Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What makes a good teacher?

Something happened yesterday that made me stop and think about this.

I stopped into a local cooking school to pick up some flavored oil. It’s owned by a woman who ran a catering biz for years, and decided that she wanted to teach. It’s a pretty neat little place. During the transaction, I asked her a question about pie crust.

I’m happy with my pie crust, but I don’t really understand why it works. And, not surprisingly, in addition to being a curious knitter, I am also a curious cook. So I asked the owner, “I make my pie crust by doing [x], but I don’t really understand why that makes such a difference. Do you know?”

Before I had even finished my question, she was shaking her head. “That’s not the way you do it," she said. "Here’s what you have to do…” and proceeded to tell me about her method.

“But wait,” I said, “I’ve tried that, and it didn’t work.” I mentioned an example of why her method didn’t work for me.

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you,” she said, “because that’s the key. That’s how you make good pie crust.”

Now I should mention, my point here is not how to make a good pie crust. It’s about how to share information with others in a way that leaves them feeling good, in addition to feeling better-informed. (As you might guess, this is my goal in teaching knitting methods.) Although I have no doubt that the owner of the cooking school only wanted to help me to make better pie crust, and wanted me to feel good about that, I left feeling not good. This puzzled me. She probably knows a lot more about pie crusts than I do, and here she was giving me the benefit of her experience, for free. Why did I not come away from the exchange feeling good about it?

Well, I have a theory. I suspect that any given student, no matter how well or how poorly she understands a given subject matter to begin with, will have a better learning experience if the teacher starts by listening, rather than talking. That is the kind of teacher I aspire to be. Certainly when it comes to knitting, there are so many different ways of doing the same basic thing, who am I to say there's one way to do Jeny's Surprisingly Stretchy Bindoff? Oakdryad on Ravelry figured out you can do JSSBO with a crochet hook. What a great insight, I wish I'd thought of that!

I think it would have made all the difference if the owner of the cooking school had showed even a little interest (even if she had to fake it!) in what I was doing now. Her immediate response was “Stop right there, there’s one way to do it, and here’s what it is.” I know she meant well. But the meta-message was: “I’m not interested in hearing what you do, because if you’re not doing it this way, you’re doing it wrong.”

I never would have guessed that in striking up a conversation about how to make pie crust, I would come away with such a rich collection of musings on the kind of teacher I want to be. And her tips on pie crust were quite useful, too!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Second Sock Syndrome? Bah!

Ah yes, the Second Sock Syndrome...

Like many sock knitters, I too experience the phenomenon of thoroughly enjoying knitting sock #1, and then having no interest in knitting an identical sock #2.

Various clever and well-meaning souls have suggested cures for this malady. There's the two-at-a-time method. Even the two-in-one method, for daredevil knitters. These and other cures may indeed help increase your chances of finishing your pair of identical socks. But they sidestep the real issue, which is: why do socks have to be identical?

I personally like unmatched pairs, and I know some of you out there agree. But, most people I knit socks for prefer traditional matched pairs. Therein lies the quandary: do I please the recipient, and be bored through sock #2, or do I try to convince the recipient to appreciate unmatched pairs, so I will enjoy my time knitting both socks? (This gets into the whole philosophy of gift-giving, but let's save that discussion for another time.)

Below is a recent pair of socks modeled by their recipient, my dear husband. They look a fine pair, don't they? Well yes, that's the point. But there are, in fact, some important differences.

I knit the first sock (on the left) from the cuff down. I knit the second sock (on the right) from the toe up. This proved to be an interesting exercise, a good excuse to do a few side-to-side comparisons.

Comparison #1
Below on the left is the cuff-down sock, started with stretchy slipknot cast-on. On the right is the toe-up sock, finished with Jeny's Surprisingly Stretchy Bind Off.

Before washing:

When I first posted this blog entry, I was ruminating about the slight flare on JSSBO, irritated that it didn't snap back in as nicely as the slipknot cast on. But then I did the laundry this morning, and found...

After washing (not blocking, just drying flat):

Woohoo! Ok, I'm happy. :)

Up close, and stretched out, here's the slipknot cast-on (left) and JSSBO (right). To offset the slight flare in JSSBO, I added some elastic thread along the top of the inside (which, now that the socks have been washed, I can see was probably unnecessary).

Comparison #2
The cuff-down sock (left) has a star heel. The toe-up sock (right) has a wedge heel. Both were knitted as afterthought heels. Either heel design would have worked starting from either the cuff or the toe.

(back view)

(side view)

Comparison #3
I had a little fun with the toes too. The cuff-down toe (left), the first one I knit, flows smoothly and simply across stockinette. For the toe-up sock (right), I added a decorative channel of purl stitch between the increase stitches, which flowed continuously into the pattern on the foot.

There are more differences still, but they get progressively more hairsplitting and difficult to show in photos. Suffice to say, the two socks look similar enough to the gift recipient to qualify as a matched pair. But at the same time, I enjoyed making the second sock just as much as I enjoyed making the first, because it was a completely fresh sock-knitting experience!