I got to teach a kids-and-parents knitting class this week and the whole experience was so interesting that I had to tell you about it.
For many (perhaps even most) knitting teachers, the idea of teaching 5-8 year olds how to knit is a total nightmare. Talk about a chaotic, twitchy group of people who might not have wanted to come in the first place — not quite the ideal audience for a class where you’ve got to sit still and do intricate things with your hands for 90 minutes.
But somehow I found the challenge exciting. When the LYS where I do most of my teaching asked me to do a class for parents with children too young to take the store’s independent fiber camp, I jumped at the chance.
As it turned out, this first time around I had two kids — a good small number to use as guinea pigs. They were both seven, one boy and one girl. The former came with his mom and the latter with her grandmother. Both adults already knew at least a bit about how to knit, so I didn’t have to worry about teaching them much. Plus, they were able to help out when their kid was struggling.
Here are my take-away lessons from this experience, which I’ll use to improve my August class.
Keep it short. Next time I’ll make each session one hour long. Either that, or I’ll need to incorporate a very different yarn-related activity into the 90 minutes. Sitting and concentrating on a difficult task for more than an hour is trying for kids this age. On the second day, even the more patient kid moaned a half-hour into class, “We have a whole hour left?! Unnngggghhh!” And she was enjoying it.
Change it up. The little boy who took the class was really struggling with knitting — to the point where he just kept melting onto the floor in defiant embarrassment. So I had to think fast and come up with something else for him to try. How about finger knitting? He liked that and busily made a bracelet for himself, so I brought a crochet hook to the second class and showed him how he could make the same chains using a hook. His face lit up. Bingo. One of my mottos has always been to go with a plan and be willing to change it. That approach is especially important with kids.
Next time I do the class I’ll also get them up and moving about more. I might take a page from Melanie Falick’s ingenious Kids Knitting book and teach them to dye yarn with Koolaid. I was also thinking I might figure out some way to dramatize the making of a knit stitch, having each kid play the role of a stitch. Still working on that one….
Don’t take their comments or behavior personally. Kids are brutally honest — most have little filter between their reptile brain and their mouths. You can choose to be bothered by this, or you can decide (even if it’s only for the 90 minutes you’re teaching the class) that it’s refreshing. Kids let you know right away when they’re bored. Or frustrated. Or tired. Respond to their honesty with a light sense of humor and a willingness to change, and you will have them in the palm of your hand. When the little girl moaned about how long we had left in class, I could have gotten really upset (jeez, I spent so long planning this — how could she be so rude?!), but I knew she was just tired. So I said, lightheartedly, as her grandmother looked mortified, “I know you’re tired, sweetie. Why don’t we take a break, maybe have a snack, and then try something new?” So we took the break, she had a little food, we learned how to purl, and she perked right up. (“Look, grandma — my knitting looks different now!”)
I’m teaching the class again in August — it’s full to the brim this time (four kids and four adults) — so I’ll report back on how it went.
Teaching is really hard work. I should know — I’ve been doing it for twelve years as a college history professor. Although teaching a knitting class is not nearly the same commitment in terms of time and mental energy, it still requires a great deal of thought and preparation to teach a good class. There may be a class project sample to knit and techniques to learn (or re-learn).
But you also have to think through the whole class through the eyes of different kinds of students. Where is the beginner knitter going to get tripped up? What did I struggle with when I learned how to do this? How can I keep the more advanced knitter engaged? How long will all this really take to teach? Do I want to hurry them along or let them learn at a leisurely pace?
With this in mind, I am gradually developing a set of teaching modules for knitting teachers. These modules are guides that walk a teacher through the whole process of preparing for and teaching a knitting class. I tell the teacher what to prepare, give a detailed lesson plan, provide a pattern that students can knit as a class project, and a handout that students can take home to help them remember what they learned.
Today, I am launching a new project that I am really excited about: I’m designing a series of teaching modules for knitting teachers. Each module gives detailed instructions about how to prepare for and teach a knitting class on a specific technique.
My first release is a module on how to teach stranded knitting. The module is a PDF that includes six pages of detailed instructions about how to prepare for the class, what materials the teacher and students need to bring, a step-by-step schedule of what to do in class, and how to explain and demonstrate different techniques. Also included are a one-page handout to give to students and a two-page pattern for the fingerless mitts pictured above.
I am really excited about this. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I can contribute to the knitting world, and it suddenly dawned on me not too long ago that — hey — I have a lot of teaching experience. Perhaps I could do something with this besides simply teaching classes myself — which I also love doing.
A few months ago a history department at another small college paid me handsomely as a consultant to develop a Science in World History teaching module. At the time, I was so shocked that anyone would pay that much for my syllabus and teaching notes. (Audra, I know you’re shaking your head right now at my naivete. I’m learning. I’m learning.) But then I realized — well — why not? It took a hell of a lot of work to develop those materials and I do teach an innovative class, if I do say so myself. Maybe that’s a niche for me.
So I thought I’d try it with knitting. And guess what? In the time it has taken me to write this post, I’ve sold two copies of the module. Woot! Chalk one up for the freelancer!
I want to wear this around my neck all day long. Why? Well, who wouldn’t want to wear yarn around their neck like a feed bag? You could just bend your head down and nuzzle it whenever you wanted.
But that’s not the real reason. No, this yarn is special because a former student gave it to me as a thank you for the teaching and mentoring I’ve given to her over the past four years. This student, Caitlin, crochets herself, but more importantly she knows how much the yarn crafts mean to me. And so here is this basket filled with bright, soft lace-weights; lovely undyed organic cottons; and two sets of wooden needles, including a set of those 9″ circular needles that I have been wanting to try.
It’s incredibly touching, isn’t it? Even more amazing to me is that this is the second time a student has thanked me with the glorious gift of yarn. In fact, with the yarn from that first student (Amanda), I crocheted an afghan for this latest student (Caitlin). Isn’t it just like fiber to create that soft web between us?
Well, guess what? I submitted two class proposals and both were accepted! I was so pleasantly surprised, especially after I saw that many of the other teachers have recognizable names and a lot more experience than I do.
OK, I have a lot of experience with teaching, but usually I’m talking about things like Chinese astronomy in the Ming period or T. E. Lawrence’s masochistic sexual fantasies or the freak-out that European men had in the 17th-century when Leeuwenhoek told them they had “worms” in their semen. You know… stuff like that.
So this will be a big change of pace. Here’s what my two classes will be about. Each class will last three hours:
“Knitting Our History”: We are going to make a hat project that replicates some of the history of knitting techniques. We’ll start at the base of the hat with naal-binding, a precursor to knitting that’s done with just a tapestry needle. It will be like a knitted walk through the past.
“Beyond Buttons: Learn New Ways to Close a Cardigan”: Many cardigan patterns call for a simple button band with button holes, but I often prefer something that looks more tailored. This class will talk about how to properly sew in a zipper, snaps, hook-and-eyes, and how to make frog closures. Here are some examples from projects that I have knit (some from others’ designs):
I have been teaching and writing full-time for about a decade, so you would think what I’m about to say wouldn’t have come as such a great shock to me.
I am finding that designing is hard. Really hard. I have been knitting long enough to feel very comfortable with it. I’ve tried just about every technique, and I feel like I have a pretty intuitive sense by now of what works and what doesn’t.
But it’s amazing how much “knowing how to do something yourself” does not equal “knowing how to tell others to do it.”
I was working up the collar on this western shirt I’m designing, and I kept finding myself fudging things here and there to keep it from rolling. This would be perfectly fine if the garment was for me, but I’ve got to write down an explanation of how to do this. These instructions need to be understandable to people who have not been knitting for 15 years. As it happens, I am not Elizabeth Zimmerman, so I don’t yet have a loyal following of people who will tolerate instructions that ask you at some point to figure it out yourself.
So I’m on Try #3 with the collar. The finish line is near. Once the collar is done, all I have left a little bit of embroidery. W00t!