Test Rant

I hate standardized testing. Truly. Deeply. Passionately. And this week that hatred is reinforced.

Testing in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. (Although I do like Tom Bodett’s take on the different emphasis on testing that school and life give.) I give tests in class now and again, but I prefer other means of assessment. I almost never give multiple choice tests that require a scantron sheet to be bubbled in. These kinds of tests just don’t seem to measure what I am interested in knowing: whether or not the students can apply the knowledge they learned in my class.

Standardized testing, however, is another kettle of fish altogether. Especially when it is school wide testing like the Alabama High School Graduation Exam (AHSGE). Especially because during the week of testing virtually all education in the school comes to a screaming halt. I am relatively sure that is not the intention, but as with all things in life the Law of Unanticipated Consequences takes a strong hold of it.

There are five tests in the series: math, reading, language, social studies, and biology. Virtually all of the tenth graders in the school take all the tests, as do any juniors or seniors who have not passed them. Seniors who have not previously passed the old science portion of the test have to take that, also. All of the tests are multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble.

In Alabama the tests are untimed. The students have as long as they need to complete them. So we start in the morning and let those who are not finished by a certain time move to either the library or the auditorium in order to finish the test. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

We were originally given a schedule that called for the first part of testing to be over by about 9:45. Technically that is a little over two hours after we get started. But that did not count in the time for the teachers to collect and tag all cell phones in the classroom, to go and collect up the exact number of tests and answer sheets that are being used, to recount them for accuracy, and to sign for them. As the tests have become higher and higher stakes, the security precautions for them have correspondingly tightened.

The first day also neglected to take into account the time necessary for the students to bubble in all their demographic information and write the test booklet number on a piece of paper issued for this purpose. During the test, these are collected and all the test booklet numbers are kept on a daily tally sheet issued for that purpose.

Once all of the housekeeping tasks are accomplished (did I mention passing out the answer sheets, pencils, scratch paper, and test booklets? oh, and for Monday, the calculators for the math test--also numbered and recorded twice), the students get to start the test. Then the true agony of boredom sets in for those teachers who are test administrators and proctors (a second teacher in the room). Again, since the tests have become so high stakes, the teachers can no longer read, write, grade papers, etc. The teachers get to circle and watch the students test. Eating, drinking, and sitting are also forbidden activities for the teachers at this time.

Oh, one more wrinkle to this testiness--we started it the Monday after Daylight Saving Time started. So, basically, we were all starting the testing at 6:30 according to our bodies' internal clocks. The window to the outside showed a pitch black view. Could have been the middle of the night. It sure enough felt like it to me.

The first day I had eleven students who needed to go to "extended testing." The time when the students who haven't finished yet get to go to the school library or auditorium to complete the test. All those answer sheets and test books need to be collected. All the students' names, book numbers, and calculator numbers recorded on yet another sheet of paper so that the teachers in the extended testing center can sign them, like a receipt. The testing materials for the students who are already done get returned, recounted and resigned for. This pushed the first day past the scheduled time. By that afternoon we had amended schedules we sent out with the students.

The students who are not testing do not have to come to school until ten or so. When they get here, they are made to sit in the gym and wait for testing to end. There are a few teachers in there to try to manage the group. But it is basically a great big party for the nontesters.

After testing ends, we go to first block. That lasts two hours because we serve lunch during this time. The classes might or might not be up to half empty due to extended testing. The other three blocks meet after lunch for 20-30 minutes depending on how much we went over the test time when setting up extended testing.

The students are totally brainfried. There is no testing of any other kind this week, even for students who are not taking the AHSGE. There is absolutely no homework of any kind given during this week. All learning basically comes to a stop. While there is one class meeting the usual amount of time, it is often half or more empty. The other three classes lack the time to get anything accomplished.

Here is where I see the Law of Unintended Consequences taking hold. I will be optimistic and suppose for the sake of argument that the people who came up with these ideas for testing, legislators in Washington, D.C. and (in my case) Montgomery, AL, never intended for a week of learning to stop cold. I bet they would be upset about it and use the idea to condemn the "lazy teachers." Hey, if all learning stops, it must be our fault, right?

Next week we start a return to normality. The last quarter of school is going on. Prom is in a couple of weeks. Spring Break in the last half of April (totally different rant about that). The students and teachers are all much more relaxed. The build up in tension and aggravation building to the climax of AHSGE testing is done for another year. Now we just have to get through the denouement.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bowling Writing Thinking

While working on a writing project in class yesterday, my students and I were discussing different prewriting techniques to help them prepare to write the first draft. In class previously we had worked with listing, clustering, and freewriting. To be honest, I was sort of hoping that these techniques would be the ones they told me as I asked them how to prepare in this stage. While I eventually did get those answers across (either by getting them to tell me or, as a last resort, reminding them of we have been learning), in each class at least one student answered they would prepare for the writing by "thinking about it."

While I am all in favor of thinking, I see this answer as a cop out. What my students have predominantly meant by this over the years was that they would sit in their seat and do nothing physically while they pondered the topic. I am trying to get them to a point where they prepare for a writing task by picking up a pen or pencil. "Just thinking" about something is not the most effective way to prepare--unless it is coupled with the physical activity of writing the thoughts down.

I tried to come up with a way to get across to my students that thinking about something is not the same as doing something. I went bowling last week (this will connect, I promise). It occurred to me that I might be able to link up the way I bowl with "just thinking" about writing something.

When I bowl and it is my turn to fling the ball down the lane, I always try to take a moment or two. I stand there on the lane and think through my approach. Where is the best place to stand? What should I aim for? Where should I put the ball down to make it go where I want? I think through the proper form and the way to take the three steps and let loose.

After I told them this (to much rolling of eyes and irreverent bowling comments) I asked them if doing all that was bowling. The majority of my students yelled out no. They told me that just standing there thinking about bowling was not, in fact, the same thing as bowling.

I agreed with them and then pointed out that just as standing there thinking about throwing the ball was not bowling (and how much less when I am seated, waiting my turn, and thinking about how to improve my swing), sitting there thinking about what they wanted to write was not writing. Even if they were holding the pen in their hands.

The only way to bowl is to fling that ball at the pins. The only way to write is to put words on paper. Once either is done, then the work of improving it can truly begin.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

10,000 Hours

In his newest book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell takes a long, hard, in-depth look at success. In the book he takes apart many of the American myths about success and looks at what it really takes.

One of the claims he makes in his book is that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice in order to become expert in doing something. If you want to be an expert in swimming, you need to spend 10,000 hours swimming. If you wish to be an expert teacher, you need to spend 10,000 hours teaching. If you want to be an expert writer, you need to spend 10,000 hours writing.

He even helpfully breaks this down a little more. 10,000 hours works out to be three hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for ten years. I was talking about this with a friend and we figured that meant about five years to become an expert teacher. Then I rethought. Even if we double the number of teaching hours from three to six, most teaching contracts run a maximum of 180-185 days. So that again, in my revised thinking, works out to about ten years.

Then I look back at my teaching career. I still apologize to students I taught my first year when I run across them. I assure them that I have improved since then. By my fifth year, I was just becoming relatively confident. I had the basics down and was working on improving. It took me a little over a decade to really feel like I had mastered the job. And even that feeling fades on occasion.

When I add to that the thought that, according to statistics compilrd by the NEA, 50% of all new teachers quit within their first five years, I have a real problem. Why are so many of these new professionals leaving before they have the chance to acquire expertise? So I have known have run away hard after just one year.

I think the answer might be in the way teachers are prepared for the classroom. Most teachers have minimum exposure to students prior to getting their first job. They have probably interned, but that is such a short time. Also, there is always that safety net of the supervising teacher. Sometimes, more than a safety net.

For instance, my supervising teacher never left her classroom. She sat in the back of the room quietly doing paperwork. However, when the class would get too loud to suit her, she would raise her head up from that paperwork and look meaningfully around the room. Sure enough they would get quiet. And I would (the next fall) go into my teaching career with no real experience in managing classroom behavior. I survived, but it was a rough year.

Tossing new teachers into the deep end with nothing to cling to but an anchor might not be the most effective way to retain teachers and help them get to their 10,000 hours. Doctors do it with paid, years long internships. Lawyers do it with years of case file work. I think it would be exceedingly rare for a first year doctor to provide surgery unassisted, or a first year lawyer to argue a case in open court with no supervision. Yet teachers are required to this all the time.

Maybe some sort of paid, years long internship for teachers is needed. But the cost, some will cry out. It is too expensive. How expensive is it now to have rotating teachers? How expensive is it to future generations that the teachers they had were so very far from being an expert in their field? There will be up from costs, no doubt––but the pay off on the back end might well be incalculable.