The Joy of Teaching Circus Arts

Some people may think that the circus is a dying form of entertainment. But I am here to tell you that it is alive and well. Despite the recent closing of the legendary Ringling Brothers circus show, other iterations of the circus are on the rise. And the younger generation is picking up on this, opting to put their iPhones down and pick up some juggling props or hang from fabric silks attached to the ceiling. The circus is, and always will be, fun. The circus somehow connects to something deep in our souls, both as performers and as audience, that there is something such as wonder and amazement in the universe. And we can participate in that wonder by performing everything from ridiculous comedy to death-defying human feats.

Because the circus is bigger than any one person or performer, it is a joy to pass this legacy on to the next generation. We are just pilgrims in this world – and the art and culture we create is part of a larger story that strings from one century to the next. The circus arts were passed on to me from those who have gone before me and now I get to pass it on to those who will be here after me.

For the past two weeks, I was the juggling instructor at the second annual Circus Arts Camp in Richmond, VA (the only one of its kind in Virginia). Geared towards youth between the ages of 9-15, this camp teaches kids the skills of juggling, clowning, drama, silks, puppetry, hooping, stilt-walking, and more. I teamed up with other circus artists in Richmond (such as Heidi Rugg, Christopher Hudert, Magnolia Ocasio, and Heather Bailey) and we worked at transferring our skills to a new generation of circus performers.

Without further ado, I would like to show you some video clips and pictures of the campers doing what they do best – the circus! They may not have run away with the circus in a literal sense, but for two weeks, they did so with their hearts. I’m so proud of these young people!

Teaching kids to use their talents for good

When I was in elementary and middle school, I was small. I couldn’t keep up with the stronger kids in the popular sports like football and basketball. I was pushed around and bullied by the bigger kids.

Then I discovered a unique talent – juggling. While in fifth grade, my friend Tim taught me how to juggle three balls. I was fascinated by the process and challenge of juggling. I practiced every night after school for about two weeks and finally figured out how to juggle. But I didn’t stop at three. With the help of library books, other jugglers that I met along the way, and lots of practice, I worked my way up to five, six, and seven objects within a few more years.

Then came the high school variety show. I was still one of those “geek” kids who was never in the popular crowd. But my friends talked me into performing my juggling in front of my entire high school for this talent night. So I pulled out the machete juggling and the six-foot ladder balance. The crowd went nuts. I had finally discovered something that (1) I was good at and (2) brought joy to other people.

Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Juggling is an activity that makes me feel alive in a different way than most things – like I was made to do it. And that activity is something different for every person.

But it doesn’t stop there. God gave us each different gifts and talents so that we can shine His light, share His love, bring peace where there is pain, bring goodness and joy to others….all to the glory of His name.

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” – 1 Peter 4:10, NIV

You see, we all have different gifts and strengths, which means we NEED one another. Your strengths fill in for my weaknesses and vice versa. That is why community is so important. In community, we are an unstoppable force of strengths for the greater good of the world.

Research has shown that there is a direct correlation between the use of people’s strengths in their jobs and the overall success of the organizations those people work for. In other words, the best organizations are the ones where most of the people use most of their gifts, talents, and strengths most of the time (see the Gallup C12 engagement survey).

So how can we teach and encourage kids to discover and use their talents for the greater good?

  1. Teach them about calling and vocation. Have discussions about how talents are God-given and that we can develop them through continued work and practice. Check out Visions of Vocation by Steven Garber and Kingdom Calling by Amy Sherman for more on these topics.
  2. Give children every opportunity you can to explore all the different kinds of subjects, activities, arts, and sports in the world. And do so in a way that allows children to freely choose the things they want to pursue in life. When we put the “toys” in front of them, they will pick their favorites and discover their passions and talents.
  3. Consider donating time and/or money to organizations that provide children with opportunities they would otherwise not have. Not all kids have the same amount of opportunities, so we as adults need to be aware of this discrepancy and do everything in our power to offer all children the opportunities to explore different activities in this world.
  4. Teach them about community and how we need one another in this life. Our strengths and talents fill in the gaps of weaknesses and challenges in others (and vice versa). When we come together in groups, teams, and communities, we become unstoppable forces.
  5. Lead kids in service projects. Kids love to serve. They want to serve. When they serve their communities for the greater good, they realize that they have gifts and talents to offer the world. Talk about how God gave us these gifts so that we can help others and bring glory to God.

What toy will be the next “fidget spinner”?

If you work with kids, then you saw the fidget spinner come and go this past summer. The popularity of this fad toy (which has actually been around for quite some time) peaked sometime in June 2017. But by July and August, it seemed that every child in North America had at least a dozen of them, if not, more. Their interest waned. And parents were tired of buying yet another metal and plastic spinny thingy.

Kids are kids. They will always find a new fad toy to enjoy every season. Sometimes that is driven by brilliant marketing campaigns by large toy companies (like the Pet Rock or Tickle-Me-Elmo) or simply by the interests of the children aided by the viral nature of social media (like the Fidget Spinner or the water bottle flipping craze).

I have come across three toys that I predict could be contenders for an upcoming viral fad. Only history will show if I get any of this right. But I have found some toys that are basic in design yet complex enough to capture one’s attention for hours on end. Here they are….

Kendama

The amazing ball-on-string-on-wooden-stick toy that has an infinite array of possible tricks and variations. I have been aware of them for years but never spent much time with one until now. I have some basic tricks down but if you want to see ninja level, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFiiXkonsXY&t=228s

 

Jacob’s Ladder

This small toy made of wood and ribbon has been around at least since the Colonial period in America. The segments roll downward and appear to magically transform themselves like a magic falling ladder. I’ve seen children and adults stare in mesmerization (is that a word?) at this very simple toy. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiIpUUsIsVE

 

Mokuru

This is a stick toy that is weighted in such a way that it rolls and dances in different directions when you manipulate it. Just watch this video to get the gist of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7TwE4Qv2nQ

Teacher Tip: The Right Question to Ask Yourself

Teacher Tip: How can I help these kids best learn what I’m teaching?

Notice I didn’t say, “How should I teach the content of my topic to these children?” There’s a big difference there. Do you see it?

One is teacher-focused. The other is learner-focused.

Your work as someone who teaches kids in any capacity is not to show off your knowledge to them – or even to put on a good show and entertain them. And it is not to simply download information into their little brains as if you have all the knowledge and they don’t.

Ask yourself, “What is the end-goal here? And what is the most effective way to help these students move from where they are to this end-goal?”

Think about the children: who they are, the context of their community, culture, and family life. Think about how you can best translate the content of your teaching into their world, their minds, and their actions. And do so humbly, admitting that you have a lot to learn from them as well. Then follow up on it and see if they are grasping and living out your hoped-for-outcomes.

Finally, take what you’re learning from that process and do it all over again with the new knowledge you gained from that first cycle. Repeat.

These kids ran away with the circus…

I’m so proud of the first class of students of Camp Carnival RVA! This was the first circus arts camp of its kind ever in the state of Virginia. Every day for two weeks, these kids got to “run away” from home and join a variety of instructors who taught them the ins and outs of circus skills. Don’t worry, their parents/guardians dropped them off and picked them up at the end of each day.

One day, I was driving to the arts camp with my family in the car. Our six-year old asked, “Where are we going, Daddy?”

I said, “To my workshop.”

She said, “Where you build things?”

Then my wife chimed in and said, “Yes, where Daddy builds jugglers!”

I love Sarah’s answer. Myself and several other circus arts instructors had the privilege of building young circus artists. What a joy to share our passions with the younger generation and see the future of variety arts innovating and flourishing.

Here in Richmond, Virginia, there happens to be a large enough contingency of variety artists to sustain a camp like this. Heidi Rugg from Barefoot Puppets taught puppetry. Heather Bailey of Host of Sparrows Aerial Circus taught silks and aerial. Seasoned clown performer Christopher Hudert taught clowning. Natalie Kane of Circular Expressions led the students in hooping. And yours truly got to teach juggling and diabolo workshops. The day camp consisted of classes in the various arts and culminated with a demonstration of skills for the parents on the final day of camp.

Enjoy some pics of camp!

Are the Sciences Better Than the Arts?

Mega-bank Wells Fargo recently put out an advertisement for their upcoming “Teen Day.” In it, the wording appears to suggest that the sciences are a higher calling in life than the arts. Many celebrities in the arts took to Twitter to make the case that we should not send a message to teens that makes them think STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is necessarily superior to the arts.

wellsfargo

The ad could be perceived to be saying that the young woman and man were once artists (ballerina and actor, respectively), but then chose a more meaningful path in life such as one of an engineer or botanist. Celebrity Donna Lynn Champlin pointed out that the highest salary of an actor for 2016 is $64,000,000 versus the highest-paid botanist: just over $165,000. She asked Wells Fargo, “u sure ur a bank?”

In their defense, Wells Fargo apologized for the misunderstanding and removed the ad campaign.

As someone whose full-time vocation is in the arts and humanities (juggling, entertainment, and education), I have to say that I have no regrets in life for choosing the arts over the sciences. Do I think that one is more important than the other? No. In fact, I don’t think we should create such a dichotomy between the two. Life is both an art and a science. Have you ever seen great architecture? That is the blending of the arts and the sciences. In fact, what I do (juggling), is taking the physics of motion and materializing it in the form of a movement art.

But if someone (especially an aspiring teen) is dreaming of a life in the arts, we do them a disservice by trying to make them think that being a botanist is a better use of their life. The same can be said in the opposite direction. If a child wants to grow up and be a chemist, by all means we should not tell them that it would be better for them to join the circus.

I’ve been studying philosophy for a class recently and read that Aristotle made the case that though many vocations in life are clearly useful for a productive society (such as the sciences), there are other disciplines that seem less utilitarian but are just as important and “should be valued for their own sake,” such as music (the arts). Why? He said that “leisure” was a vital part of the human existence and argued that it was “noble” and contributed to the wholeness of life. He said, “To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls” (Ozmon, Howard A. and Samuel M. Craver. Philosophical foundations of education. Eighth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. 2008, pp. 73-74).

I’m not anti-STEM. I am simply bothered when people think that STEM is all there is in life and education (or that it is inherently better than the arts and humanities). Life is both STEM and Art. We need both. And we should expose our children towards both and communicate to them the importance of both. And as they grow, they will each discover the unique blend of science and art that may exist in their life calling and career.

 

Faith Development Resources: Early Childhood

INTRODUCTION

Finding quality resources that help nurture the faith development of children and families can sometimes be difficult. This is the first post in a series, broken up by age-level focus, that can be of help to children, family members, and ministry leaders as they navigate the pilgrimage of the Christian faith. I will start with early childhood (birth to two years) and work up to the PreTeen age group. I have included a variety of mediums throughout the series such as text, music, toys/games, and online resources.

BIRTH TO TWO YEARS

f67d04fc0ea394621a87b52e2edff58eCard, Michael. Sleep Sound in Jesus, Compact disc (CD). Brentwood, TN: Sparrow Records, 1989.

Prolific Christian songwriter Michael Card created this album of soft and melodic lullabies with rich lyrics proclaiming blessings and prayers over little children (http://www.christianbook.com/sleep-sound-in-jesus-compact-disc/0006176933/pd/CD086).

865984Currie, Robin, and Cindy Adams. Baby bible storybook. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2003.

This book puts a series of major Bible stories into the simplest terms so the parent can read them to the child as the child looks at the illustrated picture. A scripture reference is given at the top and at the bottom is a very short prayer that the parent can say as they pray with their child (http://www.amazon.com/Baby-Bible-Storybook-Robin-Currie/dp/0781400767).

First Steps in Worship. Founded by Tracy Rader.

This is a company that produces ready-to-go kits of worship resources for use in infant and toddler worship settings. Products include kits of books and manipulatives such as “Baby Bedtime Blessings,” “Cradle Choir,” “Pass-It-On Praise,” and “Wiggle Into Worship.” The tote bags and the manipulatives are soft and washable for easy cleaning in between uses (firststepsinworship.com).

MI0000766272Henley, Karen, Dennas Davis, and Randall Dennis. My first hymnal: 75 Bible songs and what they mean. Brentwood, TN: Sparrow Corporation, 1994.

This small hardback book includes very simple hymn and Christian song melodies along with a brief explanation/devotion about the lyrics. It is meant for the parent to sing to their child and then read the short devotional thought to the child (http://www.amazon.com/My-First-Hymnal-Bible-Songs/dp/0917143353).

Morganthaler, Shirley K. Right from the start: A parent’s guide to the young child’s faith development. Revised edition. St. Louis: Concordia, 2001.

This text for parents and leaders is a tool for understanding the faith development of children from both a spiritual perspective as well as from the field of neuroscience (http://www.amazon.com/Right-Start-Parents-Childs-Development/dp/0570052777).

Nederveld, Patricia L. God loves me storybooks: The Bible in 52 storybooks. Revised edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive, 2015.

This collection of short books uses both art of Bible stories as well as photographs of young children to help kids make the connection between Bible stories and themselves. Parents can read one storybook each week of the year to their children or go at whatever pace they prefer (http://www.faithaliveresources.org/Products/001400/god-loves-me-storybooks-revised-edition.aspx).

Saxon, Terrell. Baby blessings: A faith-based parenting guide, birth to two. Colorado Springs: Standard Publishing, 2003.

This resource covers multiple aspects of early child development from cognitive to spiritual. It has a section of practical activities that parents can do with their children to help nurture their faith development (http://www.amazon.com/Baby-Blessings-Faith-Based-Guide-Parents/dp/0784713588).

Thomas, Mack. The first step Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 1994.

This 445-page condensed paraphrase of the Bible takes major stories from the Old Testament and New Testament and retells them in three sentences or less per page. Each sentence is usually less than ten words. Each story is accompanied by large illustrations depicting the Biblical scene. There is a helpful section in the back called “Teaching the Bible to the Very Young,” which gives parents tips on how to use the book and talk about the Bible with infants and toddlers (https://books.google.com/books/about/The_First_Step_Bible.html?id=KlRuXaTKraYC).

Top Ten Christian Songs for Little Kids, compiled by Jesse Joyner (April 24, 2012).

I once posted a blog of what I subjectively feel are the “top ten” Christian songs for little kids. As of this writing, that post alone has received over sixteen thousand hits, which tells me that people are interested in good classic songs that teach children about God and help them connect with God. If you follow this link, you can find more links that provide a version of each song on YouTube as well as an explanation as to why I think that song should be included in the list: (http://jessejoyner.com/top-10-christian-songs-for-little-kids/). Here is the list itself:

Count Your Blessings

Father Abraham

Deep and Wide

The Butterfly Song

Hallelu, Praise Ye the Lord

I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart

He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands

This Little Light of Mine

Jesus Loves the Little Children

Jesus Loves Me

SetRatioSize400400-9780794435271Zobel-Nolan, Allia. Lift the flap nativity. Illustrated by Tace Moroney. Reader’s Digest: New York. 2001.

As the title suggests, this book tells the Christmas story using simple words and flap-opening so the child can physically interact with the story as they hear it from their parents. The illustrations are colorful but not too bright. The art form has a level of refreshing minimalism so the focus is on the relevant characters and storyline rather than distracting cartoonish embellishments (http://books.simonandschuster.com/Lift-the-Flap-Nativity/Allia-Zobel-Nolan/Lift-the-Flap/9780794435271).

*This list comes directly from a paper I wrote for a class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL in March 2016. The class was ES 7524 (Education and Ministry Experiences for Children) taught by Dr. Magdalene Larson.

Godly Play: A Model for Ministry with Children

Godly Play is a teaching system used by many churches around the world to educate children about God, the Bible, and also invite them into the Christian narrative. Jerome Berryman developed the curriculum and he was influenced by the educational theories of Maria Montessori.

I observed Godly Play in action once when I was in seminary. My professor, Dr. Catherine Stonehouse, ministered with children at her church in Wilmore, KY using Godly Play. As a class, we watched as she sat down at the level of the children and told them the story of Abraham and Sarah using small generic wooden figures and a pile of sand for the Middle Eastern desert. It was very quiet and the children were mesmerized. The whole feel of Godly Play is quite the opposite of many Children’s Ministries, which are full of electronic screens, loud rock band music, video games, and resemble the “Let’s Make a Deal” show.

Godly Play uses symbols, rituals, manipulatives, and storytelling to join children in the spiritual pilgrimage of knowing God. Children are not just receptors of information, but rather natural learners as well as teachers themselves. It is all done with an attitude of holy-awe and unplugged simplicity.

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Here are some resources that explain more about Godly Play. Check them out and let me know what you think!

  1. Godly Play Foundation
  2. Jerome W. Berryman. Godly Play. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.
  3. Jerome W. Berryman. The Complete Guide to Godly Play, Vols 1-8. New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2002-2012.
  4. Video Introducing Godly Play:

Is Jesus Our Superhero?

A metaphor thWonderworldComics3at some people use for describing Jesus Christ is that he is our superhero. But, I feel that the metaphor (like most) breaks down here – and so much so that I am uncomfortable saying that Jesus is my superhero (and teaching kids the like).

Here’s why: I believe that Jesus is beyond the category of superheroes. He alone is God (John 1:14). To call him a superhero is to limit him to a man-made box that likens him to our understanding of superheroes in popular culture.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14

Furthermore, I think the metaphor is backwards. Instead of “Jesus is my superhero,” the aim of superheroes is that most are written to be godlike or to have supernatural powers. So it is not Jesus trying to be like them. It is them trying to be like Jesus.

In fact, I believe that the story of God’s salvation history is the greatest story ever told. I also believe that it is historically true. Comic book authors write about the struggle between good and evil and the godlike characters who wage battles using superhuman powers. If there is anything compelling or attractive about these comic book narratives, I believe it is because we are naturally drawn to themes that resemble the greatest story ever told (the Bible), not the other way around. I believe we are drawn because we are wired (by God) to yearn for the deepest realities of finding redemption from darkness in Him.

Granted, most comic book writers are not trying to write about characters who want to be Jesus.  The comic book universe is a fictional fantasy world. Jesus, we believe, is a true historical person. And that is another huge difference that makes this metaphor break down even more…

When you mix fantasy with reality, especially with children, you can potentially cause a blurred line between the two. I think fantasy and fiction (and comics, for that matter) are great literary genres and we should encourage kids to enjoy great literature, whether textual or graphic/visual.

I would rather keep these two worlds (truth and fiction) separate so as not to make children think that Jesus is “limited” to the superhero status of comic worlds. Likewise, I don’t want kids to think that Spiderman is their divine savior.

For you are great and do marvelous deeds; you alone are God. Psalm 86:10

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Juggling Ice

I ordered some silicone molds that make perfect ice spheres about the size of a baseball. I put them in the freezer and out came the ice balls for juggling. I went outside and tried them out.

I was able to do it – and of course my hands got very cold! The balls began to melt and in turn got slippery. But I could still maintain the juggle for about a minute or so. Maybe my next trick should involve some sort of mix of juggling these with fire torches. The fire and ice show. What do you think?IMG_6177.JPG

I can see some good teaching opportunities here too, such as the nature of water and how it can take on different properties. And how the hands are very warm and have the potential to melt ice fairly quickly.