The Oberlin Stories Project

On teaching the fencing ExCo

Alex Edwards ’12

“I learned that teaching an ExCo is about more than just talking at the students and expecting them to learn - it’s about listening and attempting to modify each aspect of the class to fit the students’ needs. ”

Fencing practice in full gear

When I was in first grade, my mother told me she had signed me up for a fencing workshop. I was less than jubilant, thinking this meant I would learn how to build fences. Needless to say, I was delighted to discover that I would get to wave a blade around for a week instead - and no one would yell at me. After the first day of class, I fell in love with the sport.

I fenced informally until high school, whereupon I joined a local fencing studio. I initially started fencing with my right hand, but made the choice to switch to my left hand when I found out that left handed fencers have an advantage; I have never met anyone else who has done this because there are drawbacks to fencing with a weaker and less coordinated hand. My coach would work long hours with me to hone my skills and get me used to fencing on my technically weaker side. I was really inspired by his dedication and willingness to spend so many hours working with me.

My first teaching experience occurred during my senior year of high school. My coach asked me to teach a class of younger students how to fence. I remember quite distinctly how tongue-tied and awkward I felt when I tried to communicate fencing concepts to students aged ten to twelve. I was a terrible teacher, but I was determined to teach again.

I joined the Oberlin College fencing team in the second semester of my first year after learning about the team from a close friend of mine. The practice schedule was very different from what I was used to; during high school I practiced every day, while at Oberlin the team practiced on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. I didn’t understand why we didn’t have practice on Mondays and Wednesdays, until I was informed that those were the days the fencing ExCo was taught. At the time I wasn’t really sure what an ExCo was, but when I found out that I could actually teach college students how to fence, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. I have taught the fencing ExCo every semester since my second year.

The premise of the fencing ExCo is simple: teach students who have no experience with the sport how to fence in a single semester, with only two 90-minute classes per week. This is a daunting task at times and thankfully I had three other experienced fencers teaching beside me. We would often begin by warming up the team as a group, taking turns shouting out commands, and then break up the students into smaller groups for more individual attention.

Each semester I have encountered new challenges, because each class has a different group of students with different goals for what they hope to get out of the class. I learned that teaching an ExCo is about more than just talking at the students and expecting them to learn - it’s about listening and attempting to modify each aspect of the class to fit the students’ needs.

In my first semester of teaching, my efforts were hampered by my inexperience and by my absurdly high expectations. Arguably, one of the drawbacks to fencing for so many years is that performing certain moves on the strip become second nature. I learned that I couldn’t expect every student to master every move on the first try, and that fencing is a sport that is learned over a long period of time after a lot of trial and error. I am very thankful that I had other experienced teachers teaching with me, or I fear I may have wreaked havoc on that first class.

My second semester teaching the class was much better; I was more confident in my teaching abilities and more patient with my students, and the class was a complete success. I gained such skills as confidence, patience, listening, adapting, and breaking ideas down into base concepts, all from teaching the fencing ExCo. These skills translated into my academic life, and have been extremely beneficial. Learning how to break down ideas into their base concepts has helped me a lot in my science classes, because it has taught me to look at all the little components that make up the whole picture.

The most rewarding part of teaching the fencing ExCo is the moment when a student decides that he or she wants to join the team. This signifies not only that the student feels he or she has the skills to join the team, but that he or she actually enjoys the sport. One of my proudest moments was when one of my former ExCo students beat me in a bout. I have also found that teaching the ExCo has helped me competitively because it has forced me to revisit the basics and correct some of the bad habits that I’ve formed over the years. I have noticed a marked improvement in my technique and performance as a result.

I feel that teaching an ExCo is a unique experience that students will not find at other schools, and they should definitely take advantage of this opportunity. I hope that all future ExCo teachers gain the same confidence, patience, and listening and adaptation skills that I learned from teaching my ExCo, and I hope that the students who have taken my class have gained the same enthusiasm for fencing that I have.