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Susan Dalton 07-20-2008 03:34 PM

On Teaching Writing and Aikido
 
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The graduate student arched her eyebrow. She'd just completed a five minute explanation of nihilism. She waved Megan's manuscript at my wide-eyed class. "Learn your craft. Then write." That was one of her kinder comments.

When we got back to campus after the writing workshop we'd attended at a literary festival, my class irritated me. Number one, they thought just because the workshop leader insulted them, she was incredibly intelligent and hip and must be "right". Number two, after almost a semester of building trust and community, they were ready to abandon those methods and showcase their own brilliance by taking each other apart. Well, a college classroom is no more a democracy than a dojo.

"Whoa. Stop. Unh unh," I said. "You've worked all semester to establish connections and you're going to sever them for the sake of showing off?" Thank goodness I've had writing and aikido teachers who modeled good teaching for me. In a writing classroom, just like in a dojo, an atmosphere of trust is crucial. I attended a highly competitive writing program myself. The competition game hasn't changed in the 24 years since I graduated. Personally, I believe cooperation is a much more effective way to teach. I'm not letting students go off on each other any more than I can let them crank shihonage on the new guy on the mat.

Okay, it's true that I can spend years reading about how to write, just exactly the way I can spend years reading about how to do aikido or the history of aikido or what someone else thinks about aikido. But the only way I can hope to figure out anything about aikido is to do it. If I wait until I'm good at it to practice, until I've learned my craft, I'll never do it. My wonderful teachers let me try, muddle through, then try again, often times making the same mistakes again and again. They knew when to push and when to let up, and they insisted upon respect for and sensitivity toward everyone on the mat. Be safe and have fun, they said. And play nice, or don't play. I was one to argue back, explain, apologize, make excuses. Nope, they said, none of that. Stop talking and do it again. Try your best. See what you're doing wrong; then let it go. No whining, either. You don't have to be perfect. Just try; then try again. Persevere. Little by little. I'm not the quickest study, but anyone can thrive in that atmosphere. My teachers gave me a safe place to practice. They taught me aikido and much, much more.

I've also had terrible teachers who insulted and belittled, expected perfection from day one—I took piano for five years from such a teacher, and to this day, I will not even play "Mary Had a Little Lamb". This teacher taught by yelling, intimidating, and humiliating. I shut down. I'll never forget being eight years old and sitting on the front pew of the fanciest church I'd ever been in, my starched blue dress and crinolines itchy on the backs of my legs. "Susan is going first in the recital this year," my teacher announced to an audience of probably 200 people, "not because she's youngest but because she has the least talent." Later when she substitute-taught at my junior high school, she questioned why I was in a 7th grade Advanced Learners English class. "I thought you were mentally retarded," she said. Yes, she got a laugh from the class, but at what cost? I never played another song for her without hearing my own secret lyrics in my head, lyrics that began, "The pointy-nosed old bitch…" and deteriorated from there. I quit trying at all, and even my mother recognized the futility of my continuing lessons. This bullying teacher taught me two lasting lessons: how not to teach and the incredible power of a teacher's words. I promised myself if I ever taught that I would teach through positive words and encouragement.

"Positive words and encouragement"—does that mean I shouldn't point out my students' lack of detail in their writing or their awful posture on an ikkyo pin? Of course not. I've found that if my students trust me, I can offer very specific constructive criticism and they'll take it. But they have to know I'm sensitive to and have respect for who they are and where they are. I must be in control. I cannot show off at their expense.

I wish I could say I always live up to my teachers' example, just as I'd like to be able to say, "I fully know my craft." Neither is true, but it's in the doing that I'm becoming. And for now, becoming is a good place to be.

© 2008 Susan Dalton
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.

lotta 08-03-2008 05:57 AM

Re: On Teaching Writing and Aikido
 
Hello,

I like your comment on being a teacher - think nearly everybody
has had teachers like that who encouraged them and others
who were great in belittling them.
And everybody knows what feels better and helps to develop.

Lotta

K Stewart 08-08-2008 11:10 AM

Re: On Teaching Writing and Aikido
 
What a lovely article. Thank you for sharing.

As a long-time writer and short-time Aikido student, I appreciate the parallels you have drawn. From my perspective, they are right on target. I've also been a student of the horse for most of my life, and your thoughts parallel my experiences there, as well.

I think many of us learn so much more from a teacher we trust to push us. We know they have our best interests in mind, and they show us that by the example they set.

These teachers know better than we do what we are capable of. They push us past those weak first drafts...of an essay, a kotegaeshi, or a walk-canter transition...because they know we have it in us to produce better work. They expect more of us, and we deliver.

Given a choice, I'll always pick the tough (but not abusive or incongruent) teachers who will not settle for mediocre in their teaching or in the students' results. When I fall, they support me in my struggles as I continue to learn, but they don't let me sit there very long. These teachers reach out a hand to help me up, not a hand to push me down.

These teachers help me reach past my comfort zone and give me the chance to grow and explore beyond those limits I might place on myself.

Yes, it's harder picking such a teacher. And it's oh, so worth it.

Great teachers--what a blessing.

Thanks again for writing this.

Kara L. Stewart
Colorado

Susan Dalton 08-10-2008 08:58 AM

Re: On Teaching Writing and Aikido
 
Thanks, Kara. Thanks, Lotta. I don't think there's a "one size fits all" formula that makes a good teacher, but like you, I know what worked and didn't work for me. Humiliation definitely was not effective in my case.

My son was telling me about a kindergarten music teacher he had who mocked a student who stuttered. He said he thought for years he didn't want to study music because it must not be a good thing if someone who taught it could be so hateful. Obviously his 5-year old brain generalized far, far too quickly, but one point I see here is that teachers often have no idea of the lasting impact of their words or actions.
Susan

L. Camejo 08-10-2008 11:42 AM

Re: On Teaching Writing and Aikido
 
Interesting article. I think it raises some very important points about teaching methods and using the best methods to encourage learning and progress.

I echo Kara and Brigitte's statements.

I am confused on one area though. You made reference to a competitive writing program that you attended and indicated later that you prefer the cooperative approach to teaching. You then showed examples of negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement in teaching as a juxtaposition of sorts and linked these approaches to different results.

Based on this quote:
Quote:

The competition game hasn't changed in the 24 years since I graduated. Personally, I believe cooperation is a much more effective way to teach. I'm not letting students go off on each other any more than I can let them crank shihonage on the new guy on the mat.
I need to ask whether you see the "competitive" approach to teaching as encouraging or promoting "letting students go off on each other" or letting people "crank shihonage on the new guy".

Just some thoughts.

Best
LC

Susan Dalton 10-26-2008 05:30 PM

Re: On Teaching Writing and Aikido
 
Hi LC,
I think in some competitive programs (sports, dojo, whatever) there's the idea that somebody has to be "the best". A hierarchy can exist. There can be some jockeying for position, and sometimes, intentional tearing down of someone else to improve one's own status (whether that actually happens or the one tearing down just believes it will). Certainly that doesn't always happen--my daughter plays very competitive sports and for the most part has had good experiences.
Susan


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