Worse things happen in C

The start of term has been hesitant. IT Students were supposed to report on Monday and, officially, term began on tuesday. A bit tough for those who have classes on mondays, you might think, as they miss one week of classes. But the truth is worse than that.

Much worse.

Sister Pauline told me that the jokers at JKUAT have told the students they have until 21st to report. Given that our students dont generally like to show up at all, and always come late, this means we will all get at most only 9 weeks of teaching. This week I am advised to make a token appearance in the classrooms and give the course outline and textbook recommendations to those students who show up. This is so that if the inspectors come to do QA on our college, someone in the class will answer ‘yes’ to “did the lecturer give you the course outline?” and ” did the lecturer give you the recommended texts?”. I have already told you about the crap course outlines we get from JKUAT, and how little relation that bears to the exams our students have to sit.

So, if I was smart I wouldn’t be writing this blog now, I’d be preparing my lessons for when students finally arrive. Its frustrating, I must admit. I wanted to try and negotiate a learning contract this time; something I have read a lot about in bookshops in Nairobi when I had time to browse expensive books on educational theory. But it doesn’t seem fair to negotiate a learning contract with 5% of the class.

One of the four classes I’ll be teaching this term is called Introduction To Structured Programming. Known to the staff at college as “C programming” because the course outline from JKUAT says: “using a high-level language, such as C” (C isn’t a high-level language. Its “structured assembler”. I’m stiffling a rant here, those of you who would understand it have certainly heard it before) and, of course, their exams are “C” speciffic despite recent thinking on the subject. I have spent most of my professional career avoiding C. I had an agreement with my first boss that I would not have to learn it. I have neer taught it. But I actually asked to teach this class.

This morning I made my token appearance in the class for Introduction To Structured Programming. Seven students showed up (out of 16). I made them bring their chairs to the front and made them sit in a circle. I asked them if they felt uncomfortale and they said they did. I said “good, it means I am challenging you”. I wrote the following on the board:

                    I want to learn to write        I want to pass
computer programs the exam

And told them each to stand up and read of of those statements aloud. They all picked the left one and knew that they needed that in order to pass the exam. An excelent start!

Here is our learnin contract.:

What the students want What mwalimu wants
Dictate notes
Explain the notes
Enough practise (work) in the lab
Fair CATs
Fair Assignments
Speak English*
Make it fun!
Speak clearly and loudly
Speak-up even when you don’t know the answer
Do the work (in the lab)
Do the work in assignments (don’t copy)
Never give up — Persevere
Include diagrams in your notes
Interrupt me if you don’t understand
Be Proud!

After that, and once an 8th studen ha turned up, I ordered a 10 minute break and then did the following exercise: Two teams of four discuss for 10 minutes how they will solve the problem that I am describing to you now. Then each group divides into two pairs. One pair goes to the next classroom, which happened to be empty. Each pair is given a short message such as “The time is 12.50” or “Maize: 20, Beans: 50”, they have to encode this onto a sheet of squared paper on which they are allowed to write only ‘1’s and ‘0’s. After this their squared message sheets are exchanged with their colleagues in the other class who have to decypher the message.

Both teams initially had mappings from the 26 letter alphabet onto ‘1’ and ‘0’: one had A=1, B=0, C=1, D=0, etc. The other had vowels = 1 and consonants = 0. I asked them if they could uniquely decode their sample messages; they confidently said “yes” until I asked them to demonstrate. This despite the fact that they had an introductary course in computer basics last term which covered binary arithmetic. Version two of the cyphers were better, though not perfect, and of course none of them had encodings for punctuation or numbers, as I had expected when I delibeartely included numbers in the messages they had to send.

We played out the rest of the exercise; it took much longer than I had expected but they said it was fun. They discussed the dofficulties with each other at the end in snowball fashon with each team of four explaining to the other what why they thought it was difficult. They wore expressions of horror when I told them that computer programming was at least as hard as that because computers would only understand “1”s and “0”s and that it was necessary to communicate precise instructions, not just the price of the ingredients for Githeri.

I’m hoping those horrified looks were because I’d made them miss their tea-break, not an indication that I have frightened them off in week one.


  1. Lydia Says:

    The whiteboard thing is inspired. You’re a fab teacher – you’ve given me so much inspiration from when I started teaching to right now. Your students are so lucky – I hope they realise it and come back for more! 😎

  2. Mark Says:


    Let’s start a mutual appreciation society.

    I have been so inspired by your teaching: I wonder how many of my friends had to listen to my re-telling of your Virus infection at school (where boys could "infect" one another by giving them a piece of paper representing the virus, and the infected people could register their infection at break time with the medical officers and would be given two virus papers of their own to go infect with) and the Adopt-An-Egg week where your boys had to take care of a raw egg for a week and arrange baby-sitters for it during thei rugby lessons, etc.

    Your students are so lucky!

  3. Mark Says:

    I forgot to say that the * on "Speak English" in the learning contact was one that I added myself.

    (hey, it is better wtih a bigger comments box isn’t it?)

  4. Lydia Says:

    Bigger comments box much appreciated. Your comment about my teaching really inspired me today – I’m feeling jaded and incompetent. Thank you sweetie! I really enjoy reading about how you are teaching your stuff to your students – the different setting and the different subject (I dont understand a lot of the techy stuff you talk about!)but I think our approaches to teaching are very similar. Mutual appreciation across the continents!

  5. Nostalgic Chris Says:

    Here is a lovely song for everyone who’s old enough to know what a “rampak” was…. http://www2.b3ta.com/heyhey16k/

  6. Drew Says:

    Chris, who I don’t think Ive ever met:
    I don’t think I’m old enough.
    Buuut, I noticed from your site that you did stuff with the super talented wierd attractors.
    TinylittleWorld, I know Tree very well (and Ken and all the other te-pooka mischief makers).
    Rummage rummage – puts on ao Vivo CD to play as soundtrack to this message.
    Wow. cool.

    Mark good luck with the lessons sounds cool, and thanks for the bigstretchyenlargedsize-boxfortypingin
    :hehe: Drew

  7. Drew Says:

    I don’t know what happened there,
    but I do like the way its made my post all orange 🙂

  8. Chris Says:

    Hmmm, that there HTML on this page be well buggered I reckons….

    DREW!! Are you the large-trousered fellow I was talking to in Brighton last May when te POOKa were putting on the show on the seafront? I was there filming the show (and schmoozing cos I wrote the soundtrack). So how the hell do you know Mark?

    🙂 . o O ( World just keeps getting smaller )

    Let’s hope that HTML gets fixed before it leaks everywhere…

  9. Drew Says:

    chris, you wrote soundtrack, Refractions groovy..
    (rummages in his video promo’s archive: :listens: did you write the awsum drumming, or the infections "be-be-boop-boop"?
    Large trousered yep, crickey, good memory!
    Thats me. I was there with nik and matt who were filming with the Canon XLS-1
    How I met Mark: I used to throw things at him for fun at IC
    I feel that this thread might have been hijacked… Sorry Mark

  10. Chris Says:

    Take this Thread to Cuba! Where *is* Mark, anyway?

    Yep, the be-be-boop-boop was me I’m afraid. I’ve done a couple of remixes of the soundtrack since then … I should remember to upload them some time.

    What kind of things did you throw at Mark? — difficult questions about Programming or Unicycles, thuds and clubs etc? (Or both) … 🙂

    BTW, world, that Rampak tune link that should’ve appeared upstairs is http://www2.b3ta.com/heyhey16k/

  11. Mark Says:

    Hi, I’ve fixed the broken tag and reinserted the link.
    now I just have to get to a machine with the right plug-ins
    to watch the damn thing.

    I can’t believe Chris and Andy know each other! This parlour of mine has become a real meeting place and Im very pleased to see that it continues to live while I am away on safari (uploading pics as I write this, watch this space)

  12. Chris Says:

    Yeah cool!

    So, WTF is a "bigstretchyenlargedsize-boxfortypingin"…?!


  13. Drew Says:

    That was something I requested in Marks blog entry before this one. (thankyou Mark:)
    See below for full details.

  14. Drew Says:

    And good luck with the gig tonight chris 🙂

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