A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 04 2010

Pondering The Practice Process

One of the unforeseen positive outcomes of participating, as a “teacher-blogger,” in a recent Education Sector policy panel was that I met some amazing teacher-bloggers. Dina Strasser over at The Line always has insightful posts on various topics in education.  Recently, I read a guest post on her blog by Kathleen Cushman–whom Dina proclaims is one of the “Three Researchers [She] Sleeps With“–the author of a new book called Fires in the Mind.

Kathleen’s post on practice got me pondering the practice process.

Many people already know why practice is important–not just in school but for life generally. How did Lebron James become so good at basketball? Practice.  How did Arnold Schwarzenegger win six straight Mr. Olympia bodybuilding titles?  Practice.  How did these twins earn perfect 2400s on the SAT? Practice.

For some reason, however, my students tend to think that practice applies only to sports and dance and music–but not to classroom learning.

Though I have trouble finding an explanation for this paradox, I suspect this this is because my students tend to see intelligence as something that is fixed–something that God either blesses someone with or curses someone without.

This is why teaching students–particularly those who have struggled for years in school–about malleable intelligence is so important (a good example of this is the malleable intelligence article that TFA gives to us during Institute).  If students can dispel whatever notions that they’ve had that they cannot become smarter by working hard through practice–well, the sky’s the limit at that point.

Students need to learn, in other words, that practice in the classroom invariably leads to higher achievement. I remember reading an article explaining Tiger Woods’ dominance of the game of golf (sorry, I don’t remember, and can’t find, the source).  The article explained that Tiger’s greatness was in large part a result of his ability to hit the ball really far accurately and his remarkable consistency in sinking putts within 8 feet of the hole. No one can dispute that he developed those skills through painstaking practice on his golf game.  If we can unleash the inner Tiger in every student–well, we wouldn’t need to motivate students any longer (of course, we’d have to excise Tiger’s off-the-links mindset).

Practice, then, is the key. But in a school where time for direct instruction is precious, getting students to practice enough is difficult.

This is where homework comes into the practice process.

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I will admit that I have not been a consistent purveyor of homework assignments. This was partially because, in my first year as a teacher, I never felt that I had the extra time to create meaningful homework assignments.  Furthermore, my pacing was usually so off that unfinished classwork often became homework.  This was not a good thing.

But now I’ve made homework a constant in the classroom. In short, if practice makes perfect, and homework is practice, homework is perfect.

Homework should be an extension of the classroom that gets students practicing, deliberately, those skills learned in the classroom (Kathleen Cushman, as I mentioned above, believes wholeheartedly in integrating deliberate practice into learning).

Thus, this year, I’ve done my best to give students some form of purposeful homework each night. I never give assignments just to get students to do “busy work.” This is one reason why I gave so little homework last year; I thought that giving no homework was at least as good as giving homework without a clear purpose.

Homework in my classroom always focuses on giving students more practice with the skills learned during class time. If studies have shown that increased classroom time leads to higher achievement, shouldn’t increased out-of-classroom work time do the same?  I wholeheartedly believe so.

But how does one create purposeful assignments in a world already so devoid of time?

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One of the easiest ways to create purposeful homework assignments even when there don’t seem to be any is to get students to write in a journal on a chosen topic. Stephen King, in his (hilarious) memoir, On Writing, argues the following:

“if you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

The best practice to develop students’ writing skills, then, is to force them to write more.  This is what I do.

I now require that my students have a Do Now/HW composition notebook. In it, they write their homework journal assignment on the left side of a page (the following day, they write their Do Now on the right side of the same open page, so that I can check their HW as they are doing the day’s Do Now–talk about efficiency!).  Our first unit, “Do The Right Thing,” is all about virtues and culminates in a personal morality development memoir.  Having just introduced the concept of “main idea” to my students this week, my students’ Labor Day weekend writing assignment is to write a full page reflection on what they think is the “main idea” of their moral life.  It’s purposeful (it’s essentially a camouflaged thesis-brainstorming assignment for their memoir) and it’s practice (they are engaging in sustained independent writing).

Another reason why writing is one of the best media for homework stems from my belief that writing is, first and foremost, a solitary activity. Stephen King (I don’t know why I love him so much, especially since, outside of his memoir, I’ve read zero of his books!) offers advice he received, when he was still a know-nothing, from a newspaper editor:

“write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

Classroom time, by nature, is social; it is not a conducive environment for sustained writing. Thus, asking students to write outside of class–when they can create whatever environment they seek for writing–is the best solution.  Furthermore, this saves valuable in-class time for reading instruction.

Giving extended journal assignments, though, is not enough practice for students who lack many basic literacy skills. If improving students’ reading is a key component of the classroom, it needs to be a part of their homework.  They need to practice it.

This year, I’ve decided to make reading deliberately a habit of my students. In my journalism class, I am now giving an “Article of the Week” a la Kelly Gallagher.  By ensconcing a seemingly-simple reading assignment into the weekly flow of my classroom, students are forced to practice, on a consistent basis, basic skills.  This week, I gave my students a New York Times editorial about the thwarted airplane bombing attempt on Northwest Flight 253. Rather than having them simply read and reflect on the article, I used the article to give my students more deliberate practice.  Having just taught them the concept of “main idea,” I modified the margins of the article and left space for students to annotate. I required students to identify the main idea of at least five paragraphs.  Clearly, students knew they had to read the article, but they also knew that they had to practice a skill that we had learned in class during the week.

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I’m hoping to keep the “practice process” close to the front of my teaching brain. I want to work this year to create lessons that allow me to assign homework and other forms of deliberate practice that essentially extend the amount of time my students spend actively learning.  I am off to a very good start relative to last year, and hope that I continue developing purposeful homework assignments that do not simultaneously create a huge time burden (time management is a blog post series in its own right).

I’m determined to make them practice more–to be the coach who pushes them to do that extra set of suicides.  Hopefully there will be no mutiny.  For students who are already far behind their peers nationwide, they can never practice enough.

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2 Responses

  1. Leslie

    I LOVE the “Do Now”/Homework notebook idea!

  2. The “Do Now/Homework” idea is really very fine. I really love it and enjoyed as well.

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…


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