Monday, February 3, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 3

Week 3 (kickboxing) class photo
(Martial artists: Check out her roundhouse kick pivot!)
One of the worst feelings as a teacher is when you organize an uninspiring, and uninspired, session. That was my week 2 experience in the Girl World martial arts program, although as some of my friends and colleagues pointed out to me, it probably wasn't as bad as I judged. That said, perhaps the best feeling as a teacher is when your curriculum is the opposite: Inspiring, engaging, and generally fun. Week 3 was such a class. It's difficult, and not particularly humble, to gauge such success just by reviewing the lesson plan. But when your students are getting almost every technique, laughing even as they are too tired to stand, and smiling with every move, it's hard not to feel like something has gone very well.

If week 2 was so challenging as to make me question my ability to teach martial arts, week 3 served as an affirmation that I am probably in the right field (even if there remains room for growth and improvement). Whether because the girls didn't remember or didn't care, there was no trace of the disengagement and diminished energy that characterized the week 2 class. The girls had fun. They got the techniques. They connected with each other and with the staff. This isn't to suggest that the class was perfect (it wasn't) or that I can accurately divine the feelings of these youth (I can't). But all things considered, the session serves as a model for future meetings, and I want to reflect on the many factors that contributed to its success: Different content (kickboxing), a smaller class (easier to manage), higher energy (no school that day), etc. On the heels of a victory, the temptation is towards excessive self-congratulation and not towards preparing for the next battle. Girl World classes aren't exactly a "battle", even if the metaphor is not entirely inaccurate, but I want to build on the gains from last week and not rest on them.

When the Chicago Tribune lists its top buzzwords and terms of 2014, "polar vortex" is likely to be at the top of its list. For those that do not know about this weather phenomenon, it is a marauding stream of arctic air that descends from the north to bring havoc to the fair southern lands; the "stark" Chicago weather has taken on a new dimension as we all now know that winter truly is coming. How did this impact Girl World? Public schools closed, most after school programs were officially cancelled, and many girls chose to stay home rather than brave the cutting cold. This meant that the class was much smaller. Only 7 girls came to programming, one or two of whom weren't even technically registered for Girl World (they had come for another program and found it cancelled; they stayed to kickbox instead).

My optimal class size is around 10 students assuming no other experienced co-instructors. With another facilitator, we can go up to 15-20. Although the Girl World staff is highly trained, an MSW doesn't exactly prepare you to teach a jab/cross combination or a roundhouse kick. My colleagues are invaluable for managing the group but, understandably, less helpful when it comes to troubleshooting a technique that they themselves have learned 5 minutes ago. This issue is compounded by the age and experience of the students themselves, many of whom know as much about martial arts as they learned from Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 2.

When the class size shrinks from 12-14 down to 7, my ability to give individual attention rises in proportion. I worked with every girl there last week, whether as a pad holder, improving their technique, offering praise, and in almost every case, a combination of all three. Moreover, because of the smaller class size, I knew all of them by name, which made the class more familiar and comfortable. All of this helped the girls to work much harder than they might have if they thought an audience was judging them, or if they thought the instructor wasn't paying attention.

There's a broader point to make here. In a world, not to mention state, of shrinking budgets and service cuts, the student-to-teacher ratio has become increasingly important. Instructors are pressed to offer the same individualized attentions to students in a class of 10 as they are to students in a class of 30. That's unfair to student and teacher alike. I'm not saying that Girl World or Alternatives has a staffing issue, although like every social work agency in Chicago, we could use both more money and more help. Rather, the girls themselves, and other young people like them, would benefit from the additional attention and focus that is allowed in smaller classes. From a martial arts perspective, that's as true of a professional heavyweight with a personal trainer as it is for a teenage girl who just wants to get fit, learn self-defense, and/or have fun.

This is not a very academic or profound observation, but its simplicity captures the energy of the class and of the girls who participated. Kickboxing rocks. As many of us know, it's fun to just hit something (something, not someone). Wacking a pad or bag gives a sense of power that running, lifting weights, stretching, throwing a ball, and a variety of other physical activities just doesn't produce. For one, there is such a direct connection between your agency and your power. You hit the bag hard and it flies away. The room echoes with the slap of your foot on leather. Your partner says "Ow! Why you hit so hard!?" In all cases, you were the one who generated that strength, controlled it, and then used it. Other physical activities call on athletes to use their power in similar ways, but it's often less direct than a strike with your own body. There are no tools involved, no mediating agents that deliver or show the power. When you kick a ball far, the focus is often on the flying object, not on the powerful kick. In kickboxing, the first thing you see is the kick that sent the bag flying. It also doesn't take any special training or understanding to appreciate the meaning of a "kick" or a "punch". Those are biologically ingrained movements, or at least culturally ingrained ones, and we all respect their meaning. Harnessing that power is vitalizing, especially for young women who may have either never had it before, or had it used against them in the past.

Previous weeks focused on grappling. Self-defense often combines aspects of ground fighting with striking, and both are necessary for an effective system. Both martial aspects are also fun on their own for different and overlapping reasons. That said, for martial artists who are just starting their training, particularly those who have never done it before, it is immediately gratifying to punch and strike. Grappling certainly appeals to some, but for many it is daunting. Unaccustomed to physical contact? Self-conscious about your skills, image, or body? Worried about working at close quarters with others? Those are all good reasons to eventually wrestle and overcome your hesitation, but they are also hefty obstacles when first starting. Kickboxing dodges all that. You don't need to spar to throw some strikes. It can be you and a pad holder. Or just you and a bag! In that sense, kickboxing can be much more inviting for new and prospective martial artists.

From a more sociological perspective, many of the young women of Girl World are probably familiar with striking. It either shows up more commonly in popular culture (movies, games, television shows, etc.) or, unfortunately, in their own lives. There is something a bit too intimate and familiar about wrestling that can be unwelcoming to someone who has never been on a mat before. This is less of an issue for young men, many of whom roughhoused and scrapped their way through childhood. Even if they didn't, their cultural experience was less anti-contact as it often is with young women. Of course, this cultural suggestion doesn't mean that girls and women should avoid contact martial arts. Quite the contrary: They should be encouraged to do it, if for no other reason than to allow them the option of defeating that cultural stereotype. But it also makes it harder for some women to take those first steps onto the mat, let alone into an opponent's guard or mount. For that reason, kickboxing can be a much more enticing invitation to martial arts.

The success of a martial arts class is not entirely in the instructor's hands. It is a collaboration between the teacher, the students, and countless external factors that are not entirely in your control. Indeed, those factors may be entirely out of your control. Just as I cannot take the full blame for a subpar week 2 class, so too can I not take all the credit for a successful week 3 class. The weather, the schools, the other staff, the girls, and many other agents were all equally responsible for making the hour fun. That observation, if internalized, will as much insulate you from classes that fail as it will keep you humble during classes that succeed. I don't think I have fully internalized it yet, but in identifying the principle here I am more likely to remember it in the future.

All of this applies just as much to martial arts as it does to any other subject, whether organized with youth, adults, or another audience. Social work education was as much about individuals as it was about their environments, and it is our job as professionals, teachers, martial artists, and readers to always consider the context of an issue. In this case, the context of my class made it successful. I played a part in that, but only a part. In the case of week 2, the context of the class made it fall short. I also have some responsibility for those failings, but again, only some. It will be better for me as a martial artist, and better for the Girl World girls as students, if I remember that in the coming meetings.

For the week 4 class, to be held tomorrow, we will probably stick with kickboxing and add in some additional techniques. I expect the girls will love elbows and knees. So whether the class is big or small and whether another polar vortex rampages across the midwest, I am optimistic that we can build on the successes of last weeks class and add some more smiles to these girls' lives.

1 comment :

  1. Wow! This is an amazing post, Sheridan. Managing a class of girls in kickboxing can be a bit difficult, especially if they are teenagers. It is a good thing though, and perhaps an unexpected blessing for the polar vortex to come into town so that you can focus on each of the girls. I hope to see more of your progress here.
    Ritchie Yip