July 13, 2015
Juggling Unique Learners’ Needs
A teacher’s quick differentiation effort sparks deeper learning, engagement.
I groaned inside my head. We were supposed to learn to juggle. Now, don’t get me wrong, juggling is fun. I learned in 7th grade gym class with colored scarves. Yes, I do count juggling as my one and only secret talent. I do on occasion grab three lemons or oranges and toss them around as I sing “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite” circus theme song. It delights and awes massive crowds (like my neighbor’s dogs).
But this was grad school, a reputable program, old and well-respected in its field. And here was this juggler, young and cute with an endearing boyish smile. He had arrived to teach us to juggle, or to have us watch him juggle knives, one or the other. At least we didn’t have to practice with the knives, I hoped, as I pretended I was invisible in the back of the room.
It turned out the guy was genuinely funny. He was also joyful. He told us that he took a Buddhist pledge to “spread joy through service.” This he said as he cascaded five or twenty balls above him while doing tricks. You could feel the happy in the air. The atmosphere of the room was uplifted by his presence; it sparkled and shone. We laughed, and our laughter was supported by the mission of deep-seated joy that he had vowed to share.
Within minutes he had managed to connect to each student with a warm glance. The connection made us feel welcomed, valued, and relaxed.
Then came colored scarves, Juggling 101. In a small, stuffy classroom with 15 adults ages 25 to 70, it felt weird to be one of the only ones who knew how to do the one-two-three toss. The others, however, were masters of juggling their busy lives. The scene was comic relief mixed with a bit of pandemonium. Everyone was laughing as Dixie attacked her scarves, batting at them like a cat with a ball of yarn.
After scarves, which are always step one, we moved on to balls. Although I knew this skill, I could always improve like any student in any class that already knows the content. So I sheepishly settled myself into practicing the basic three-ball move that I’d never grown beyond. That’s when the magic happened.
Remember, it’s pandemonium. Balls are popping all over the place, we’re all sweating in the 150-degree sauna of a classroom. But even in the midst of controlled chaos, he noticed me. He stood in the center of the room juggling and simultaneously made his approach. “Since you already know how to do what I’m teaching the group, here’s a new trick,” he said as he demonstrated how to toss one ball over the others instead of under. I tried it, asked a question to check for understanding, and dove headfirst into practicing my soon-to-be second secret talent. This exchange took all of 30 seconds, and now I was on a roll: totally immersed in learning, practicing, and improving.
I had prepared myself to go through the motions of learning to juggle along with my colleagues. But he was a perceptive teacher, and cared enough to give me something more, something new, something worth working for. My previously-acquired and practiced skills were validated because he was willing to give me the opportunity to build on them. He did not want to pretend that I had the same learning needs as those who had never tried juggling before. He met me where I was, and gave me a pathway that supported my growth. It was small, it was simple, but it was just what I needed to engage and feel satisfied in the learning. This demonstrates my juggling teacher’s own superpower ability to engage students at every level of learning, whether they are following along with scarf-juggling basics or slicing airborne apples with flying knives.
His website says that his mission is: “To promote joy, good will, and wellness through uplifting presentations that help people, LIVE, LAUGH, LOVE, and LEARN.” That’s no joke. Nels may be seen as the juggling entertainer, but this guy is for real. More than juggling, he taught me that a clear and giving mission expressed can truly change student lives. He demonstrated that when we meet students at their individual levels, whether they are seemingly underwater or above the clouds, we earn their lasting respect and deepest engagement.
As for my juggling teacher, he is an inspirer and he is a teacher. The good ones, they’re one and the same.
Kathryn P. Haydon recently co-authored Creativity for Everybody with designer Jane Harvey. This book lays the framework for a paradigm shift that many are searching for, but can’t quite articulate. It’s an engaging read that sparks people to consider how creativity already plays a part in their lives, and how to view themselves and others through a lens of creative strengths. Creativity for Everybody simplifies depth and substance from the science of creativity for busy readers in a way that no other book has done.