Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 2

Week 1 class photo
A martial arts teacher once offered advice about designing programs for teens. "Expect to run into trouble starting about 4-6 weeks into the program", he said, referring to the teenage (human?) propensity for boredom once the novelty of an activity has subsided. I've heard similar advice, and read it, many times since starting social work. Although the underlying message of youth disengagement remains true, I must question if these professionals have actually worked with low-income Chicago girls before. Because in that group, disengagement didn't start six or eight classes in. It started in class number three, held last Tuesday (1/21) at Alternatives.

Soldiers, fighters, police officers, and many other martial practitioners have long valued the "debriefing" process. It is a solitaire, and group, means of reflecting on the successes and failures of an operation, action, or event. In that spirit, this post is a public debrief on the victories (like yards gained during World War I) and challenges (enough, from just one class, to fill a volume) of my third Girl World martial arts class. Conclusions may appear to be offered as advice and wisdom for readers and other teachers, but they are more intended as personal reminders. Think of them as the admonishing sticky notes you have all over a desk that remind you to "RESPOND TO BOSS" or "ONLY ONE SNACKSIZE TWIX PER DAY", except with a martial focus.

Girl World teens are not stupid. They may have environmental and family disadvantages, but all of them are quite intelligent. It's easy to conflate low academic performance with intellectual inability, especially when dealing with low-income, minority teens, and we should avoid that danger. So when I say that a lesson or technique is too complicated, that doesn't mean that its learners are incapable of understanding it. Rather, the lesson might be too hard given the parameters of the class, your abilities as an instructor, and the circumstances of the day.

Last Tuesday, I tried to teach a mount escape variation when you can't bridge your hips. Sometimes you face an attacker or opponent who doesn't have flexible hips that can't comfortably straddle your chest. If this happens, it might be hard to bridge your hips into their elevated body. It's also useful against opponents who are just too big to be bridged, or those who are deliberately stopping the move. The video below is, more or less, what I was trying to teach in class.

Even if you don't know anything about martial arts, let alone jujitsu, you can probably guess that this move was one of the worst moves I could have taught in the third session of the semester. It's way too complicated. Need some proof? For one, just look at the length of that video. The woman demonstrating the move, a black belt, is succinct, clear, and comprehensible. Her video still clocks in at just over 4 minutes. Even if we (falsely) assumed that I was half as concise as her, I wasn't teaching it to a camera. Instead, my audience was a group of teenagers who had been confined to their desks for the past 8 hours. It took me about 6 or 7 minutes just to explain the intricacies of the move, let alone to break the girls into groups for practicing.

Second, and this should also be clear even to the non-martial artists, this technique has too many moving parts. You move a leg here, scoot a hip there, hook a limb on this side, move out on that side, etc. I have a book that explains this move over 11 panels, where most other mount escapes are no more than 6 or 7. There were students in my Brazilian jujitsu class who had difficulty getting this move right in class, and those are guys who have trained two or more times per week for years. That's not to suggest that my Girl World students are inherently incapable of reaching that level. Rather, it's to admit that they aren't there yet and need to build their skills to reach that point. Teaching an overly complicated move doesn't build anything except a sense of self-doubt.

I am not 100% comfortable with executing the technique myself. I like it, I can get it after a few tries, and I think it's an important technique for students to learn. But I am certainly no master of it. I'd put myself in the "barely" or "passably competent" category when it comes to this escape. This has important implications for how you explain the move to an audience.

You can get away with "passably competent" credentials when working with experienced martial artists. These are students who can read between your explanations and fill in some blanks ("So when he says to scoot the hips out, it's probably similar to that other escape we learned last week!"). That sort of inference doesn't happen with girls who have no martial experience. Because I lacked practice with the maneuver, I had trouble explaining it in terms they would understand. When I told girls to "underhook your opponent's lower back", one responded "Ew, that's gross!" Another stared at her arms as she tried about 4 or 5 different variations of a hooking motion. Most stared at me like I was speaking medieval German ("begreiff mit deiner lincken Hand seine Abseite"). When you are comfortable with a technique or lesson, it's easier for you to explain with a greater variety of language. When you are not, however, you default to jargon that students do not, or even cannot, understand.

"Mr. Sheridan, what am I DOING??"
Note that this I am not suggesting that instructors need to attain indisputable mastery over their discipline before teaching it. After all, what would the PhD students have to do in universities? More seriously, martial arts (and other disciplines) assume that black belts and teachers are themselves always learning. Teaching, especially in the martial arts, is equal parts knowledge of how to do the techniques and knowledge of how to explain them. Neither of those metrics have an objective success point, which is why we have no choice but to keep improving.

I have a friend who graduated from Chicago Public Schools before going to UChicago. During his first class of "Philosophical Perspectives", his teacher immediately launched into a discussion about Plato and Socrates, asking for initial impressions of the two thinkers before the students started reading. My friend was silent for the entire class before finding the professor at the end of class and asking how he could drop the class. When asked by the professor why he was leaving so soon, he just asked one question: "Who are Socrates and Plato?"

Whenever we start a class, program, or lesson, we enter with certain ideas about our capabilities and potential. It's a complicated narrative process that starts at consciousness and doesn't end while we draw breath. This self-imaging has important implications for how we fit into our activities and whether we excel or fall short at them, and whether we avoid or seek them out at all. My CPS friend didn't think he belonged in that Philosophical Perspectives class because he didn't even know who its main authors were, to say nothing of his ability to opine on their works. In Girl World, there are many students who do not think they belong in martial arts because of their bodies, their physical competence, or their backgrounds.

It's difficult for adults to enter a physical activity and train with partners who may be stronger, fitter, leaner, or "more attractive" than they are. For teenage girls, with the added cultural pressures and social traumas of their age, it is even harder. To make matters even more challenging for an instructor, girls may not verbalize their hesitance and worries. Indeed, it is rare that they do. Much of it is hidden. It emerges only in offhand jokes and downcast glances, and that's if it reveals itself at all. Instructors have a responsibility, a mission even, to recognize those signs, to comfortably draw them out, and to empower students to confront them. This was particularly challenging for me last week because I was so caught up in the move that I wasn't attuned to the discomforts of some girls. For example, while trying to parse out my explanation, girls were just awkwardly sitting on top or under one another. That would be uncomfortable for anyone, especially for young women who are entering those years of heightened bodily insecurity.

At the end of the class, I wasn't quite ready to quit, but I was definitely ready to hide at my desk and escape into computer world land for many hours. But as I learned the next day from other Girl World program staff, the girls weren't nearly as miserable as I had been. They had other issues going on in their lives, energy was overall low, and no one particularly cared that the move was too complicated and its instructions too incoherent. When Week 3 rolled around, a class I did yesterday, no one remembered the struggles of the previous week and everyone was just happy to be doing martial arts again. So the concluding note of the debrief is that neither I nor other instructors/practitioners should be overly harsh when assessing their own performance. That we are our own harshest critics is particularly true when working with youth, because every failure feels profoundly consequential to an extent that getting a B- on an exam or missing a work deadline does no. But this doesn't given enough credit either to yourself (you are probably better than you think you are) or to your students (they are too). 

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