* I'll start this off with a warning, as I do with all of my definitive statements (see what I did there?).
Nothing is "one size fits all". There are plenty of instances and reasons why a Beginner's Course may not be right for your school, with common ones being defined by lacking size, space, time or instructors. If those aren't an issue, you should have a Beginner's Course.
Let’s run through a simple thought experiment of what happens when you don't have a Beginner's Course (and by “thought experiment” I mean ‘let me tell you what happened before AHWG had one’).
Let’s say you get a new student, and we'll pretend they're nice and contacted you ahead of time and came to a class with permission and forewarning. In this instance you can probably work things out, plan ahead of time to have a senior student work with them - I mean, you do have a senior student that is capable of teaching, right? No? Okay, maybe you rework the lesson plan so they can participate - or throw it out altogether and revisit the basics so this new person can keep up. You get through it, but it was definitely not your greatest class - you spent a lot of time babysitting the new person and neglecting the other students. It’s definitely not the class you wanted to run.
Let’s make it harder. Now the new person is less polite and doesn't contact you ahead of time, now what do you do? Do you make a senior student go through the intro stuff on the spot? (I hope they like improvising...) Or do you let the newb (hereafter FNG) follow along and hope they keep up as "it's not that hard"? Do you turn away the FNG and say that first lessons are only by appointment? No matter what you do, the experience of the new person will be less than ideal, and will not leave a good first impression.
And now, think about your students. How many times do you think they want to hear about stances and footwork and how to throw your first cut? How many times can you make someone give up their class time so that they can teach some FNG while everyone else gets to work on new material? Imagine if this is the only class they can make it to this week (and if you only can teach classes once a week, this applies to all the students). How many times do you think people will sit through the basics - or being forced to teach the FNG instead of taking class themselves - before they decide that they have better things to do with their time?
So hopefully you can agree that some kind of on-boarding program is important, not only for the new student, but out of respect for your current students as well. So now to the good stuff: what should it be?
One of the most important things about any sort of curriculum is identifying the takeaway. Whether it be for a 60-minute workshop, a months long lesson plan, or something in between, if you don’t know how it should end, you don’t know where it should start. Always ask yourself, at the end of this thing, what do you want people to be able to do? Are they trying to master a specific concept and apply it in sparring? Are they being asked to challenge their preconceived notions of a technique and do it a new way? Without having a measurable benchmark for success you have no way of knowing if your students are gaining anything from your classes.
For an easy example, AHWG has a Beginner's Course that we require all new students to take. It's only 6 sessions long (once a week), so there isn't a lot that I actually expect new students to learn - we’re talking about 4 different weapon systems and 6 classes is on the short side. Yes, the students walk away with more knowledge and skills than when they started, but beyond some basic cuts, they haven't 'mastered' anything. By the end, their stances will be passable, but not perfect. Hopefully they've learned some basics of structure, but that falls apart when any kind of stress is applied. And footwork, don't get me started.
Instead, the Beginner's Course is designed to get them used to HEMA and how AHWG operates. We form lines and do partnered drilling, with little to no gear, from Day 1. There is an emphasis on respect for the other students, and of course the safety of everyone involved. I want them to get acclimated to the space and be comfortable showing up and asking questions.
The six week course gives me some nice benefits as well. By forcing them to commit to 6 classes (well, forcing them to pay for 6 classes, as historically, there’s always someone that doesn’t finish the whole thing) it gives me some leeway with how I structure things. The first class is not a lot of fun, and that’s mostly be design. Yes we get to swing swords around, but a lot of time is spent building up structure, stances and footwork. It’s important to start building these tools early, and I can. I don’t have to ‘wow’ them from Day 1 and give them fun and exciting and interesting drills. Instead I can build them up slowly, give them small rewards, and have a lot of the big payoffs come out in Day 5 and Day 6. These are things I wouldn’t be able to do with a shorter Beginner Course schedule, both from a time point of view and a skillset point of view. Another benefit of a multi-class program is that both parties get to feel each other out. I want them to see if they are a good fit, both for HEMA and for the school. School culture is something I take very seriously and I would rather have fewer students with a good attitude than more students and risk ruining the culture we’re cultivating. People who are wildly unsafe and refuse to learn restraint, or worse, that come in with something to prove are not welcome. Fortunately, I've yet to have to ask someone to not come back; any person that has raised those flags self-selects out before the end of the course anyway. People know where they do and don't fit in.
With that in mind, and in the interest of openness, here are my benchmarks for my Beginner’s Courses:
Has the person shown an ability to learn in our school’s environment and culture?
Can they do partnered line work safely?
It's a short list, and I'll confess that I'm cheating: that second category has a lot of subtext built in. Regardless the main takeaway is, can they take a normal class without disrupting everyone else's experience?
But there's another side to all this, and that is the viewpoint of the participant. What should the Beginner's Course be for the person taking it? And this is a much harder, and much more interesting question. One of the hardest things to do as someone experienced in any skill set is to try and recreate the beginner's experience. Even if you are able to strip away the conscious knowledge you've gained, all too often unconscious habits sneak in and take over anyway. This was especially true of myself: I started in a disorganized club with no curriculum at all. Any basic fundamentals I learned was a mixture of previous martial arts experience and trial and error. There was no system, and instead a kind of what ‘feels right' and modify it from there until it works -and- matches the text or pictures, and hopefully both. This means that when I first went to teach people things, there was a lot of "you just do it like this" or even better "because that's how it works." There was not a lot of understanding of what was going on, and even less of an awareness of what it felt like to do these things for the first time with zero martial background. My ability to teach it was frustratingly low for both parties. Being able to get yourself to the base level of of zero martial skills is very important when designing and tweaking your curriculum, and is likely something you will need feedback from actual beginners that have completed the course.
The other question that needs to be addressed is that, as a beginner, what do I get from the classes - other than the 'right' to take more classes, and pay more money? What is that experience like? These are the main questions that I used to help shape the Beginner’s Course for AHWG, but ones I’ve also started asking of other beginner level courses I take outside of HEMA events. Doing this has allowed me to gain a better understanding of the beginner’s experience as a whole and again lets me inform how I structure the AHWG Beginner Course.
A great example of this is this happened this past weekend when I took “Basic Blacksmithing 1.0,” a workshop at Pioneer Farms, a local living history museum. While I was learning the proper ways to heat up metal and hit it with a hammer, I was also focusing on the goals of the class, both spoken and unspoken. I’ve never done a lot of work with my hands, so blacksmithing was well outside of my comfort zone, and a quick glance at the other participants showed I was not the only one. Despite being demonstrably simple, the tasks assigned to us felt Herculean; watching the head blacksmith do in 5 minutes something we were being given an hour or more to do was intimidating. Broken down, each aspect of the assignment was simple, but doing multiple new things simultaneously was daunting and difficult. Playing with fire, heating metal to 1500 degrees, and numerous safety lecture added a level of tension to the actions. However, each task was broken down into manageable steps, and by the end of day one, even if people weren’t capable with the hammer, the forge work had become rote and comfortable. The fear had been replaced with respect, and at least in my workgroup, the tense silence was filling up with camaraderie and happy chatter, and more importantly, support. When the second day rolled around, we felt comfortable in the forge and had no problem with the new crazy tasks we were being assigned. By the end, we each had made our very own coal rake, and more than a handful of people were eager to take more lessons or even debating doing their apprentice program. The whole experience was eye opening and gave me a fresh perspective of what it is like to walk into a Beginner Course for the first time.
So I’m sure by now you’re saying to yourself, “That’s nice, Anthony, no one cares about this class you took.” And that’s a fair stance to take. But look at what this course managed to do. They took something that felt intimidating and let us make it feel comfortable at our own pace. They didn’t do it by making us sit and practice heating up metal, they just said “heat up metal and hit it until it looks like this”. We were given a demonstration of what to do, saw the end result of the stage, and set loose. Experienced people were available, but they stood off to the side until we asked for help or to verify the final product (okay, sometimes they rushed in when someone’s project was about to melt away to nothing). So how does the apply to HEMA? Or maybe, the question should be, how can we apply this to HEMA?
When someone tries something new, things will undoubtedly feel intimidating and scary. As instructors it is our job to mitigate that fear and uncertainty. Even the simplest of tasks will be intimidating, and things that the experienced practitioner will take for granted will be daunting and take a ridiculous amount of time for the new student to learn. Beyond that though, other important notes are that things need to be broken down. In the blacksmithing workshop we didn’t watch them make the final product (which would have taken the head blacksmith 10 minutes, not the 8 hours we were given), but instead were given small pieces to work on and obsess over. This let us find a comfortable pace to work at and work on what we wanted to. We could hone our skills, or not, as our patience and will decided.
The same things should apply to your Beginner’s Course as well. Let’s say that by the end of the course, you really want people to be able to do the zorn-ort play (sorry Fiorists). You don’t want to demonstrate the full play on Day 1. Instead, Day 1 should still be talking about how to hold the sword, how to throw cuts, and other simple biomechanics. Assuming a 4 class timeline, even Day 2 should be on basics and building up into counter-cutting and then maybe modifying the basic cut into a zornhau (assuming you think they’re different, YMMV). Only on Day 3 should you say that there’s a full series of actions with this motion that we’re going to learn, and this was just the starting point - because by then, swinging a sword around should be easy. Hopefully you’ve incorporated some other drills in the earlier classes as well that make the footwork and additional sword mechanics easy to apply in a new situation. By structuring a course this way, you give bits and pieces without having them worry about the whole. Then when you go to tie everything together, instead of chaining 4 or 5 brand new motions together, they’re taking 2 or 3 motions they are familiar with and learning a couple new steps to tie them together. This makes the whole process feel a lot more comfortable and accessible for a new student.
As you can see, there is a lot of work that should be going into a Beginner’s Course. It is something that will need to be fine-tuned over time, as well. Don’t expect to perfect it with one go around, and instead use each successive class to modify and hone the experience, the same way you would with trying to learn a new technique (bonus thought: teaching is a skill just like any of the techniques we’re practicing with swords). If something doesn’t work, change it. If you don’t know why it doesn’t work, ask the people you’re training with (er, training up?). Don’t be afraid to ask for help - HEMA is a community effort, and no one needs to go it alone. Lastly, and most importantly, put away your ego. You are going to mess up and when you do, you have two choices: learn from it, or try and hide it. Beginners are the lifeblood of our art. If we can train our beginners better, the art will continue to grow and excel in ways most of us can’t even imagine. But now is the time to fix it and make sure it happens.