Be a Better Craft Teacher Part 4: Know Your Medium

on October 1 | in Be a Better Craft Teacher, Sewing Classes, Small Business Ideas | by | with 1 Comment

It’s Tuesday so it’s time for our fourth Be a Better Craft Teacher post with the super-talented Deborah Moebes of Whipstitch! This series is for anyone who wants to teach; we’re confident everyone can learn a lot from Deborah if your craft classes are still in the dream stage or if you’ve been teaching for years. Our series runs each Tuesday and follows the full teaching process, from early planning stages to reflection on your completed classes. Deborah’s years in education as a high school teacher and her experience teaching sewing both online and in-person inform the series in a practical and meaningful way. Learn more about Deborah and the series in the Be a Better Craft Teacher introduction and don’t miss the rest of the posts in the series (links below).

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Now we get to the really fun part. We’ve already analyzed the needs of the community to determine WHAT you’ll teach; we’ve analyzed your students to know WHOM you’ll teach; and we’ve designed the class so you’ll understand WHY you teach and what objectives you hope to accomplish. Now’s the part where you get to really drill down on HOW you’ll teach that fabulous, desirable content to those interested and motivated students to reach those specific and laudable learning objectives.

You might choose to present your content in any number of ways, and all of them have value. Your task in this planning stage is to determine which format best suits the needs of your students, their skill and experience level, and the time you have available. I think there are three broad categories here: format, group size and ambiance.

Format
The format of your class is the manner of delivery you’ll employ for serving up the amazing information you plan to share with your students. For craft purposes, there are three primary formats your class can take: a lecture, a demonstration and a hands-on workshop.

Lecture
A lecture is when you stand before the class and talk about a particular skill or project. You’re not showing them what to do or how to do it, but rather talking about ideas, concepts and inspiration. You might be sharing your favorite macramé projects from around the globe (macramé again!), using a slideshow and a handout with links to the original sources. Lecture is an awesome way to communicate with a lot of people all at one time, and it’s an awesome format for when you want to give a broad overview of material or include a lot of images. You’re not working through how-tos in a lecture; you’re talking more about whys and whos. If you promised your students they’d leave the class with a finished macramé ashtray, though, lecture is probably the wrong way to accomplish that goal.

Demonstration
A demonstration is when you gather a class around you and show them how to complete a skill or project, and they take notes (or pictures and video with their phones) but don’t actually make the project themselves. You might want to give your students a basic understanding of how each of the different knots in macramé is made so they can do a lap, so to speak, and have a fuller mental picture of what the craft is and what supplies are used for what purpose. Or you might be teaching a drop-in workshop with no pre-registration, and want your students to see and feel and experience the craft without needing to have them obtain supplies ahead of time. Demonstrations are exceptional for short time periods, for fluctuating audiences (like at an arts market or an open house), and to entice new students to take a class they might not otherwise explore. If your students wanted lots of images of completed projects, a demonstration might not give you much opportunity to share those, however.

Workshop
A hands-on workshop is one in which the students will be guided through constructing a particular project themselves. You’ll provide them with a list of supplies (or the actual supplies), guide them through each step of the project’s construction and answer their questions along the way. As you work, you’ll often be called upon to look at a mistake and determine how it was made and how to correct it, or to answer a question that can only be answered by picking up the tools and showing the student the answer with your hands. This style of class is so amazing for craft, because it doesn’t rely on anyone’s ability to learn from hearing or even seeing, but rather taps into our ability to learn through muscle memory and to master a skill under a teacher’s watchful gaze. As an instructor, your ability to see a mistake-in-progress and head it off at the pass is your greatest asset in a hands-on workshop. It is also the exact kind of assistance most students, particularly beginners, crave when they register for a class.

The funny thing about these three formats is that a hands-on workshop is what most of us think of when we picture a craft class, but a lecture is what most inexperienced instructors tend to deliver. That’s because the hands-on class actually takes the most planning and can be the hardest to teach. Many teachers assume that for beginners, it’s important to cover material in a lecture so they can get a broad overview before diving into hands-on skills. Unfortunately, a lecture can leave many students feeling as though they haven’t really learned as much as they like, or that they won’t be able to leave class and duplicate the instructor’s ideas. As a craft teacher, you’ll serve your students (and yourself) best if you find a way in every class to make hands-on practice part of the experience.

Now, I want to be very clear here: I lecture plenty. Even in beginner classes. My point is that every class session doesn’t have to be lecture, and that when circumstances allow, it’s always valuable to get the tools in your students’ hands. Consider breaking a class into multiple sessions: one can be lecture, one can be demo, and two can be hands-on, so that you cover all the content in myriad ways and your students feel they have had a full, rich experience in learning. You can also consider having larger lecture nights to share ideas and inspiration, and then breaking those larger groups into multiple smaller groups for the nitty gritty. Or you can have one lecturer cover a lot of material, then break the group up that same night and have multiple instructors each take a smaller group for the hands-on stuff. Use your ingenuity and determine a format that will allow your students to really mine the content and master the skills.

Group Size
Speaking of large groups and smaller groups, the size of the group you’ll be working with has a major impact on how you’ll communicate the material. Most of the crafting classes I’ve taught have fallen into three categories: large groups, small groups and individuals.

Large Groups
Large groups I generally consider to be 15 people or more. Once you hit fifteen individuals, you’re really getting to a point where you can’t reasonably sit with every person and give them one-on-one attention. Large groups make hands-on work challenging— but not impossible. Ha! You thought I was going to say you could ONLY lecture to a large group, didn’t you? Not at all! I absolutely think you can have a very successful experience teaching a hands-on, completed-project-producing workshop with more than fifteen students at a time. If you have the space, you can plan the class. In cases like this, though, you’re more likely to be successful by combining elements of lecture with elements of hands-on workshops. For example, try shooting photos or video of your project and breaking it into “chapters.” Share one chapter, then release the students to work on that skill or step. Monitor their progress, and move amongst them to make sure they’re really getting it. When most of the group have all completed the task, bring everyone back together and view the next “chapter.” You’ll find that students appreciate the combination of anonymity to absorb the concepts and the personalization of having your attention as they work through those ideas under your supervision.

Small Groups
Small groups also benefit from a combined approach, but because they’re all able to gather around and have a greater level of camaraderie than a larger group can, I find it more beneficial to use a mash-up of demonstration and hands-on workshopping with 2-15 students. Rather than shooting photos or video in advance, bring in a version of the project at various stages of completion. Demonstrate each step right there, live, in front of your students so they can see just where you put your hands, how you hold your needle or how to manipulate the fabric as you work. Smaller groups and demonstrations give you the freedom to perform steps over and over, as many times as your class might need. And having the project completed at various stages gives you lots of props to use to explain concepts one-on-one later, for those who need more guided practice.

Individual Lessons
Individual lessons are always a funny thing. I get the sense that many instructors consider these to be easy to teach, but I have always found them to be the most challenging, by far. When teaching a private lesson to one individual, your planning is almost entirely based on their desires, which can make it difficult to communicate tactfully that some skills are really essential and foundational, even if they aren’t sexy and cool. There is less opportunity for the student to be in the same boat as other students, and some students find that isolating and frustrating. You can address that by suggesting that a private student share their time with a close friend, making it a “dual” lesson; that allows them to have conversations and ask questions that might not come up in the close quarters of one-on-one. Or you can consider making the class completely hands-on, and sewing the project right alongside the student, step by step, making your own version (with experienced hands) as they make theirs. I have not found much success in lecturing an individual student— it makes for a weird dynamic, and it’s super uncomfortable. And I have found that individuals really appreciate seeing you do the craft while they watch so they have a yardstick against which to compare their own results since they don’t share their class time with anyone else.

Ambiance
This is a little bit of a made-up term in this context, but I use it to refer to the overall feeling that you give your class as you teach. I think of it in two styles: classic classroom and “fireside chat.”

Classic Classroom
A classic classroom is what most of us grew up with: seating in rows or around tables, with a teacher at the front of the room, maybe with a white board or a projector. It is a setting in which the instructor is the clear authority, and the students are grouped together to learn. There is a lot of good to be said for the classic classroom. If you’re a less experienced instructor, it’s an easy groove to get into, and grants you a bit of distance from your students that allows you to get your bearings. We’re all products of similar classrooms so this environment still grants the students respect and space to get to know you in comfort, without anxiety. I prefer the classic classroom set-up for lectures and generally use it for demonstrations, placing a table or display between myself and observers. With this physical ambiance, students are more likely to give their full attention and allow you time to address your subject before asking questions.

Fireside Chat
A “fireside chat” is a much more casual setting than a classic classroom. This is where you and your students gather in a more neutral physical setting— say, around a coffee table or in a park on a picnic blanket. It’s an awesome, companionable, familiar way to teach a class, and works superbly for crafts where you have a lot of down-time as you complete one step before you can move to the next— like cross stitch, embroidery, crochet or knitting. If you’re crocheting a blanket and have to finish one row of single crochet before your students can learn to double crochet, that’s a lot of minutes sitting around a table or behind desks; that time passes much more quickly if everyone’s in a coffee house setting and can chat and ask questions as they go. A fireside ambiance generates a very quick feeling of ease and comfort that encourages students to ask questions about repeated skills in a way that they might be intimidated to do in a more traditional classroom setting.

Art and Science
Now, I will say that the ambiance of your class— that feeling that your class has— comes not just from the setting but also from YOU. The “art” part of teaching— teaching anything, not just craft— is about who YOU are and how you approach your class. And some of that is in-born. We’ve all met people who are, quite simply, natural teachers: they do it so easily and so intuitively, and they feel people so well that it’s easy to learn from them, no matter what the subject. Some people are naturally authoritative and speak well in public, and others are exceptionally skilled at their craft— that doesn’t always translate to being a great teacher. The art part of teaching that can be taught isn’t about your natural skill (although that helps a great deal); it is also about your care and concern for your students– your desire to connect with them– and that can absolutely be learned and developed. Your passion for your craft and your sense of mission as you share it with others has a huge impact on how successful you will be while teaching, regardless of the setting in which your class is offered. I can’t encourage you strongly enough, as you are planning the format you’ll use to teach, to think about the bigger HOW of how you’ll be teaching, the emotional component you’ll be mixing into the stew. Never forget that your students have come to you by choice, because they want to learn what you have to offer. Whether you are lecturing or demonstrating, whether you have 100 students or 2, show them care and consideration and respect so that you create an experience and a memory that will carry them through your class and their crafting beyond.

In the next installment we’ll explore what it’s like to implement all these Big Plans you’ve been making, and get an idea of what a plan looks like on the ground— when it goes well, and when it blows up all over the crafty place.

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One Response to Be a Better Craft Teacher Part 4: Know Your Medium

  1. Karin says:

    I’m not or ever will be a teacher but I am really enjoying your series.As I read them I find myself remembering both the excellent and not so good teachers I have met.What a pity I can’t share your article withe not so good ones.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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