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Cappuccinos and Wisdom in Sausalito

December 12, 2012

lisa hammershaimb

I wrote this in late June of 2011…about a year and half ago when I was on the brink of beginning my own distance education teaching career. Carolina DeBartolo was one of my grad school profs who also became a thesis adviser. You may know her from such books as Explorations in Typography. Her eye for type, printed material, and great design is truly amazing. And, her ability as a visionary…believing in her students and pulling the best work out of them (even when they have long given up hope for themselves) inspires me through every grading session and lecture. We met in a cafe in Sausalito on a foggy, rainy day and for a couple hours she told me some of her story and gave me lots of wisdom….which I immediately wrote down and have re-read many many times.

This past week and a half has been my self-proclaimed “10-days-of-adventure-and growth.” I  ventured out to Utah, Oregon, California (and several points in between) to both meet my profs from grad school and my future co-workers. The trip amounted to an odd mix of long days in the car, long coffee dates with people i’ve only ever previously emailed (something I, thankfully, seem to get better at with every meeting) and near constant positive expletives at the dazzling views, mountains, ocean, and food.

One of my best meetings was early in the California leg of my trip with one of my most revered profs, Carolina DeBartolo. Carolina is an author, designer, teacher, and all-around super amazing woman. She’s from the east coast, well-traveled and has an inscrutable eye for typography…kind of the complete package in my eyes. Carolina’s tough love and eye for detail engrained humility and perseverance in me throughout my grad school years. Her lessons deeply marked my grad education and continue to influence how I conduct my daily deisgn-filled life. Needless to say I was overjoyed that she had free time to meet with me during my Cali stay.

And so we met on the Sausalito coast and drank cappuccinos and ate teeny gourmet muffins and Carolina talked about her recent book release and the process involved and also imparted some amazing teaching wisdom. I sat across the table from her and felt both exceedingly giddy with caffeine and adrenaline and exceedingly awkward and unprepared for the new lifestyle into which I was about to plunge headlong.

What follows are seven summary high points of our talk, specifically regarding the teaching of design. As she was speaking I kind of wished I’d begun recording all that she said but, as I didn’t quite have it together enough to think of that as she was speaking, I furiously reflected on everything we’d covered once I’d returned to my hotel room. Something tells me I will be returning to these points, and my elegant cappuccino experience, many times over the next few months…


7 Things I Learned From Carolina About Teaching

1. Start at the beginning with your students.
Find out what students’ “ground level” is and teach from that point. It may be lower than the level of the course, but if you do not find their true knowledge base what you teach them will not connect to what they already know. Meet your students on the rung of the ladder of knowledge where they are and teach step by step upward from there. Avoid simply asking “do you understand?” as their answer will invariably be “yes” because people are often embarrassed to admit that they do not know or understand. Instead, ask them to explain what they claim to know to you and, if they stumble, guide them and assess their true level of understanding.

2. Don’t teach people what they already know.
Teaching students what they already know results in them tuning out your info and disengaging with you, the lesson, and ultimately the class. A disengaged student is very hard to bring back and indeed once you begin building past what they do know to what they do not know, they’ve already tuned out so they won’t be paying attention to the new information.

3. Let the students teach each other.
Begin every session with a brief review. Ask students to “teach you back” an abbreviated version of the previous lesson, consisting of key points or actions. Teaching a concept shows mastery and successfully sharing with their peers builds confidence in every student. Never take for granted a student’s verbal assertion that they understand a previously taught concept. Cold-call on students for information, explanations or commentary. Create an atmosphere that makes them feel that when they are in your class, they are “on the spot.” Like all aspects of design, actively showing is better than passively telling.

4. Never re-teach a lesson.
If a student asks you a question about a lesson or concept that you’ve taught in a previous class, don’t put your current day’s agenda on hold and begin re-teaching that material. Instead, ask the question back to the class. See if anyone else in the class can explain the concept while you monitor their explanation and adjust or guide accordingly. Teach students to teach each other, teach themselves, and take control of their own learning. As the teacher, you are their initial guide but ultimately they must be responsible for their own growth and retention.

5. Condescend your lessons to the level of your students but always demand perfection in outcome.
Make students’ tasks simpler, but push them to make their design artifacts as perfect as possible. Confidence and design success are born from small triumphs. Unnecessary complications in the name of style or “design cool” will only mislead students and degrade their performance. Do not be afraid to “send it back” and tell students to redo their work, even if it means redoing it from the ground up. The very act of scrapping it and starting again will make it better because all students learn through repetition. Students will feel frustrated. Students will rebel against the prospect of redoing. But in the long run, they will make a stronger product and someday be better designers because of it.

6. Reflect regularly upon what’s been learned.
End every critique session with a “what did we learn” review. Elicit the key points from the class and make a list that each student can take away. Always promote reflection on the design process and contextualized results over prescribed process or dry memorization.

7. Have boundaries.
You do not need to be available to your students at all times. You should have a robust life outside of your teaching. Students need to learn that, as in a client relationship, there are times when their teacher can and cannot be accessed. Students have to learn to manage their own project schedules. As their teacher, you are their coach and biggest fan, but you are not there to hold their hand every step of the way, create their projects for them, or put your life on hold for their convenience.

hi…i’m lisa.

October 16, 2012

lisa hammershaimb

So, what did I learn today? I learned that it’s more important that you show up and stay true to yourself than that you cleverly mask and try to be someone who you are not because in all honesty the world doesn’t need what you think it needs as you plot and plan in your head…it needs you for real.

But let me explain how I learned all this. Today i was called upon to teach a group of 10 year old-ish girls. No big deal, right? I teach adults…in college. I teach complex ideas in graphic design and creativity and I have achieved a great balance of humor, learning…nuance.

But yeah, not so much. I was kind of petrified and kind of bewildered and kind of feeling very out of my element with teaching 10 year olds. I should be totally in my element because I come from a family of very talented elementary school teachers (all of them can admirably and unselfconsciously use puppets and do voices when reading aloud and sing songs and do motions at the same time.) But, early on I decided that I wasn’t of that tribe and have pretty much stuck to that line of thinking every since. I don’t not like kids it’s just that I don’t really go out of my way to interact with them. But then, due to some unavoidable circumstances, I had to both interact and actually teach them for about an hour and did I mention I was at a complete loss? I don’t do puppets and I have weird self conscious neurosis about reading aloud and doing voices and most of all I am kind of casual to a fault and I know my nonchalance (which is really more self-protective than anything) can seem a little too ironic for a kid audience and a little too detached and uncaring.

So, I spent a couple minutes sitting at my Mac silently panicking and then I did the logical thing to do when stuck and at loose ends…went upstairs and poured a glass of red wine, found the three neon colored macaroons that S had gotten for me over the weekend (that I’d, like a squirrel, I’d hidden away until fancy French sustenance was necessary), bought a Carole King/James Taylor album from iTunes that I’ve been thinking about (preemptive rewards are always a good idea), and went back to the drawing board. Surprisingly enough, the combination was magic and I did indeed realize some pretty astounding things and managed to pop out a good lesson for the girls and a great lesson for myself.

The first thing that struck me was how I’d really been going about this task all wrong. I was trying to construct a lesson based on all the things I thought that a lesson should be, which pretty much amounted to how I pictured J and S teaching it (and all those ways included things that made me panicky, like reading long stories with multiple voices and singing songs with motions). While those ways are great for them because they do genuinely connect to kids, they really aren’t so great for me because I just don’t feel comfortable doing them and to compensate and try to mask my own insecurities I’d pick up all sorts of weird pretending and I’m fairly certain the girls would feel my discomfort and I’d ultimately become cynical about the whole experience.

So, I did the harder work of stepping back and thinking what feels both true to me and true to what I am trying to teach. Basically, I know that Lisa-the-teacher is alive and well but how does Lisa-the-teacher come out with people who aren’t the ones who she usually teaches? And most of all, what is the most important information to communicate and how do I genuinely communicate that information in a way that kind of gets “me” out of the way and gets the girls in direct contact with the info and lets them take it in for themselves?

After some more sips of wine and bites of cookie, I realized just how I needed to do it. And it was not how S or J would have gone about it but another vital part of me getting over myself was me realizing that it was okay for me to do it my own way…indeed, the only way for me to genuinely do it was to do it in a way that is true to who I am and in keeping with my own unique temperament and personality.

When I did my hour of teaching it was far from perfect and kind of only reinforced my own deep love of adult learners, but it did feel perfectly like me and in that I was quite proud.

So how does that translate to this process of distance education and learning and teaching? Well…PhD-ing feels like it should be reserved for a very heady and academic minority. I’d be lying to say that I hadn’t had more than a couple episodes of “I’m just not that academic and I’m not an extrovert and I don’t default to multi-syllabic words like PhD student should.” Basically, I struggle a lot with the idea that I’m just not that person and I can’t do the work in the manner of the crazy smart academic that I picture when I think of PhD.

But…then experiences like today serve to underscore that I don’t need to try and force myself into the form that I think I need to be in order to be worthy of a certain calling. If indeed I have been called to this (and to that I would answer an emphatic yes) then it is and must be the actual me that needs to come through…it must be the actual me in all its messy, humble permutations and not me trying to be the person who appears in my own mind. And when I am myself completely I find that who I am somehow, crazy enough, seems to be just what the situation has called for. So perhaps one of my biggest challenges in this process (and indeed my whole life) isn’t to learn more or think more or do more but rather to stay true to myself and intentionally filter everything through who I am because ultimately this is my project…this is my calling…this is where only I can fit and the people I reach and advocate for are unique to me and I must bring myself to this place no matter how inadequate I may feel.

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