Teaching / Learning / Teaching


This past weekend during the grand opening of the Ithaca Commons, we hosted some free crafts with the fine folks at Sunny Days.  We brought some shoe leather scraps to upcycle.  In the course of the afternoon, Robin and I taught about 100 people how to make a magic braid. You turn a piece of flat leather, slit into three straps that are attached at both ends, into a braid that will not come undone. No cutting, just looping and twisting. There's a great SHAZAM! moment at the end of the sequence where the twisted mess flattens into a neat braid. We also had leather embossing tools, embroidery thread, and a hole punch available to create bag tags or jewelry. 

The afternoon of on-the-spot teaching and learning gave us close-up observation time for how lots of different people learn, and how we teach. And how we learn how to teach. It was fascinating to watch, as we taught the same skill over and over, both how our teaching of the skill changed and how different people learned.

The pitch of my voice makes it disappear in crowd noise. It’s a real problem in busy situations like parties or parades – I have to either pitch up (in which case I sound like a demeted Donald Duck) or shout (which hurts after a while). During the gaps in the crowd I was able to talk normally, but I found that physical demonstration with just a few words worked best for me. 

We have all heard a lot about different learning styles. People who learn visually or kinesthetically did really well with how I was showing the skill. People who need to hear instruction? Not so much. The way I demonstrated changed. It eventually settled into a groove and then I started to watch the way people were learning.

The people who made bracelets varied in age from 4 to 90. One woman came through with a walker, recovering from a stroke. She had graceful hands. Many were college-aged and female. Very few college-aged male participants. They tended to be dads, helping a kid, or kids.

The young female bracelet makers were an especially interesting demographic for me to watch. They were extremely hard on themselves and expected to do it perfectly the first time through. It really hurt my heart to hear these young women getting so discouraged about making mistakes at a new thing. So many of them were ready to just give up - one even just walked away when she got lost. I was so happy when they persevered and started helping one another – and then did a victory dance when they got to their personal shazam!

It was also interesting to watch who was determined to go it solo and who was willing to accept help. Help often only meant holding down one end of the bracelet to make it easier to braid, or holding open the spot to loop the end through for a tighter braid. Some people completely shied away from having someone else put their hands near a project. Some were grateful and immediately synched up their motions to the tension provided by the person holding the end.


This has made me think a lot about mistakes, again. Why are we so hard on ourselves when we goof up? Especially on a project where if you take a step backwards, you have a clean start? Would these people have tried differently if they had been by themselves? How do we support students so they break through that fear of errors?

And what about collaborative learning? I always gain a lot from watching what other people are doing, and a lot from hearing people’s thoughts about what I am doing. How do we encourage that in class settings?

I clearly have a lot to learn from teaching learners.

x Erika