Mombservations from the Extracurricular Sidelines

I’ve worked in the field of education for twenty years, so when I became a mom I was naturally particularly fascinated by watching my own kids learn. When my kiddos were very young I was home with them a lot and was privy to most of their learning experiences. As they got older and went to school I was no longer a direct witness to as many of those pivotal moments and I missed having the front row seat to all of their evolutions as learners. I’ve had to rely on what they are willing to self-report and brief updates from their (wonderful but busy) teachers to catch glimpses of their school-selves. But I’ve happily realized that I do have a great vantage point into their lives as learners—as a spectator of their extracurricular activities.

Over the last dozen years I’ve done some of my own racing, contorting, juggling, etc. to make it possible for my kids to enjoy an eclectic array of after-school and summertime experiences: gymnastics, guitar, flamenco, theater, tango, soccer, circus arts, swimming, visual arts, astronomy, karate, choir, chess, horseback riding, running, robotics, battle of the books, baseball, banjo… And while the logistics of having three kids with vibrant extracurricular schedules can get a little hairy, observing them in these activities has been a real pleasure for me as a mom and a source of insight as an educator.

Mombservation: an observation, usually astute

and insightful, made by a mom or mom-like person.

One of the long-standing extracurriculars in our house is karate. With my twins on their way to junior brown belts and my oldest within striking distance of her junior black belt, I have watched hundreds of classes, several tournaments, and many a color belt promotion test. For years I have been pretty awed by the teaching and learning I have observed at the dojo. Here are ten of my favorite features of this learning environment:

Group Karate Assessment / Photograph by Olivia Mulcahy
  1. Focus on ethics, empathy, diversity, and community. When seeking martial arts options, I was initially drawn to the dojo we eventually chose because they have an adapted karate program for students with disabilities. While my kids did not have the need to be part of this particular program, I wanted them to be a part of a community that is dedicated to making inclusion integral to their organization. This is a community that actively embraces diversity of all kinds—bringing together people of diverse abilities, ages, races, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, sexual orientations, languages—and that both models and explicitly teaches acceptance, kindness, advocacy for self and for others. This is an important pairing with, and perhaps more valuable than, the technical karate instruction we were looking for, and seeing this in action every week only affirms the decision to invite this community to have a hand in raising my kids.

  2. Clear expectations for outcomes and effort. Just as the expectations for positive community culture and personal integrity that I alluded to above are both modeled and explicitly discussed, so are the standards for excellent karate. And every family gets a manual that has a complete outline of the knowledge, competencies, terminology, and number of classes needed to be eligible for each color belt. There are no surprises about what is required for the karateka’s procession to each belt, and there is a strong culture of “non-quitting spirit” that urges students through each of these ranks.

  3. High expectations are met with high levels of differentiated support. Students come any day of the week at the time designated for their age group which means the size, range of color belts, interpersonal dynamic, etc. is pretty different on any given day. Teachers know the students well and flexibly adapt instruction within the varying groups taking into account personal understanding of the students as well as the demands of their color belt level.

  4. Appropriate time allotted for learning. The repertoire of knowledge and skills is not only cumulative through the ranks, but expand to include more at higher ranks. The expectation for time required to accomplish the goals of high ranks is accordingly expanded. A notable feature, and a luxury which school classrooms do not necessarily have, is that there is no rush. The pace by which students move through the belt ranks varies for different reasons (interest, motivation, readiness, logistics) and there is no judgment about their pace. (Obviously we cannot draw perfect parallels between voluntary extracurriculars and required schooling, but looking at the pacing expectations gives us something to chew on.)

  5. Assessments are learning (and community building!) opportunities. As karatekas approach the number of classes they need to be eligible to test for the next rank, they are invited to pre-test. If the karateka demonstrates in the pre-test that they can be ready for the next rank by the date of the formal test, they are invited to take it. Then, based on analysis during the pre-test, students are given particular guidance in the areas where they need to put more attention. The color belt promotion test is done for all color belts of an age group on the same day – some tasks in the test are completed by the whole group, some by belt rank, some individual. A panel of teachers observes, offers feedback, requests corrections, etc. while family and friends watch. Basically, students are set up to succeed and are surrounded by a supportive community. And it’s a beautiful thing. I cried at the last one. I was moved by a kiddo (not my own!) who got through a tough test for advanced brown belt with a ton of heart and he got me with a triumphant kiai, or “yell of spirit.” That’s my kind of test.

  6. Active apprenticeship into leadership. Part of the culture of the dojo is to recognize the students of higher ranks for their value as models and teachers. These senpai are acknowledged in the meditations that bookend each karate class and are regularly asked to demonstrate for lower-ranking karatekas. Invitations—to advanced brown belt and black belt students to lead the class in warm ups, to students age 12 and above to become Counselors in Training at karate camp, to every student to try out their most confident voice in leading the cues for mediations—for leadership abound.

  7. Connection of mind, body and spirit. In the dojo the kiai counts as much as the technique of kicking or punching. The opening meditation is as important as the warm up exercises. The development of things like personal integrity and positive interpersonal skills has as much value as scoring points or maintaining safe parameters in sparring. The awareness that our intellectual, emotional, and physical selves are not divorced from each other, and that a balance of these makes for deep learning = good stuff in my book.

  8. Open dialogue between families and teachers. Part of the insight into my kids that I get from their karate practice comes directly from their teachers. The communication and rapport we have cultivated is invaluable, not just as partners in helping support my kids’ growth as karatekas but as resources to each other in raising them to be thoughtful and strong people.

  9. Language learning is intentionally integrated. As with any discipline, there is content-specific phrasing and vocabulary, and this language is taught through modeling, experience, interaction and explanation. Bonus—much of the language needed to engage in learning karate is taught in both English and Japanese so my kids get exposure to another language. AND, in our dojo, extra bonus—appreciation of multilingualism is overt and invitations for karatekas to share all their many other languages are not uncommon.

  10. Presence of joy. Sure there may be days when we just don’t feel like going, or phases when I’m pushing them more than they’re arriving on their own, but overarchingly, my kids go to karate because it is a joyful thing. And I get the distinct sense that everyone at the dojo, students and staff, are there because they want to be…because they find joy in some form, through the learning of the art, through learning about themselves, through the relationships. The power of joy in learning should not be underestimated.

As I name these qualities and look over this list, they just about cover what I would look for and love to see in any school. I’ll admit, again, that the way an extracurricular activity such as karate is approached cannot provide a perfect analogy to policy and practices in the schoolhouse—certain things may only be appropriate or effective in one context or the other. But I encourage any of us who are spectators to extracurriculars to keep eyes and ears and minds open to the what these “extras” can teach us about how we should be doing “the basics.”

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