A little spring in the step

Spring, and coincidence or not, we are hitting a turnover point at the school. Real life, as is the way, has claimed some students. And a number of new people have shown interest, in the usual balance of things. I love putting a sword in someone’s hand for the first time. It’s such a good feeling. On one hand, I know I’m about to introduce someone to hours of fun. On the other hand, I’m helping preserve an art and heritage that I believe has a value that should be carried into the future.

My approach to teaching new students has evolved over the years. In the SCA, the focus was on making sure that everyone spoke the same language…technique, safety, rules, blow calibration, calling hits correctly. At Academie Duello, the focus was on making sure the student absorbed the basics they would need to carry them forward through the heavy curriculum…and to make sure the first thing they learned was a good useable technique that they could fall back on in times of stress.

Now I do things quite a bit differently. I’m more used to teaching one on one, and have more confidence in my ability to coach. Now the first thing I do is put a sword in someone’s hand, and have them do slow work with a trusted student. I make small corrections as needed, but mostly I’m just watching to see how they move and think. I want to see what their nature is. After a little slow work…I put them in armour, explain the safety rules, and have them go at it full speed against select students.

Again, I only offer small corrections if needed. Simple things. I’m not teaching at this point, but trying to understand the student. I want to see how they think, what their body does, what their quirks, weaknesses, and strengths are. I want to get a sense of what they will be like as a champion fencer, what the ideal version of them will be. But before that, I need to understand where they are starting from. It takes a different amount of time for each student, but once I’ve figured out the start and end points, I can start to develop a program for them.

I store each student’s ideal in the honeycomb cells in my mind, along with the images of what each step to the ideal should look like. Each sub-ideal step is encoded with the lessons needed to achieve the next image. I use visual keys, so that when I see a student start to perform at his next level, it will key in my mind to the next lesson. I don’t need to write anything down, and the timing and pacing of the students progress is entirely based off of their performance.

Which is all dandy and useful and whatnot, but not really all that scale-able. My brain isn’t all that big, and as much as I try to stop it, the damned thing continues to age. So perhaps it’s time for me to build up a fifth teaching curriculum. Something more modular. I like the current test-and-trial system, but it’s in the nature of most students to want more structure. Reward alone is not enough to push a martial artist forward. Part of the feeling of ownership of an art comes from having a thing you can take home. Something unique that embodies what you are learning, separate from other styles…a thing you can polish and shape, hone until it becomes a part of you.

It doesn’t need to be a thing that wins or marks success, but it does need to be a thing that a student can work on alone. In traditional Asian martial arts, form work covers this nicely. It gives a sense of ownership, and an excuse for meaningful solo practice. I do advocate drills and certain exercises for solo practice, but I feel like I could do better for my students. I’ve modified Marozzo’s work into solo practice forms that served what I wanted to teach in the past, and maybe it’s time to do so again.

If nothing else, it’s worth looking over what I want new students to learn again. Take some fresh eyes and see if I’m really doing what I want to do, if students are really learning what they should. I feel like the common atomic elements I used to teach at previous schools don’t apply anymore, but I haven’t really reviewed my own teachings recently to see if their are new atomic elements that I might be able to make better use of.

Spring is a good time to lay new seeds, and see what growth the summer brings.

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