Instructors Meet to Talk About Kids and Standards

Posted May 29, 2014 by redwoodojo
Categories: martial arts for kids, Martial arts instruction

Tags: , , ,

Cuong Nhu IATC in Raleigh was a great opportunity for a group of instructors who teach kids to meet together to discuss common interests and concerns. At dinner on Saturday, a group got together, prompted by the following question, posed a few weeks earlier by Sensei Michael Hornback of Hero Academy in Longwood, FL:

“I have an eight year old student who cannot consistently keep her hands closed on punches and blocks (I know the various teaching methods to achieve this, but still, there is no consistency). How would she fare in a testing situation that you preside over? Would she pass? Fail? Get probation? Be berated [or, sternly corrected on this obvious, basic error] – even though you may not know her personal history and efforts as a student?”

For discussion purposes, we agreed to limit the topic to “testing standards for children,” and not stray into “teaching methods for kids.” As important as it is to share, discuss and revisit all the tips and tricks we can use to improve performance and cure specific bad habits (like loose fists), we know that children will remain imperfect in predictably unpredictable ways, and the question will arise, again and again, what to do when an imperfect child comes up for testing. Do we advance them, or bring them to a stop? How do we decide what to do?

Present for some or all of the discussion: Senseis Doug Storm and Shawn McElroy of Sung Ming Shu Dojo in Atlanta; Sensei Parnee Frederick of Revolution Dojo in Appleton, WI; Sensei Estela Atalay of Nei Ching Dojo, Miami; Sensei Ron Thomas of Tallest Tree dojo in Gainesville, FL; Sensei Lynne Correia of Blue Heron Dojo in San Diego; Sensei Tanner Critz of Unity Martial Arts, Little Rock; Sensei Kevin Cardoni of Northern Lights Dojo, Marquette, MI; Sensei Darius Jones of Crescent Moon Dojo in Pendleton, SC; Sensei Heidi Goldstein-Sidley of Concorde Martial Arts, White Plains, NY; Master Ricki Kay of Fairwood Martial Arts, Renton, WA; and Master Didi Goodman of Redwood Dojo in Oakland, CA.

The discussion ranged across several points of agreement, areas of interest, and matters for further discussion that we hope can be pursued in this and other blogs and venues. Among the points discussed – not necessarily in order:

- For developmental reasons, and reasons of individual difference (and sometimes disability), children cannot be expected to achieve perfection, nor consistently meet absolute standards for rank testing within Cuong Nhu.

- Instructors working with children and teens are in a constant process of evaluating, adjusting, and making individual decisions about what a student can or can’t master at the moment; things are not black and white, and this kind of flexibility is what good teaching is about.

- Even within a structured system like our children’s curriculum, this kind of flexibility also applies to testing: Instructors must decide which imperfections get a “temporary pass” and which ones constitute an absolute roadbloack to advancement.
- Instructors differ on which requirements they consider “roadblock” requirements. These may also differ case by case. For example, Sensei Tanner regards the basic push-up requiremment as an absolute after purple belt level, whereas many of us are flexible with weak push-ups in children, but are strict in other areas.

- Children’s testing, in general, requires much greater flexibility than adult testing.

- Different rank levels can be characterized by specific areas of concern (“what general qualities do you look for below purple belt? What do you look for from purple belt to blue belt?”), and these could form the basis for general agreement on testing roadblocks vs. passes. (This needs further discussion.)

- Instructors who do not work extensively with children and youth could benefit from some education and communication from those of us who do, in order to help them understand and handle testing situations more effectively/productively when kids and youth are involved.

- As instructors, we can help a student who has weak areas, but we can’t help a student who quits.


The concept of “growing into a rank”
was raised and of interest to many present. Master Ricki Kay stated that, in the children’s ranks through green belt, she considers a student ready for the next belt or stripe when they have reached an excellent level of performance on their current rank requirements, along with a basic knowledge of the next level requirements. For example, a two purple stripe is ready for purple belt when their two purple stripe techniques are excellent, and they have a basic knowledge of the purple belt techniques. Upon receiving purple belt, they have the opportunity to grow into the rank by raising their performance on the purple belt techniques.

This differs from the approach that would hold the student back from purple belt until the purple belt techniques were mastered to a level of excellence. In fact, it was noted, the purple belt techniques (including back stance and diagonal stance movements) are very difficult for young children to master, and the transition from 2 purple stripes to purple belt can take a very long time for those kids, leading in some cases to boredom and quitting. The “growing into rank” concept gives a different way to think about the problem.

Master Ricki also used the phrase “carrying our students.” When we advance students who have weak areas, with the expectation of helping them improve or grow into their rank, we are agreeing to “carry them” to some degree. Everyone who works with young kids agrees to carry them to a certain point. We have to be conscious of how far we are willing to carry them, and how we’re going to get them, in the end, to stand on their own.

Some instructors expressed concern about whether they were keeping children in rank for too long, or not testing kids often enough. The subject of realistic time-in-rank requirements needs further discussion.

Several of these same issues were covered in an older blog post, “How good is good enough?”, which is worth revisiting.

Also of interest is an older post on belt testing.

We invite instructors who were present to correct or add to these notes, and invite everyone to continue the discussion in the comments section, or propose other questions for discussion.

Can my black belt help get me into college?

Posted February 14, 2013 by redwoodojo
Categories: martial arts for kids

Tags: , , , , ,

collegeadmissionsAs a martial arts instructor, I’ve heard many students say they hope having a black belt will look good on their college applications. (Equally often, I’ve heard kids or parents say a student can’t come to class because of all the other activities they’re pursuing for their college applications!) Of course, “putting it on the resume” is a poor reason to train for black belt. At the same time, the personal qualities forged in the process of earning that belt can be good indicators of college success.

So, can your black belt really help get you into the college of your choice? We at Kids’ Karate Workbook decided to ask an expert. The result is some excellent advice for college applicants on how to present themselves and their martial arts achievements in the college admissions process. Stephanie Bertagnole is an Admissions Officer and Freshman Advisor at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the nation’s top universities. She has also trained in Cuong Nhu karate, along with her husband and son. Here’s what she had to say in answer to our questions:

How common is it for a college applicant to list “black belt” as an achievement?

We see numerous college applicants list “black belt” as an achievement. However, what sets one applicant apart from the others is the level of detail they provide regarding their achievement.

Is martial arts training considered a good extracurricular activity to have on one’s application? Do some admissions officers look down on it as “violent”?

The UC Berkeley admissions office views the martial arts as an excellent extracurricular activity. Martial arts training is not regarded as violent by our admissions officers and we are aware that martial arts training is both an excellent physical activity and that training can improve academic performance (according to our applicants). There are several martial arts clubs on campus including Judo, Tae Kwon Do, and Wushu. Additionally, martial arts training offered as a recreational activity for students, faculty and staff. For more information about our martial arts programs, please visit http://recsports.berkeley.edu/sports/martial-arts/.

How much do admissions officers know or find out about different martial arts, or different degrees of black belt?

As with many extracurricular activities, clubs, and competitions, we learn about martial arts training and achievements from the applicant. The applicant should assume that the application reader knows nothing about their martial arts training. It is their responsibility to impart detailed information about their training and the level of their achievements. Just as academics will vary from applicant to applicant, individual extracurricular activities such as martial arts training will vary as well. The level of detail one provides about their martial arts training and achievements will help make their case for admission.

Does it count for more if I’m in a martial art that emphasizes sport competition? Does it help if I’ve won a lot of championships?

Not necessarily—many applicants may not have access to competitions or simply choose not to compete for a variety of reasons. Competing can add value to an application but so can leadership roles such as instructing, serving as a role model in your community, or service to others.

I’ve heard I should have lots of different extracurricular activities on my application to make it look better. I have so many different activities, I can’t practice martial arts as often as I want – but I want my application to look good. Am I doing the right thing, piling on activities?

We see a variety of applicants including those who are involved in many different activities to those who are dedicated to one activity. For UC Berkeley, the quality of the program or activity is a key factor in the admission process and will significantly influence the application review. A student who piles on activities or simply participates in a variety of activities radically differs from one who dedicates a significant amount of time to their activity and has earned a high level of achievement within their sport, club, or volunteer work. If an applicant dedicates themselves solely to one activity, it is important that they understand how to convey their dedication to the application reader.

I often see martial arts applicants break down their martial arts training into several components. If they are an instructor at their dojo, they list these hours as a volunteer activity or work (if paid for their instruction). Their martial arts training is listed as the primary activity and the hours dedicated to their training should be listed here—applicants should remember to include the time spent outside the dojo conditioning and practicing. Achieving the rank of black belt is an honor; this and other related achievements could be listed as honors or awards. Martial arts training camps a student has attended could be listed under special program participation. Applicants should use the college application to their advantage—especially the essays or personal statements to provide in-depth information about their training.

There are so many young people doing martial arts and earning black belts as kids or teens. How can I make my achievement stand out from the crowd?

Every applicant is unique and so are their individual life experiences. Applicants can make their achievements stand out from the crowd through their essays or personal statements. I find it especially helpful when an applicant talks about challenges they have faced in their training or opportunities that have arisen as a result of their training. What is their response to these challenges and/or opportunities? How does the applicant apply their martial arts training off the mat and outside the dojo?

Can you give some examples of what an admissions officer likes to see/doesn’t like to see?

The college applicant pool is as diverse as the criteria by which a school reviews and selects students. I advise students contact individual colleges and universities to learn about their review and selection process. For UC Berkeley, each applicant starts from a neutral standpoint and our admissions officers look for items within the application that add value to one’s application. We like to see students who go above and beyond minimum requirements in academic or personal achievement. We do not penalize an applicant if critical information is missing or if they missed an opportunity to convey information in their personal statements. These applications simply remain at a neutral standpoint. We make the best possible case for admission to our school based on the information an applicant provides in their application.

Without revealing anything confidential, are there any good “martial arts applicant stories” you can tell?

There are so many who come to mind but the following two examples did a fine job presenting crucial information in their application and personal statements.

There first was an applicant who was competing at an international level in Tae Kwon Do. Their application stood out because of the level of detail provided regarding their achievements, training, and competitions. The student used the extra-curricular page of the UC application to their advantage by using key words or phrases to describe an honor, award, or competition. Furthermore, the applicant informed us that they often completed school assignments and papers on the plane or in a hotel room. We learned that they were an independent student, self-sufficient, and demonstrated impeccable time management skills required to succeed in both their martial art and in school.

Another applicant that stood out was 3rd degree black belt who achieved this rank by the age of 17. This applicant was an assistant instructor who helped manage the dojo but never competed for personal reasons. This young person took on a high level of responsibility for the students within the dojo and community as well as maintaining a high level of academic achievement within the school. Their application provided details regarding time spent training, instructing, managing the dojo, as well as time spent conditioning and practicing outside the dojo.

Thanks, Stephanie Bertagnole, for sharing your advice and expertise with the Kids’ Karate Workbook blog. And good luck to this year’s young martial artists applying to U.C.!

What to do about persistent talkers and goof-offs

Posted February 5, 2013 by redwoodojo
Categories: martial arts for kids, Martial arts instruction

Tags: , , , , ,

bpostureA colleague has asked us to revisit the topic of misbehaving and “low-effort” students. The students they describe are ones we all have in our classes from time to time: Those whose effort is minimal (loose fists, weak stances, lazy posture) even though they are capable of good technique; who talk and goof off with whoever is around them, as often as they can get away with it; and who don’t improve their behavior in response to any of the standard approaches (ranging from “catch them doing something good” to “sit out the fun stuff” to whatever your most serious discipline happens to be).

Let’s add that, in spite of their exasperating behavior, these are not kids who “hate karate” and really just want to quit, nor are they malicious trouble-makers – they disrupt by socializing too much, not by being anti-social.

So, my colleague asks, are some kids just too immature to understand the required behavior – and we have to put up with it till they begin to grow up? What approaches have other instructors tried for handling and motivating these kids?

Those Vital Dojo Members: The Parents

Posted December 4, 2012 by redwoodojo
Categories: dojo management, martial arts for kids, Martial arts instruction

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253881_2063296270822_5229577_nThe most important members of your children’s program might just be the parents. After all, it’s parents who sign kids up, pay the tuition, drive them to class, support their practice, and decide if & when they may quit!

Supportive parents give a tremendous boost to a school, both in practical terms (helping out at the dojo) and by creating a positive dojo culture. In rare cases, “nightmare” parents can have the opposite effect: Think “stage parent” interrupting class with their own instructions; argumentative parent questioning the instructor in front of the kids, or disputing a decision about tests and rank; or just, thoughtless parent talking loudly on a cell phone while letting your student’s younger siblings run amok.

A colleague recently asked about dealing with parents: How do instructors handle all the issues we just listed? I’ll toss out a few specific questions, but feel free to post on any aspect of working and communicating with those vital members of your dojo community.

1. Parents don’t necessarily have a clear idea of martial arts values and etiquette when they first register their child. How do you communicate your values and expectations to new parents? through written material? website? conferences?

2. How do you handle “stage parents” and etiquette violators? (Clearly, it requires some tact!)

3. Do you enlist parental involvement in classes or dojo events? How does that work?

4. Do you talk with parents about dealing with those times when a child doesn’t want to come to class? What do you tell them?

5. Do you have a “model parent” – or have you dealt with a “nightmare parent?” Tell us about him or her.

These are such important questions for a successful dojo; I look forward to hearing some great advice.

Attendance Cards and Taking Responsibility

Posted July 10, 2012 by redwoodojo
Categories: martial arts for kids, Martial arts instruction

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to get my young martial arts students to take more responsibility for themselves, for each other, for their training and their own progress. Of course I talk to them about these things, instruct them about doing so, urge them during class to be that kind of student. But words don’t always sink in; you just can’t assume they will get it. And this is doubly so with the younger kids.

There are always a few who seem born with the right attitude. They focus, they work hard; they practice with the intent to make progress.  These students are gems in the dojo; they would probably excel in any setting. Probably, too, their parents are reinforcing this ethos at home.

Then there are the students who attend class with enthusiasm, but when the hour ends, they drop it like a toy left in the middle of the floor and move on to the next activity. Come the next class, they don’t remember what they practiced. It’s as if they have to learn everything anew, every class. Some of these kids will happily tread water forever, if someone doesn’t come along to push or pull them toward their next rank. Yet they want that rank. They just don’t understand they have to earn it; they don’t get it that they aren’t earning it simply by showing up for class.

Practice with the intent to make progress. That’s what every student must learn to do, and what quite a few kids in my crowded younger-age classes have seemingly not been doing lately. So I did some thinking and decided, among other things, it was time once again to implement some form of Attendance Card/Test Card system to get them focused on what they need to do. I spent time on the recent holiday designing a new card to my liking, and more time over the weekend printing and cutting a set of color-coded, rank-specific cards. I’ll begin phasing in the new system today.

Mind you, I have used various forms of “test cards” and “rank checklists” over the years. These new cards combine familiar old components. But I’ve made an important mental shift. In the past, no matter how I might have described it, I was treating them as tools to help me keep track of all the kids, their attendance, and their progress toward rank. I was bearing full responsibility for tracking the students, then providing the necessary motivation as needed. The tools were helpful at times, but when I found they were more trouble than help, I dropped them, picking them up again only when I had a suitable (or troublesome) group in class.

This time around I realize the tools are for the students’ benefit, not mine. They are a visual representation of attendance and progress that can – and hopefully, will – begin to show even the youngest kids a connection between their own efforts and their progress toward rank. They’ll begin each class now, by getting & looking at their card, before bringing it to the instructor for use during class. It’s just one more component in an ongoing emphasis on taking responsibility for oneself.

I want to credit Kelly Muir’s attendance-card system, as described in her book Instructor Revolution, for sparking this mental shift for me. (Her student-run dojo is all about taking responsibility!) My review of her book can be found here

Instructors: What tools do you use to help kids learn to take responsibility for their training? Please post your thoughts and methods in the comments section.

Here’s a fictitious sample attendance card. The name and dates are made up, of course. A few things to note: The number of boxes in the attendance grid increases as rank increases (the first few levels have only 24 boxes). The number is higher than the minimum requirement for the rank. However, I’m not highlighting the minimum requirement, because it’s not important. Don’t focus on the minimum; rather, meet the minimum and keep training! On back, two levels of rank requirements are listed, and can be signed off by the instructor if desired.

Belt Tests/Gradings – What’s the Best Way?

Posted June 3, 2012 by redwoodojo
Categories: martial arts for kids, Martial arts instruction

Tags: , , , ,

Earning rank, in the form of belts and/or stripes, is an important part of the martial arts experience for many children who train. Instructors who test children for rank handle it in many different ways. Some offer tests on a set schedule, for any students deemed “ready;” others schedule a test only when there are students clearly ready. Some have special test-only days; others integrate testing into regular class time. Some tests are by invitation only; others permit students to make the choice. Some schools fail students on a regular basis, while others preclude failure by pre-selecting well-qualified candidates. Some schools I have heard of test and promote the whole student body every couple of months. Still others eschew testing and simply promote students when it seems right.

How is testing handled at your school? Why do you (or your instructors) do it that way? Tell us the pros and cons. Let us know, too, how big your classes are and how many students typically test or are promoted at a time.

Book Review: Instructor Revolution by Kelly Muir

Posted March 29, 2012 by redwoodojo
Categories: Book Review, Martial arts instruction

We have a new expression in my household: “WWIRD” (“What would Instructor Revolution do?”). It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but also reflects our genuine appreciation for the no-nonsense attitudes expressed by Kelly Muir in her book. Here’s how it might come up: I’ll be doing some reading, or pondering various ways we might streamline or improve operations at the dojo. We are a two-dojo family, my husband having operated a school for 30-plus years, and I for the past 20, so it’s natural to look for ways to keep things fresh and think about whether we’re doing the best we can do. And I’ll notice that a lot of people in the “industry” are doing this or that at their schools—often something we’ve rejected doing in the past—so I’ll ask, is there something in it worth adapting or putting to use? To which my husband will reply, WWIRD? And half the time I’ll laugh, realizing I just recently read—and agreed with—Kelly Muir’s take on a similar subject; enough said. It’s like having a hard-nosed conscience.

Instructor Revolution sets out to be provocative, but it’s hard to be provoked by an author with whom I share so many opinions. I was struck by how many of my own pet peeves she expresses throughout the book—and some of them are things I wasn’t sure anyone else cared about: for example, those ridiculous dances football players do when they score or make a play (Muir: “Isn’t that their job? I can’t imagine doing a victory dance every time I did something that was expected of me at work.”); the motivation and depth of knowledge that’s lost when students use video in place of live instruction (“…with the ease of learning kata online, the regard for it is beginning to wane.”); and the pressure on instructors to fatten their curricula with non-martial-arts content, social activism, and more, when we could be focusing on the value inherent in the training itself (“When a child only has a limited amount of time [to] dedicate to their training, I would prefer they spend it on their training.” Yes.).

 Then there are the larger issues, like the “self-esteem myth,” as she calls it: the idea that a child gains self-esteem through constant praise rather than genuine achievement—a subject that has come up often on this blog (here’s one example). And the trend among instructors and school owners to try to boost retention of young students via rewards and gimmicks, generally making things fun and easy, when the real value of martial arts training (through a traditionalist’s eye) comes from the fact that it’s challenging and demanding. And I certainly agree that children are capable of meeting very high demands.

In fact I agree with so much in the book, it’s hard for me to find it revolutionary. A great many of us in martial arts have been quietly teaching on these principles for decades; there’s nothing new about them. Even among colleagues who have adopted “industry” practices on the business side of the dojo, and adapted some popular material and drills into their children’s programs, many have maintained their basic, traditional principles throughout. To us, the title of the book seems overblown. Instructor Revolution: a superior method of teaching children martial arts. That’s pure marketing copy. The first time I saw it, I thought, “If they have to say it’s superior, it probably isn’t.” (Of course, now that I’ve realized how close it is to my own thinking, I have to admit it is superior!) But Muir is a once-and-again figure within the “industry,” and it’s really within that context that she positions herself as revolutionary. In addition, her years in the business world as a corporate trainer have given her a certain gift for abbreviations and jargon. An IR™ instructor at TKCC can be expected to utilize CLM, layering, sealing, door-to-the-floor, and more (all, by the way, perfectly sensible concepts when they’re laid out). Reference to ‘IR instructors’ and that little ‘tm’ make it clear she’s packaging this as a system suitable for sale or franchise—just like the systems and products she’s revolting against. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

It’s a good book, well worth buying even if you don’t care about “industry” bandwagons. Its greatest value is for instructors who are looking to create a new children’s program, or who want to evaluate and fine-tune their current one. Muir provides a step-by-step program development guide that can help anyone evaluate and strengthen what they’re doing. It is style-neutral, and doesn’t at all depend on your agreeing with everything she says about working with kids. It’s quite thorough and thought-provoking, asking instructors to consider the “what, when and why” of their curriculum in a way martial artists who have inherited or adopted a traditional system too often don’t ask.

As for her old-fashioned, disciplinarian, “no rewards” approach to kids, it’s worthwhile considering the case she makes, even if you are of a kinder, gentler nature. Either you will take some good ideas from it, or arrive at ideas of your own through opposition. While I personally tend to favor her views, I also believe—or rather, know—there is more than one kind of good instructor. A great deal has to do with personality and personal style. I have some “Mr. Nice Guy” colleagues who manage to raise excellent young martial artists. Strong principles and professional competence, holding the kids to high standards whatever your approach—those are the real keys. And if you’re not sure where you stand, it might be time to ask, “WWIRD?”

Find the book on Amazon here.
Or visit Kelly Muir’s blog here.

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