Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lost in syntax part 1 (or: OMG I'm going to cry in front of all these people)

I’ve spent the week at a workshop, learning a programming language. It’s been quite an instructive experience, full of object lessons on what computer science is like for some of my students. (I want to note that the workshop teachers and organizers were lovely and in general I do not blame them for what happened.)

The first day was great. This language has some terrific features, particularly for thinking about math. I could see how it would be a better fit for certain applications than anything else I’ve seen. I could feel my brain starting to think in interesting new ways that will make me a better programmer in any language. I felt really optimistic.

The first night, I got in a huge fight with my husband. This is relevant because it meant that I started Tuesday in a not-good place emotionally, which had nothing to do with the workshop. Think your student’s personal lives don’t affect their performance in your class? HA.

OBJECT LESSON 1: Students bring their lives into the room with them. Their experience can vary dramatically from day to day for reasons that have nothing to do with you, but will affect their performance and behavior when they’re with you.

Tuesday started okay. The material was getting more complex, but I was keeping up. There was a little recursion, but they don’t call it recursion, the instructor just said “you’re experienced programmers, you know what that is” and I wondered what it was, until someone else called it recursion and I could see it. Oh, okay. I’ve never actually programmed recursion, but I was still feeling like I could figure it out.

Then she used a construct she had used the day before, in a way that the mental model I’d created of what that construct meant didn’t work. And everyone nodded. And I didn’t know what it meant. And for a minute or two, that was okay, because hey, I was sure I could figure that out too. Only she kept using it. First, I was distracted, because I kept trying to figure out what the code meant. Second, you can’t do recursion without this thing. And I was still not figuring out what it means. I started realizing that if her use of this thing makes sense (and I trust it does) and I can’t fit it into my mental model of this construct, then my mental model must be wrong. Which means I didn’t actually understand anything yesterday, and in fact haven’t understood anything after the first hour.

At which point my brain completely shut down. Oh, I kept taking notes, in between trying hard not to cry, because oh my god, I really am as dumb as I have ever feared.

OBJECT LESSON 2: A student who gets upset stops thinking. The more upset they are, the less thinking they can do. While they’re coping with all these overwhelming emotions, if you’re moving on, they might as well be absent.

THOUGHT EXERCISE 1: On students walking out of class. This is only the second time in my life that I’ve almost walked out of a class because what was happening in the room was so terrible for me that I couldn’t cope. I don’t leave because I find it unacceptably rude to the lecturer. I know some teachers who disagree and freely allow students to come and go when they need a break.

At the break I went and asked the teacher about my original point of confusion, and we worked out an explanation I could accept. Why didn’t I ask during the lecture? Because everyone else seemed to get it and no one else was asking any questions. I usually ask even in those situations, but it was compounded by the fact that she kept telling us how experienced we were, and I kept feeling like a fraud because I don’t consider myself an experienced programmer at all. (Can you say “imposter syndrome”?)

OBJECT LESSON 3: Just because many students appear to understand the material, doesn’t mean they all do. Make sure your class culture encourages student questions and not just student answers. Imagine how much faster I would have recovered if I had just asked what that word meant right away.

OBJECT LESSON 4: What you think is a complement (“you’re an experienced programmer”) isn’t necessarily heard positively. The best complements are direct, specific, and personal. In this case, I think she was using “you’re experienced programmers” to mean “I’m not going to teach you something important here” which would have been easier for me to hear.

At lunch, I spent a while talking to a friend who further clarified the material, while carefully standing far enough away that if I started crying he wouldn’t get wet. (It isn’t an object lesson, but if a colleague is on the verge of tears, it is okay to give them a hug. Or maybe that’s only true at the hippy-dippy school where I work, but I’ve literally provided a shoulder to cry on more than once.)

By the end of lunch, I felt better. Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday went back to being okay. I felt pretty confident that the storm had passed, though things weren’t quite sunny yet.

In fact, Wednesday night I went out to dinner with a long-time friend who has nothing to do with CS Ed, we spent four hours catching up and gossiping, and I felt so happy and glad to be out of thinking about CS for a while. I was sure Thursday was going to be the opposite of Tuesday. But that is fodder for a second post...

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