Monday, February 24, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 5

When working with young people, classes can have a wide range of energies. Week 4 saw a high energy session with kicks and punches even fiercer than in my adult classes. Week 2 saw a low energy session with confused participants and a confusing technique. Week 5 offered a different energy entirely, what I will term a "strange energy". A more appropriate term might be "mixed energy", which would capture the different levels of different girls in the program. But when you mix too many different energy levels in a class it is not unlike mixing too many different flavors in a meal; although individual flavors may be fine on their own, the combined result is just plain odd.

During the week 5 class, some girls boxed with heightened intensity while others sat on the mats and threw sandals at each other. One girl refused to do anything but wrestle. Another gave a headlock to every girl she saw before throwing them on the mats. A few of the girls went for 20 minutes of nonstop boxing rounds and wouldn't stop jumping around in between sets. Meanwhile, others did wobbly cartwheels and unsafe handstands while singing radio hits. At first glance, this sort of behavior appears to reflect poorly on the class in which it was arising. But on further consideration, I actually think it is a testament to the safety of the space that this behavior could arise at all. Although there is certainly room for instructor growth (it occurs to me that it's probably not okay to allow a girl to headlock her peers while tickling them), week 5's strange energy worked out in the end.

"Safe space" is one of the more palatable examples of social work jargon. It isn't aggrandizingly academic, unlike "evidence-based practice" or "organizational theory". It also isn't inaccessibly technical, unlike "psychosocial development" or "social return on investment." There is not too much more to "Safe space" than the term suggests; it is a nonjudgemental environment where participants identify that safety and are comfortable being themselves. Of course, actually creating a safe space is a challenge, as is defining all the nuances of "safety" as a concept for youth. But even non-social workers can probably appreciate the value of a safe space to a young man or woman.

One of the most important goals of Girl World as a program, let alone Girl World martial arts, is to create a safe space for the participants. This arises through candid discussion, respectful interactions, and constant encouragement and moderation from the program staff. On that last bit, I add this qualification: The safe space of Girl World is more about giving youth the skillset to have effective interpersonal interactions and less about disciplining them for bad behavior. When engaging in martial arts, there is an added layer of physicality that is both absent from normal programming, and uniquely enabling of conflict. Some girls can joke about other body types or fitness levels. Others can be too aggressive or even too passive. For a safe space to be effective in this context, girls should know how to navigate these situations as they arise, and to grow as they confront them.

All of that sounds pretty neat and tidy, as if giving a succinct definition as part of a grad school exam. And as anyone who works with youth knows, or anyone who can imagine, there is little that is neat and tidy about actually engaging with young people. The idea of "safe space" is included in that. Here's the issue: Program staff define safe space in these social work terms with social work justifications. Program participants, however, define it in their own way. Those two definitions almost never align in terms of wording (13 year old girls tend to lack academic social work vocabulary) and rarely align even in terms of intent (girls don't take classes that teach them how to resolve conflicts; they take a class because it's "fun") .

How does this relate to the strange energy of week 5? As an attempted creator of a safe space, I don't actually have much say in how that safe space plays out with the young women in class. I don't get to define their comfort zone and how that comfort manifests with their peers. To some girls, "safe space" means a place where they can lie down on the mats and throw their sandals at other girls without an adult giving them a detention. To other girls, "safe space" means they can get sweaty and tired without a parent calling them ugly for putting on too much muscle. And to others still, the space isn't safe enough for them to be too open with their peers. For instructors, it is challenging to assess whether strange energy is a function of different responses to safe space, or whether it is evidence of unsafe space that a girl can't feel comfortable in.

Ultimately, my sense of week 5 was that most of the behavior came from comfort, not from unease. All but one girl was still listening to staff when we gave instructions, and when girls wanted to do something else, they approached staff about it and framed it constructively ("Mr. Sheridan, can you teach us some cart wheels?") instead of defiantly ("I don't want to do this!"). A group of girls kickboxed so much that a bystander would think they were in serious training for the next UFC talent search. But when asked about it, they just talked about how relieving it was to let out stress and not be stuck in a chair all day, even if it felt too aggressive and even violent at times. For those girls, however, that was probably what "safe space" looked like to them, especially in a martial art context.

In my teaching experience, I have found that it is easy to interpret every occurrence in class as evidence of the class's failure. That one girl is looking away; I bet she's bored senseless. Those two students over there refuse to participate this week, probably because they have realized how bad this class is. Although these observations can, at times, be very astute, they are often just absurd doomsaying ("It's 3 minutes into the class and none of the students have called me by my name. They probably all forgot! Because they hate me!"). And once you start thinking this way, your interactions with your youth suffer, as does your general class management.

Especially when working with youth, instructors should always think about the other events that are happening in their students' lives. Those effects of those events will arise in programming, and it is inaccurate, and even arrogant, to think that the reactions of young people revolve around your session. Maybe they had a bad day at school or a bad weekend at home. Maybe a tragedy just occurred. Maybe they are just plain tired. Also, as a warning, this doesn't even need to include the usual pathologizing that we attribute to low-income youth. Not every disengaged youth just had a relative shot or a physical altercation with their parent; it is easy to assume that disengagement in low-income youth is a function of a stereotypical list of low-income woes.

There is another way to think about this issue. Your class is about your students/clients/youth. When you get mired in negative self-criticism, you make the class about you and not about those you are trying to work with. This leads to a class that is no fun for anyone; youth have Jedi-like attunement to how adults are really feeling. So just have fun. Have a fun class, enjoy yourself, enjoy your students, and the sessions and program will be successful. Indeed, I try (try and fail, sometimes) to not even think of "successful" and "failed" classes. Rather, I just think of classes that are exciting, enjoyable, engaging, and all around fun. If you work towards that, chances are good that your youth will have as much fun as you are.

Week 6's class got cancelled because the Girl World group had another plan for that Tuesday, but Week 7 will happen tomorrow. Whether the class has high, low, or strange energy, the key will be to just make it as fun as I can. Given that we are working on board breaking tomorrow (I challenge you to find the person who doesn't like breaking pieces of wood with their body) this should not be too difficult.

1 comment :

  1. I am liking your take on this. I do have to agree with you. It really needs a different approach when we’re dealing with girls and martial arts. But all in all, I love your perseverance and take on this as I think you are doing a fantastic job as an instructor. :)
    Ari Maccabi