Posted in Education, Professional Development, Sixth Grade, STEM, Teaching, Trying Something New

Summer Reflections Part IV: Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks is Easy, Sort of

Learning to play the guitar was an interesting adventure.  It all started because I wanted to be a famous guitarist like Slash from Guns’n’Roses.  I used to love their first album Appetite for Destruction.  Sweet Child of Mine is still one of my favorite songs from them.  Anyway, before I digress too much and tell the story of how my parents forbade me from listening to Guns’n’Roses and so I had to sneak their double album into my room when I was a teenager.  That’s a completely different story, yet great none the less.  So, I wanted to be like Slash and I decided that I wanted to learn how to play the guitar.  Since my school didn’t offer guitar lessons, my parents found a local music shop that did.  Things were great when I first started taking lessons.  The instructor was nice and I was a quick learner.  Then, things went south.  First, the lessons and skills covered became increasingly difficult and I didn’t want to put in the time and energy needed to practice and hone my craft. Second, my instructor became very aggressive and distracting.  During lessons, he would whack my hand with a pointing stick whenever I did something wrong, which was frequently.  That hurt even though it was only a metal coated, plastic rod.  When he would put the pointer down, he would pick up a banana and eat while I played.  As he gave me instructions, pieces of chewed banana flew onto my guitar, hands, and sometimes, my face.  If you’ve never had chewed food spat upon you, let me just say, it’s nasty.  So, within four months, my rock and roll dreams died faster than Milli Vanili’s career.  I just didn’t have the patience or drive needed.  While it didn’t help that my instructor was a bit strange, it was mostly my fault.  I didn’t really want to become a guitarist that badly.  To this day, I wish I had stuck with it.  Oh well.

Unlike my guitar catastrophe, I didn’t want two of my summer goals that involved learning new things to fall to the wayside.  I wanted to feel some success.  So, when I decided to learn how to knit and solve the Rubik’s Cube, I persevered despite the many hardships I faced.  I never gave up until I had succeeded and boy did that feel good.

As the farm program started to solidify in mid-June, I started to realize that I needed to learn how to knit so that I could help my students as they took on hand work projects of their own.  Luckily, I am blessed to have a crafty wife who is a skilled knitter.  So, one evening, I had her show me how to knit.  She began by showing me how to cast on.  This was tricky and took multiple tries.  But, I did eventually do it.  Then she worked in the knit stitch.  That was much easier.  I spent about an hour practicing and honing my new skill.  I felt very comfortable in the end.  Then came day two.  I wanted to practice casting on and knitting again, by myself as my wife was at work.  I quickly realized that I had forgotten everything.  But, I didn’t give up or stop.  I found some informative YouTube videos that covered the same skills; however, most of the videos either went too fast or were so confusing that I just couldn’t follow them.  When I finally found, the right video, I watched it a few times until I mastered casting on and knitting.  I practiced several times that day.  Then I practiced even more the next few days until I felt at ease casting on and knitting.  Before moving onto the purl stitch and casting off, I wanted to wait for my wife’s help.   Unfortunately, June and July were busy times in the Holt Household and so it wasn’t until mid-July that we finally had a free moment together.  She then showed me how to purl and cast off.  Since I had learned the basic stitch already, these two new skills came quite easily.  After practicing several more times over the preceding days, I felt as though I had mastered the basics of knitting.  I made a few small doilies to showcase my new skill.  I finally felt confident in the art of knitting.  I had learned a new skill despite struggling at first.  My fingers were not meant to knit.  The yarn is so thin and the needles so small.  I had a heck of a time getting one needle to go under another to make the stitches.  But, I did it.  I used a growth mindset and persevered.  I wanted to encounter the same types of problems my students would so that I would be able to empathize with them.  Knitting is no easy skill, but it is not an impossible skill.  I’m hopeful that it will help some of my sixth graders with their fine motor skills and handwriting.  We’ll find out in November and December when we get into fiber work as part of our farm program.

While knitting did prove challenging, it was more of a physical one than a mental challenge.  Learning to solve the Rubik’s Cube was purely a mental challenge, and boy was it challenging.  First, I watched several different YouTube videos until I found one that worked for me.  Then, I watched it many times.  I paused, practiced on the cube, rewound the video, rewatched the video, and repeated this series several hundred times until I mastered the first few steps.   Then, I went onto the final few steps that involved a series of algorithms performed in a certain manner.  This took a few tries, but was much easier since I had learned the basics of solving the cube already.  I was so excited when I had first solved the cube, I jumped up from my seat and yelled.  I had done it!  I practiced the first few steps several time more until I had them mastered.  Then, I just needed to look at my cheat sheet to solve the final three steps.  There are just far too many algorithms for me to memorize.  I had it.  My fastest time was 5 minutes and 46 seconds.  That was impressive.  However, not clearly as impressive as those kids who can solve a cube in five seconds.  I’m not sure how that is possible.  I have even seen a former student of mine do it and I still didn’t believe it.  Was he a robot?   That’s amazing.  I’m nowhere near that, but I feel quite good with my basic ability.  My goal in learning how to solve the cube is to be able to help my students troubleshoot problems they encounter as they learn how to solve the Rubik’s Cube in STEM class this year.  I now feel as though I am capable of that.

Of the two new skills I learned this summer, solving the Rubik’s Cube was definitely the most difficult.  It required much focus and concentration.  I had to translate what I saw in the videos to my three-dimensional cube.  I messed up a lot at first because of that.  But I never gave up, I just kept at it until I had it.   Everything I hope for my students this year, I accomplished this summer.  I hope that is enough to be the teacher my students need me to be come September.  I certainly don’t want them to give up on their dreams of knitting and solving the Rubik’s Cube like I did regarding the guitar.  So, note to self, no bananas in the sixth grade classroom this year.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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