Katie's tips on getting the most from Breed School

Sasha here. It's a huge pleasure to bring you this guest post from Katie Mazaitis, one of the 2016-17 Breed School cohort. Here she shares a bit of her own spinning history, her experience with the Fiber Club, and the techniques she used to make Breed School an effective "learning space" for her. (Pro tip: you could use these tips to get the most out of any class you take, online or offline.)

Hello! My name is Katie, and I’m happy to have been invited to write a guest post for the Sheepspot Fiber Club & Breed School. This (2016-2017) was my first year in the club, and I’ve had a really excellent experience, not just with this year’s picks (Shetland, Whitefaced Woodland, Southdown, Rambouillet, Teeswater, and Polwarth/Silk) but with the whole concept of the club as a shared learning space. 
I’m an engineer by training, and currently work writing research software for a machine learning & search engines group at Carnegie Mellon University. My husband is a freelance technical writer who also teaches at CMU as an adjunct in the English department. We like to make stuff, and the hobbies rotate seasonally. In addition to spinning and knitting, I make soap, sew, and keep a vegetable and dyer’s garden.
I first picked up a spindle in February 2014, and hit the ground running. I bought a small antique wheel off a Ravelry destash that April, went to a fiber festival that May where I took my first class, bought my first fleece, and impulse-bought an antique CPW. I took a support spindling class in spring 2015, completed my first fleece-to-garment project in early 2016, and am about to finish my second if I can push through the rest of the body of this sweater before the summer heat sets in. I grew flax last year, aim to process and spin it this year, and am starting to get the hang of grasped spindling using a distaff. Fiber art has been my primary creative outlet and meditation for the past three years, and I get in at least an hour of practice daily from October through July. 
Before signing up for Breed School, I had already done a bit of breed study and fleece prep on my own. The current “Is The Club For You?” guide on the front page actually advises against the club for people with that level of experience. I might not have signed up had that recommendation been there a year ago, but I still got a lot out of it. So long as you come in to the club with your curiosity in gear, regardless of previous experience — well, we’ll get into that in a bit.
I care about Breed School as a learning space. I have a lot of experience thinking about learning: I’ve repeatedly wound up in schools that were brand new and/or trying out new strategies for education (junior high, community college, engineering school, masters program). New places expect to make mistakes, and the easiest way to rapidly improve in response to those mistakes is to ask for feedback from students. This extended familiarity with educational experimentation has grown into a general interest for me, and I’ve followed up on that interest with practice. I taught social dance for about ten years, designing curriculums for all levels of dancers; I wrote a paper during my master’s coursework on how teaching techniques for the creative disciplines differ from the traditional lecture-based approach; my job is in academia, and part of that is mentoring the undergrads and masters students studying with our lab, providing different kinds of support for them as they become more confident with the research process. I believe that teaching and learning are important parts of everyday life. Knowing more about what kinds of learning and teaching suit you best can help ensure you have a good experience no matter what kind of educational environment you find yourself in.
Breed study groups in general are a form of group independent study: a bunch of people, each working independently on a shared topic. There are many options available for this on Ravelry and Facebook. Breed School stands out in that not only are students working on a shared topic, they’re all using the same fiber as well. This noticeably enhances the social experience of the group, making it easier to share notes, and more exciting to see what other people are able to do with the same fiber. You don’t have to worry about anyone getting tripped up by a bad supplier. When everyone shares the same fiber, you have a reliable baseline for asking questions. Learning becomes something you can do as a group. 
A big advantage for me of thinking of Breed School as a learning space is that it becomes natural to bring along some of the tools I’m familiar with using in a more academic setting. I want to share three of them with you now, because once you know that Breed School is something you want to participate in, the techniques below will help you get even more out of the experience.
The first learning technique is something I picked up while writing dance curricula, designing computer science problem sets, researching design learning, and mentoring students through the early stages of deadline-withdrawal: assignments are almost never for the benefit of the instructor. Assignments are for students, because in order to learn, you have to practice, and until you know enough to practice on your own, you have to make do with assignments. Do the assignments. Breed School doesn’t have formal assignments with due dates or grades or anything, but it does work better if you put yourself in contact with the materials as early as possible. When you get your fiber shipment, (1) read the breed notes, (2) read the sampling notes, (3) pull out a staple of the fiber and spin it. Five, ten minutes, tops. If you wait until you have an hour to luxuriate in it and dream up a big sampling schedule, something will always get in the way and then *poof* the live chat will have come and gone and *poof* the fiber will be lodged in your stash and you won’t have learned anything. Bummer. 
(There’s an extra spoonful of sneaky here in that it’s way easier to start a 5-10 minute task and just keep going for an hour than it is to start an hour task, but even if you only get the 5 minutes, every bit of practice helps)
The second technique is something I’m ashamed to say I didn’t learn until after I dropped out of grad school the first time: Always go to office hours. Attend the video chats: live, if you can, taped, if you can’t. Even if you’re already familiar with the fiber, there’s always more to learn. Even if you haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, you may get the inspiration you need to get started. Even if you don’t have any questions, somebody else might ask something you didn’t think of. Even if you hate this particular fiber, you might learn something that connects to a fiber you do enjoy. 
The third technique is something I learned subconsciously as an inquisitive high school student, and have had to articulate as I’ve come to do more mentoring of adult students: Ask questions. There are two levels to this. The first level is, if you’re confused about something, or something doesn’t quite line up, ask about it. No question that comes out of confusion is stupid. Most of them aren’t even unique — your classmates are probably wondering the same thing. So: ask. The second level of “ask questions” comes when the opposite is happening, and everything your instructor says makes pretty good sense. I think most people just let that be the end of it. Instead, that should be your signal that you’re ready to go deeper and integrate what you’ve just learned with what you already know. Coming up with questions is a great way to start: 

  • Is there anything stopping you from applying this technique/topic, immediately, and with confidence? 
  • Does some of what you’re hearing sound familiar, maybe similar to another fiber? It might indicate a pattern.
  • If you were going to study this fiber closely enough to write a paper on it, what would you pick as uniquely meaningful or interesting about it? Or how would you decide?

Stretch your new knowledge until you discover something unfamiliar. The more connections you can make, the greater facility you’ll build with the new information.
These three techniques are great separately, but even better together. If you give yourself time to practice, you’ll be more likely to encounter places where questions might arise. If you go to the chats, you’ll get new ideas for things to practice, and hear questions from other people that might spark more of your own. If you engage deeply with the material in trying to brainstorm questions, you’ll come up with even more things to try in your own practice sessions, and be better able to engage with the group during the live chats and general facebook chatter. 
This is what makes Breed School such a phenomenal experience. The opportunity to learn independently, the shared experience and energizing support of a group of like-minded students, and access to an enthusiastic, knowledgeable instructor come together to make an impressive package. I came in to Breed School knowing some things, and I learned at least that much over again. I enjoyed having the opportunity to play around with new fibers and new skills, and have built some great new habits too. If you’re on the fence about joining the club, I hope I’ve tipped the scales for you!