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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Because of Some Reading

After the 50 States Challenge part of my trip was done, there was still one last thing I had to do in Seattle.

A view from the water tower in Volunteer Park

But first, a flashback.  Just imagine your screen is doing that cheesy wobble thing and playing some stereotypical flashback sound.

When I was a color belt, I practically lived at the dojang.  One student quipped that I was there so often, the instructor was claiming me as a dependent on his taxes.  But it's impossible to be training every minute, so when I wasn't in class or practicing at home, I would read.

One particular book that I read was a collection of essays written by martial arts instructors.  One essay was about how instructors can adapt teaching techniques to help students who learn in different ways.  I thought the author might have some insight into a problem I had in sparring that had confounded both me and my instructors.

Between the references in the book and the wonder that is the Internet, I found an email address for a Sensei Carol Gittins.  I eagerly drafted an email explaining my situation and asking if she had any advice.  And then I didn't hear back.

I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised.  6th degree black belts (as she was at the time) are busy.  School owners are busy.  Published authors are busy.  6th degree black belt school owner published authors probably have better things to do than worry about some color belt clear on the other side of the country.

So I was quite surprised a couple months later to get a reply.  She apologized for the delay since their email had been down for a long time due to computer upgrades, and proceeded to write a detailed answer to my question.

I was excited and grateful, but some of what she suggested were drills specific to her style that I had never heard of before.  I had to sheepishly admit that I had no idea what she was talking about, and ask for some clarification.  She again sent back a detailed reply. We traded emails for months, and she always seemed just as happy to be answering my questions as I was to be getting those answers.  At one point, she recorded a video of her with one of her students performing one of the drills that she recommended, which she then burned to a DVD and mailed to me (stop laughing, it was the most convenient way to do it back then).

We kept in touch, and I promised that if I ever visited Washington, I would visit her in person.  It was the better part of a decade later when that finally happened.

Since I had no car, she picked me up in hers.  I thought it was funny to post on Facebook that, "I'm getting in a car with someone I met on the Internet!"  My family thought it was less funny.  Then she gave me a tour of the International District, Volunteer Park and Bruce Lee's Grave.

And the shore.

That was fun, but then I got a chance to train with her.  I have never seen, or even heard of a school like that before.  It's tiny.  There are only a handful of students, and they are all black belts.  The school has no website and almost no online presence, so I never would have found it on my own.  I feel very lucky to have been invited, though, because their approach was fascinating.

The classes were led by Sensei Gittins, but they were taught by everyone.  One might expect a class like this to be chaos, but it wasn't.

The class, minus the photographer.

The cliché about teaching being the best way to learn is a cliché for a reason.  Sensei Gittins is a professional educator with years of experience teaching both in public schools and in the dojo.  It's safe to say she knows what she's doing when it comes to the process of learning.  She directed each student to lead a part of the class, often just barely outside of their comfort zone, and often giving them some leeway in specifically what techniques they would cover.

I got a crash course in their curriculum.  There wasn't enough time to go into anything in depth, but I got a taste of quite a bit, spanning striking drills, sparring drills, one steps, joint locks, and forms.  She would direct someone to lead the class through five drills, then the next person had to lead us through a few more, and so forth.  Since I was completely absorbed in trying to make the most of my brief introduction to their material, I was surprised when she assigned me to lead the class through two techniques.

As luck would have it, before class one of the students mentioned that when she trained in taekwondo, she found a certain kick to be very difficult.  Class was about to begin, so I promised to show her a trick to make it easier afterward.  Class hadn't ended, but I found myself in a teaching situation and decided to use that time to answer her question.  I cannibalized part of my pivoting class that I had just taught, thereby making myself look much smarter than I actually am.  It looked like I came up with that lesson on the spot.

Sensei Gittins later told me that they operate the class with the philosophy that when you are struggling with something, you teach it until you figure it out.  It is a very different approach from any other school I've trained in, taught at, or even visited.  Even though this wasn't an official stop in the Challenge, the time I spent there was very much in the spirit of the project.  This is a project about teaching and learning and experiencing new ways of doing things.  I was beyond lucky to end up here.


  1. Ah, this is a good description of how we train. We were glad you could play with us and teach us. Please visit again.
    Carol Gittins of the KinNamiKan

    1. I had a blast! Thanks again for the invite, and it was great to finally meet you in person!