Creating lesson plans can be quite terrifying, and the sad fact is that many instructors are thrust into the position of leading a group with less than encyclopedic knowledge, and in some cases, without much experience of teaching.
However, teaching is itself an excellent way of learning, and all the teachers you’ve ever had, even the best, have imperfect subject knowledge and somehow manage to muddle through with passion, talent, and a little practice. So, in this essay we’re going to develop a process, a repeatable process, to design and execute a lesson plan. Our methodology will be taken from modern teaching methods; our doctrine, or the material itself, will come from the IAS syllabus and from the Italian maestri of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. I am going to concentrate on teaching Fiore in this section, but I look forward to reading an adaptation of this method for Marozzo or Manciolino or any of the other greats.
First, let’s look at ten steps towards teaching a good lesson.
To build a lesson, you first need to identify the objectives of each class. What do you hope to accomplish by the end of the period? What are the specific things that your students should know or be able to do? The objectives are essential to your class design, and attention to objectives will keep you focused and avoid too many excursions from the material.
2. Determine the needs of your students
With this lesson, are you introducing new material or reviewing what you’ve already taught in a previous class? At the start of the class, be sure to let students know what to expect so they can stay focused on meeting your objectives. When reviewing material, some of your students may need more encouragement than others, or may grow easily bored. Identifying these needs in your lesson plan will help you prepare.
3. Plan your resources and materials
Make a list of the resources and materials you’ll need to teach this lesson, such as protective gear, spares, etc. In my own classes, for example, we often have relatively new students make their attacks at bucklers as this reduces the need for safety equipment. And if you plan to speak much, consider using a little technology — laptops, and pictures or even video can really help hold a class’s attention. (As the IAS proliferates its own distance learning, consider using an IAS video or a part of it to help with student comprehension.)
4. Tell them what you will tell them/Engage!
What’s the point of a lesson if your students aren’t engaged? You want them to be interested in what you’re teaching. Thus, to prepare, you need to get them interested in what this lesson is all about. Give them an outline of what you’re going to be presenting. Tell them the ‘why’ of their lesson even before you tell them the ‘how.’ For example, I’ve encountered resistance to teaching dagger to my ‘sword’ classes on a number of occasions. Now, before we look at the first Master of Daga, I explain how central the Daga plays are to the system, and seize the opportunity to pass along the ‘everything is everything’ doctrine of Fiore; that every play can be done with almost any weapon, and that all the learning is contingent on the other plays. And it’s worth going outside the box with this; consider teaching students a cover or a parry by allowing them to reason it out for themselves. Present them with a tactical problem, give them time to solve it in groups, and come back to the ‘Fiore solution’ a little later, unless one of them solves it that way. Students who come to their own realization about the validity of a technique will be faster to add it to their toolkit and faster to retain it!
This is the meat of the lesson, and below, I’ll outline how the IAS suggests you go about it. But whether you led your students to experiment on covers until they worked out the best one, or whether you choose to speak ‘from authority’ and simply move to the example from Fiore, this is the lesson itself. Objectives help you focus, and engagement helps THEM focus, but now we need to have a lesson. The instruction needs to be simple enough to comprehend, and thorough enough to be learned in a single evening.
NB In my school, we often teach the same lesson two evenings in a row. We do this for two reasons; one, due to real-life work requirements, many students miss class every few weeks. But second, because if we approach the problem differently in the two lessons, we keep the students engaged while deepening their understanding. We’ve found this to be a very useful ‘tactic’ in our learning structure.
6. Allow time for student practice
After teaching new material, leave time for students to practice. There are three practice methods that, when worked in order, are a good way to reinforce what you’ve just taught:
Guided practice — With a guided practice you’re taking students back through what they’ve just learned, letting them add their own input as they gain confidence with the new information.
Collaborative process — With partners or in a group, the collaborative process is all about students talking with their peers as they explore these new concepts. Circulate among your class and offer additional instruction or help when needed to clarify points.
Independent practice — After the collaborative practice, it’s time for students to practice what they’ve learned on their own. Adapt independent practice according to the material you’ve just presented, such as using worksheets or having students write a short essay.
It’s worth noting that this is almost exactly the pattern that most sports instructors and ballet instructors use. The guided instruction is rigorous and critical; never be afraid to go back to first principles in guided instruction, correcting everything from footwork to blade angle, but ensuring that every student understands the main thrust (pardon the pun) of the lesson.
Then allow the students to break up into groups, pairs or triads (triads can work really well in Fiore instruction) and let them practice on their own, wandering through your class and reviewing salient points. This is not necessarily the time to dwell on the basics we mentioned above. Instead, this is where you make sure that they are doing the technique correctly; the ‘spirit’ is what matters here.
Finally, if the students are advanced sufficiently to be allowed freeplay, create a limited freeplay situation that forces them to use what you’ve just taught. In some cases, a few students my prove, under pressure, to need to go back to step two or step one. Don’t hesitate, be friendly and helpful, and make sure, really sure, they understand the purpose and application as well as the performance.
7. Tell them what you told them
At the end of the lesson, gather everyone and remind them of what they learned. Sometimes this is a good moment to review the text from which you drew the lesson so that students can see how you prepared the lesson, and even (watch out) ask you questions about interpretation and technique. Never be afraid to admit ignorance or to accept (reasonable and clever) alternate interpretations. This helps with student engagement. And yes, every class has someone who asks ‘Why Can’t I do this this way’ endlessly. I don’t mean him. I mean the thoughtful person who went home, practiced on a telephone poll, and comes back with another explanation of the material.
8. Evaluate the lesson
Ultimately, in many ways, the proof is in free play, and often comes weeks after the lesson, where you see a student use the material in the right ways at the right time. But even the ‘end of lesson’ freeplay should offer some feedback. And if you feel they didn’t ‘get it’ consider why, and how to rectify that? Too much material in one class? Or did you have to spend so much time with one student that no one really ‘got it?’
Sure, you say. But what about the instruction itself? (Number 5 above.)
There are many techniques to prepare a good Fiore class, but here’s one that IAS recommends. It is a sort of five step approach, and it utilizes both modern and medieval teaching methods.
Assuming you have a good copy of the Fiore text, you are familiar with the various plays of the various masters in each part of the system. (NB we strongly recommend the Leoni/Mele Flowers of Battle text from Freelance Academy Press as it has become the standard text in English-speaking sword circles). Usually (but not always) a safe approach to lesson planning is to take a play from the Maestro and break it down for a lesson. (NB a few plays are actually *too much* for a single lesson, and time will tell…)
The five steps are pretty straightforward.
- Chose your play, and the objectives that accompany it
- Learn it, and derive from it the principle that Fiore (or perhaps another Maestro) was trying to impart.
- Break it down into teachable pieces. A simple rule of thumb is to break the play down into single tempos.
- Create repeatable exercises to practise each of the pieces
- Create a ‘Form’ or ‘kata’ to flow the whole technique from start to finish, perhaps several times and against several different openings.
So, first choose a play that appeals to you and will engage students. Note that it’s possible to simply do them in order, and this can be remarkably productive to understanding the system. But at the same time, a few are ‘essential’ (like the Exchange of Thrusts) and represent key concepts in Fiore and may merit early inclusion, out of order, in any syllabus.
Now comes the hard part. From your chosen play, you need to derive the lesson that FIORE sought to teach. This is not always straightforward, and sometimes you may want to ask for advice. Remember that no interpretation of any historical treatise is uncontested, and yet there is often consensus. (In my school I sometimes teach two different approaches to the same ‘play’ especially if both are particularly valid). You can use IAS resources to consult with other instructors, or even just call someone. I’ve been teaching fifteen years and I still ask Sean Hayes and Greg Mele for advice… often. Moreover, understanding the core concept is both essential and revealing. It will allow you to see to the heart of the play, to direct your students to the correct objective, and to provide them with a ‘hook’ on which to hang their ‘physical’ knowledge.
Look at the ‘Exchange of Thrusts’ play (26 Verso in the Getty Mss.). A careful reading will reveal the key concepts; that the blade occupying the centerline with correct posture and force will BOTH parry the incoming opponent’s thrust AND, in the same tempo, strike home. This play is relatively simple to describe, and yet offers some very difficult concepts for students; for example, parrying and striking in the same tempo virtually cries out for a description (or reminder) of what tempo is in swordplay and how it applies in this play and every play. It’s an excellent example of a simple motion, easily taught, giving rise to some very complicated discussions of the ‘how’ and the ‘why;’ discussions that should help your students understand their arte and other plays.
The rest is easy! Now you break the play down in a very modern manner, into individual, comprehensible biomechanical actions that every student can repeat. As we mentioned above, the rule of thumb is that each action that takes a tempo should be a sub-lesson. But sometimes we’re asking students to do two or even more things in a single tempo, and that may need to be further broken down to avoid confusion.
In the Exchange of Thrusts, the student must perform an acrescimento with the front foot, then a crossline pass while executing his parry, crossing the opponent’s sword and putting his point into the opponent’s chest or neck or face. The requirement to make a crossline pass while simultaneously executing a low-line parry may well require you, the instructor to break this single tempo action, the climax of the play, into several different actions. This is where the ‘flow’ step below becomes essential. You don’t want students to leave class believing that the crossline pass and the parry are done in separate tempi, but you may have to teach them this way.
Having seen the key concepts, and broken the play down into discreet steps, you should be prepared to teach it, one step at a time. But here’s the fifth and final step; the creation of a form, a rule, a kata, to enact the whole of the play. Some schools prefer to teach the ‘form’ first, and break the play down after the students have learned the ‘flow.’ (This is the Medieval method, probably the way Fiore taught). Others prefer the modern fencing, or ballet technique to breaking the play down into parts, teaching the parts, and then assembling them into a form. Either way, we think both parts are necessary. The ‘breaking down’ allows the student to learn slowly, methodically, exploring precision. The form, rule, or kata teaches the student to do the whole technique, well, and with elegance that will later prove out as balance and essential structure.
An example follows:
Staying with our Exchange of Thrusts, we need a form to make sure that the various parts we disassembled for precision are reassembled into a single, balanced counter, done in the correct tempo and without any sign of the ‘puzzle pieces’ from the earlier learning portion. We might create a form with two sides, an attacker and a defender; we might also teach the exchange of thrusts from both sides, and thus possibly from at least two guards. But we won’t teach it in the high line, will we? And why not? 😊
So, to conclude; you chose your play; you broke it down to understand the essentials, created lesson building blocks on each step in the play, and then wrote a kata or form to cover the whole. This in effect, is your ‘lesson.’ But remember objectives and engagement. Remember that as you teach these essential physical skills, you need to keep the student engaged and meet longer term objectives by telling her why the exchange of thrusts is an essential part of Fiore’s system. Perhaps, if this is a beginner class, this is actually a class on tempo disguised as a class on one play, and you want to further expose ideas of ‘fencing time’ and tempo, or perhaps Silver’s concepts, time of the Hand, time of the foot, time of the blade. Or perhaps you want to put tonight’s technique into a tactical or doctrinal construction, explaining how to use it to win a particular crossing. All of that is with the individual instructor, and much of it remains tied to student engagement. These are basics.