Friday, October 26, 2012

Teaching Kids / Teaching adults

I woke up this morning happy because Hurricane Sandi makes it possible for me to write. (School was canceled.) My mind started churning through ideas and concepts where teaching is concerned. One of the beautiful things about being a Karate teacher is that my youngest student is 3 years old and my oldest student is….well, old enough to be revered. In comparing the two types of classes, I realized that a couple of trite sayings really define the making of a great kids teacher: “Don’t phone it in.” and “Be in the moment.” This stream of consciousness reminded me that one of the biggest differences in teaching kids and adults is this:  In the adult class the technology rules the class. If students bring in a mood or an injury – we push on through and focus on the class content. However, in a children’s class, the children need to be the most important thing, even at the cost of not getting everything done. At least 50% of the time, I’ll forfeit some of the content I have planned because there is a subject that needs addressing. Ready or not, it takes some of the training time. That interruption could be anything from hitting each other without Sensei’s watchful eye making it safe to fear of something new I’m going to try, to a completely discourteous attitude. In any situation like that I need to stop rushing through the technology.  I need to mentally go to where the kids are, allow them to understand my concept, and then be able to carry all of us together to the next thing.

Another difference between training my adults and training my kids is that I rarely plan what the adults will do in advance. When I see the class, I figure out who is there, what they need, and how many teachers I have to accomplish it. Then we do it. I plan the children’s classes a week at a time. I always know what katas people are learning and what level of self-defense students are on. What I switch often is how we warm up and what we do at the end of class. (See many posts for ideas.) What has been happening for over a month now is that I have to adjust the plan constantly even as I am teaching. This is easy to say, but doing it is challenging. I’ll use my last two nights as examples:  
In a class that usually has 10 kids and 3 teachers (I’m spoiled), I had 17students and one helper. Instead of dividing into work groups, (my original plan), I kept the group together with my helper in charge. I took out the most experienced students. I worked on their level of technology and then had them help teach the younger students. This isn’t rocket science, I know, but it did entail thinking on my feet. What that means is that I needed to clear the baggage from my head, and quickly think of how to BEST take care of EVERYONE in the room.

Lots of groups at work
The next night I normally have 15 children and 3 teachers. Due to the storm we had 10 children and 5 teachers. Everyone was ‘antsy’ because of the stormy weather. I dropped my original plan (standard warm up, kata groups, and sparring) and told the kids we’d start the day with their favorite game. We did. Then I said when they go out to their teacher they’d need to give as much energy to their work as they did to the game. They did! We continued like that: play with punching bags / work technology/ play with blockers/ work memorized movements until we did our final game. For that I mixed two games together (because they requested one and I wanted to spar). I had never mixed group jump rope and sparring before, but hoped it would work. It was great! We used my group jump rope (see the post from 7.29.09) and when you ran out you ran directly into an adult sparring partner.

Again. This wasn't overwhelming. However, I needed to BE THERE and see what we were about IN THE MOMENT. I needed to remember what I wanted to accomplish but have alternative ways to get it done. The challenge with adults is so different. They’ll adapt to the technology offered. The saying goes that when you bow into the training area (dojo) you leave your troubles and ego at the door. Children don’t know that. Adults (even teachers) aren’t perfect at it.  I’m lucky to be able to teach both because they complement one another. Children keep me grounded and living in the now and adults challenge me with their desire to understand the way of karate.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Kids as Geniuses

I received quite a few interesting comments on my last post. Thanks.Here are some of the comments:

From Sensei Mel:
“Your observations on how people teach and communicate are so, on point! As you observed, many teachers don't communicate their thoughts clearly, especially to children. When teaching children, I tend to become a child, in thought. I've seen teachers, not just in the dojo, where they speak in vocabulary words way beyond the comprehension of young children. When I bring up a word, let's say like, "noble." I asked them their perception of what the word means. Then we take it from there. The one pet peeve I have when it comes to teaching, is my intolerance for sarcasm. I really don't find a place for it in teaching both children and adults. It undermines our goals for virtues. It can cause confusion in commands being given, as well as ideas and concepts. Worst of all, you really don't want children emulating that behavior being learned in the dojo. When we keep our karate and our concepts "pure" in the way we teach them, it shows in the way the advanced kyus teach it to the beginners.”
It is literally impossible for these little guys to be as big as Sensei Harrison. He is a great example of bringing karate to their level.
 I whole-heartedly agree with Sensei Mel. In a course I published a little over a decade ago, I said (and still stand by) in 10 years 90% of the kids we teach will have left the dojo and forgotten a large percentage of the technology we taught them. But they will never forget you (or me), the teacher. We represent so much more than an influence. Try to go back to the beginning of your training and think of how you saw your Sensei. Some adjectives that seem on point are talented, powerful, dangerous yet patient, and indefatigable. Many people who read this blog may still idolize their Sensei, while others have traveled far beyond that and have grown to love their teacher as a person; idiosyncrasies and human foibles included. If you aren't a Martial Artist in training, think of the character of teachers you admire. No matter what your individual experience,  your teacher's opinion matters. When we are off-handed, condescending, or just plain rude, it affects students in ways we may not realize. Another maxim that I included in that first course all those years ago is this:
“Your students will become what you are, not what you tell them to become.”

This brings me to the feedback from Sensei Mark S. He is a principal in a school in FL. He sent a quote they use in his school by a man named John Herner:
“If a child doesn't know how to read... we teach.
If a child doesn't know how to swim... we teach.
If a child doesn't know how to multiply... we teach.
If a child doesn't know how to behave... we punish (rarely works).”
Interesting, don’t you think? Again, I’d like to add some comments:
I’m not advocating no punishment. I’ve talked about win-win / repetition / choices et al in many posts. Read back or write me and I’ll send you the links. Here is a short version: If I want my kids to be able to hold still, I need to be able to hold still. (I often laugh with my students about how hard this one is!)
1.      How handy is balance and forethought in dealing with behavior?
2.      If I constantly tell someone that they are useless, they will definitely agree with me and fulfill that reality. (Fill in untalented, rude, weak, or stupid where I wrote useless.)
3.      Conversely, I have seen children grow from gawky, uncoordinated pre-teens into very talented black belts. Black belts that will achieve the ultimate compliment to their teacher and rise to greatness that I have not achieved. I have also see kids pass on through the rude stage, the not listening stage, the can’t keep their hands to their self stage….all because I didn’t give up on them.
I talk (1 on 1) about behavior.
4.      So much of a karate teacher’s job is to repeat something in a voice that makes it sound fresh and then wait for the student to make that concept their own.
Now to finish by addressing the idea that we need kids to see themselves as they really are, use tough love, and make them tow the line. Those of you, who know me, may be surprised to find that I agree with this! The only stipulation I want to add is this: Does it all have to happen at the same time, on the same day, to every person. Is it a huge weakness to let the discombobulated child think that I see talent hidden there and have the patience to wait for it to surface?
If I continue to punish Johnny for interrupting class with unrelated comments, but leave out the humiliating references, and always give him plenty of chances to get it right, if I notice when he does get it right by walking by and saying “I saw that you wanted to make a joke and you held it in. Way to go!” Is that weak teaching skill, or individualizing my teaching skill?
If I have a child who can’t hold his hands and legs still and those hands and legs constantly hit his neighbor and I say “I know you’re really trying so I have good news and bad news: The good news is no push-ups for you. The bad news is I forgot to bow just now so I’m going to do 25 push-ups.” (Therefore we’re all doing 25 push-ups!) And as we do them I joke and tease the class about how strong we’re getting. 
I do push-ups with the class.
Isn’t there a chance that, instead of giving them “My way of the highway” ultimatums or worse, ignoring them and through that making them realize their insignificance, keeping those kids in training will potentially create a strong, dynamic, capable, and diverse generation of karateka?

I’m going to slip in two quotes from Albert Einstein here:
“It’ is almost a miracle that modern teaching methods have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiousity of inquiry; for what this delicate little plant needs more than anything, besides stimulation, is freedom
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."
— Albert Einstein
Sometimes my mind becomes overwhelmed at the thought of what teachers of an internal martial art actually do. Adult students and parents trust us to have the technology and character to judge them, and using that as a basis, help them reinvent themselves as strong, willful, patient warriors.

I’m going to finish with the feedback Sensei Andrew wrote me about the tone of voice post:
“…in Karate class. I put on some music and then I conduct the entire class in a non-verbal way. I start with exercises, but instead of calling out “50 jumping jacks” I simply start doing jumping jacks in time with the music and everyone follows. To stop an exercise I make a giant [keoske] gesture and then commence with another exercise. Each time I want to start something else I come to [keoske]. My music changes and I change with it moving from exercises to blocking to kata and I never say a word.
Kids enjoying a musical workout.
 The first time I did this I discovered something very interesting. At our 6pm class for the youngest kids I didn’t have to say anything at all. At 7pm the next age kids needed only a word or two along the way but in the adult class I needed to speak quite a bit to keep people from just doing whatever they wanted. I attribute this phenomenon to kids being willing to suspend their free will more easily than adults who know everything. The adults didn’t instinctively follow like the kids.
I had about 40 minutes of music that played continuously and the class never stopped. At the end I put on some Led Zeppelin and we sparred. The only downside was that after conducting 3 back to back to back classes like this I was physically exhausted, but it was well worth it. Everyone enjoyed it and it’s something I plan on doing regularly at our dojo.”  
Thank YOU Sensei Andrew, for reiterating something I agree exists…..the kids will put themselves completely in our hands and with that comes a great responsibility to teach with care, dignity and grace. Thanks goes out to ALL people who try to do it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

“Cause I’m bigger than you.”

Thanks for taking a few minutes to read this. It has been way too long. Life has been crazy, don’t you think?
A couple of years ago, I was standing in one of my schools and I heard the student ask the teacher why he had to do something. She responded with the title words, “Cause I’m bigger than you.” In defense of the teacher, let’s agree that sometimes we can all be flippant and impatient with students. Because I’m asked to have specific conversations with children about their behaviors in class and at home, I’ve put quite a bit of time into thinking about the most effective way to communicate with them. I’ve noticed some interesting truths. Even if you aren’t asked to talk to kids about their attitude and choices outside the dojo, you might find my experience and the resulting conclusions interesting.

Talking at Kids
Often I’ll watch an adult command a child and the adult isn’t even looking at the child. The exchange goes something like this: Adult “Stop spinning, Johnny!” The child stops, than starts again. By time the adult turns to look, it appears as if the child didn’t stop. Confusion begins already! I know we’re busy. I know we’re trying to get a lot done in our time with our students. My thought is only that we take time to actually BE with the students. Use all our senses - eyes, ears, and intuition - to create a strong environment for growth. I remind myself often that my students are much more likely to become what I show them than what I tell them. Students will emulate what we are.

What We Say / What They Hear
Keeping their attention.
One of the biggest complaints I have from teachers is that “Johnny doesn’t listen.” (So much so that I made a little song to help the kids remember.) Johnny would inevitably say “I’m listening, Sensei.”  I couldn’t see why it wasn’t working, so I watched and listened to the dynamic. I realized that the adult wasn’t being clear. She wanted the child to listen AND do what she asked. (In a best case, do it the First time she asked!) But that isn’t what she said.  Once I started explaining to the children that they not only had to listen, they had to “do what the teacher says”, things began to slowly change. The children really tried and the teachers learned that they weren’t being clear. You might see this happen in your dojo. I have and I’ve really listened to myself to make sure I was clear in my directions. It has been interesting and helpful both inside and outside the dojo.

The Words Themselves
Two great teachers at work.
I’m going to stay on the example I was just using. In that same conversation the teacher would say, in utter frustration, “Johnny won’t follow directions!” I turn to Johnny and say “What does it mean to follow directions?” Johnny says “To be good.” Smiling I would say (20 times at least) “It means to do what the teacher asks you to do.” I would have Johnny say it back to me. Slowly he would begin to change.  We all grew from that simple exchange. The child, myself and the teacher are all smarter, better communicators, and better listeners from that event.

An Old Karate Saying
When I received my first degree black belt and my teacher was talking to me about how to treat students, he said, “With one side of your hand demand from the student. With the other side of your hand earn their respect.” This stayed with me over the years. (The application when training adults is more subtle and possibly more physical.) However, where kids are concerned, I interpret this to mean that the children need to do what I say, when I say it. Simultaneously I am also there 100%: working, caring, looking; I am an active member of the training process. In this dynamic, both of the parameters above are met.  
Sometimes, during training, I stop and explain why I want things a certain way. This may be an unusual trait, as I have had more than one teacher and parent mention to me that they have adopted the technique after observing it. Two situations brought me to this idea of making sure that children had an opportunity to understand why I make the decisions I make. 1. I noticed confusion on the faces of students. The look made me stop and empathize with them. What would it feel like if someone twice as big as I am was barking at me without giving me a minute to understand. 2. Sometimes a student that is a little more courageous will question why he should do a certain thing. If your follow this blog regularly, you’ve read in previous posts that in children’s classes my biggest goal is all about the child. I want him (or her) to leave stronger, more confident, and more respectful than when he (or she) arrived. (Compare that to adult training where technology is the most important thing; individual moods and attitudes are [at best] secondary.) In order for a young person to grow in respect, adults need to make a little sense. SO….. I began to think, when time allowed, a little explanation would go a long way.
Sensei Thomas explaining.
One of the first times I remember explaining was when a fourth grade student asked why we do extra push-ups (aka punishment push-ups). As I explained, the look on the child’s face as he began to understand was priceless. An unintentional surprise was how wonderful it felt to clarify the concept in my thoughts as I was explaining. I knew why, but saying it aloud gave me clarity that was previously not there – an excellent example of the teacher learning more than the student.
Many times since then I’ve stopped training a small group to explain everything from what muscle group gets stronger with what exercise to why we bow.  I use intuition to distinguish between a child with a real inquiry and a student who is talking to be disrespectful, rude, or lazy.
Just recently I was teaching two brand new little guys (4 and 5 years old). We were starting kata and I asked them if they knew what ’memorize’ meant. One said “Oos Sensei, it means to forget.” I smiled at that response. After a quick back and forth about remembering something for a long time, we began our work.
Sensei Harrison having fun with the kyus.
The point, of course, is that our goal should be to create a population that will grow up courageous enough to do whatever is necessary each day, while, simultaneously producing men and women that are genuinely respectful. I can only see this happening in an atmosphere where respect and responsibility are mutual and communication clear. It is challenging to remain ‘fresh’ in our attitude day after day and year after year. For me one way to keep teaching fresh is to remember that, like my students, I am a work in progress.