Originally published Jan. 27, 2022 by We-Ha.com. 

By Ronni Newton

Any reference made to students in physical education classes at Braeburn Elementary School in West Hartford acting like they were in a circus the week of Jan. 24-28 were not intended as an insult regarding unruly behavior – because they actually were purposely learning some “circus” skills.

Braeburn physical education teacher Bonnie Arcari – through a blind evaluation process – was awarded the “Anne and Jim Carroll Grant” through the Foundation for West Hartford Public Schools to bring the National Circus Project to her students. As one of the Foundation-supported “artist in residence” programs, the grant provided the opportunity for Braeburn students at all grade levels to learn new skills during their physical education classes for the week – fun skills that are intended to foster “patience, self-discipline, and good practice habits” in a non-competitive environment.

Keith Leaf and Krissy Bruno, from the Long Island-based National Circus Project, led third- and first-grade students through four unique stations Wednesday morning. They learned to roll flower sticks, juggle scarves, balance feathers, and spin plates. All Braeburn students participated in the program during their two physical education periods, with students in fourth and fifth grade having the opportunity to try some more challenging skills, including walking on stilts.

There was plenty of giggling and silliness, but also pride as the students quickly learned the skills.

“Roll to your elbows and pop,” Bruno told the third-graders as they manipulated the flower sticks. Some kids came up with their own variations on the activity, but remained engaged so that was okay, too.

“They’ve been so into it,” said Arcari. Even students who may come into class upset about something perk up right away, she said, and students who aren’t always attentive in class are engaged.

Arcari said the National Circus Project program is a great way to enhance social and emotional learning, with all of the students collaborating and working together. “It’s not the completion where you have to worry about losing,” she said. “They work hard, and there’s just the right type of success.”

One student is new to the school, recently moving to West Hartford from Japan, and speaks no English. But that student was still able to watch and learn, and actively participate, Arcari said.

Leaf, who has honed his circus skills over the past two decades, can juggle up to nine objects at once and performs at bar and bat mitzvahs and other events. But he’s also good at breaking down skills into steps the children can understand and relate to.

“Spin it smooth, like smooth peanut butter, not chunky,” he said as he showed first graders how to start spinning a plate on a stick.

Juggling scarves is done using both hands, Leaf said. “Throw, throw, catch, catch,” he demonstrated as the kids repeated in proper cadence. “Cross, cross, catch, catch – you can say whatever you want. Sponge-Bob-Square-Pants … I-love-home-work …” The last phrase was met with a groan from the kids.

“It increases their gross motor skills and self-esteem,” Leaf said of the program. “There are lots of kids who don’t excel in sports but they can do this.”

During their second session of the week the students work with partners. “It’s all about teamwork. There’s no ‘I’ in team,” Bruno said.

The circus project grant was originally intended to be for the 2020-2021 school year, but due to COVID-19 all “in residence” grant programs had been postponed that year. Leaf said that pre-COVID there were generally school-wide assemblies where students could demonstrate their new skills, but the program has adapted to the current situation.

For the current school year, Arcari was the beneficiary of another Foundation Grant. Through the Macca Plumbing and Heating “Game Changer: Technology in PE” grant she received a 75-inch TV this week, covered with a protective shield.

It’s ideal for visual learners, she said. The display streamed images of Leaf and Bruno demonstrating some of the skills the students were working on. The screen can also be a timer, for making teams for games, and can operate as a scorekeeper app.

“I showed a 3 minute CBS “On the Road” video with Bob Hartman about a one armed basketball player who was left out but then made his high school team,” she wrote in an email to the Maccas and the Foundation. “The students were mesmerized and it led to some great SEL conversations about accepting people. One student said they were always afraid to try a game of ‘Knockout’ but they were so inspired by the video that they tried playing for the first time! This is truly a game changer!”

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