Monday, July 9, 2012

How to Get Good at It (Whatever It Is)

Maybe this is evidence of brainwashing from my college years, but I hold fast to the belief that the road to happiness is to become really, really good at something. How pleasant if that thing is also something at which one can earn a living. Even if not--even if that thing is carving sculptures out of butter or that strange combination of art, vocation, and drudgery of being a parent or if it is a kind of play--training one's dog, growing orchids (not my area--I'm just now trying to resurrect several that I nearly murdered from neglect followed by equally damaging obsessive attention), or building sculptures out of buttons--it's still not only a worthwhile pursuit but the highway to heaven.


1. Fun--Fun is absorbing, leads to flow, there are brain wave changes, look it up.

2. Becoming a master of something changes you deeply. You develop the confidence of the expert, which has a salutary deflating effect on the ego, thereby creating room for curiosity. You can afford to admit ignorance and to consider that you have something to learn. When I was studying Iyengar yoga and was admitted to the invitation-only level IV-V class, any pride I might have had was extinguished by the obvious truth that I was the dunce of the class. This was incredibly liberating. I felt freed of any expectations I might have had, any desire to compete (oh, people say yoga isn't competitive--baloney! If humans do it in a group, someone is going to try to dominate or show off, probably many someones) simply because I lacked the ability and experience to be able to compete at that level. Some of the people in the class had themselves been teachers for many years, others had studied in India, some had had a yoga practice for decades.

3. The joy is in the doing--not in feeling special for the doing, not in the attention one might get for the doing, but in the doing itself.

But one only learns this joy if one finds something that one really really loves to do, and then works and works and works and works at it. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery.

I think about kids at school. How do they get a chance to find what they love to do and are really really good at? Some maybe just stumble across it. One of the protegees (and I desperately hope she doesn't mind I'm talking about her here) is shockingly good at content development. She's a natural. She just has this way of thinking, this combination of acuity, precision, and creativity that makes her a knockout. With only a few months experience, she's creating work of the quality I'd expect from someone with years of experience. Did she choose a career in assessment content development? No. It was sort of happenstance facilitated by a recommendation of someone who is a friend of mine and was one of my protegee's teachers. Never underestimate the power of a teacher to guide, nudge, encourage.

Maybe sometimes kids are really good at things they don't necessarily love, and maybe sometimes they love things they're terrible at. Then what? We can't all be good at everything. We can't all be suited for everything.

When I was in the sixth grade, I'd been reading all the Black Stallion books for years, and more than anything I wanted to be a jockey. I was 5' 6" and weighed 120 pounds and someone hinted to me that jockeys tend to be built more delicately. I was crushed. (I got over it.)

Last night I was making a list of things I'm not just terrible at, but monumentally and breath-takingly terrible at.

I was the world's worst secretary. When I was 21, I burst into tears at a panel job interview when I learned there would be a timed typing test (what's funny is that I'm now quite speedy on the keyboard, writing having become my life's work). I like to cook but once in a while I stop paying attention and something catches fire (generally a sleeve, although I branch out occasionally and have set fire to two wooden cutting boards and a couple of oven mitts--and I'm not even listing all the times I left a kettle on the stove and then went my way). I like to knit but the highest knitting rank I will ever achieve is that of advanced beginner, as I get confused when I see numbers and letters in the same paragraph, and so find knitting patterns impossible to read and also? Directions are boring. I am bad at sitting through anything that bores me. In fact, I am really bad at sitting still. When I'm on the phone, I have to pace or sketch or file papers or make coffee or snip dead blossoms off the rosebush. Once I did sit still long enough knit a sweater. I read the directions and then congratulated myself on my creativity in not following them. We named the sweater Moby Dick. It was of the shape and dimension of a giant hobbit--or maybe an orangutang: too short in the torso, as wide as three rather hefty people, and with arms that reached nearly to my knees. It had a fetching hood of Medieval appearance. I had to wear the sweater, at least a couple of times, because it took probably 100 hours to knit, and when I did, I looked like a deranged monk. However, the sweater was banished to the Goodwill because it endangered my life when I forgot about the billowing sleeve while making coffee. Yes, it caught fire. TWICE. You couldn't tell after I brushed off the charred yarn. I knitted a skirt, too. The skirt never caught fire, but you'd think it would have spontaneously combusted from sheer hideousness. It looked like a homemade tent fashioned from olive, orange, and purple yarn barf. I just threw it away, although it might have been a serviceable sleeping bag if I'd just sewed the hem together. I GET LOST. Getting lost is so deeply embedded in my life that I have a formula for how much getting lost time to allow depending on the distance I'm traveling: For less than an hour's drive, I allow 30 extra minutes; for more than an hour, 60 minutes; for longer trips, it's another half day. I've gotten lost going to the airport, and to the cello teacher's--where we go once a week and have done for the last two years. I've been late for planes and for job interviews (before the formula). I'm always late to doctor appointments (I've gotten lost going there, too, even though it is 15 minutes away and I think I know where the office is, but my doctor kindly tells me she never minds because it gives her a chance to catch up on her file notes.

UPDATE: Fixed typo & formatting. Same as it ever was.


  1. I love the idea of helping students find their mastery. I still encourage mine to find what they love and to push themselves to become learners. But the question is, how do we do this in today's political climate. When everything is a test, there's no time for simply reading or doing or imagining about those things that do not get tested.

    For a time, I thought I'd just ignore the tests. Teach. Give the tests when required. Ignore them. Teach. But I work with low socioeconomic status (SES) kiddos. When they do poorly on the tests, they are judged failures. I am also, but I can live with that. I can not live with people thinking my kids are dumb. I cannot live with them thinking they are dumb.

    There is an error in the paragraphs above. It's one that I didn't catch for a long time. The error is in the assumption: Tests are irrelevant to teaching. Sadly that's been the truth for far too long. In Wisconsin, the WKCE is given at the end of the 1st quarter, but the grades do not come back until the 4th quarter. It's given too early for me to feel like I've had any real impact on the students learning and the results come back too late to show me where they struggle. A psuedo-replacement, the computerized MAPS, gives results immediately but teachers were not allowed to see the tests or to know what skills were being tested until the last few weeks of school.

    My friend Monster (You know her as Stephanie) introduced me to your blog. I have found hope in your thoughts and the thoughts of some of the linked blogs: Testing that's relevant. Testing that seeks to find strengths instead of tricking students into the wrong, but close, answers. Can it be done?

  2. I think what you describe is the great challenge. Reading your comment reminded me of Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade by Linda Perlstein. That book breaks my heart--for the teachers and the students.

    I don't understand witholding results from teachers--it seems like immediate results could allow teachers to implement immediate intervention. What could possibly be the reason for such a policy?

    And--we could discuss this for hours, and maybe we will someday, but a last thought for today--a pencil and paper test offers a snapshot of student performance from a given moment in time. Decisions with far-reaching consequences should take into account information from a variety of sources: performance on standardized tests, portfolios of student work, teacher evaluations of student performance, and so on.

    Keep fighting the good fight is all I can say. Kids need someone on their side who has faith in them. We all need that--but kids especially do. Your students are lucky to have you.

  3. I believe that I am going to be quite upset with you for telling me that book title. Most of me just wants to avoid reading it, but that little part of me that can't let go of a theme is going to insist that I do read it, and it will probably make me angry.

    I do not mean to fill your blog with my comments. It would be better for me to start my own blog I think. But I do want to correct myself. I did not mean to say the results were withheld. We saw the results expressed as a number in relation to other numbers (and those numbers were mostly correct in the ballpark of my kiddos academic success compared to each other). We just were not allowed to know what the kids were tested on, other than "Reading" and Language Arts" and "Math". Inevitably looking over their shoulders while they tested suggested that at least a portion of the test had nothing to do with our curriculum and other portions used different terms than I used in class.

    I agree with you about the use of the test. Tests should be one piece of the puzzle and in that context they can be enlightening. But I want the tests, even if used as only one part, to be valid indicators of student success. I've been reading through your back-blog and I love what you have to say about both interest in content and in valid sources (classic lit vs modern).

    Thank you again for expressing your thoughts about testing. And I promise not to respond (to this post) again!

  4. Please don't worry about commenting too much--I appreciate talking with a reader. Heck, I appreciate having a reader.

    So what happened was that you received an overall content area score, but no scores on specific indicators (standards, or benchmarks, or what the Wisconsin terminology is for expectations for students), which meant you could see a child has trouble reading, but you can't diagnose whether the trouble is in decoding new words, using context clues, identifying main idea, or any other specific skill. Is that right?

    And I've heard the other problem, too, that the tests don't align with curriculum. That is a big problem. I'll try to wrap my mind around writing to that one.

    Thank you--I appreciate the conversation.

  5. Okay. I won't worry then, but feel free to yell at me for posting too much or, you know, just because you want to.

    You are correct about the results from the test. Definitely needs more specific results if it's to be really useful, but I feel that talking about it is a much bigger topic (There are parts that I really like too . . .)

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on alignment with curriculum. I wonder if we'll see changes to the tests as Common Core becomes the standard, or if we'll just get a variation of what we see in the book you suggested (and, sadly, what I see happening even here in Madison) where schools keep aligning curriculum to the tests.