Teaching in the Time of Covid

28 October 2020

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One of my main sources of income in the past few years has been teaching fibre arts classes — in person, usually at larger events and retreats, and often far away from home. In the first few weeks of lockdown, my email was full of appropriate and sensible cancellation notices. For a while, we optimistically rescheduled and postponed things, but by the middle of the year it became clear that we couldn’t predict when it would be safe to gather again.

The pivot to online events happened fairly quickly. I hadn’t even heard of Zoom in the first week of March, but by July it felt like I lived there. One of my main sources of income in the past few years has been teaching fibre arts classes — in person, usually at larger events and retreats, and often far away from home. In the first few weeks of lockdown, my email was full of appropriate and sensible cancellation notices. For a while, we optimistically rescheduled and postponed things, but by the middle of the year it became clear that we couldn’t predict when it would be safe to gather again.

Kim’s partner Greg is a university instructor. His classes are lectures – that is, mostly talking. He uses a lot of visuals when he teaches and he’s gotten very fancy with multimedia, running his own one-man production effort from the home office he’s remade into a remote-teaching studio. But what Kim and I teach? It’s so physical. It requires close-up demonstrations of hand movements, needle positions, fine details of small stitches and yarn.

For the first rush of online events, I was able to leverage some of my existing classes. I tend to teach advanced topics, and a fair number of my classes involve more discussion and theory than hands-on. I’ve got classes on how to fit garments, socks and mittens; courses on chart reading, pattern reading, pattern writing, technical editing. These were popular in the beforetimes, but have sometimes been challenging for yarn stores, since a PowerPoint slide show is a crucial piece, and they don’t all have a projector – or even a blank wall to project onto. One store I visit regularly has a very old, huge TV that I can connect to – it takes a daisy chain of cables and connectors to make it work, but it does the job.

These classes were the ones most easily converted to online teaching. Barely any changes needed at all. I thought I’d be fine! I tidied up the presentations and added colour and more images to make them more interesting to look at.

But the first few classes were a huge shock: I found teaching online remarkably frustrating and weirdly lonely.

At first, I would tell students to leave their cameras off, to allow them privacy. After all, one of the great joys of a virtual class is that you can be anywhere – in your bed, if you want – and you don’t need to dress up, put makeup on, or brush your hair. If you want to watch my class while doing your steps on a treadmill, go for it. If you want to watch my class while catching up on the ironing, or knitting or working in the kitchen, you can. It’s fantastic for the students. And my thought was that by telling them to turn their cameras off, they’d feel more comfortable.

But I learned very quickly that if the students’ cameras are off, I’m quite literally speaking into a void.

I wasn’t really aware of how much I need students’ faces to guide my teaching. In a classroom, I am constantly scanning the audience as I’m talking. Yes, of course I’m watching for raised hands, and when I make a joke I want a laugh. But I’m also looking for smiles to indicate that a point makes sense. I’m watching for puzzled faces, or frowns – these are a clue that I need to explain something in more detail, take more time over it. And heck yeah, I’m checking to see how many people are looking at their phones or doing something else: too many means that I’m just not connecting.

I now ask students to put their cameras on, so I can see their faces. I try to take a moment to reassure attendees that I’m not paying attention to their appearance, surroundings, or what they’re doing; I just need to see their faces. (I do enjoy visits by four-legged family members. It’s the rare class that I don’t see a cat wander by.)

My classes got better when I worked out a two-monitor setup. I have my presentation and other content on a second monitor. My larger, widescreen monitor is dedicated to the gallery view of the other attendees, and the chat window. This is how I keep track of how I’m doing, and how the students are doing.

That’s not the only change I’ve made to my office setup. I haven’t created a separate studio or teaching area; we just don’t have room in our 900-square-foot house. And I also like being in my own working space, at my main computer. I’ve got access to all my files, all my books, all my samples. When I travel to teach, I have to figure out in advance what samples I might need. Having access to all of them is wonderful.

But I’ve had to do some serious rearranging, and add new equipment. The shelves behind me have been aggressively tidied up. (Well, the upper ones, anyway…. A lot of the bits and pieces have just been moved to lower shelves that aren’t visible on camera.) I’ve changed the lighting. I’ve got myself a second, smaller, camera to be able to show off knitting.

After much experimentation, the setup for that looks like this…

20201017_144737 – Copy

A bright Ott light, a matte background (a carpet remnant in a neutral colour), and this very sophisticated stand. (Also a very big cup of water. I’ve found that talking for two hours without a break makes me very dehydrated.)

I’ve had to reknit a lot of my samples – colours that work well in a classroom don’t always work well on camera. They can’t be too dark or too “hot” – red and orange are terrible on camera. But colours that are too light can be equally problematic, as there’s not enough contrast from my hands or the background. And it’s better to use wooden or bamboo needles; metal ones reflect the light back into the camera and create flashes and flares.

Before I start a class, I do a quick test. I start up Zoom, and take screencaps of how the video looks. I check that the lighting is good, my background is tidy, that nothing untoward is visible – I wouldn’t want students to know about my camera setup.

20201017_144815 – Copy

And I’ve had to change the demos I do, and how I do them. I’ve learned to keep my hands as still as possible, move very slowly, and repeat the steps several times.

Any class that requires me to check or guide my students’ work has had to be rethought. For example, I love teaching brioche in person, but I just haven’t been able to make it work satisfactorily online. That technique is all about specific movements, a specific way of wrapping yarn and moving stitches. I can demo for hours, but I feel it’s irresponsible to claim that I’ve taught it successfully if I can’t check that students are doing it properly. Where possible, I tried to change exercises and samples so that students can easily judge their own success. I’m teaching a finishing class soon, and that works well: you can tell if you’ve done it right by how the seam looks, for example, or if the end is invisible on the right side.

It’s clear that we’ll be teaching online for some time to come. I’m revisiting my class list, making sure that the ones I do offer are appropriate for online delivery – classes for which I can be confident I’ve successfully passed on the knowledge. I’m going to continue to rethink my offerings, and I’m enjoying the challenge and opportunities that the technology provides. For example, I’m planning to make videos of key techniques that I can play in class. I can make sure they’re clear, in focus and slow enough.

There’s a lot of online class offerings, on every topic imaginable – I hope you’ve had a chance to attend at least one. I’d love to see you at one of mine: all I ask is that you turn your camera on.

Copyright © Kate Atherley except as indicated.

About Kate Atherley

Kate Atherley (she/her) is a co-founder, editor and publisher at Digits & Threads and Nine Ten Publications. She has worked in the crafts industry in one way or another since 2002 as a designer, editor, writer, and instructor. She's authored eight books about knitting, from a next-steps guide for newbie knitters to the industry's only guide to professional knitting pattern writing. Kate lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband and their rescue dog Winnie.

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