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hands knitting over a computer with a ball of yarn to one side

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As I reflect on almost 50 years of teaching in K-12 public schools and in higher education at a small, elite liberal arts college, I am struck by how knitting has grown into a metaphor and instrumental practice in my teaching of learning and literacy. Here, I share a range of experiences with knitting that have informed my teaching and my students in the hope to encourage others to bring knitting into their campus setting. It is just one way for me to thank the practice of knitting for the gifts it has given me, and to thank the many knitters who have mentored and inspired me, including those in my family.

Why do I find knitting so relevant to my teaching? Because learning is so much more than learning skills and acquiring knowledge. It is also about the rote practice that gets learning into your muscles and brain; it is about making mistakes and fixing mistakes; it is about apprenticeship and becoming a member of a community. When thinking about knitting, learning is not just acquiring the knowledge and skills that knitters have; it is equally about taking on the identity of a knitter.

Knitters know, for example, that if they try to learn too far out of what is their next step, it will probably miss the mark. They know that they learn particular skills, practice them and usually learn more quickly and effectively in both in-person and virtual knitting communities. Specifically, they know that they learn well by literally sitting next to one another, watching and trying and practicing—and sometimes having someone hold their hands through the moves.

There are fancy theoretical names for these phenomena, terms like “zone of proximal development” (Lev Vygotsky), “acquisition and participation metaphors” for learning (Anna Sfard), “legitimate peripheral participation” (Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger), and “communities of practice” (Wenger). Knitters already know what such phenomena mean in the world of learning, even if they don’t know those theoretical terms, because they embody this knowledge in their everyday practices.

It was with this in mind that I set out to use knitting in a preservice teaching course, Teaching Diverse Young Learners, for undergraduates who will probably go into teaching. My very accomplished college-age students—most of whom learned reading, writing and math quite easily—needed a learning challenge, something outside their immediate comfort zone. And on the treadmill to college they had rarely had time to learn handcrafts.

While many students in my class have faced a wide variety of challenging situations, most had always been academically successful. Engaging in work at an elite college leaves little time for nonacademic activities, unless one is an athlete. I wanted them to experience the feelings of discomfort, failure and frustration that many students experience every day. Through learning to knit, they could grow deep empathy for young learners, especially those who struggle.

Knitting worked well as a challenge for the class. They fumbled and fussed, they failed, and they started again. They helped one another. They laughed at their mistakes and shared joy at their successes. Each one of them made a scarf over the semester, and some actually became knitters.

And when it came specifically to the practice of teaching and learning, they had specific experiences that exemplified the theories that they could discuss and analyze. Perhaps more important, they became more empathetic teachers, with a physical touchstone for seeing how hard learning to read or multiply could be for a child, just as learning to knit was hard for them.

For many of them, the benefits gained from learning knitting didn’t end with the class. Some students continued to knit after graduation, sending photos of their accomplishments. Two students started a two-year knitting program in a local third-grade classroom, where the children learned math through knitting and made blankets for a cat shelter.

A couple of years later, after I had taught the same course a few times, another professor approached me in the hallway. She asked if I had taught a particular student how to knit; he was now knitting through her class. Tentatively, I answered yes and began to explain my methods, perhaps a bit defensively. She assured me that she just wanted to share that the student’s ability to focus and engage in discussions had increased significantly since he started to knit in class. The repetitive physical engagement of knitting allowed him to pay attention differently by giving him a needed physical outlet.

In a college like mine, known for its academic intensity, knitting and other sorts of making have become a balm, a counterpoint to the very real stresses of an extremely rigorous higher education institution. Handwork of any sort settles our brains, connects us to others in communities of practice and empowers us as makers. I wanted to give my students not only an experience to understand different types of learning but also a tool that they could use to create a new identity, forge new relationships and better understand the community of makers around them.

Knitting as Mending

I eagerly brought what I had learned from my students and my own experience with knitting into my work in the office of the dean of academic affairs, as well. One aspect of my job entailed counseling concussed students, usually athletes, who were prohibited from athletic play, reading and screens. Those bright young adults, so programmed toward physical activity, academic rigors and socializing on their phones, struggled with what to do with their time and bodies while recovering.

One young man’s concussion manifested as an obsession with edges; shortly after he was concussed, this highly social student sat in my office, unable to look me in the eye. When I asked about it, he told me he couldn’t stop looking at the edges of furniture, as well as places where walls met floors and bookshelves met their braces. During his long recovery, he reverted to a childhood activity by making structures out of Popsicle sticks, claiming later that it helped him to heal.

I recognized a parallelism to the work I had done with my classes. After consultation with concussion medical professionals, I started recommending embodied, creative activities to my students in concussion protocol. I found students loved it.

We are in a new and challenging time on college campuses: enduring the pandemic, reckoning with climate change, contending with racial injustices and surviving political upheaval. Students and professors alike are stressed and searching for ever more ways to balance the ups and downs. It fills me with great hope that my college has created a new maker space and that students are voicing a desire to learn more embodied, constructive, integrative and creative skills. Perhaps we are collectively seeking a way to mend the mind and body divisions inherent in our current ways of living.

Today and Into the Future

Recently, I’ve been reminded of how much we can gain from learning and practicing a new skill, and specifically how beneficial knitting can be at the collegiate level. I have seen learning to knit improve students’ resilience and grit when confronted with challenges. I have seen it deepen their empathy for people who face challenges unlike their own. And I have seen what the practice of a hand-brain skill can do to calm anxieties and heal both visible and invisible wounds. Learning to knit has instilled in my students and myself a proud knitters’ identity and connected us to communities outside our normal social circles.

I have also had the joy of creating a seminar based upon developing interdisciplinary, antiracist pedagogies inspired by picture book biographies of underrepresented artists and makers. Those books about artists and makers engage young learners who do not often see themselves represented in textbooks. They also provide representations of previously marginalized people that encourage white audiences to rethink their visions of accomplished artists and makers.

The beauty in more embodied and integrative learning is that my students also learn the theory behind the practice more deeply and broadly. In learning to knit, or do any sort of crafting, they develop empathy and patience for young learners who struggle to learn new skills, empathy and patience for those who have been historically discriminated against, and empathy and patience for themselves. We are all humbled and empowered in ways that begin to mend the world.

Diane Downer Anderson is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Swarthmore College.

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