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). 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 1

An individual's right to safety should not be limited by their access to training. In Chicago, and perhaps world-wide, those most at-risk for violent victimization are also those with the least access to resources which would make them safer. Police protection, well-lit streets, and low crime environments are only the norm in some of our city's neighborhoods. Others can count on the opposite: The hostility or indifference of law enforcement, deserted evening sidewalks, a high offender population, and the general absence of systems that a wealthier Chicagoan takes as a civil fact. Making matters worse, in neighborhoods where systemic protection is unreliable, personal protection is often outright inaccessible. Self-defense classes are expensive or far away. Gun ownership is illegal or heavily restricted. Neighborhood watch groups are overwhelmed, bullied, or underresourced. In this modern Hobbesian environment, the fundamental right to safety from violent harm becomes a luxury. Or a fantasy.

When I volunteered to teach basic martial art skills to the young women in Alternatives Girl World program, it was to do my part in addressing this state of affairs. Given the age, gender, and experiences of the participants, 10-18 year-old girls growing up in some of Chicago's highest crime neighborhoods, the problem was even more pressing. It is true that we have made historic and global progress towards combating interpersonal violence (Harvard's Stephen Pinker wrote a compelling account of that trend). But women, as a group, still face daily brutality that would be sickening and systemic even by the most Medieval standards. That's as true in such far-off places as Delhi and Nairobi as it is in the United States. My goal in teaching the class to Girl World is to give students the skills they need to either avoid such situations entirely, or to survive them if the worst occurs. Although fitness, fun, and general empowerment through physical activity are also goals, that right to individual safety remains my foremost intention.

I will be teaching Girl World from January through April, and intend to reflect on each session  with my readers. Social workers, martial artists, Chicagoans, academics, and generally concerned citizens will all hopefully find something of interest to themselves reflect and think on.

Warriors should not distinguish themselves in their belts, titles, or physical prowess. Instead, we must try to distinguish ourselves in service. It does not matter whether it is to individuals, communities, or causes, so long as the commitment is made selflessly. In that regard, I admit that I may not be the best "warrior" to teach about violence prevention; I was a stupid and angry young man who did stupid and angry things. Some friends have said that this might ultimately make me better at the job, but that is an observation I neither willing nor able to make. For now, I only say that I have gained some skills that can stop some violence, and I intend on imparting that knowledge where it will best be used. The girls in Girl World are such individuals, their program is such a community, and their situation is such a cause.


Teaching Girl World is humbling. It is not just humbling in the holistic, intangible, and often insincere sense ("Wow, it was really humbling to attend that community rally on MLK Day!! #wearehim #MyLKDay"). Rather, it is humbling in a pointed, somewhat painful, always personal way that compels reflection and contemplation.

When teaching adults and college students, I always thought I was basically competent. I was confident that my skillset of explaining techniques, building motivation, encouraging growth, and similar tools was up to par with any inspirational-sports-movie coach. It's possible I have those skills, but even if I do, they all needed to be revised or thrown out when working with teenage girls. Teaching teenage girls is hard. The most humbling piece of that is I knew my skills were going to be tested and probably tattered, and I tried to enter without bravado or false confidence. Even anticipating it, I was still surprised at just how little I could do right. Phrases like "scoot your hips" or "shoot in your arms" are meaningless even to teenage girls who are paying attention, let alone ones that are poking their friend's ponytail. That said, it was equally surprising to see what did work and what did succeed. Talking about warrior bonds and how a gym is a family often falls on disinterested ears with my adult classes. For the girls, however, it was one of the few moments where everyone was silent and nodding.

I've spent years trying to figure out techniques that work independent of size or strength. If my 5'2", 115 lb fiancee can execute them on our 6'4" 220 lb teacher, then I tend to believe in them. But what I forgot was that, despite her size, she still has the musculature and physicality of a woman. A fit woman, at that. Those techniques that work for her all needed to be modified to work with teenagers who still hadn't fully developed, or even started developing, their adult physicality. On a similar note, I often go into classes assuming that most students have minimal or no actual fighting experience. That's definitely a safe bet at the UChicago Self-Defense Club, where even a single push (or punch!) thrown at a frat party makes you a Bruce Lee amongst your peers. I knew that Girl World would have more experience with violence, but from listening to them and watching them, I wasn't prepared for the depth of that experience. Whether through casual references to assault, jokes made about getting your face punched in, hesitance to even come on the mats, or singular determination to get the move right, it was clear that one need not train as a "fighter" to have a fighter's exposure and experiences.

No matter how much training they receive, social workers are invariably unprepared for the realities of working with underserved populations. It is easy to forget not only those realities, but also that sense of helplessness we feel when finally confronting an abusive family member, a client who has given up, a victim of violence, or a youth so resilient that you can't imagine how else you can help them. Girl World reminded me of that. Most of my time is spent at a desk staring at rows of data. In some abstract quantitative sense, each row does represent a youth somewhere, but no amount of regression analysis will put a story to those P, R, and Beta values. Working directly with the girls converts their numeric image (I knew all of these girls by name, address, and survey score before I met them) into something living. Social work is unique as a profession; we are the only industry that works with people both as a means and as an end product. Stepping away from the order of my spreadsheets to the messy world of 12 girls brings you back to the meaning of our profession.

I want to end today's post with some thoughts on the teaching process. These take the form of advice to myself and others, observations, and random reflections on the experience.
    Adult students are fairly forgiving of instructors who forget names, or ones who are just "bad" with them. That is not true of teens. I've taught younger students a bunch of times now (for teenage girls this is a first), and in this age range, there are few worse teacher sins than not learning names. Youth seem to interpret it as a sign of disinterest ("If you really cared about me you would know my name"), disconnectedness ("If Girl World is a family, why don't you know my name?"), and general incompetence ("All the good teachers at school know my name!"). It's especially important with students of another racial or ethnic group with names that are often outside of a teacher's normal cultural sphere. Nothing shows outside status more than confusing Kiara with Kiandra. That's not to suggest that we shouldn't acknowledge our outsider status as social workers, but we should work to minimize its adverse effects on our clients. Also, in a martial context, you can't invoke the warrior bonds between your class if you don't even know their first names.
    The concept of "safe space" is omnipresent in social work these days, not least at Alternatives. Stated simply, safe space is just a non-judgmental environment in which people can be true to themselves, their identity, their experiences, and their goals without fear of reprisal or hostility from others. Therapeutic interactions revolve around safe space (you wouldn't divulge information to a therapist if you thought they were going to tweet it), which makes it a common feature of most clinical work with youth. From a martial perspective, the concept of a dojo, dojang, gym, or studio is a strong embodiment of that "safe space" idea. Working with the Girl World participants, my goal has not just been to give them martial arts. It has been to turn our makeshift dojo into their own safe space. Given some of the comments that girls have made, and the general atmosphere of the training, it seems that this goal is becoming reality. 
As the semester continues, I will continue to reflect on the experience, although perhaps in more or less detail depending on the day. For now, I conclude by saying that I am so honored for this opportunity and hope that our classes can give these girls something of value, whether martial, personal, or something else entirely.