Saturday, May 26, 2012

Go Back, It's a Trap!

Here's an excerpt from an interesting article. Kendo is the Japanese counterpart to classical fencing. Unfortunately, we have had no counterpart to the Japanese iaido. 
But I'm working on that. 
Thanks to Maitre Ric Alvarez for sending this along.


For many sports, the ultimate goal would be to go one step further and make it onto the Olympic schedule. But not in the case of kendo. Many in the sport’s global community are set against that, saying it would spell the end of kendo as they know it.

Kendo, which means “way of the sword,” is a Japanese martial art that uses a bamboo sword and involves rigorous training geared toward developing both combat technique and character by instilling virtues like courage, honor and etiquette.

If kendo were a straightforward contest like table tennis or archery, making it conform to International Olympic Committee standards would not be difficult. The sport, however, has a highly subjective scoring system that values form and execution as much as the result.

Unlike Olympic fencing, which keeps score with electronic sensors that light up when the target is hit, a game-winning perfect strike in kendo, known as ippon, cannot be measured electronically; instead, it is a judgment call made by at least two out of the three referees.

The ingredients of that perfection are so nebulous that referees are notorious for bad calls. Nevertheless, for many kendoka, a referee’s call is preferable to the flash of a light; for them, the technology would degrade the beauty of victory.

A judo victory also used to be determined solely by ippon, a “perfect throw.” But now, following I.O.C. intervention, judo competitors can score points in a variety of ways that along with the introduction of weight classes and other changes, compromise its essence, some purists say.

“For kendo to become an Olympic sport, it would have to be simplified considerably,” said Alexander Bennett, editor in chief of the Kendo World Journal and an associate professor of Japanese studies at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan. “The really important part of scoring is the process of initiating the attack, identifying a target, striking that target with correct posture and full spirit and then showing continued physical and mental alertness.”

If the scoring were simplified, Bennett said, kendo would lose “its aesthetic value, and as a result, its value as a means for personal cultivation, replaced by a winning-at-all-costs mentality, which is pretty much what is considered to have happened to Olympic judo.”


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Grok THIS...

One of my favorite books is Robert Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land.

One of the reasons I like this book so much is Heinlein’s introduction of the “Fair Witness.” A Fair Witness is a professional who is specially trained to observe events and to report back those observations. The Fair Witness only reports exactly what he or she sees and hears. They make no assumptions, extrapolations, or inferences. No emotions, biases or prejudices. Nor do they draw any conclusions from what they observe. (As Joe Friday would say, “The facts, Ma’am. Just the facts.”)

In one scene, a Fair Witness is asked the color of a house. The witness responds, “It’s white on this side,” referring to the side that she can see. The Fair Witness makes no assumptions about the color of the house on the sides she cannot see. Further, after observing a different side of the house, the Fair Witness does not assume that the previously viewed side was still the same color it was when previously viewed – even if that previous viewing was mere moments ago.
Unfortunately, this profession is still a fictional one.

However, you may note that the role of the “judge” in a fencing match is EXACTLY the same as the role of the Fair Witness. Judging requires that you report only what you see. Not what you think happened, not what “must” have happened.
Only what you see and nothing else.
This is one reason why I don’t use the electrical scoring apparatus. It deprives students of the opportunity to develop their ability to observe objectively. The ability to observe objectively is an essential component of critical thinking.  You must first become aware of your biases -- personal and cultural – and then practice eliminating them.

The practice part is important.
You get physically stronger by consciously, regularly and progressively challenging your body to do more than it has done before. Run faster. Jump higher. Lift more weight.
You get mentally stronger, and morally stronger in the same way: by consciously, regularly and progressively engaging in observation and analysis at a more demanding level than you have previously done.

To learn, to grow, to achieve excellence, kiss your “comfort zone” good-bye.


Monday, May 14, 2012

On the Reinvention of the Wheel

There’s a persistent myth in history about the “Lost Colony” of Roanoake that disappeared, the story goes, without a trace -- and a shiver goes up the spine...
The thing is, there’s no mystery at all.
The colonists didn’t “disappear.” They simply went back to Croatoan and, indeed, left a message that that’s where they had gone. The “mystery” was contrived a couple hundred years later, for reasons of the contrivers’ own.  The “lost” colony was never really lost at all. (Don’t take my word for it; look it up.)

One of the most persistent myths about swordplay is that there has been no “line of succession” from the fencing masters of the 16th and 17th Centuries to the fencing masters of the 20th and 21st Centuries.  That is, some would have you believe that the knowledge of how to handle a rapier effectively had been “lost,” and had to be “rediscovered” by modern researchers who then had to reconstitute the meaning of it all by poring over ancient texts with a sword in one hand and a dictionary in the other, by the light of the midnight oil.

That’s incredibly silly and more than a little dishonest.

It reminds me very much of impudent adolescents who think they’ve “discovered” sex, and attempt to keep it all secret because their parents would never understand.  It never dawns on these upstarts that their parent too have had sex – or these kiddies wouldn’t be here to “discover” it in the first place. These are children who deny their forebears’ sexuality in order to keep it for themselves, who would be “traumatized” at accidentally witnessing their parents having sex, and no doubt completely astounded by the width, depth and breadth of their parents’ sexual knowledge and experience.
Because they cannot comprehend their parents’ sexuality, instead of simply asking their parents about sexual things, they become researchers who pore over ancient texts do “rediscover”  “lost” knowledge of fellatio, frottage and other earthy delights. I can see them now, book in one hand ---- no, belay that.

Recently, I re-read Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s  “Gran Simulacro….”  as translated by
Mr. Tom Leoni. Now, I don’t have any quibble with Mr. Leoni    I don’t know the gentleman, and I’m not suggesting that he is one of those misguided persons who believes the “lost fencing colony” myth. I think his translation is as good as any, (indeed, I just ordered a copy of his translation of Giganti) and I think he had some worthwhile ideas on structuring the text, adding notes, etc. I’d say he did a nice job, overall – at least it all makes perfect fencing sense.

How do I know it all makes perfect fencing sense?
Because I’ve been teaching the very same things for several decades.

You see, I had the privilege and pleasure of learning my craft from Maitre Jean-Jacques Gillet, back when fencing still resembled swordplay, back before the “sport” of fencing departed so completely from the combat logic and verisimilitude on which fencing practice was once based.
I also had the wonderful opportunity to spend time with my very esteemed colleague, the late Dr. William Gaugler, and compare notes with his Italian method.
There’s utterly nothing in Capo Ferro that Maitre Gillet didn’t teach routinely, nor is there anything that Maestro Gaugler didn’t also incorporate into his teaching.
This should come as no surprise – but I know, to some, it does.

A sword is a sword is a sword.
That tool hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries, because the job it was created to do remains the same.
It’s all still there.
A bit more refined. A little tweak here and a little tweak there.
But, fundamentally, it’s the same old same old.

So why do some people think fencing had to be “rediscovered?”

When you listen to Bach, or Brubeck, what do you hear?
Me, I hear scales. Patterns. Infinitely varied, but very recognizable, scales and patterns.
I didn’t always hear them. I had to become a better educated musician before I could hear those connections, appreciate the similarities.

Likewise, you have to be a relatively educated swordsman before you can appreciate that you are doing in 2012, fundamentally the same actions they were doing in 1612.
The same scales and patterns.
Maybe in a different key.

If you want to be a doctor, you don’t pore over ancient texts to rediscover “lost” knowledge of medicine.
You go to medical school where they can teach you.

If you want to learn to wield a sword effectively, you don’t pore over ancient texts to rediscover “lost” knowledge of fencing.
You go to a fencing master who can teach you.

But you’d better hurry. It’s a dying breed.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

What is Good Teaching?

This is an excerpt from the article "What is Good Teaching?  A Reflection" by Robert Freeman.
Just too good not to share.


As a public school teacher, I've come to believe that good teaching comes down to six essential practices. I call them Inducement, Conveyance, Meta-Learning, Empowerment, Modeling, and Application. Just as when all eight amino acids must be present for a protein to form, all six of these activities must be present for Good Teaching (and Good Learning) to occur.

Let's look at what each of these tasks entails and how they add up to Good Teaching.

The Inducement is the teacher's solicitation to the student, the seduction to come and learn.  It can take a thousand forms, from asking the student what she's interested in to showing her what you're interested in. The first art of good teaching lies in knowing the student well enough to know which form of Inducement will entice her to want to learn. For, until this occurs, there is simply talking and resistance.

And Inducement doesn't end once the student shows interest and begins to learn. Far from it.  Inducement is needed for even the highest performing students — to push them to still greater heights, to stretch themselves to do things they had never believed they might be able to do. And it is needed for every new lesson and for every new assignment until the student becomes self-starting.

After Inducement comes Conveyance. An impoverished version of Conveyance is what
passes for most teaching today.  Seven times five equals thirty-five. Sentences must begin
with a capital letter. In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Artful Conveyance is, in fact, much more challenging than this admitted caricature might suggest. Few people learn by simply listening or reading and reciting.

Good Conveyance means devising a hundred different ways for the students to engage the material. They need multi-sensory stimuli — pictures, songs, poems, riddles, models, posters, dances, skits, debates, lectures, and more.  They need emotional connections with the materials, connections to past learnings, associations with other knowledge they're developing. And they need all of this for all of their subjects!

By engaging the whole student, good Conveyance not only develops solid understanding of individual subjects, it brings out the deep connections between subjects. How proportion in math is related to harmony in music. How science, by reducing dependence on authority, gave rise to individualism. How cadence and rhyme and symbols serve not only poetry but demagoguery. Good conveyance makes learning come alive by helping the student make new connections — find relevance — as he encounters his learning.

After Conveyance comes Meta-Learning. This means teaching the student to be aware of
how he is learning and to develop specific learning strategies for different learning situations.  This sounds abstract but all of us do this as adults, whether we know it or not.
When I encounter a difficult passage in reading I say, "OK, let's take this one step at a time.  What is the subject of this sentence? What is the verb? Ok, now what's the object?" And eventually, I decipher the complex (or more likely, poorly written) passage. This is Meta-Learning:  using explicit strategies to learn how to learn. It is indispensable if life-long learning is to develop.

Teaching Meta-Learning requires not only a deep understanding of the subject itself, but of the learning process as well, and how the student can apply one to master the other. Once started, the meta-enabled student can begin bootstrapping himself to higher and higher levels of knowledge and mastery. The best readers are skilled meta-readers. The best math students are skilled meta-mathematicians. Those students who enjoy learning the most, who stay with it longest, and go with it farthest are good Meta-Learners.

After Meta-Learning comes Empowerment. Empowerment means constructing the
environment where the student can successfully affirm to herself her competence with what she's learned. A first grader might paint recognizable human figures and then clean up the finger paints afterwards. An eighth grader might write a book review analyzing plot, character, and theme while using the proper form of an essay, grammar, and spelling. A twelfth grader might describe the reversal between America's role in its Revolutionary War and the Vietnam War, and then use this understanding to explain our failure in Vietnam and our enduring perplexity and angst about it.

By providing the venue for demonstrating competence, Empowerment allows for the coming of maturity as a learner and, ultimately, as a person. Such maturity flows from “ownership" in the outcome of one's efforts, responsibility for one's fruits. Done well, Empowerment is the midwifeing into autonomy for each stage of accomplishment that the student has mastered.

Next, there is Modeling. Through all of the prior stages, the teacher acts as a model of the desired outcome. She is the incarnation of the curiosity, composure, persistence, intelligence, integrity and patience and all the other deep character virtues which are the true ends — and the true evidence — of a good education.

Of all of the six practices, Modeling is perhaps the most demanding. Every minute, the student senses in the teacher whether she is authentic to her words, whether she walks her talk or whether she is simply mouthing facts and containing the chaos. The students cannot articulate what they are sensing in this process but, as with the Judge and obscenity, they know it when they see it. And when it's there, more than anything else, they want to be like it.

They want to be like it. The attraction to authenticity is inescapable.  Surely, it is one of the most powerful compulsions in all of human development. Authenticity comes when teachers are true to their own natures and embody their own highest standards — both as teachers and as human beings. It comes when we treat with profound respect the uniqueness and the dignity of every student. For surely, each of them are as unique and worthy of respect as we are.

When students see that their teachers are like this, no matter what the grade or subject, they will perform heroically for them (which calls back Inducement). For they want to be
acknowledged, they want to be esteemed by that which they know as true.  It is the first step to becoming true once again themselves.

The final practice in Good Teaching is Application.  Up until now, everything has occurred in the classroom.  But here, students take what they have learned and put it into practice in the real world.  Only there do they learn whether what they’ve done in the classroom has real-world value.  As the old Chinese adage says, “Knowledge that comes from a book stays in the book.”  But if it works, if what the students have learned makes a difference, they become bigger people, right in front of your eyes.

A practical example is illustrative.  Five years ago, my students were studying poverty in the developing world.  They were frustrated at their own impotence to address it.  So we decided to ask every student in our school to give just one dollar so we could build a school in the developing world.  Well, it took more dollars than our school had, but with the help of four other schools we raised $9,000 and built a classroom in a remote Kenyan village.

Since then, with 70 other schools joining us, we’ve built 12 classrooms, in Kenya, Nicaragua, Indonesia, and Nepal.  In the process, the students have learned not only the academics of world poverty, but the character traits of compassion, cooperation, and creativity.  And they feel a competence, an efficacy in the world, unlike anything they will ever learn in the classroom.

The genius of Good Teaching is when all six of these practices — Inducement, Conveyance, Meta-Learning, Empowerment, Modeling, and Application — all occur at precisely the right time, over and over again throughout the lesson, throughout the day, throughout the year, throughout the student's educational career. Every student is addressed with exactly the right touch they need at exactly the right moment in time, and all at the same time!

It is this right-touch, right-timing, inclusion-for-all, and engagement-with-the-world challenge that makes Good Teaching the incomparable art form that it really is. It is what makes Good Teaching so difficult to master but such an ennobling act (for both the student and the teacher) when it actually does occur.  And it doesn’t come from shallow experience, superficial commitment, or a focus on profits.

To be sure, every good teacher will have a different name for these acts. Each will perform them differently, with different emphases at different times. But as with Shakespeare's rose, by any other name they are just as sweet.

It is through such Good Teaching that students develop not just potent academic or vocational competencies but unshakable conviction of their fundamental worthiness for whatever great challenges they ultimately choose to take up in life. That is the true objective, the true proof, and the true reward of Good Teaching.

from What is Good Teaching? A Reflection
by Robert Freeman
Published on Sunday, May 6, 2012 by Common Dreams

Thursday, May 3, 2012


There aren’t many fencing masters around, anymore.
Lots of fencing coaches, if that’s your taste.
But fencing masters?
Few and far between.

Very few people have access to a bona fide fencing master who can teach them the swordmasters’ craft,  and very few are in a position to uproot and relocate to apprentice with a fencing master, even if they could find one.

So how do you learn to be a fencing teacher?
Typically, we see the erroneous assumption that a skillful performer is automatically a skillful teacher, and the most “advanced” fencer in a given group assumes “teaching” responsibilities for the newcomers.
Big mistake.

I know this because I "taught" myself to play the guitar and in so doing acquired some very bad habits. I could have avoided these errors if I had taken lessons from a good teacher to begin with. There's just some things about the guitar I needed to know that a good guitar teacher could have taught me, right up front.  For example, did you know that you don't have to blow into it?

We’ve gotten a few requests for something like this, so I thought we’d give it a try.
We’re going to host a weekend workshop for fencing instructors and aspiring fencing instructors who want to improve their teaching knowledge and skills.
If it goes well, we’ll hold additional workshops more frequently on a regular schedule.

No doubt about it, the best way to learn how to teach is to apprentice yourself to a master or attend an intensive program at an academy of arms, the way I did. There’s no real substitute for that.  But if that’s impossible for you, what can you do? Attending workshops like this one seems like a workable alternative.

Right now, we have two workshop dates scheduled:  Saturday August 11 & Sunday August 12, 2012,  and Saturday December 29 & Sunday December 30,  2012
The Saturday sessions will run 10am-6pm. Sunday sessions will be 8am -4pm

These will be here in our Salle d’Lion, in beautiful, sunny Ithaca, NY

Our tentative list of topics includes:
  • Structure of the individual lesson – (this is the backbone of what we’ll do)
  • Structure of the group lesson – (this is the other principle focus)
  • Structure and function of the Etude – (we’re the only ones who do this; I’ll show you how we do it and why)
  • Stages of Learning
  • Learning Domains
  • Early Pattern Recognition
  • Sensitizing and De-sensitizing
  • Technique, Tactics and Strategy
  • Chivalry and the Heroic Ideal

The workshop will include lecture/discussion, but the primary focus is hands-on practice of specific teaching skills that you can put to work for yourself and your students immediately.

We figure $200 tuition per person per weekend sounds about right, but we’re talking about “discounts” for those who attend succeeding workshops so the more often you come to learn, the cheaper it gets.

To apply, please send me an email or an application letter detailing your relevant training and experience along with a deposit of $100 by July 1st 2012.  If we accept you, the deposit is non-refundable; if we don’t accept you, we’ll return your deposit and tell you why. If we don’t get enough qualified applicants, we’ll cancel and return all deposits, no harm, no foul.
You’re on your own for food and lodgings, but Ithaca is full of good places to stay and places to eat.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts, questions, comments -- including any particular topics you’d like to have us cover.