Teaching What You Don’t Know

I was talking about technology on the internet the other day. It’s a half-hearted pastime. I’m not at the top of my game, but I like listening to other people talk. And the topic turned to how we teach minors **ahem** children about technology.

Specifically, the question is: how much does a teacher need to know to teach about a specific technology? You could see the battle lines being drawn. On the one hand, there were people who felt that the teacher should know everything. And on the other hand, there were people who were frustrated that in a world where kids are taught so little about technology in the first place, that anyone would squash a willing teacher’s enthusiasm.

Full disclaimer: I know nothing about teaching. I know nothing about children. And what I know about technology? Well, all my best work is still on my development server.

Still, I was probably the first kid in my district to have a computer in front of me starting in kindergarten.

And that means I had a lot of teachers who…

Well, they understood that computers were the wave of the future, and they understood that kids should be learning technology…

But they didn’t actually know anything about technology.

So, computers were plugged in and turned on, and time on those computers? Well… There were five computers in the school (less than one per class), so go ahead and do the math. You had your hands on a keyboard, you knew the clock was ticking.

And, exactly what does a hundred and eighty-four year old Civil War veteran** teach kids about computers?

Well, back in the day, we got holiday-themed, pre-boxed lessons.

You got a handout with about a million lines of code typed on it.

And if you typed that code into the computer exactly as it was written (assuming there were no typos in the original) a recognizable, holiday-themed shape (Hearts, shamrocks, Christmas trees, etc) would appear on your computer screen.

There were exactly two possible grades: Perfect, and do it again. And what did you get wrong? Well, the teacher could see there wasn’t a recognizable, symmetrical heart.

And that was about it. She couldn’t narrow down the place where you made your mistake, so you’d go over the code line by line, looking for an error. If you asked for help, she’d stand over you, and read off the code, character by character, while you went over what was on the screen.

I left grade school typing 60 words a minute with 99% accuracy.

And computers–coding–well, that was about the last thing on the face of the earth that I ever wanted to do again.

I’d never gotten to the logical part of it, and I’d certainly never gotten to the creative part of it. Somehow, it never really clicked that I could do other things. The perfectionism and the rigidity of it overwhelmed me.

So, my thoughts on how to teach something you know nothing about?

  1. Tell the Truth: I don’t know much about this, but I’m going to give it my best shot because I think it’s important because… Did you think I believed my teacher was a computer genius? No? Well, the insecure authoritarian approach doesn’t work all that well. It keeps everybody from asking questions.
  2. Acknowledge Students’ Personal Motivations: If there’s something you want to do, let me know, and I’ll try to point you in the right direction. Because the truth? Nothing’s more frustrating than spending hours and hours drawing a heart that you wouldn’t have spent twenty seconds drawing with a pencil.
  3. Be Open to Two-Way Communication: What do you think? How could we change this? At some point, I did learn to recognize variables, and see patterns in the thinking. I got better at spotting those typos than the teacher.
  4. Encourage Experimentation: Why do you think that happened? Is there anything else you could do with it? If it didn’t go quite right, what did you learn?
  5. Know Where to Find The Answer: Go to the library. Ask Joe Smith. Try it and see what happens. You don’t know every detail of your preferred topics, either, so why respond differently just because you know less? What’s the name of Charlemagne’s horse? Look it up.
  6. Tell the Truth Again: I’m not an expert. Keep going. You can do more. You can go as far as you want to. Be honest with yourself. You may have taught them everything you know, but that’s not everything there is.

I hated coding. I’d learned that it was stressful, and time-consuming, with ridiculously disappointing results. I avoided it like the plague til graduation. I got back into it later, under my own steam and desperation, but that’s a story for another day.

**Teacher’s actual age and previous occupation may have been exaggerated.

The Evening News: A Content Warning

So, one of the guys I work with stomps into the break room the other day, and announces… loudly, and with great consternation: THERE ARE WOMEN DRESSED AS VAGINAS ON THE SIX O’ CLOCK NEWS. When the kids… and THE SIX O’ CLOCK NEWS. (There may or may not have been more to the conversation, but that’s about where it landed on me.)

The oldest of his kids are about ten, and girls. And WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO TELL THEM?

He turned the TV off, but you know it. Daddy WHAT IS THAT?

I’m going to say it’s a safe bet that the average ten year old is not going to recognize a vagina built out of felt and hot glue, and that the first tiny hint she had that SOMETHING WAS WRONG was when her father tackled the television set.

You can probably tell that I find this whole scene to be… well, somewhat amusing.

And, if you know me, you’ll know that my chameleon circuit self-censoring mechanism has been broken for a really long time.

So, I had to ask. What did you tell them?


So, okay. Let’s go with that. There’s NOTHING on television, but your father just dove twenty feet across carpet to turn the damn thing off? At best, he’s lying to you, and at worst, he’s a completely irrational and unpredictable creature.

(Note: Co-worker in question is one of the most involved and able parents I’ve ever known. Vagina costumes just wig him out.)

And what if there was something on television?

You haven’t actually learned any of your family’s rules about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

At ten, you’re probably still debating whether it’s a Muppet or Patrick from Sponge Bob that set your father off. Being quite honest, there are a lot of vagina costumes out there that I wouldn’t recognize without a label, if I were a gynecologist, much less a ten year old. (Oh, look. There’s one with teeth.)

You can explain your family values, and not leave the kid wondering what they did wrong.

Well, kiddo, in this country, we have freedom of speech. Which means that people sometimes do things to make a point or attract attention.

Those women were dressed as (private parts, vaginas, pussies with teeth) to attract attention to what they were saying.

In this family, we don’t watch television shows with vaginas in them because (mixed company, inappropriate for children, we believe they’re private, etc.)

Then, you go on to discuss Pravda, and propaganda in various totalitarian governments, and how turning the television off from time to time is a small price to pay for freedom of speech, being able to criticize our leaders, and the rights we all enjoy.

Now, eat your beanie weenies.

Gifted Children, Education, and Abuse

I spent a lot of time locked in the library, when I was a kid.

Just to be clear, I don’t mean visiting the library, or absorbed in reading at the library, or gee, I was one of those kids who always begged their parents to take them to the library.

I mean locked in.

As in, dumping me in the school library was my teachers’ solution, when I didn’t fit their curriculum, or was inconvenient.

As in, I still remember a couple of days when I was allowed to come downstairs and watch Letter People with the other kids.

As in, I was six years old and checking for fire escapes, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back out the way I got in, and I wasn’t sure anyone would remember I was there. A lot of times, they didn’t.

I was locked in.

Because I was smart.

And in a weird way, this was presented as a privilege. No one was telling me what to do. And I was the only child in the school who had free access to a computer… books… their time.

I certainly learned more than I would have, if I’d spent the time watching Letterpeople and handing out papers because I was the only one who could read.

And it didn’t occur to me to tell anyone, because it didn’t occur to me that what was happening wasn’t normal.

Of course, I didn’t belong with those other kids.

I wasn’t really a child, after all.

I just finished watching the movie “Gifted,” and I have now been crying on and off for an hour.

I think it was supposed to be a happy ending.

The kid goes home (following a brief stint in you’re smart foster care), and gets to attend university classes AND regular school. And… uhm… the father-figure winds up in a relationship with what I would describe as a semi-abusive grade-school teacher.

Seriously? You’re making that woman a permanent fixture in your kid’s life, and it’s supposed to be a happy ending?

She was vile.

You know the teacher who tries to humiliate a kid in front of the whole class just to make them shut up? Yeah. That’s the one.

And somehow, the fact that the kid is smart, and the abusive teacher failed to humiliate her somehow turns that teacher into a shining exemplar of the educational system, and a suitable romantic interest.

She was so awful, in fact, that later on, when she’s having a conversation with a minor, minor, minor character in the hallway (do NOT blink while the pretty black teacher is on screen) my response was hallelujah, Miss Honey has arrived. She will fix this.

Nope. Thirty seconds, and she’s gone for good.

The film was all full of such snazzy tropes as the kid’s aptitude and interests **just happen** to be exactly the same as mom’s, grandma’s, and even the (blue-collar by choice, but wow, he’s smart) uncle’s, and gee, it’s in the kid’s “Best Interest” to develop whatever they’re talented at, because after all, don’t exceptional intellects really belong to everyone?

Spoiler alert: No, my brain does not belong to everyone.

I don’t really care that what I’m capable of could bring the world more happiness, more money, more understanding of the universe as a whole.

What makes me happy is farting the alphabet while eating breakfast cereal.

There is no noblesse oblige.

Society is not entitled to the fruits of my misery.

It’s not even entitled to the things I enjoy.

Think about it. Somewhere out there–somewhere in a quiet town of a thousand–there’s a mechanic who locks the windows and pulls down the blinds, and works on a Millennium Problem.

For himself.

Because he wants to.

And someday, when he finishes, he’ll throw the papers on the fire, and go to sleep, content in the knowledge that he solved it.