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.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 4

Bowing before class
Owing to weather and public school closures, the week 3 class had been somewhat exceptional. The session had fewer girls than usual, and a different energy owing to the lack of school that day. Fortunately, this led to a successful class for those who did show up, but it set a high (and perhaps unrealistic) expectation for the following class. Unlike the previous session, week 4 would have normal weather, a normal schedule, and normal attendance. So if the successes of week 3 were circumstantial, they would be likely be exposed during week 4.

The biggest issue with week 4 was class size. There were a lot of girls and not nearly enough staff to give the individualized attention that the students all deserved. That said, the session maintained the fun, energetic environment of the previous week. Given that it maintained this dynamic in spite of the larger class size, it was overall a very successful session.

Sticking with kickboxing, as opposed to self-defense scenarios or grappling, was definitely an important decision. Girl World does not have a lot of staff. That's bad enough for normal programming but much worse when doing physical activity with high injury potential. It's important to pick class content that accounts for the program limitations, and kickboxing does just that. Kickboxing (pad work, not sparring) lends itself towards individual training without too much need for teacher oversight. So long as basic safety protocols are instated and observed, this makes it the perfect martial activity for larger classes with minimal staff.

Kickboxing drills also address another important issue of youth development work: Attention span. It's almost unfair to expect young people to keep focused during after-school programs. Many of them have been in school since 8 AM. Some have had lunch as early as 10 AM and haven't eaten more than a bag of chips (if anything) since then. To some extent, kicking and punching is enough of a fun activity that it mitigates the natural effects of wandering attentions. But that's only true if you are actually punching and kicking. Some drills require one person to work while the others just stand around and watch. That's probably fine for experienced martial artists, who can use the time to shadowbox, work on their forms/patterns, stretch, do bodyweight exercises, etc. But for young women who have been trapped in desks all day who have zero previous martial art experience, that's an unreasonable expectation.

The Girl World program head had warned me about this before, so I tried to create drills that would engage as many girls as possible. The result: 3 girls stand in a triangle around the pad holder who bounces from girl to girl with the pads. The martial artists must always be ready to block a strike, throw a punch, or fire a kick; it is never anyone's "turn" because you are always part of the action. The disadvantage of this type of drill is that it doesn't allow for as many technique repetitions as I might like. The advantage? It's a ton of fun. The girls were laughing and smiling more than usual as the pad holder darted from girl to girl. When a youth was caught unaware and tapped in the face with a pad, everyone (flatfooted girl included) erupted into laughter. The end result was a drill that improved technique, heightened awareness, engaged everyone, and was overall a blast to participate in. Some girls who had historically been less engaged (to the extent that 4 weeks can constitute a history) were as focused on the exercise as a professional boxer is on fight night.

Punches, kicks, knees, and elbows look like simple techniques. Anyone can do them. Those who use these techniques outside of gyms and arenas aren't always the brightest fellows; nothing says genius like a bar room brawl. Despite their outward simplicity, these moves are all highly technical and take years of training to get right. Mastering them is a lifelong journey, and that's as much a matter of technical fact as it is martial wisdom.

The vast majority of Girl World girls don't care too much about the precise pivot angle needed to execute a good cross. They understand the difference between roundhouse, front, and side kicks, but once you give them a pad to hit, the techniques are all just folded into one fierce strike with the leg. It's true that some girls are more interested in the technical nuance, and when working with those girls I try to point out areas where they can improve. But the difficulty is in not doing this for everyone. For many girls in the program, the victory is not a flawlessly executed combination. It's the fact that they are punching and doing physical activity at all. That's not to call them lazy or to classify the martial art as too hard/masculine/technical for them. Rather, it's to highlight the cultural challenges that young women, especially low-income minority females, face when trying to engage in this sort of activity.

My objective is not to train the next Ronda Rousey, even if any of these girls could pursue that course with success and ignoring the fact that I couldn't train her. Rather, it's to show girls that they are powerful. They are stronger than they think, they have more power than they think, and they are much more "warriors" than many of the so-called "warriors" that we martial artists train with. It's not about the technique, which anyone can learn with enough hours. It's about the attitude, which many of us don't learn no matter how many hours we spend. Attitude, mentality, and mindset makes the martial artist. Technique is an important element for perfecting your martial art, but you can learn technique from good attitude. The reverse, however, is not true.

To some extent, I feel a little disingenuous when I praise techniques that have obvious mistakes. But the key is to remember that I am not praising the technique itself. Indeed, if pressed by a girl or a staff about whether or not the technique looked good, I would say (and definitely have said in the past) that it needs work in a number of areas. Instead, the praise is directed at the mindframe that underlies the technique. In future classes, especially with ground-fighting moves that are often highly technical, I need to always consider the goal of Girl World martial arts when working with the girls. The job is not just to fabricate robotic fighters. Our job is to expose them to what it means to be a martial artist and to show them that they can do it.

It might surprise some of you, as it often surprises me, to learn that my job at Alternatives is actually not "martial art instructor". My work is in data and program evaluation, and although that sounds as far removed from martial arts as a spreadsheet is from the data it captures, there are a number of interesting overlaps between the roles. The most important of these is my understanding that feedback is important. We don't just evaluate programs and survey youth to confirm how successful and impactful we are. Some agencies do that, but we always try to avoid it. Rather, we evaluate in no small part to identify whether or not our programs are as successful as we think.

There are some conflict of interest questions that probably arise with me evaluating my own program, but that's not really the point of all this. The idea is just to improve the program for the girls themselves, not for our agency to get more funding (that's definitely a good thing, though) or for me to get a raise (also definitely not a bad goal). To that end, the other Girl Wold staff and I asked the girls about what they enjoyed and what they struggled with in the class. 

Overall, the reactions were very positive. They wanted to do martial arts in place of other activities, and they wanted to do more of it than just the 45 minutes that the program allows. One of their issues (too much standing around) will hopefully be solved by drills like the kickboxing exercise I tried last week. Surprisingly, many of the girls wanted to do more of a mix between wrestling and kickboxing; I was convinced that the grappling component had been an unqualified disaster and was willing to give it up for the rest of the quarter. But following from the feedback, we will be doing a joint grappling/striking unit for week 5. 

This, in particular, goes to show that your assumptions as an instructor are not always accurate. Indeed, it shows that the instructor or staff position isn't nearly as omniscient as we might believe. The temptation in all youth programs is to avoid soliciting youth feedback, whether for fear of criticism or for fear of looking like you don't know what you are doing with your own curriculum. The evaluator in me, not to mention the martial artist, cautions against this. Outside opinions are important, whether they come from third-party observers or from the participants themselves. From a martial perspective, it would be like shadowboxing in front of a mirror and thinking that made you an unstoppable fighter; you need the real life opponent to check your technique. From an evaluation perspective, you always want an impartial, or even partial, second opinion. I will continue to check in with the girls to know how they think programming is going and to see if there are any changes that can be made. This will be particularly important after we revisit grappling tomorrow, a class that promises to challenge the successes of weeks 3 and 4. But so long as the girls are smiling and their martial spirit remains strong, then it is likely to be just as successful as the previous ones. 

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.