Life Is a Circus
The Sharon Academy Middle School Circus held in Sharon, Vt., on March 28, 2015. (Photo by Geoff Hansen)

Life Is a Circus

Students at Sharon Academy in Sharon, Vt., learn how to create success out of failure — with circus skills.

By Amber Wylie, Sharon Academy

If someone asked you to imagine what a cutting-edge classroom should look like, what images spring to mind? Desks placed in orderly rows in a classroom with students working quietly? High-tech display systems, state-of-the art testing, and a distinguished teacher placed prominently in front of the room?

Troy Wunderle, the artistic director of Circus Smirkus and founder of Wunderle’s Big Top Adventures, challenges schools to turn that image on its head. In place of a classroom, imagine a school gymnasium or circus tent. And the teacher? He’s a clown. Really.

“The skills students need most in order to succeed in high school, college and beyond can be taught very effectively outside of a traditional classroom,” says Wunderle. “Teaching students how to create success out of failure is a fundamental aspect of preparing our children for success in school and in life. And I teach that through the circus.”

No Desks

I talked with Wunderle during Wunderle’s Big Top Adventures’ annual residency at The Sharon Academy. Forty students were arranged throughout the room — some juggling balls or riding unicycles, others throwing diablos or balancing on Rolla-Bollas. It was loud. There were no desks. The most “high-tech” items were the stilts. And there could be no doubt that significant learning was happening.

I teach circus to adolescents because this format allows me to teach incredibly important lessons to children who are in a transitional period in their lives,” says Wunderle, “Each student must understand that the stepping stones to success are often failure and hard work.The only way to move past a failure and into success is to acknowledge the failure, accept it without shame or fear, and learn from it. For instance, if you fall, figure out why, alter your technique, and try again. You will better your odds of success having determined why you previously fell.”

Wunderle says that once students can grasp this equation

Failure – Fear + Hard Work = Success

they can overcome many obstacles throughout their lives, whether they be physical, emotional or academic obstacles.

“The ground rules I lay down when we begin rehearsals include, ‘If you are going to fail, FAIL BIG!’ That’s the only way to fail successfully,” he says.

A Performance

In a circus residency — such as the one Wunderle conducts at The Sharon Academy each spring or the Circus Smirkus tour Wunderle helps direct each summer — pulling off a creative, collaborative performance means everyone involved must be willing to work hard. Really hard. They have to learn how to work together as a team and how to take responsibility for their own individual performance.

The stakes are high. Students’ grades don’t get folded quietly into a backpack to go home. Students at The Sharon Academy Middle School routinely perform their circus to more than 700 people. (Circus Smirkus performs to 50,000 each summer as they travel through New England.) Performers’ resilience and achievement are measured in applause and gasps of happy surprise.

Best of all, these students gain memories and skills that will stay with them for a lifetime. They can apply their knowledge of how to fail successfully to any future undertaking. They know that they were given a seemingly impossible task with a crazy-short timeline —and made it happen.

Some of the best teachers are clowns. Who knew?

The Sharon Academy is an independent middle school and high school where students are known, valued and challenged. The Sharon, Vt.-based school nurtures intelligent, independent and creative thinking to develop the compassionate citizens and leaders that our world needs. Learn more at sharonacademy.org

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