Monday, September 29, 2008

... and don't do anything else

We introduced the weapons in class today.
This is always the most challenging class.

If we lived in a less hurried time, when skill with a sword was both valued and necessary, we would not be introducing the weapons anywhere near this early. We would be teaching people who are already familiar with swords, and with the process of learning to use one, and they would know coming in that it was going to take a long time.

But we don't live in that world.
When I was a La Leche League Leader, we had to recognize that many women were not at all familiar with breastfeeding, that most new mothers had not been breastfed, and had not ever seen anyone breastfeed, or known anyone who had done so, so they came to us with absolutely no knowledge or understanding of even the basics.
Teaching fencing, we similarly have to realize that no one comes to our classes with any level of familiarity with a sword. The closest most of them come is having seen swords in movies- and most of what they have seen bears no resemblance to actual swordfighting at all. Anyone with experience "fencing" elsewhere usually has done what has even less resemblance to swordfighting than the movies.

So our introductory classes are not really to teach people how to fence. That can't possibly be done in ten or twelve weeks.

What we teach is enough familiarity, enough of a "taste" of the sword, that they can then decide whether it is something they wish to pursue. At that point, if they continue, the pace slows down considerably.


Here we were today, introducing swords very early. Most of the students, of course, would consider it to be very late, wanting to have started whacking each other in the first class, but that's another story.

The reality is that some of the students are simply not ready to handle a sword. They're just not. They can't really handle themselves yet. So our task becomes not to let anyone injure themselves or anyone else.

We do this mostly by not allowing them close enough to each other to hit anyone.

The other part of how we do that is to have very strict safety rules, which include doing what they are told, when they are told, how they are told, and not doing anything else.

It's the "not doing anything else" part that seems to be most difficult.

Especially for the youngest ones.

They fidget.
They wiggle.
They swing their arms.
They look everywhere except where they are going.

Trouble is, they can't do those things AND handle a sword safely.

The challenge of the day is this:

How can you tell whether someone CAN'T do something (like stand still) or whether they are choosing NOT to do it?

As Spartacus Jones says over in his blog, about a slightly different subject, there are three reasons why someone does not do what you ask:

1. He does not UNDERSTAND what you want.
2. He physically CAN’T do what you want.
3. He REFUSES to do what you want.

How do you know which of these three is the case? And what do you do about them?

I'll start with the first one: understanding.

First of all, it's my responsibility to present the material in a way that they CAN understand it.
Then, to observe what they do closely enough to be able to see if they are attempting to do what they have been instructed, or not, and to make any necessary corrections.

By far, most of them, most of the time, appear to be doing just that- attempting to do what they've been shown and told to do. They may have differing levels of ability to do so, but they are at least trying. Some might need other teaching methods before they really understand what they need to do- not everyone learns the same way- so in addition to being shown and told, they might need to have me physically put their body in the right positions, to feel it. Almost all of the time, once the student understands what they are to do, they set about working on doing it.

But not always.

Once in a while, we'll have a student who physically can't do something. Might be because of a prior injury. We have had students with conditions ranging from a broken bone, to a brain injury, to a lack of flexibility due to a previous surgery, or a congenital condition of some sort. Might be because of their developmental level (this is usually the issue).

In these cases, they mostly need more time and practice, and occasionally need a slight alteration or adaptation of technique, either temporarily, in the case of an injury, or permanently, in the case of a congenital condition. These students benefit from a slower pace, and generally do fairly well as long as they stick to that slower pace, and learn what they are able to do as they develop or heal.

And rarely, we have a student who appears to understand what is being asked of him, seems to be physically capable of doing it... but still doesn't. These students need to be dismissed from the class. Period.

The toughest part of teaching is that sometimes, it is difficult to tell which case we are dealing with. There are a variety of clues and signs, but they are not always clear, and sometimes contradict each other.

The other part of this question is whether it MATTERS what the reason is why a student is not behaving appropriately. Does it matter whether they don't understand, can't do it, or are refusing to do it?

The answer is yes... and no.

If the difficulty is something that is not a safety issue, then sure, we can work with whatever is going on and check to be sure the students fully understands, or ascertain if there is some physical difficulty. We can take the time to figure out what is going on, and to help them adjust their behavior.

But if it is a safety issue- swinging themselves around, waving the sword around uncontrollably, or not paying attention in class, then regardless of the reason, we simply have to stop it RIGHT THEN. Questions and such can happen later. But during the class, that means we have to step in, take the sword, and have the student sit out.

You can imagine how popular this is.

One of the most valuable things I have learned about teaching, by far, is when and how to do this.

When is easy.

How is a little more complicated, but not much.

The key is this:

Sitting someone out isn't a personal beef.
I'm not angry at them.
I'm not punishing them.
I am simply removing a dangerous situation from my class.

It isn't about being the boss, or being controlling, or telling them all what to do out of some desire for power. And it isn't unfairly depriving anyone of anything.

Sometimes, if I suspect that there might be difficulties (for example, if we have a large number of very young students), I'll tell the class up front that this is the situation. That sometimes, people are just not ready to use a sword yet, and we are not going to put them into a situation that they cannot safely handle. That they may be asked to sit out temporarily, and to watch for a while. That sometimes, even people who have had no difficulty before may have a day where they are not able to handle a sword safely- maybe they are tired, or not feeling well- and we may ask them to take a break. Nothing personal. As soon as they are able to safely participate again, they are welcome to do so.

Sometimes, there are certain groups of kids who, for whatever reason, don't take us seriously when we discuss the rules. Kids who thrive in this culture of whining and complaining, of fooling around, and of doing whatever they can to get attention. They believe the rules don't apply to them, or that we don't REALLY mean not to do ANYTHING else. They need to understand- quickly- that our class atmosphere does not allow those indulgences.

For these kids, the key is to put a stop to it the moment any one of them does anything at all that they are not told to do, so they understand that we are serious. Usually, it only takes one or two of these instantaneous, focused, "reminders" for the whole class to settle down. For all of them to understand that it is NOT cute or funny or in any way appropriate to be incompetent or discourteous. And to understand that if they want to learn to use a sword, appropriate behavior is required.

But the thing that I learned from the master that is so valuable about all of this is what happens next.

What happens next is that when it's over, it's over. There is no ongoing attitude or punishment or anything. As long as there are no safety issues, I'm fine with whatever level of ability a student has. I don't expect them to do what they are not able to do. I don't expect "perfect" behavior. And I don't keep some sort of "black list" in my head of the "misbehaving" kids. It's all in the moment. That day. That class. That drill.

It's very simple.

Follow instructions.
Do what you are told and nothing else.
Put in your best effort.
Take the study of the sword seriously.
As long as you are able to do these things, you are welcome in my class.

If you can't do these things, then whatever the reason is, you simply can't be there. I will not risk your safety, or the safety of other students.


You wouldn't enjoy the class or learn the skills, anyway. It would be far better for you to spend your time doing something else, something you really want and are able to do, and come back to fencing some other time, if you're still interested.

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