Postage Stamp Worlds

In the course of having one of my knitting designs reviewed by a technical editor recently, I discovered that I knit wrong. Literally: my basic knit stitch is wrong, which means that everything I do has a gauge that is nigh impossible to duplicate with a normal knit stitch. The functional difference of how you end up doing what I’ve been doing versus knitting correctly is tiny. Minute. Miniscule. And apparently critical.

As I was telling this story to some friends over lunch last week, one of them mused that knitting is a postage-stamp world. Which is to say, if you look at it from a distance, it doesn’t look like much, but when you get up close, the level of detail is incredible and you can fall right through into a world with far more depth than you realized. I love that concept and I think it’s widely applicable. Most specialized labor, hobbies, artisan work, whatever, is made up of these postage stamp worlds, and recognizing that is probably the first step to developing a genuine interest in and respect for the work that other people do.

The concept of postage stamp worlds also seems like a darned good construct to keep in mind if you’re about to embark on learning something new, especially in the information age. This is a bit ironic, perhaps, but I think the information age is actually not all that fabulous for passing on expert knowledge…yet. Most beginning internet learning is happening at that flat, distance level with no help from Mary Poppins to pop the artwork into life (or vice versa). Sure, I can pull up Youtube videos and download ebooks and PDFS and even order books from my library without leaving my dining room table, and all of these things are valuable learning tools. This is how I learned to knit. Which I did completely wrong.

My point is that just because you can kajigger something to do more or less what you want it to do doesn’t mean that there isn’t a standard or more efficient way to do that thing. And sometimes the autodidactic among us end up disguising our ignorance of the underlying principles when we find those Frankensteinian workarounds, only to have that ignorance backfire on us in hilarious and stress-inducing minor catastrophes when we try to do more advanced work. Learning from an expert in person tends to call attention to such discrepancies pretty quickly, but learning from experts in a context where they have the ability to see our work, note a misunderstanding, and put us back on the path to understanding a core concept of their particular postage stamp is not an experience that is characteristic of learning a new thing from the internet.

Again: yet. I suspect that we can both make the internet a better learning environment and become better internet learners, and to that end, I’m thinking about these questions:

  • What questions should you ask when learning something new?
  • Are there general guidelines we can recommend for teachers interested in creating static lessons for beginners?
  • How do we best help n00bs find experts?
  • How do you determine that a teacher is, in fact, an expert, rather than a hack who knows a few things more than you?
  • What is the best technology for connecting teachers and students working together remotely?

I have a few thoughts about the first two after this experience, so…more on that later. The latter three questions aren’t really my forte, though. Thoughts?



John and I have been talking about kids a lot lately…I’m in my late twenties and many of my friends have babies, and while we haven’t yet decided whether we’re willing to tackle the terrifying realities of parenthood, it’s definitely a topic of conversation.  As we were visiting with my in-laws this weekend, we got talking about our nephew, who is just young enough to be obligingly duped by the family’s colossal efforts to present him with evidence that the Easter bunny is real.

My in-laws reminisced about our Easter shenanigans with a laugh and a sigh, savoring the memory of Train Dude’s innocence even as the acknowledged that it would last for long. John wasn’t buying it: “What’s so great about innocence?” he asked. “Why do we romanticize it when kids are so gullible?”

He has said this before, and I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed in education classes at Harvard. It’s a valid question. Why do we cherish the fact that kids just plain don’t know stuff, and don’t know to question stuff?

My step-father-in-law used the word “vulnerability” to describe part of that–the “not questioning stuff” part. Vulnerable, innocent kids have a lot of trust for certain grown-ups–which implies good things. It says that they haven’t had to deal with anything really difficult, like adults lying to them about things that matter. Grown-ups can be trusted to take care of things. When a kid loses that, it means they’ve started to experience (or noticed friends experiencing) being let down in some way, and that’s sad. So…I guess vulnerability implies that some of the sad stuff is in the “unknown stuff” category.

The other piece, the “not knowing” piece, is just fun. There is nothing, truly nothing, more awesome than sharing something supremely cool with someone who’s never heard of this cool thing. There’s just  so much that kids don’t know, and so much that we can share with them, that we have the opportunity to be amazing in the eyes of this small, still-uneducated person because we’re the people who are bit-by-bit helping him along the path of knowing wonderful stuff…even if some of it (like the Easter Bunny) is imaginary.

And that’s awesome.

Ten Thousand /

Lessons for a New Teacher

My first year as an educator came to an end last week. In a training I attended on Saturday, one of the facilitators asked us to take a moment to consider how we would name our roles in the world of education. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? The idea that still resonated most strongly with me is “were-sheep.” I already wrote about that, though, so you’ll have to read the old post to get caught up.

I’ve learned a lot this year that you don’t learn in the process of spinning extended metaphors, however, and I haven’t had the chance yet to look at some of those lessons to see how they compare to this ideal in my mind. Maybe you can all take a look at what I’ve learned and help me name my role. Here are a few thoughts, in no particular order:

Lesson 1: Kids will not hear you over their own ruckus if you don’t raise your voice from time to time.

Lesson 2: Most of the time it might not be a bad thing for their development if you let them run a little crazy, but if they aren’t trained to respond to you quickly under normal circumstances, they won’t respond in an emergency.

Lesson 3: Hand-clap signals are like magic, for the first week of school. Once kids figure out what they’re for, however, they’re a lot less interested in playing along.

Lesson 4: Kids who are hungry or uncomfortable have a hard time following directions and getting along with others.

Lesson 5: Sometimes giving a kid what they need most is the hardest thing to do, especially when what they need is to sit alone and cry.

Lesson 6: Every kid wants to be the hero.

Lesson 7: You have the power to give kids opportunities to be heroes.

Lesson 8: Kids do not believe that life isn’t fair, but they’ll cheat like hardened criminals.

Lesson 9: Kids are not fragile, unless they belong to someone else and you have legal responsibility for their safety.

Lesson 10: If it’s messy, kids will participate.

Lesson 11: Kids are much more likely to read if you bribe them with ice cream.

Lesson 12: The kids who most cause you to spend time banging your head against the wall are the ones that burrow deepest into your heart.

Lesson 13: They are so worth it. All of them are worth all of it.

Lesson 14: Having kids part-time works for me.

Lesson 15: Parachutes are awesome.

Lesson 16: If you don’t tether kids with inappropriate winter footwear to something out of the reach of deep snowbanks, you will spend half an hour digging a ballet shoe out of frozen snow.

Lesson 17: Kids are way more competent than you give them credit for.

Lesson 18: Kids have way less common sense than you give them credit for.

Lesson 19: Kids have much better memories than you do, so if you make them a promise, write it down. If you forget, you will hear about it for the REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Lesson 20: What goes up might not actually come back down until the wind blows it off a roof and a custodian finds it halfway across the school grounds.

Lesson 21: You will never find all the beads or marbles. Never.

Lesson 22: Listening is harder than talking. It’s also more useful.

I know I’ve learned many more things, some probably more important than some of what I’ve put up here. I’m fairly certain that I’ve learned more from the kids than I’ve managed to teach to them, and I hope I’ve taught them at least the beginnings of more than 22 useful lessons. Or not…

So what do you think, friends? Does anyone have a good idea about what I should call my role as an educator? I am all ears.


Do you remember how, as a kid, you were always convinced that you were smarter than all the grown-ups around you? Older people always just seemed a bit slow on the uptake, right? Not all kids were equally smart, of course, but with a few exceptions, all grown-ups ever had on you was a bit of life experience and specific education.

I remember how that felt. I remember the utter conviction that I was going to do great things – rockstar-great things, not just contributing-member-of-society-great things. I was going to make Gandhi look like a slacker, or perhaps make Herman Melville seem barely literate, that’s how great the things I was going to do were.

That feeling, however, was accompanied by a mind that was constantly making new connections. I could remember the events of a previous day in sequence with incredible vivacity, except, of course, for the bits where my mother told me to do something I didn’t want to do. And it’s quite possible that the moments that painted me as less than an incredibly wonderful person did not survive entirely intact either. For the most part, however, my memory was great. I grew up in a religious home, so memorizing Bible verses was a part of the routine and back then I could memorize a chapter of Isaiah in about twenty minutes and recite it back the next week without too much trouble.

I…I can’t do that anymore. I’ve been keeping a food log as part of my new diet, and if I don’t write something down as soon as I eat it, I find myself later staring off into space for long stretches of time trying to recall exactly what it was I ate for my morning snack. When I work on the etymology posts, I find myself having to reach for my reference books to jog my memory about ideas I spent five years studying in college. And at work? My boss called to tell me I didn’t need to help out with an event that was going on at another site, and thank heavens he did. I don’t think I would have made it either way because I had completely forgotten that the event was happening that day.

As I was bemoaning my horrible brain decline to John last night, he informed me that our brains must be about done pruning themselves. Apparently children have vast amounts of neurons, which enables them to process the incredible amount of new information they face every day as they’re learning how to deal with the world. As we get older, we’re more comfortable with things like tying our shoes and walking and using language and making sense of social situations and everything else our brain habitually has to manage, so our brain starts trimming away the redundant connections in order to make our synapses more efficient. The side effect seems to be that keeping track of things like, say, what day it is becomes more of a challenge.

In short: I’m getting old.

John and I have decided to start teaching each other things we used to know really well ourselves in order to combat the effects of synaptic pruning, but I really don’t know how much trigonometry and the poetry of Catullus (in Latin, of course) are going to help us remember to pay the light bill. You know I’m no fan of dependence on technology, but seriously? How did you people ever survive getting older without the help of electronic reminders?

Sew What?

Sometimes I need to read the instructions. Better yet, sometimes I need to read ALL of the instructions before I start a project. Then again, if I did, I would probably find myself shying away from learning new things that I am absolutely capable. I am not a person who handles change with anything resembling mental ease, and this includes change in my own abilities unless I am thrust unwitting into a situation where my need to make something complete is pitted against my fear of the unknown.

Yesterday, in the course of switching the containers my office supplies and sewing notions were in (in order to actually be able to use all of said items effectively), I realized that I no longer owned a pincushion. Somewhere along the way, I guess I decided it would be a more efficient use of space to toss all the pins in the bottom of a plastic container with a bunch of other stuff. That worked very well for who knows how long–right up, in fact, to the moment when I actually had a project that required me to hand-sew a seam that required pinning. More and more I find myself willing to take on projects that include a bit of sewing, and as such, a pincushion seemed like a prudent investment.

I hate the tomatoes, not because they’re bad pincushions, but because they’re just so, so…ubiquitous. Also, buying a cheap-o, factory-wrought pincushion would have required me to get off my duff and leave the house. I had yarn scraps, fiber fill, and an internet full of clever knitting comrades within my reach, so I decided instead to put my hand to knitting up my own little cushion.

I’m glad I did. There’s a whole world of fiber arts centered around making pincushions and I found a plethora of lovely and/or hilarious options. The problem is that many of these patterns involve either crocheting or felting or sewing or a mix of these skills, none of which I especially love to do. When I found a pattern that looked, from the front, to be nothing but knitting, I cast on without a thought and started happily working the chart as I watched my newly discovered retro-crack (i.e., Stargate SG-1). Two episodes later, I realized that the pattern I was working was more like a square than a sphere, so I took a moment to look more closely at the pattern and discovered that what I was knitting was merely a counterpane to be sewn atop a biscornu insert.

Seasoned crafters, go ahead and laugh yourselves silly while I explain what this is to everyone else. A biscornu is basically a freak of crafting geometry nature. It’s an eight-sided little cushion made of two four-sided pieces of fabric. The way you make one of these happen is by sewing the sides so that the corners of each square end up in the midpoint of the sides of the other square. Sewing requires this complex shaped to be flattened into two dimensions, which requires spatial reasoning skills that I simply do not possess.

Oh, did I mention that I didn’t have any fabric in the house and so had to get off the couch and drive to the store anyway? That’s a classic example of irony right there, folks.

And let’s not forget that as I am both lazy and incapable of sewing a non-hem seam in a straight line by hand, I decided that I should finally figure out how to work my aunt’s sewing machine, which has taken up residence in my home because she uses a smaller and newer model. I was absolutely delighted to inherit the older Singer, but it is from the generation when machines were made of  ecru-colored plastic and steel, which means that it threads a bit differently than the machines I learned to thread almost ten years ago in my high school quilting class. Add to that the fact that it’s built into a cabinet and is designed to fold up and down using a very clever but not-immediately-obvious-to-a-person-with-poor-spatial-reasoning-skills mechanism and the result is a crafter who was in over her head.

To make a long story short, I did succeed. It took half an hour on the internet, a conversation with my mother, and a fair amount of trial and error, but I did succeed. Miraculously enough, I didn’t even end up having to rip any seams out. By following the instructions on blind faith and pulling the fabric together the same way I play Prince of Persia (that is to say, by following the only possible path even when it made no sense), I managed to produce a reasonably tidy biscornu that, miracle of miracles, actually fit very nicely under the knit counterpane. Along the way, I managed to conquer a veritable Everest pile of skills I didn’t have yesterday morning.

Here you have it, picture proof that I really can do anything.