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When Dojo and Classroom Combine

DSBK and Silverton School Launch Unique Learning Enrichment for Kids

Awe froze the crowd to stillness as the regiment marched in unison towards them swinging wooden staffs. Wind bullied the snow off nearby rooftops. The snow flurries fled in shimmering swirls before fading like ghosts.

The regiment made its final strike. They withdrew their weapons in one simultaneous movement, much as a cat retracts its claws. Respectfully, they bowed.

The crowd erupted into applause so loud they buried the roar of the gymnasium’s overhead heater. Parents, siblings, teachers, and school administrators gathered at the exhibition of learning cheered with pride for their kiddos standing in the regiment. Those youngsters were no longer typical pre-teens, all wiggles and giggles. They displayed focus, gravity, and poise. And, the louder the audience clapped, the more Silverton School’s middle grade students snuck each other proud grins and satisfied winks.

“How did you get them to be so serious?” One parent asked.

“Our mantra all week has been precision and maturity,” noted Katie Shapiro, the students’ school teacher.

“I can’t believe no one was hurt with all those sticks swinging around,” another parent declared.

As the students’ dojo teacher, or sensei, I added, “We really didn’t have to do much of anything to them.” I went on to explain, “This group has been, by far, the absolute best bunch I have ever had the privilege to train. From the first day we worked with the jos, or staffs, they were devoted and focused. They wanted to master this weapon.”

The praise was genuine. Over the course of teaching or co-teaching kids’ aikido classes in the years before the pandemic, I truly had never seen a kids’ class adopt weapons training with so much purpose. This unusual circumstance seemed to stem not just from the exceptional nature of the students themselves, but also from the unusual construct of the 5-week program.

Creating a New Curriculum

Over the summer months, Katie Shapiro, her co-teacher Kevin deKay, and I collaborated to provide a radical, multidisciplinary enrichment course centered around meditation and mindfulness, the history and culture of Japan plus the mental, emotional, and physical health benefits of practicing a martial art like Aikido. Shapiro got the idea for such a class after seeing a presentation on aikido and its capacity to fortify mindfulness, which reduces stress and anxiety. 

A generous grant from the Ballantine Family Fund made this unique and bespoke enrichment opportunity affordable for Silverton School and participating families.

Dojo Lessons Grow Inside the Classroom

By September, the program was ready to launch and 19 middle school students from Silverton participated in the program. Once a week, they and their teachers traveled to Durango and immersed themselves in martial training for two hours. Each class opened and closed with a meditative breathing practice–an aspect of martial training dating back centuries in Japan because it cultivated a robust mind, body, and spirit. Then, kids were taught various aikido techniques. They poured passion and focus into learning how to blend with attacks and achieve self-defense with a do-no-harm approach. 

Because aikido stems from Japan’s feudal samurai society, students also learned how to wield swords (bokkens) and staffs (jos), which they relished to no end. Classes also included time for learning some Japanese history, culture, and language. And of course, no kids’ aikido class would be complete without games!

All these elements are fundamental to any kids’ class I have taught before. What made this collaboration unique was the continuation of learning inside the classroom. Outside the dojo, the teachers further enriched the students’ learning with in-depth explorations, readings, and discussions of mindfulness and its benefits on physical, mental, and emotional health. They examined how the focus inherent in martial training ultimately develops a stronger individual, inside and out.

Students Show What They Know

Now, on this snowy, blustery day in the Silverton School’s gym, the fruits of the collaboration were evident. After the students demonstrated their skills with the jos, they arranged themselves into pairs to show off the aikido techniques they’d learned. Throughout the program, I focused on responses to the kinds of attacks kids most commonly employ: shoves and punches. The students replied to these violent situations by simply turning out of the way of danger first. In aikido jargon, that simple turn is known as “turning tenkan.” Once they’d gained a safe position, students were able to apply a technique that neutralized the attacker on the ground. 

The audience at the exhibition once again applauded mightily when this portion of student learning concluded. At this point, I and DSBK’s Chief Instructor, Mark Winkworth stepped onto the mat to give a short demonstration of how the techniques the students learned ramp up to more advanced levels.

Games Provide Lessons and Family Fun

Finally, Kevin deKay surprised the audience with a strange invitation. He called out, “Parents and siblings! Please take off your shoes! Join us on the mats and grab an orange tail!”

The students shrieked with excitement. Not only were they going to play their absolute favorite game, the 360-degree tail game, but also they were going to play it against their families!

To my knowledge, DSBK’s retired kids’ class instructor Michael Wilkinson invented this game many, many years ago. It has since endured as an evergreen favorite. The so-called tails in this instance were 2-foot sections of rope. With one end tucked in a waistband, the rope hung like a tail. The goal of the game was to pull out other people’s tails without getting your own tail plucked in the process. Competitors whittle down until there is just one winner.

When played, the tail game looks a lot like tag when everyone is “it.” It is chase or be chased. Or, it is sneak or be snuck. Either way, the game requires a 360-degree awareness amidst chaos. Or, more to the core point of the entire 5-week program, it required calm mindfulness during stress. Becoming the eye of a storm.

Planting Seeds for the Future

After several rounds of the tail game, the teachers gave winded parents a reprieve. They and their child found a place to sit and review the learning journal kept over the span of the program. 

“This has been such a positive experience for us and our students,” Shapiro concluded. “We want to see this program continue year after year. We see it as a rite of passage that every student should experience during middle school.”

If you would like to collaborate with DSBK on a similar kind of specialized kids’ aikido program, contact Jenny Mason:

Note: DSBK heartily thanks the Ballantine Family Fund. Without your generosity, this hugely beneficial community collaboration would not have succeeded half so well.

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