by Lou Mancinelli
Many of us made clowns out of ourselves while trying to figure out math problems in our school years, but Will Starr, fourth grade teacher at the Plymouth Meeting Friends School (PMFS) in Plymouth Meeting, has literally put so much pizzazz into the teaching of math that it has turned into a circus.
In 2009, Starr published “Circus Math,” (AuthorHouse), his 12-unit math textbook that bases its lessons around preparing for and putting on a circus. The premise is a gypsy student circus that travels around the U.S. performing the show in different cities.
Students learn geometry through fabricating a trapeze. It must be installed at right angles. They learn about the properties of a circle by studying a unicycle. They reinforce multiplication by studying tickets. How many do they need to sell in each city? Through juggling, they learn estimating.
Each year, his fourth grade class performs the circus at the school. The kids practice every Tuesday afternoon after school. Not only do they get their interesting education, but there is also exercise, planning and collaboration involved. This year’s circus will take place March 7 through 9 at the school.
“They looked at me like I had four heads,” said Starr, who has taught at the Friends School for 26 years, about his students’ response the first year he informed them about the circus.
That was in 2004. In 2001, he started writing the chapters for his book. He envisioned creating something more exciting than the standard texts. A year later, he realized that to better understand what he was writing, he’d have to actually perform the circus.
When he first suggested it to Anne Javsicas, the then-head of school, he’d been working with her for 15 years. When he shared his idea to put on a circus and connect it with math and informed her he’d been writing a textbook, she was interested. All they had to do was make sure the kids actually learned something.
In 2003, the school built a gym. Now Starr had a venue. From its inception, the kids took to the idea like kids take to circus acts. But at the same time, the kids understand their prerogative is to learn. After all, if they flub their tasks, the result might be a poor performance at the circus. The kids want to succeed. The show itself is entirely student-run on performance days.
“They know that its success is in their court,” said Starr.
“It’s always amazing to see what these nine- and 10-year-olds can do,” said Sarah Sweeney-Denham, interim head of school at Plymouth Meeting Friends School. Two years ago her daughter participated in the circus, and this year her son is a participant. “They put on a great show, but the real learning is much deeper than that.
“These kids work hard on these skills all year long. The teachers guide them in experimenting with a broad range of skills and then choosing a few to really hone in on. The teachers guide them to choose skills that will be a stretch for them, not just those that come naturally. And really, it’s not about mastery. They fall off their unicycles. They drop their juggling balls, but each time, each kid is given space to try again with support and cheers from the entire community.”
What Starr has created is a way to take what kids learn in their math books and apply it to everyday life in a fun way. It’s a circus now, but they know they’ll need these skills later to manage things like their finances and their lives.
“As teachers we understand not only the skills that the kids need to learn, but when one is in an institution for a long time, one has a pretty good understanding of how to connect with the kids,” said Starr, 47.
In this case the kids spend the year learning something they are destined to study anyway, but they do it a new, unique manner. Each year, the circus focuses on a theme. One year it was Hurricane Katrina, another, the Beatles. This year’s concept is “One World Circus.”
The kids will figuratively travel to cities around the world with significant circus traditions and perform stunts specific to each city. In Moscow, students will study the aerial silk skills of The Moscow Circus. In Beijing, the Chinese yo-yos.
Starr was raised in Germantown. He attended Chestnut Hill Academy and graduated from the Westtown School in West Chester in 1983. Four years later he earned his bachelor’s degree in human development and social relations from Earlham College, a Quaker school in Indiana. He lives in Swarthmore with his wife, Lise Reno, and two kids. His youngest is a circus alum.
Over the years, the circus has been performed for other groups as well, such as members of retirement homes and families of cancer survivors. Starr envisions taking the show on the road or perhaps inviting other schools to PMFS.
For more information, call 610-828-2288; the circus on March 7, 10 a.m., is just for students, but the performances on March 8 and 9, 7 p.m., are open to the community. Starr’s book, “Circus Math,” is available online at Amazon.com.