Tales from under my desk

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I’m hiding under my desk with a large box of assorted candies and a
laptop. It had been a particularly tiring CS21A session, with my
carefully prepared string exercises mysteriously unreachable – proxy
problems? host problems? – and… well… a student with a
surprisingly poor grasp of the subject matter, which made me feel bad
as a teacher – which is, once again, why I’m hiding under my desk. It
feels nice here.

I must remember that the discipline of problem-solving and the
structured logic of computer science do not come easily to other
people. I hear the frustration and shame in my students’ voices as
they try to write the programs I ask them to do far more often than I
hear their exultation. With a sequence of exercises I strive to lead
him to the realization that loops are simply a way to repeat code
conveniently, to help them make it a part of they vocabulary.
Sometimes I feel like Anne Sullivan to stubborn Helen Kellers,
patiently repeating ignored hand-gestures while waiting for that one
spark of genius that will help them unlock their world.

I arranged my exercises in terms of difficulty, but I need even
simpler exercises to help them build confidence. I want so much to
make them see, to make them understand – but I must guide them slowly
and with questions so that this logic becomes an inseparable part of
them, not just something given to them to study now and forget later.
I want them to have a sense of control and accomplishment.

I want to unfold them, find the core of the problems that prevent them
from learning, stretch them, challenge them, transform them – but oh,
how difficult it is to even find a sequence that will be challenging
and yet at the same time encouraging! How much easier it would be to
not care, perhaps, or at least not bend to each person’s needs – to
let people sink or swim according to their own efforts. How easy it
would be to just say that oh, perhaps a student is not meant for a
certain course. I would perhaps be doing a greater service to that
person’s potential classmates and coworkers if I failed a student who
did not show potential. Yet such reflects on me, too. Perhaps it is a
conceit to think that I can reach even those whom most think are

I lack so much as a teacher. I love crafting exercises to guide people
along a path. I love finding out where a person is and trying to form
a personal study plan to help. I tutor, I mentor, I question, I
challenge. Do I teach? Rarely. I think of this as trying to help
people learn. Perhaps I’m meant to be more of a guide, more of a

I love spending time with people and helping them understand
something. My CS21B class is incredible to watch – the people who had
such a hard time during the first semester seem to have caught up and
are doing quite well, and that helps me believe that it’s worth it. It
must be worth it, must be worth times like this…

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