Four years ago, Jackson Craig sat in the auditorium and saw his sister perform in a wild west circus. He couldn’t wait to follow in her footsteps, and now he’s ready – he’s in the fourth grade at Plymouth Meeting Friends School.
The fourth-grade class puts on a circus each year; it was Jackson and his classmate’s turn last week. He didn’t have to tame any tigers or elephants but the 10-year-old performed on the aerial silks, rode two unicycles and sang.
Jackson was excited that this year’s theme was the Beatles, which is different than the time period themes of past years. It’s also better than his sister’s, he said.
Kid’s run the show
The fourth grade circus has become a tradition at Plymouth Meeting Friends, almost a rite of passage. And it all started because of math.
Will Starr, the fourth-grade teacher there, thought most elementary school math books needed to be improved. So he started writing his own. Starr wanted it to be interesting enough to engage the children, yet technical enough to teach them lasting skills – “Circus Math” was born.
He worked on the book for seven years until it was just right. It was published in 2009; the circus started in 2003 because he thought he should apply the basis of his book in real life lessons before hand.
Starting at the beginning of the school year the students work with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, that’s how the circus skills come. As for math, the students put the entire show together, including calculating ticket prices and how many seats would fit in the auditorium, to things like the angle a trapeze hangs from the rafters. And they do all this with a little help from, well, their parents.
“The parents want to get involved,” Starr said. “If they want to get involved, it’s better. It’s a richer circus.”
Along the walls of the gymatorium, March 10, hung enlarged pictures of the 22 students made by a parent to resemble the Beatles walking down Abbey Road. The stage had four pillars adorned with the rock starts on four sides. Students and parents worked on the project over weekends leading up the circus performance.
Confidence to perform
During the show, the children were a single performance team. When mistakes happened, they kept going without letting it affect the show.
Sarah Sweeney-Denham, the assistant head of school and director of admission, praised the confidence the program brings to the students. She has seen it firsthand with her daughter, Mary Denham, 10, who was in a sketch where she ran away from another student after stealing his painting.
“She would whisper. She wouldn’t raise her hand,” Sweeney-Denham said. But now, “she has more confidence in her voice. It might be a quiet voice, but it’s a strong voice.”
Frank Hoke was similarly excited to see his son stepping forward to reach a goal. Hoke’s wife, Agatha Andrews, designed shirts painted to look like tuxedos, which students wore to open the show. Hoke helped his son, Levi Andrews-Hoke, learn how to ride the unicycle, including clearing a practice space after each snow.
“I’d shovel the practice space first, then dig out my car,” he said.
It turns out math is fun
The show’s aim is to make the most out of the students’ talents.
For Kevin Westerfer, 9, of Roxborough, it reconnected him with gymnastics. He broke his arm doing gymnastics, which made him stop. But after how much fun he had with the circus this year, he is thinking of getting back into gymnastics, he said.
Rosalie Rabin, 10, of Mount Airy, most enjoyed clowning because it was fun and active. The hard part was coming up with skits, she said.
All the preparation and practicing paid off in last week’s show, which impressed Benicio Beatty, 8, Noah Eisenstein, 8, and Walker Anderson, 7. The second-graders liked the music and how hard the performers worked.
“They felt really comfortable with what they were doing,” said Noah, who wants to reach that level of confidence when it’s his turn. To give himself a head start over the next two years, he’ll learn to ride the unicycle from his brother who was in the circus just last year.