Teaching things you don’t know

My teaching career is filled with being given a class to teach mere weeks before classes begin in an unfamiliar area.  In fact, my career began with my taking over a class for a classmate in which he had selected his books already.  One or two of the books’ authors I was familiar with, but hadn’t read the specific book, and other authors I’d never heard of.  And then, of course, was the fact that I’d never once been in front of a classroom.  I had to rely on my experience teaching my stuffed animals.  I actually did fine in that class even though I was only a step or two ahead of the students.  In grad school that trend continued somewhat as I taught classes where the book and sometimes the syllabus were dictated by the department.  When we first moved here, I was assigned to teach a course whose theme was race and racism.  I thought it was hilarious that they wanted a white girl from the south to teach a collection of students from all kinds of backgrounds about race.  But, it turned out, I had a lot to draw on in my personal experience and it had been an issue I’d tackled more than once in my life.

Last spring, I was thrown into a class teaching pre-service science teachers without knowing anything about a) science or b) K-12 science curriculum or standards.  Again, I did fine.  My real topic was teaching itself, not science or standards or anything like that.

And this year, of course, it’s a whole new ball of wax as I jump into a middle school classroom.  But the subject matter for those classes is familiar.  It’s been a matter of figuring out what is age-appropriate, what we can accomplish in a ridiculously short time period (both from a class period standpoint and a number of classes standpoint), and what might meet the needs of current and future classes in terms of skills that students need.   I feel pretty confident about what I have sketched out for those classes, though I’m under no impression that it’s perfect and won’t need some tweaking.  Friday, I met with the previous teacher of the “Art & Technology” class I’m teaching for upper school and boy, howdy, am I going to be thrown into something I don’t know much about.  Originally, before I met with the teacher, I had started looking at Processing, which is a programming language (simplified Java, really) that creates art.  I thought this would be a great way to kill two birds with one stone.  I had also applied for my very own MakerBot and had plans of doing some 3d art in addition to the Processing work. Turns out the class is really “Computer Graphics,” meaning mostly Adobe Illustrator.  Now I had the whole Adobe suite in my media lab and was familiar with everything in the package, but Illustrator was one thing I didn’t do much with at all.  I think I made a single poster for an event that I was hosting and that’s the extent of my experience.

Given my previous experiences of being set loose in unknown territory, I’m not that worried.  I’ll work my way through some tutorials, come up with some assignments, plan on relying a bit on the students, and it’ll all be okay.  But, I know part of the reason I’m in this boat in the first place is a common myth people have about technology-oriented/computing people.  There’s an idea that if you are tech-savvy in one area, you must be savvy in all areas and this just isn’t true.  I remember this used to happen to me on occasion, usually in informal settings.  I’d get asked about BluRay technology or DSL lines or a specific application.  I’d get a baffled look when I’d say that I didn’t know what they were talking about.  I could see their brains spinning: But wait, isn’t she the technology person? Possibly 20 or 30 years ago, there were people who knew a little bit about every available computer technology.  That’s because there wasn’t much of it.  PCs barely existed.  There was very little software for them.  Now, though? There are lots of different kinds of devices and software for every possible need.  There are special applications for different fields: graphic design, math, statistics, photo editing, video editing, web design, word processing, 3D rendering.  There are all kinds of applications I just don’t even use that much because I don’t need to.  If I were an artist or graphic designer, I’d be all over Illustrator, but my art skills stalled in about 3rd grade.  Give me some HTML and CSS to work with, though, and I’m a happy camper.

Because the book has been ordered, I’ll stick with teaching mostly Illustrator, though I plan to throw in the 3D stuff if I get it, and maybe some web design.  But I have two thoughts going forward.  One, I’m moving away from application-based teaching–that is teaching applications step by step and toward teaching computing–using computers to solve problems–and programming. In the younger grades, I have less of an issue with teaching applications.  I see teaching them as a gateway to learning more about how computers work and then to creating programs that do things.  Two, if we are going to continue to teach special applications–and I think for students interested in art, Illustrator makes a lot of sense–then we need to have people in the classroom who know that application well.  I know if I teach the class again, I will do Processing or something instead of teaching an application, but for now I’ll get creative within the given constraints.

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2 Replies to “Teaching things you don’t know”

  1. Ha, I’m teaching a new class this fall with several books I haven’t read! I just got assigned this class two weeks ago, our year starts in two weeks, and I’ve got two books to read that I’ll be teaching (and didn’t choose).

    When I was an adjunct, I did this all the time, but that’s back when I was only teaching two or three classes a semester without all the admin stuff that comes with being a faculty member. I enjoy choosing new material and getting to teach new books, but I like to do a lot of prep before the year starts, so now I’m scrambling to finish those novels and will have to plan on the fly once the year begins.

    Using tech to solve problems instead of just trying cool things is one of my challenges as a teacher too, so I’m interested to hear what you have to say about that as you move into your new work!

  2. Yep, Jackie, I’m adding this to homeroom, managing the professional development stuff, plus just being new! But you know, I don’t mind. It keeps me sharp. 🙂

    I will, indeed, be posting regularly about the process of teaching computing. My philosophy is shifting a bit as I proceed on this journey. It’s been interesting.

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