Posts tagged ‘relationships’

Knitting Season Begins

I can finally get back to blogging about my craft projects!  I don’t want to go anywhere near knitting during the summer, but almost overnight we went from 80 degrees to 40 degrees around here, so suddenly knitting seems like a good idea again.

I have a lot of knitting projects lined up — mostly Christmas decorations and presents — but I had a few projects that I needed to get out to people quickly.  A good friend from high school (K) has a 3-year-old daughter, E, who has been having a rough time recently.  I decided that I needed to knit her a hat and a toy to go with it.  Another friend’s mom is going through chemo, and she put out a request for hats, so that seemed like another good project to work on quickly.

I had seen a yarn store not too far from my house a few months back, but I hadn’t been in yet.  I decided to go check it out, both to get yarn for the toddler hat, and to scope out whether or not there was a knitting group nearby.  I have definitely missed having a group to knit with, and I figured it wuld be a good way to try and make some local, IRL friends.  It turned out there is a knitting group that meets at the shop on Thursdays, so I got to kill two birds with one stone — make new friends, and knit E’s hat!

I wanted something very soft and fuzzy for E’s hat, and I found an unusual yarn.  I discovered later that it is designed to knit up like terrycloth, but this is what it looks like:

fuzzy yarn

I haven’t worked with a lot of fuzzy yarns before, but I knew that it would be a little challenging.  The fuzziness makes the individual stitches impossible to see.  It also could be less yarn than it looks like, so I asked the shop owner whether I could get a toddler hat out of a single skein.  She said to buy a second skein to be safe, so I did.
I got to the knitting group late, and missing most of my materials.  I had all my needles, but forgot the rest of my toolkit, and the pattern book I typically use as a guide for hat measurements.  But I have knit so many hats in the past, I figured it would be no big deal to do this one off the cuff.  I did have to ask the store owner for the appropriate circumference of a toddler hat so I could get started, but that was no big deal.
The first problem I ran across was figuring out my gauge.  I started to knit a swatch, but I couldn’t see the individual stitches to tell how many I had per inch.  I tried to guess, and was waaaay wrong the first time — when I saw the knitting start to curl up on my round needles, I knew it was much too big.  When I took it off the needles, it was at least 40″ in circumference!  So I eyeballed it, and the second time I got roughly the right size.
Then, as I started knitting, I realized that I was going to have a hard time ribbing the edge of the hat, since I couldn’t tell my stitches apart.  I typically use ribbing or seed stitch on the edge of hats to keep the rim from rolling up.  But I had a hunch that this yarn might not roll.  More consultation with the store owner and looking up some patterns using that yarn confirmed that it shouldn’t roll, so I could do stockinette stitch for the whole hat.  And the best part of the yarn was, even though I was halfway through my first row, no one would ever know that I was switching from ribbing to stockinette!
The last problem I ran into was the decreases.  I first learned to make hats by doing regular decreases up to the crown, making a smooth, beanie-style top, rather than the gathered top that is created by doing a rapid decrease at the end.  I never use stitch markers for this, and don’t even own any, because I am used to being able to see where my decreases are.  But that was impossible with this yarn.  So I needed stitch markers to keep tabs on where my decreases would go.  And the great thing about knitting in a yarn store — I was able to buy stitch markers on the spot!
Despite having to start twice, I had most of the hat done by the time I left the sit and stitch.  I just needed to switch to double-pointed needles for the final decreases.
On Saturday, I sat down and decided to finish E’s hat.  It took less than half an hour.  I realized once it was done that I hadn’t upped the number of decreases quite enough at the end, which had resulted in a pointed top, but it looks adorable, so I decided to keep it.  The best part is, it looks good whether you roll the bottom or keep it straight.

straight brim

rolled brim

In the process of gathering up my knitting materials for the sit and stitch, I had discovered an unfinished hat I was knitting for T last spring.  So I picked it up and started working on it again.  Apparently, I had run out of the black yarn I started with, and continued with a different black yarn.  It resulted in a black striped look that I really like.  Something awfully strange had gone on with the knitting a row or two below where I picked the project up again — it looks like I pulled out sone stitches and picked them back up twisted — but it took a while for me to notice it, so I didn’t go back and fix it.  It took an hour or so to finish this project, and when it was done, it looked like this:

black striped hat

Finally, I decided to work on the hat for my friend’s mom.  I hadn’t used the whole first skein for E’s hat, so I decided to use the second skein for this.  I know that it will look goofy instead of elegant, but I thought the yarn would feel really nice against her head.  But I was afraid that there wouldn’t be *quite* enough yarn for an adult-sized hat.  So I looked through my stash, and found some super-silky fuzzy yarn that I picked up during a stash swap.  The green would go well with the baby blue yarn, and I thought a stripe would help the hat look a little bit more grown-up, while also helping stretch the terrycloth yarn.  This time, to get my gauge (since I never really figured it out last time around), I knit a swatch of 10 stitches.  Ten stitches was a little less than 4 inches wide, so to make a 21-inch circumference hat I cast on 56 stitches.  The silky green stuff was SO silky it was difficult to knit with — I was glad that I only had a few rows worth of it.  But I think the finished hat will be really nice and cozy!  I tried not to make it too long, so she wouldn’t have to roll up the brim.  I also went with the quick decrease, so there’s a little bit of gather at the top.  Even after making a full-sized hat, I still have some yarn left over.  I hope it fits and she likes it!

chemo cap

The next thing I need to make is a stuffed toy to go with E’s hat — I have a pattern for a cute little frog that I think will be perfect.  And my plan is, with the little bit of fuzzy yarn I have leftover, I will make him a hat that looks just like hers.  I don’t have enough green yarn to do him all in the same yarn, so I decided to wait until next Thursday and buy a new skein at the next sit and stitch.  I can hardly wait!

We Are the Yanomamo

Yanomamo village from the air

Before I was an archaeologist, I was a cultural anthropologist.  I even have a master’s degree to prove it. Cultural anthropologists love to study other cultures around the world, ostensibly for the purpose of bringing back observations that shed light on our own culture in comparison.  And one of the tribes we studied was the Yanomamo.

The Yanomamo are a hunter-gatherer group that lives in the Amazon rain forest.  Their villages aren’t made up of lots of individual homes; instead, they build a single, shared shelter for the whole group.  There is a ring-shaped roof with a single wall along the outside of the ring, roughly divided into sections where individual families live, sleeping in hammocks and cooking over open fires.  The center of the ring is a large, flat shared living space where most community activities take place.

Surprisingly, unlike American towns and cities, Yanomamo villages tend to all be roughly the same size.  Of course, young people get married and their new spouses move in, children are born, and the village grows over time.  But at a certain point, when the populations gets too large, the village divides.  Squabbles add up over time, factions develop, and one faction leaves to build their own village.  Maybe it’s a function of too much genetic distance between people — I’m willing to sacrifice for my parents or siblings, but not for my second cousin’s wife who I have no blood relation to.  Maybe as the number of people increases, the local resources — food, building materials, and other supplies —  become scarce and people begin to argue when there isn’t enough to go around.  Whatever the cause, larger numbers means more bickering, and eventually it gets bad enough that someone moves out.
We Westerners tend to think of hunter-gatherer groups like this as less developed than we are — primitive, backwards, uncivilized.  The truth is, while their technology may be less developed than ours is, their way of life tends to be perfectly adapted to their environment.  They maintain groups of just enough people to support themselves nicely based on what they can find nearby.
Meanwhile, here in the US, we are in the middle of a recession.  There aren’t enough jobs and money — resources — to go around these days.  And I have noticed, while we are living in an environment with scare resources, we are doing an awful lot of squabbling.  We’re dividing into factions.  There’s rich vs. poor, Republican vs. Democrat, Tea Party vs. liberals, citizens vs. illegal immigrants, working poor vs. welfare freeloaders, fiscal conservatives vs. social safety nets.  I see lots of people who are angry at Them, and They are the people who are competing for the resources we don’t have.  And it’s not just the U.S. — look at Germany vs. Greece, the British people vs. youth mobs, American vs. Chinese workers.  If we were the Yanomamo, this fighting would result in a division, one faction would leave, and then there would be enough to go around for the people who were left.  The problem is, we spend all this time dividing into factions, but there’s nowhere for us to go.  We have created a globalized economy, and there is nowhere that anyone can go anymore where they wouldn’t still be sharing the same global economic pie.  No matter how much we fight with one another, we’re all still stuck in this mess together.
Do you know why Americans are so often obese?  Because we are genetically adapted to love high-calorie foods — sugars, fats, and salt.  This was a great adaptation when we were hunter-gatherers, who spent most of our days walking from place to place and engaged in physical labor, and food was sometimes scarce.  Even as we changed and became farmers and herders and even city-dwellers, the amount of physical work we needed to do and the scarcity of these foods meant that we were still in pretty good shape.  But now that we have machines to do our work and carry us around and our jobs have us sitting at desks most of the day, while at the same time those high-calorie foods are easier and easier to obtain, that adaptation isn’t working for us anymore.  It’s making our situation worse, and our health along with it.  The trait that was helpful in one setting hurts us now that our circumstances have changed; it’s called an evolutionary mismatch.
I think our tendency to point fingers and fall into factions during bad economic times is another mismatch.  And the longer the economy stays bad, the more we point fingers and fight with one another, when what we really need to do is overcome this tendency towards anger and division, and work together to find solutions.  Just like many of us need to eat lower-calorie, high-nutrient foods, and do more physical work during the day in order to lower our collective health risks.
We all know that we need to eat right and exercise, yet it’s often really, really hard to do.  So is there any hope that we’ll collectively realize that all this political infighting is hurting us as a nation, and start working together to solve our common economic woes?
I’m afraid the answer to that question is, fat chance.

Class Personalities

Every teacher knows that different classes have different personalities.  When I was in school, I thought that the personality of the class was set by the teacher.  But now that I am teaching, I think that it is really the students who determine how the class runs.  This seems more pronounced the smaller the class is.  And it seems that a single person with a strong personality can really influence the tone.

Strategies is my smallest class — 4-6 students — and this is where I have seen the most variability in class personality.  My first Strategies class had 2 men and 2 women.  One of the guys was very open and willing to share his thoughts and feelings about coming back to school and the choices he had made in his life.  Because he was a very open, friendly guy, that class became good friends.  They teased each other a lot, and had a good time in class.  I had the timing of my lessons down perfectly, and I could count on a lot of conversation when I threw some discussion questions at them.

My second Strategies class had 2 men and 3 women.  One of the men was a jokester, and I thought he would set the tone for the class, but one of the women was very reserved.  She tended to stay disengaged from class, and would give short answers when asked to participate in a discussion.  She and the jokester would bicker good-naturedly in class, but she had the ability to shut him down.  With this class, getting a discussion going was like pulling teeth, I think because of her reserve.  I often found myself with extra time at the end of class, and had to have exercises on hand to fill in.

My third Strategies class has 4 women in it.  They are much more comfortable putting their thoughts onto paper than speaking out loud.  I have a hard time hearing many of them when I ask questions, because they are uncomfortable raising their voices.  Once again, I think I will need to have additional exercises on hand, because discussion will not fill up our time like it did with my first class.  I have been a little worried about how I will get this class to engage with me, since their class personality is so subdued.

But on Thursday, we had a student appreciation barbecue during class, complete with a DJ, out in the school parking lot.  Most of the students went through the food line, and then sat on the curb in the shade along the building.  Several staff members got up and started dancing to the music, in a little clump, but despite a lot of encouragement, most of the students wouldn’t get up to dance.  A line-dancing song I didn’t know came on, and the quietest of my students got up.  She got the group of staff members and a few more students to start doing this line dance.  During the remainder of the barbecue, she got all of my students to get up, dance, and have a great time.  I was so proud of her for inspiring her classmates, including one woman who said she hadn’t danced this much in her life, ever!  Other students were dragged onto the dance floor by staff, only to go sit back down as soon as they had a chance.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t brave enough to shake it in front of my students and coworkers.  But I hope she becomes the inspiration for the rest of the class to follow.  And that she learns to raise her voice.  *smile*


Whatcha doin', Ma?

Our German shepherd, Diezel, is a bit of a nut job.  Due to overruse of a laser pointer when he was young, he is completely obsessed with the movement of shadows and “flashies.”  There are several things that he immediately comes running for, because he associates them with flashies that he can chase: opening a CD case, pulling out the tin foil, doing dishes in front of the kitchen window, opening the back door (since light from the window runs across the wall as you open and close it), and picking up a camera will all result in a big dog standing at attention on your feet, ears up, tail wagging, with a big doggie grin on his face.  And shadows are fair game too — you can spend hours waving your arms around like a flight controller and wiggling your fingers to keep him entertained.  And even when the flashy or the shadow is gone, he will still spend an hour or more at attention, waiting for it to come back.

Cara isn’t the least bit obsessive about that kind of thing, but she will get in on the act for a real laser pointer, or a flashy, if it is bright enough and persistent enough.  The thing that drives her crazy is flies.  We’ve had several in the house recently, and she will stand or sit on alert, totally still, ears cocked, waiting until the fly gets close enough for her to hear it again before she lunges towards the sound in an attack.  She can barely get her back legs off the ground when she jumps, but there are lots of jaws snapping shut on empty air during the assault.  And the funniest part of this is, for some unknown reason she is very concerned about the flies landing on her butt.  She keeps her tail clamped down, and sits down hard, tucking her butt up against the furniture or one of us, to make sure that it is protected, and she constantly looks back at her butt to make sure everything is okay.  Diezel also trys to snap up flies, but he’s not as determined or energetic as Cara is, and he doesn’t worry at all about butt defense.

One of the reasons for all the flies is the fact that I have been grilling a lot lately, and so there’s a lot of trips from the kitchen out the back door, which sometimes gets left open when my hands are full of cutting boards, tongs and plates.  And a fair amount of time has also been spent recently just hanging around next to the grill.  And I have noticed that, for some reason, we have a ton of dragonflies in our yard.  They zoom all around the yard to Diezel’s delight, but he doesn’t actually chase the dragonflies — instead, he chases their shadows flying over the grass.  We only have three saplings in our yard, and one of them was dead when we moved in, so there is plenty of sun to cast dragonfly shadows.

As I was waiting on my steaks to grill a few nights ago, and watching Diezel run hither and thither, I realized that our dead tree had become the perfect dragonfly perch.  It was like a little candelabra of dragonflies!  So I snapped a whole bunch of pictures.

And when a dragonfly zooms past Cara?  Well, she comes and sits down hard, right next to me, making very sure to protect her butt.

The Road Travelled

my new workplace: the herpetology society

It always surprises me, when I get a new job, to discover the ways in which my past jobs have directly provided the experience I need to do the new job.  Especially since it is never something that I have planned.

The first two weeks of the class I am teaching right now, Strategies for Success, deals with change and goal setting.  I spend a lot of time talking to my students about goals, planning, prioritizing, determination, and all the things that go into being Highly Motivated  and Successful People.  We go over the five steps of the Change Implementation Model — identify change, research options, identify obstacles, establish a plan, and implement it  — as well as the four steps to writing a goal — goal statement, action steps, timelines, and narrative statement.  I literally spend hours talking about the importance of setting goals, coming up with defined plans, and following through on them.  And yet I almost never do this myself.

I can’t make a weekly meal plan, because I always decide at the last minute that I’m in the mood for something else for dinner.  I can’t lay out my clothes the night before, because I’ll want to wear something different when morning rolls around.  I typically decide on the next step in my life, on what will make me happy, and do what I need to in order to get there.  Then I stay there until I am no longer happy, or until something forces me out.  And then I look around and decide on the next step.  I hate the question, “What do you see yourself doing in five/ten years?” in interviews, because the true answer is, “I have absolutely no idea.”

I do set and meet lots of short-term goals for myself, but I have never been the kind of person who decides, “I want to be X by age Y,” and then lays out a multi-year plan for achieving that goal.  I have wandered my way through life, one stepping-stone at a time.  After high school, college was a given.  After college, I didn’t want to go on to grad school right away.  An offhand comment from an advisor got me thinking about volunteering, and a few days of research landed me with the Peace Corps.  After the Peace Corps, I just wanted to be with the boyfriend I’d been on the opposite side of the planet from for the past 2 years, so I moved to the west coast.  When I became dissatisfied with retail positions, I applied for a job at a credit card company doing customer service.  When I became dissatisfied with that, a dream sent me back to grad school.  After grad school, I was tired of research and not interested in pursuing a PhD, so I wanted to teach at the community college level.  It occurred to me that I would be more well-rounded if I attended an archaeology field school, so I went on a whim.  When I couldn’t find a teaching job, I applied for an archaeology position.  When I got laid off from archaeology, I applied for more teaching positions, and actually got one.  When I didn’t get enough adjunct classes, I applied to a part-time job with a herpetology society because the hours were flexible.

And yet, each job seems to be a prerequisite for the last.  My degree in English, even though my major was creative writing, was a great stepping stone for Teaching English as a Forgeign Language in the Peace Corps.  My Peace Corps experience didn’t help much when I was working in retail, but once I got to the credit card company, the “special English” I had adopted in Kyrgyzstan was ideal for working over the phone with clients who spoke English as a second language.  I also used the grammar I learned while teaching it to my Kyrgyzstani students, and was often asked to assist the technical writer.  When I went back to grad school, the skills I had developed at the credit card company for tracking information and juggling priorities were essential for getting through my thesis.  Not to mention, the contacts I made in the Peace Corps made it possible for me to do my field research during a single 3-month summer visit.  Once I got into archaeology, the descriptive skills honed through writing poetry in my youth were essential in writing understandable reports and site records.  Even in the process of moving from CA to UT, I went from an archaeology job where I worked on an enormous Nevada pipeline project, to helping out with a large Utah pipeline project.  And all those years of writing reports in Word, keeping track of data and forms in Excel, and writing grad school presentations in PowerPoint, made it possible for me to teach a computer class.

my current work station

But this extra side job in herpetology?  It just takes the cake in terms of utilizing my past experience.  I am cataloguing and posting for online sale a number of books, prints, ceramic figurines, and other miscellaneous items that were willed to the society by two different herpetologists.  Well, I have experience with books: my very first job was in a library, I worked at the college bookstore during my undergrad years, and even got to assistant manager at an outlet bookstore after graduation.  My writing and descriptive abilities will no doubt come into play when I need to provide summarized reviews of the books, and descriptions of the objects.  But it is mostly my archaeological skills being utilized here — the ability to sort, organize, photograph, document, and track a huge assemblage of items, along with the ability to make sense of scientific and biological nomenclature.

Who would have thought that 5 years in archaeology would help me get a part-time job working for herpetologists?  Or teaching a computer class?  Or that 2 years in credit card processing would prep me for grad school?  I can’t tell if I am making the connections with hindsight, or if I have been, in my own strange way, following a path to get to where I want to go.

It almost seems as though the steps I have taken through the years have been aiming me at exactly where I want to be.  For example, if I hadn’t attended field school on a lark, I wouldn’t have gotten an job as an archaeology field tech.  And I wouldn’t have been applying to CRM firms the next spring when my landlord in Arcata decided to sell our house with 30 days notice.  And I wouldn’t have had any other reason to take a job offer and move to Redding, CA if I my housing hadn’t just disappeared.  And if I had known people in Redding before moving, I might not have decided to finally get a dog to keep me company, after halfheartedly thinking about adopting a dog for years with no action.  And if I hadn’t gotten Cara, I would never have gone to the dog park and met my husband, T.

Maybe there was a plan, and I just didn’t know about it yet.  Or maybe, if you’re lucky, following your heart will get you where you need to go, whether or not you know where that is.


Seeing how I’ve only had the one job as an adjunct instructor, for which I am paid for less than 20 hours of work per week, I have been a substitute whore this term.  I actually got a certificate recognizing this fact at the recent All-Staff Meeting: the Most Flexible Award, and whores are supposed to be flexible, right?

So far, I have subbed for classes in English, Psychology, Business, Criminal Justice, and Accounting, along with one class each of another instructor’s Strategies and Computer Applications.  I’ve taught full 4-hour classes, covered for an hour or two, and proctored exams.  I want the money, but I also want to show my strong work ethic to my boss in the hopes of ingratiating myself into a full-time teaching position.

I have covered classes for five different instructors so far, but one of them takes the cake.  I have covered a total of 9 of her classes this term.  She was teaching a morning Strategies class and two Psychology classes back-to-back on Fridays.  The first week I was asked to sub for her, she was in Hawaii on vacation with her boyfriend for a week.  Well, she was a new hire like me, so I figured she had planned the trip months in advance.  I covered both of her psych classes that week, and actually got called in at the last minute one morning to cover her Strategies class when her scheduled sub called in sick.  No biggie.  I was showing movies in both classes, so it wasn’t difficult work.

Then I got called to cover those same two psychology classes the following week.  But this time it really wasn’t her fault — she apparently fell and hit her head that morning before class, and was in the emergency room.  So I administered one of her midterm exams, and showed more movies in her other class.

Then the third week rolled around, and she still didn’t have permission from her doctor to go back to work.  So I covered yet again, but this time I gave 4-hour lectures on developmental psychology in each class, which I spent several hours prepping for so that I wouldn’t just be reading the PowerPoint slides she had provided.  It was interesting material, and I enjoyed it.  The students told me they enjoyed it too, which made it even better.

Then things went back to normal for a while.  I had Fridays off, and life was good, even if my paycheck was a little smaller.

A few weeks ago, I got a last-minute email to cover a few hours of her Friday evening class.  She sent me an email less than 12 hours before I had to be there?  She couldn’t even give me a call?  She was going to a 48-hour film fest, and needed to leave early.  This seemed like something that she could have given me more than 24 hours notice about, but I agreed.  The she moved up the time I was to arrive, so that she would have more time to get dressed for the event.  At this point, I was feeling a little used, but work is work, right?  All I had to do for her class was proctor an exam, and even though it was the most harrowing exam I have ever proctored and the students were furious by the end of it, from my end it was fine.

Then last night, while I was giving my own Strategies final exam, I got a text from her asking me to sub for her today.  A text.  This is starting to feel like the sub version of a bootie call.  Again, less than 12 hours before I needed to show, she asks if I can cover the last few hours of her class.  I knew this was her last class, and asked if I would be covering the time before or after they took their final exams.  She said they would be giving their final presentations during the first half, and I would be covering their written exam.  Relaxed at the thought of just needing to proctor another exam, I texted back sure, no problem.

So I get to school to cover her class, and my boss tell me she is already gone.  I was afraid that I had gotten my times wrong, but no, she just decided she needed more time to get ready again, so she left them without an instructor, I have no idea for how long.  I then find out that most groups’ presentations weren’t complete by the beginning of class, so they have already taken their final.  And I will be grading their final presentations.  I will be doing what??!?  Yup, I am to assign their grades on a final presentation, in a class I haven’t taught, on a subject I am not qualified to teach, which is worth 65 points (!).  And I am told to grade it based on “professionalism, engagement with the class, speaking, etc.”  Yeah, one of my grading criteria is “etc.”  You know what?  Every student there got 65 points.

I already decided weeks ago that this chick is not serious about teaching.  It hasn’t helped my opinion of her that her students across the board complained that they learned more from their one week of my lecture than they had in the rest of the class to that point.  But then the kicker came when I got home.

I got another text asking how the class went.  I told her everything went fine, and where I had put the exams and grades, so that she could get her final grades in by tomorrow.  She started thanking me profusely for “never letting [her] down.”  I wasn’t going to ask, but I couldn’t resist any longer — I wanted to know why she had dumped the grading of a huge, subjective portion of her students’ final grades on me.  The answer?  “I do acting so I had to go to a film shoot.  The students knew all about it. :-)”

All I can say is:

And I can’t wait until sometime next term when she calls  — or emails, or texts — and asks me to cover for her class.  And I will say no. Because I have better things to do than cover for her irresponsibility.

My First Computer Class

So, my first term teaching a computer class is complete.  I think it is the most challenging class I have ever tackled, and I know that I made a lot of mistakes.  I feel bad that this group of students were my guinea pigs.  But in the end, I think that everyone got the grade they earned, and that makes me feel okay about the whole thing.

I have never taught a computer class before, so while I knew I would be able to handle the material (an introduction to Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel), figuring out what my class could do and how much time everything would take was the biggest challenge as I was planning out my syllabus.  And it showed.

My biggest mistake was that my syllabus was out of sync with what we actually ended up doing in class, which made things much more difficult for my students who were trying to make up work.  There were several reasons for this.

  1. I didn’t realize how few students would turn in their homework.  So I built a PowerPoint exercise on homework that should have been completed a few weeks before; when it turned out half the class hadn’t done that assignment, I had to improvise.
  2. Sometimes I didn’t read through the labs in the book carefully enough, or I overestimated my students’ abilities whle planning, and I didn’t realize until we got to that chapter that a different assignment would be a better fit.  So we did something different than what was on the syllabus.
  3. I only put the Lab or Exercise number and page number in the syllabus, but that was extremely confusing as I was grading.  So I used the titles in my grading sheet.  But that meant that, when students asked which assignments they needed to make up, I would give them the title, not the Lab or Exercise number, and they often didn’t know what page to find the assignment on.
  4. They had a crossword puzzle from the book assigned for each week, but I discovered after the first week that these puzzles were extremely difficult to complete.  It took me a few weeks to start making my own and handing them out in class, so students were always confused about whether there was a puzzle to do for homework or not.

Another big mistake I made was not using the proper names for icons and menus as I walked students through assignments.  Instead of saying, “Click on the Sum Function button” in Excel, I’d say something like, “Ok, you’re going to click on the Sum button, which is this button up here that looks like a weird E.  Yes, the button that looks like a backwards E.  The one over here.  Got it?”  This meant that, when it came time for students to follow the directions in the book in order to do their assignments, they didn’t know the proper terms and often had a hard time figuring out the directions.

I’m also unsure about whether or not I gave them too much work to do.  In each class, I would first walk them through the assignment that was described in the book chapter.  Because we did this together, they didn’t turn this assignment in to me.  Next, there would be a lab that they needed to do in class, where they would follow the directions in the book step-by-step on their own, to reinforce the tasks we had just gone over.  This was followed by a homework assignment with less specific instructions, where they had the chance to be a little more creative in how they applied what they learned.  In theory, a great model for reinforcing tasks.

But I didn’t realize how many of my students were going to not only have no computer at home, but also no time during the week to come in and use the computers at school.  And even if they could make it to the library on the weekends to use a public computer, it might not have Microsoft Office 2007 on it, which would make it impossible to do the work.  I often felt like I was rushing through the example in class, so that they would have enough time to do both the lab and the homework in class as well.  Perhaps getting rid of one of these assignments and taking more time to explain new tasks, and having more time to complete a single assignment in class, would be the way to go next time around.

by art around

Another challenge was the fact that I have never taught this population of students before, and I wasn’t prepared for the kinds of obstacles they would be facing during the semester.  As a TA, I was usually responsible for 100 or more students, and there could be upwards of 300 students in a class.  Most of them got their work done, and while I might recognize their writing style, that was pretty much all I knew about them.  The occasional student who came to see me might have a question about something we covered in class, or might be struggling with a diagnosed learning disability.  But the students were predominantly white, middle class, had done reasonably well in high school, had decent reading and writing skills, knew how to write an essay, and the worst challenge they might have during a semester would be a death in the family, or a bout of illness.

With only 4 students in one class and 13 in the other, I know a lot more about my students’ lives than before.  At this college, I would say less than half the students are white.  Many speak English as a second language.  Most don’t know how to write a grammatically correct sentence, much less a 5-paragraph essay.  I had two students struggling with homelessness during the semester, one of whom was constantly sick and exhausted from living at a shelter for months; one student without medical insurance whose toddler was ill, but her boyfriend isn’t the child’s father so only she could take her child to the emergency room; a student who will be spending 4 days in jail in order to get back her license because she can’t afford to carry car insurance; students who want to start their own business because they can’t find jobs as ex-cons; a student with serious medical problems who was on oxygen; a student who is still recovering from being the first one on scene at a parent’s suicide; another student who had been her dying mother’s full-time caregiver for the past 5 years, to the detriment of the student’s schooling and career; another who was in an abusive relationship and came to school with bruises; students without cars who need to travel 60 miles or more by bus and train to make it to class; students with work schedules that conflict with class so they are consistently late or having to leave early.

These students often barely graduated from high school, or perhaps they got a GRE.  They are trying to make a better life for themselves while working full time and juggling families, poverty, poor schooling, and other problems I have never had to worry about.  I give them a lot of credit when they are willing to work hard and give up on sleep or time with their families to overcome all kinds of odds and make a better life for themselves and their families.  These are not the kids who miss class because they are hungover from last night’s frat party.  So I let them make up assignments at any time without any penalties,  offered to tutor students outside of class, and I did what I could to encourage those who were interested to do some extra credit work to bring up their grades.  And I let the student who was so frustrated with the final exam that she actually walked out and disappeared for an hour come back and finish it for full credit.  Maybe that makes me a pushover; or maybe it makes me willing to give my students a chance to learn from their mistakes.

When all was said and done, I had a rough bell curve of grades in my class, which reassures me that I did an ok job of teaching these kids.  Three As, four B, and two each Cs, Ds, and Fs.  The students who were failing a week ago but worked hard and got their assignments in to me at the last minute all passed.  The students that I offered help or tutoring to who didn’t take me up on the offer, or who half-assed their first few makeup assignments and then gave up, failed.  And I think that’s the way it should be.

But I have so many ideas for how to do it differently next time, now that I have learned from my mistakes.