A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 11 2010

What Does It Mean to Be an Expert?

My students and I recently finished a modified version of Kathleen Cushman’s “Practice Project.” The idea was to invest my students in the idea that practice–even if boring, difficult, or frustrating–matters if they want to become successful.  Students learned that experts don’t necessarily need to hold advanced degrees or have fancy titles.  Rather, experts needed to put in the hours at doing the things that they were experts in.

The expert mini-unit was, honestly, not as successful as I had hoped. I had a grand vision for the learning products my students would generate. Unfortunately, few students completed one of the key components of the unit, an interview of an expert in the community.

But there were successes too. And they are worth celebrating.

First, most students now understand many of the 13 habits of experts that Kathleen Cushman identifies. This vocabulary of “expertness” is now a part of the classroom.  Students talk about how asking questions, making connections and collaborating are things that experts do in order to get better.

Second, students showed creativity and thoughtful analysis during the culminating in-class essay. To gauge what my students had learned about “being an expert” I gave the following in-class writing assignment:

Niels Bohr, the famous physician once said, “an expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.”

We have discussed what it means to “be an expert.” Write an essay in which you analyze the concept of an “expert.” You might describe people you know who are experts.  OR you might persuade the reader about why it’s important to become an expert in something. OR you might give your own definition of “expert.”  OR you might compare and contrast two different experts in the same field. It’s up to you–be creative!

I had intended for this in-class “quiz” to serve as a simple check for understanding (CFU).  I just wanted to casually see what they had learned.  The assignment wasn’t necessarily aligned to any standards, either.  I was just doing it–might I say for the fun of it?  I didn’t expect much in terms of substance.

Yet, the responses I got were phenomenal. Little did I know that students would put in their best effort for the 30-minute period I gave them.  After pacing in a classroom where all I could hear for 30 minutes were the sounds of purposeful scribbling,  thoughtful erasing and determined grunts.

AD’s second example of an expert in her life made me laugh out loud:

I know plenty more of experts, some that are very close to me. For an example my mother is like the greatest driver I know. She can do a “donut” with all six of her kids in the car and we wont get in an accident. Anybody in my family can say that my mother is a great expert in driving. [emphasis mine]

For the uninitiated, a “donut” in driving terminology is when you drive your car in a circle while staying in one place.  This guy, can do a quick J-turn, parallel park in a space with 30 centimeters of clearance, and complete 10 donuts in 16.07 seconds. Awesome.

DP chose to write about me as an example of an “expert”:

An expert is someone who is good at what they do best. To become an expert at some[thing] you have to put in hard work and be committed to what ever you want to become an expert at.  Such as Mr. K he is an expert at teaching English 3 he became an expert at teaching because he was committed to going to High School and college. while he was there he work very hard, study, did every assignment he was given to do and years later he became a teacher.

That he mentions that I became a teacher “years later” amuses me.

Other students used this assignment as an opportunity to show their creativity and passions:

  • BS, an aspiring singer, decided to compare and contrast the musical expertise of Beyonce and Rihanna.  She analyzed the commercial success of each, but eventually gave Rihanna the tip as the “better” expert for finding her own way and overcoming many obstacles along the way.
  • QG outlined the process by which one can become on expert.  First, practice. Second, get help from other experts. Third, read books on the field.

Admittedly, the objective “quality” of the writing was poor. It took effort to cut through the confusing syntax of certain essays.  I’m sure there have been studies done that correlate reading with writing skills.  Unfortunately, the weak grasp of mechanics that many students possess often masks students’ wonderful ideas.

But it is a “win” when I can get a classroom of normally-rambunctious students to write for 30 minutes straight. Furthermore, I now at least have a starting point with which to work on improving my students’ writing skills.  After 3 hours of on-and-off reading and evaluating, I now have all of my students’ essays scored using the 6 traits writing rubric.  I neglected writing in the classroom last year, so it’s only right that I make up for that this year.

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

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