Teaching Software Carpentry workshops – some tricks of the trade

These days I am gearing up to teach two more Software Carpentry workshops, one in Wageningen, Netherlands, and one in Oslo, Norway. In the Netherlands workshop I will be teaching a module that I haven’t even looked at before. This led me to think about the things I do to prepare for a workshop. So, here is a list (in no particular order) of things that I do that others might find useful.

  • Go through the instructor checklist. Have a look at the other checklists too, that helps with figuring out what you can expect of the other parties involved in the workshop.
  • Recently, all of the workshop modules have been put into their own github repos. Go sign up for notifications for those that you are teaching. It is highly likely that discussions about the material will prove useful. These can contain both information about technical issues and about how to teach that particular module.
  • Go through your module(s) on as many platforms that are available to you. If you are thusly inclined, consider creating a virtual machine or two and go through both the installation procedure and the module there. Remember, this takes time, so start before you think you have to, there will always be weird hickups.
  • Print out a copy of the lessons on paper and make notes on them as you go along. Take them with you to the workshop. During my first workshop I did not have a printout, and it was not a pleasant experience trying to switch back and forth between windows. I don’t know if I or the students ended up being the more confused.
  • Have a look at the wiki for technical issues and familiarize yourself with the latest technical annoyances.  Ensure that you have an easy way to get back to it again during the workshop. I have forgotten where it is a couple of times, and it was equally annoying each time having to spend time figuring out where it was.
  • Make sure that the host supplies stickies, and consider taking a backup stash with you in case the host misplaces them or simply did not get them because they didn’t believe in them. Ensure that you have at least twice as many stickies as students, sometimes they lose them, sometimes they spill coffee on them, sometimes they distractedly end up tearing them into tiny tiny little pieces. You get the picture.
  • During the workshop – USE THE STICKIES! They are a lifesaver. If you have not taught with them before, just give them one single go and that should be enough to convince you. It is a lot easier to keep track of where people are with them than without, you can keep a higher speed through the material without loosing anybody, and it is a lot easier to see who needs help. It also saves students sore shoulders since they don’t have to keep their hands up in the air until they fall off. On a more serious note, I suspect students ask for help more quickly with stickies since the overhead cost associated with it is reduced – it is not very taxing to put a stickie on your screen.
  • When you are live coding (typing on your computer) for the entire lesson it is tempting to sit down. Consider teaching standing up instead. It helps with speaking clearly and loudly enough so that people can hear. I also suspect that instructors may be quicker to go and help people when teaching standing up, because you don’t actually have to get up first. If you decide to teach standing up, tell the organizer so that they can fix something to have the computer on.
  • Bring good walking shoes. If you enjoy wearing heels, leave them at home. You are likely to do a lot of standing up and walking about, both during the workshop and in the evenings. You do not want to end up teaching with blisters. Also, you are likely to be walking around in a room with a lot of extension cords and leads lying on the floor. The risk of tripping over something is already higher than normal.
  • Bring throat lozenges or cough drops or whatever they are called, and a bottle of water. You will end up speaking a lot more than you are used to, which might lead to a sore throat, coughing and in a worst case scenario, losing your voice. I once got a coughing fit while teaching and it was not a fun experience.
  • If you can, try to get together with the helpers, the other instructors and the organizers the evening before the workshop. It really helps to have met before the workshop. Everybody, especially the helpers, are bound to have questions about things, questions that won’t have occurred to them until they are actually talking with others involved in the workshop. This is also good for giving last minute information, ensuring that everybody knows where and when to show up, organizing transport etc.
  • Ensure that you get to the workshop in plenty of time in the morning. The building you are teaching in might be confusing to navigate, so give yourself enough time to get there. You will then also have time to set up your own computer, sort out your papers etc.
  • Last but not least: have fun!

So there you have it!