How to teach the parts of circus students don’t want to learn

Flying Trapeze

Illustration by Jon Worden from Learning to Fly by Sam Keen

Learning Circus

I’m a big fan of all our students – especially our young people – learning a broad range of circus skills. That’s one of the reasons our classes don’t specialise in just one skill. I believe that there is enormous value in being able to climb a rope, fly the trapeze, juggle, and tumble (amongst other things). But every week one student or another will tell me that they don’t like this or that – whether they don’t like acrobatics, juggling, diabolo or trapeze is different from person to person, and often from week to week. And every time they say it I ask myself the same questions:

  1. Should we really push our students to be a “Jack of all trades, master of none” or would it be better to let students concentrate on just the things they enjoy and become “specialists”? (And is it even true that you can’t be a master of many?!)
  2. How can we get them to see the value in learning something that they don’t enjoy?

Continue reading

How to Fix a Teddy Bear with a Broken Leg

Be in their World

Being ineffective is never fun. But if we teach ineffectively it’s even worse – it’s hard work, disheartening, and tiring. One of the things that can have us teach ineffectively is not communicating with a student in a way that makes sense to them, and that they can get.

Another way of saying this is that, when we teach ineffectively, we teach from where we are rather than where they are. If we taught from where they are they (and we) would get better results. This may sound like a strange thing to say because most of the time it seems like we are teaching from where they are. If they can juggle a 3-ball cascade, we teach them an over the top throw. If they can kick up to a handstand, we teach them a handstand forward roll. This is simply an appropriate progression for what they can do; but it is not teaching them from where they are. Continue reading

Teaching Tip 4: Treat Them Like an Adult

A colleague made a comment a while ago that when I teach kids (I teach everything from 2-year-olds through teens to adults) I treat them like adults. And although that isn’t exactly true, it’s been sitting in my mind for a while.

Over the years, when I’ve watched other people teach young children, I’ve often cringed a little inside. It’s not that what they’re teaching is bad because it’s not. Often they’ve been teachers that I respect very highly. But what makes me cringe is when I see teachers patronise kids.

Children are smart. Until someone (including themselves) tells them they’re not, kids are unbelievably bright, intelligent and present. To talk to kids as anything other than smart belittles them. Continue reading

Teaching Tips 3: Take Fun Seriously

Ever since I started teaching I’ve strived to continually develop myself as a better teacher – either by learning (or refining) circus technique, learning related subjects (eg., gymnastics, first aid, leadership), or developing new ways of being and working with young people to get the most out of them.

Through these posts I hope to be able to offer you some new ideas, tips, and thoughts that will encourage and support you in being a better teacher.

Take Fun Seriously

Some of the worst teaching I’ve ever seen has been watching people work with children or young people and be very serious. I’ve watched coaches and trainers reprimand children in front of a group for doing nothing more than Continue reading

Teaching Tip 2: Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan

Lesson planning has been the bane of my life. Or at least it was until I started to get good at it. I think a lot of teachers – regardless of whether they are school, circus, or any other kind of teacher – hate doing lesson planning. Lesson planning takes time, and in this day and age time is something of a precious commodity. But I don’t think that’s what really bugged me. It wasn’t the time; I can always make time for stuff that’s important. It seemed like a lot of effort for something that wasn’t very important and didn’t really make any difference.

But as teachers all know lesson plans are really important and do make a big difference.

But if we know they’re important, and we know they make such a difference, then why don’t they seem important when it comes time to sit down and write them? And why are they always so much effort?

Continue reading

Six Tips for Teaching Youth Circus

Ever since I started teaching I’ve strived to continually develop myself as a better teacher – either by learning (or refining) circus technique, learning related subjects (eg., gymnastics, first aid, leadership), or developing new ways of being and working with young people to get the most out of them. Sometimes I get it wrong but I think that most of the time I manage to get the best out of the young people I work with and manage to have good working relationships with them.

Below are six tips for teaching circus to children and young people that I hope will give you some new ideas and thoughts that will help you to be a great teacher.

Continue reading

Learning to Juggle

I learnt to juggle when I was about 10. I was home ill for a week and my dad had the classic juggling book Juggling for the Complete Klutz so I taught myself to juggle. It took me most of the week with a bit of practice each day to really get it solid. I’d tried once before when I was 6 or 8 years old but I think I was just too young at that point to really be able to get it.

Anyway, with a week of practice under my belt I was a juggler. I went back to school and started teaching the other kids in my class how to juggle. I’ve got vivid memories of standing in the hallway outside our class 6 classroom teaching two or three people how to juggle. But they couldn’t get it and didn’t seem to have the patience to learn. I’m sure that I, at 10 years old, didn’t really have the knowledge of how to teach them either. Twenty years later I think I’ve now mastered the art of teaching someone to juggle.

Everyone Can Juggle

After 20 years as a juggler, and over a decade as a professional teacher, I’m pretty confident in saying that anyone can juggle 3 balls. I’ve taught thousands of people to juggle over the years and in around 80% of cases I can teach you to juggle in 45 minutes. Some a little longer, some a little quicker. I’ve had people pick it up instantly and I’ve had people who can’t quite crack it after an hour and a half.

However, it always surprises me how many people come to my juggling workshops and right at the beginning – before I’ve even started teaching them – tell me they can’t juggle. “If you say so” is a fairly standard response. There is only one thing that stops you from being able to juggle. Saying “I can’t juggle”. This is the one and only thing that is going to get in your way. You may think your mal-coordinated, or think you have bad hand-to-eye coordination but the truth is probably more like you haven’t ever spent much time practising catching.

I come from a very sporty family. From a very early age – literally from as soon as I could walk – my dad and grandpa were teaching me to catch. Then it was constant hand-eye coordination games: football, tennis, table tennis, baseball, cricket, etc. It was constant and it was fun. I practised. By the time I taught myself to juggle I’d amassed a huge number of hours practising hand-eye coordination. I guess a lot of people don’t get that.

Teaching Juggling

You Never Learnt To Juggle

I’ve done a lot of work coaching, both in personal and professional settings, and I coach from an ontological perspective. When I teach juggling, I teach in much the same way. If who you are is that you cannot juggle then you’ll be right. I don’t mean to say that you should be telling yourself “I can juggle” as that kind of affirmation very rarely helps. Instead, confront (stand and face) the simple reality of the situation: you’ve never learnt to juggle.

That’s it. You never learned to juggle. It’s a good job you came to my workshop because I know how to teach you to juggle.

How do I keep all the balls in the air?

That’s probably the most common question I get about learning to juggle. And the simple answer is: You don’t.

People often think that you have all three balls in the air but for the most part, you only have one ball in the air. You only have one thing to deal with at a time. And we can all handle dealing with one thing.

Juggling is very simple. It’s one action repeated over and over, first on the right, then on the left. Right, left, right, left, right, left.

Driving a car is far more complicated. You have to carefully and precisely coordinate a steering wheel, gears, three pedals, mirrors, indicators, wipers, lights as well as all the other vehicles on the road, pedestrians, animals (even a circus Zebra recently!) and concentrate on where you’re going!

You can drive but you think you can’t juggle?

People have no problem spending weeks, months or even years learning to drive. They expect driving to be difficult and have no issue persevering with learning. However, there is a clear pay-off in being able to drive. There isn’t often a clear pay-off in being able to juggle. So there has to be something else. You have to create for yourself a desire to be able to juggle. You’ve got to want it. If you don’t want to be able to juggle, learning will just be a chore. And if it ain’t no fun for you, it just ain’t worth it.

Throwing, Catching & Dropping

People think that in juggling catching is really important. One of the hardest things to get people to accept is dropping. People think that if they drop, it means they can’t catch, it means they aren’t any good at it. People get embarrassed when they drop, they wonder what other people think of them when they drop. And sometimes they’re so afraid of dropping that they’d rather not try to learn.

And dropping really isn’t a big deal. Dropping certainly doesn’t mean you can’t juggle. Juggling has been around for thousands of years (since almost 2000 BC). There isn’t a juggler in the world that hasn’t dropped. But people are so fixated on not dropping that they forget the most important part of juggling: a good throw. If you do a good throw a catch is easy. If you do a bad throw a catch is difficult. Jugglers are concerned with throws not catches. If you can do good throw, after good throw, after good throw, your body will take care of the catches on it’s own.

So if you can get that you simply never learned to juggle…

And you can get that the simplicity of juggling is not beyond you…

And you have the desire to learn and don’t mind a drop or two along the way…

Then you can learn to juggle.