Thursday, August 15, 2019

Teaching a Basic Introductory Class for the First Time: Some Thoughts

A couple people I've talked to have expressed some trepidation in terms of teaching a class. I think that generally people are pretty good with teaching one or two people for a vague amount of time, but as soon as it turns into an indeterminate amount of people for a one hour time slot, things get super weird.

I get it. It's weird and intimidating and full of wargh. So rather than drop duplicate thoughts at individuals, I'm going to Write A Blog Post About It!

First up, this is intended to really apply to a specific type of class - an introductory or low-experience class for a primarily physical thing. (Like, say, "Your First Look At Capo Ferro" or whatever.) That isn't to say that someone couldn't find some really useful things for teaching, I don't know, a basic embroidery class here, but I'm just putting that out there so you know where I'm coming from in some ways.

Second, a lot of this is going to sound pretty basic. If you don't need to do everything here, awesome! Good! On the other hand, I've found that these are usually good ways to get organized for a class, keep yourself on topic in on time, and also to make standing up in front of strangers and saying things to be a bit easier.

Here we go!

Before we do anything else, remember to be reasonable about what you're going to accomplish in an hour long class. Let's be super honest here, nobody that you teach is going to Achieve Mastery in that time. On the other hand, you'll probably be able to introduce a number of concepts, give them a leg up on diving into a manual, teach them some drills to work on later, and maybe give a more experienced student a different way of looking at an idea. If you're going to accomplish these things though, you need to keep yourself (and therefore the class) on track and avoid accidentally diving down any rabbit holes, spending too much time on any one thing, getting out of order, or running ahead of yourself. How do you do this?

Outline Your Class

Outlines. Outline your class. This isn't a class handout, it's solely for you - so it doesn't need any more detail than what you require to remind you what's going on.

Now you could be thinking that you know the material back to front and don't need an outline. And yeah, you probably do! But knowing it and even being able to teach it one on one isn't the same as teaching a sizable class where you need to monitor multiple students and give each of them slices of your attention.

So, seriously. Take a few minutes and outline your class.

When you do your first outline, it might be pretty detailed. That's fine! Outline everything. Things like "Introduce myself" and "Who was Giganti" are all things that can absolutely end up in there, as well as the bits and bobs under those headers. (You'd be surprised how easy it is to forget to introduce yourself at the beginning of a class.) For instance, my first Fabris outline had a section that looked something like this:

  • Four Italian Guards
    • (Quickly show in order from drawing the sword to explain 1, 2, 3, 4 ordering.)
    • Remember to use off-hand elbow to aid in body structure!
    • Terza
      • Default guard
      • Technically outside
    • Quarta
      • Inside
      • Rotate from wrist
      • Shoulder involvement
    • Seconda
      • Outside
      • Rotate from shoulder, not wrist
    • Prime
      • Outside
      • Shoulder rotation and support
      • Hand shifting
    • Bastard guards
That's a lot! When I was first starting to work on preparing a class though, it was what I really needed to organize my thoughts. After the first couple practices, both solo and with a test audience (I'll get to those in a bit!) I pared it down a little:
  • Four Italian Guards
    • Off hand elbow; sword arm wrist vs shoulder
    • Terza
    • Quarta
    • Seconda
    • Prime
    • Bastard guards
After I taught my first couple of real classes and got my routine down, my outline shifted to:
  • Four Italian Guards
Seriously. Outlining your class will be the biggest thing to let you organize your thoughts, make sure you're going to cover things in order and not skip anything, and keep you on track. It's a really big deal. Once you've done that though, we need to work on applying it. To do that, we need to...

Practice Teaching Your Class

Everything gets better with practice, right? Here's where we accomplish a lot of things at once - we'll test run the material for time, we'll get comfortable with talking about it all out loud, and eventually we'll get comfortable with people staring at us while we teach.

The first thing you'll want to do is set a timer to 50 minutes. I know, you've got an hour for the class! Doesn't matter. Take 50 minutes. You want to leave time for questions at the end of the class, questions during the class, and time spent while your students stand up with their swords and work through things that you're teaching them. Ten minutes for that is - at least for me - a pretty reasonable toss at the dart board to begin with.

Now stand by yourself in a room and start teaching. 

Yeah, by yourself. Not in front of a mirror or anything, and not with people around. Just stand up and start working through the class out loud. You're going for two big things here - you're checking for time, and you're working on just getting comfortable talking like you're a teacher and covering the material at a nice easy pace.

If you're anything like a lot of people I know, you might notice that you're really speeding through and talking pretty quickly. Pay attention to this, and just relax and stay casual. You may also notice as you do this a couple times that you'll develop turns of phrase that you use to explain concepts out loud. Saying all these things out loud really is different than just going through it all inside your head - you want to really tie the physical parts of standing naturally, speaking clearly, and covering the material together.

(As an aside, this is something that you can do through your whole career - I find myself talking through teaching small snippets and concepts to get my head around them while I'm driving, or walking around doing chores by myself. Just the act of speaking out loud helps solidify how I'm going to explain them to a class.)

Do this a couple of times. Pay attention to the timer, but don't get too stressed about it. You're mostly doing that to make sure you don't run over or under by a huge amount - a minute or two in either direction isn't all that big a deal. It's easy to go over and try to pack too much material into an introductory class though, so be prepared to find a better, earlier, ending point. Don't be afraid to reorganize and trim down your outline and come back to this! You should find that it'll get easier to work through everything verbally after a couple practices. That's when it's time to find a couple friends.

This is when you teach the whole class to some friends. Usually four is a good number if you can get that many - it'll let you pair up people if that's helpful for practicing things, but it's also just large enough to force you to move between students and not just focus on a single pair.

Remember to teach them like you don't know them, and this time set the timer to the full 60 minutes. Talk to your friends afterwards, and talk about how well you communicated, time spent on various concepts, and other broad issues like that. There'll probably be a bunch of nitpicky things to fix too, but this isn't about those - we just want to get you to the point where you can make it through your class.

Go And Do It!

You've done your prep! Outline in hand, clock or timer somewhere (there's never one in a teaching area when you want one), you've talked to yourself a whole lot about what you're teaching, and you're pretty confident talking in front of some friends. Go out and do the thing!

A Few Last Tips

Remember, when you have a sizable class, keep moving through everyone there. Give bits of your attention to everyone - this means that even more than because of the time limitations, you're not looking to get everyone to perfect. You won't even get them to 90%. 70% is probably okay, and if you're touching on some complicated things, maybe not even that much. This is fine. You're not there to drill them to perfect, you're there to give them tools to do that on their own.

I like to make sure people know how to get in touch with me afterwards if they have followup questions. This also means that I personally don't usually use handouts; this is partly because in the middle of an event like Pennsic, that's just one less thing I need to stress out about remembering, but also because I tend to think of the manual that I'm teaching from as the handout. Most every major rapier manual is extremely easy to purchase, and generally at very reasonable prices. Even the days of the long out of print Chivalry Bookshelf edition of Fabris are behind us now! Print on demand press has been very good to us.

You can always treat the ideas I've tossed out here as a loop to refine your material. Go tweak your handout, test the material, and do it all over again.

Go audit classes from people who you think are good teachers. Don't take the class - you'll probably get distracted by the actual class material - but watch them and take notes on teaching techniques they're using. Most people will be happy to talk to you afterwards about that aspect of their class!

Finally, I'm sure you've heard horror stories about That Terrible Student who just keeps asking off-topic questions, or pulls things like "well okay but I wouldn't respond like the play says, I'd do this instead..." In all honesty, I think I've had all of one person like that in all the classes I've taught, and they were pretty mild about it. Just be firm, push off-topic questions to the end of the class, and remind people that this is the response you're drilling and that they owe it to their partner to be a good partner themselves. That's usually all it takes.

That's it! That's my not remotely patented method for prepping classes when you haven't taught much yet.


Monday, August 12, 2019

Pennsic 48 Recap Post!

So Pennsic 48 happened! It had a number of things I wanted and needed, a few things I sure didn't want or need, and some pretty surprisingly good moments.

I did land grab. I didn't really want to do it, but I did it because I for sure did want a camp this year. It was an Experience, and one that I don't reeeeeeally need to do again. I could be convinced - pretty easily, honestly - to show up earlier during Peace Week, but I just don't need to be there without the full collection of My People, especially when my brain decides to be terrible.

Either way though, we had a camp! It happened! Many thanks to Llewellyn for making the trip down with me and being a Very Able Companion for the whole experience - it would have turned the corner into Ridiculously Bad without him. Also, I think that having some new people do the land grab thing highlighted things in the process (and things in the trailer!) which could be improved just because new folks doing the thing tends to make those things show up. So that was actually a pretty good upshot from it all.

My fencing wasn't as all encompassing as it usually is; my tennis elbow was bad enough that I fought in the heroic champs and then decided to marshal all the war point battles just to be sure that I could save it for the By the Book tournament, which is always a highlight. (I was hoping to be able to manage the Ansteorran tournament as well, but no such luck.) I always love the By the Book - there are always so many exemplars of period styles in there, and the sword-nerding as we all stand around and watch is top-notch. This year, I ended up winning both the tournament itself as well as best in style (Fabris, natch) with LOGOS coming in second in both of those. I was extremely stoked, I can tell you what. Absolutely worth taking the battles off to manage that! Getting in some pickups with LOGOS as well was super great; getting my once-yearly Fabris tuneup is always, always worth it.

I missed being out on the field with my friends and contributing to the rapier army, but if I'm not going to fight there's basically no reason not to marshal! That said, I found myself legitimately enjoying the marshaling. Being able to get a number of different vantage points was pretty neat, and being able to do something about it when someone - on either side - was skirting the rules? That was pretty neat.

I pulled a bunch of marshal in charge shifts on the field. A bunch during the first week - being able to just sit and relax and watch the world go by was a lot of what I needed. Being able to sit and watch a torrential thunderstorm come in while I was standing by myself was honestly also amazing. Generally though, I figured that if I was going to be sitting around up there anyway and there was an open shift, I'd just do something useful and hang out at the desk. (As an aside, the small marshal's tent off to the side of the main rapier tent? Amazing and I love it.)

I managed to not attend any classes - some that I wanted to attend were on top of things I couldn't miss, and other ones were just at odd times or I was feeling off so I just kept hanging out behind a desk. I did end up teaching a Fabris class though, which was pretty great!

Finally, the people. There are people who I only ever manage to see at Pennsic, which makes me want to go to far-away places and see them more. I met a couple excellent people from Drachenwald, and there's always Lochac to consider, too. Friends who are closer are still also fantastic to get to hang out with for days on end, and there were a lot of lazy afternoon and late night conversations which meant a lot to me.

So overall, a pretty okay Pennsic. Like usual, I'm coming out with a to-do list of good and helpful things to do - the first of which (aside from unpacking and doing laundry) is this very blog post so I'm going to hit publish now and get working on more good things! (Like using this blog more often.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

What We've Been Up To

So in the last couple months, what have I been up to?

I've been doing PT for my arm. It's not fun, but it's getting better. Fencing isn't the Way It Used To Be, but it's a ton closer to it than it was just before the surgery, so I really can't be too unhappy. Of course, I feel like I've backslid a lot, so I'm trying to shore things up. Gotta do more drills, focus on body mechanics and positioning, and then move into blade mechanics and moving smoothly from the balls of my feet.

Similar to before the surgery, I'm getting a lot more cloak work in then I ever did before, which is pretty grand. I don't feel like I can rely on it yet, but getting to work through plays with it and compare it to similar dagger plays from Fabris is proving really interesting.

Let's see. The East has a grappling experiment now! It's slow to take off - this time of year means we're all inside, and most floors are less forgiving to fall on than grass, and mats can be hard to come by. There'll be a small class/show and tell thing at Birka though, and Anastasia and I are planning to do a practice tour if we can to get more people up and running. I've really been enjoying the compare and contrast of different plays that this can open up though, as well as letting me get to really work with Fiore's knife defenses in a more freeform environment. Good stuff, and it shows me where some pretty giant holes are in my understanding - both practical and research - which is always nice to be updated on.

Speaking of research, I just wasn't able to pull together my paper for A&S Champs. The winter's been pretty bad for me, and sleep has been a terrible lie. I'm a little down about it, but I'll help out at the competition in other ways, and pull it together for later. It isn't like I'm going to stop researching and learning and teaching, anyway.

Oh also, VISS! It's a VISS year, and this year I'll be mainlining a Fabris-based intensive, which means I'll be mentally rolling around in a lot of material to really internalize, as well as things I can actually use as I'm assembling a Book Two work. So that's awesome! I always look forward to VISS, and I'm hoping that this year it'll really knock this funk off me but good.

Right, it's time for drills.