Juggling As a Learning Tool

A couple of months ago, I presented at the Florida Creativity Conference X  in Sarasota, Florida. This year they partnered with South Florida University and the Florida Studio Theater for venue space, educational and theatrical workshops, and expertise.  I attended an all-day workshop on the brain where we explored the latest research on strategies for making the most of our memory’s capacity for learning and innovation. Very useful. On the other side of the spectrum, there was a facilitator who presented two workshops on how to use Legos for team-building and innovation.  But by far the workshop that sticks in my mind the most is the one where I almost learned to juggle.  

In a dining room full of people who were moving from one creative  experience to another, I decided just to watch Tony Esteves and see if I could pick up any tips on juggling. I’ve never been good at throwing and catching things smaller than a soccer ball, so I knew I was in for a challenge.  Of course, Tony made it look effortless and promised me I could learn the basics in 90 minutes of working with him.  His technique was what really hooked me and helped me to get over the fear of looking foolish.  “The first thing you do is just throw one ball into the air and then let it fall.”  No problem with that step.  Successful so far, so I kept going. “Now hold a ball in each hand, throw them in the air one after another, and just let them fall.”  So far I’m with him and thinking Tony is really a great teacher.  “Just shake it off, take 10 seconds, and refocus.”  Now came the big challenge. “Start with a ball in each hand, then throw them one at a time into the air, about a foot over your head, and catch each one.”  I hit my first wall.  I raised my hand above my waist, couldn’t toss the balls high enough, and didn’t even catch both balls after such a simple move.

But Tony kept encouraging me. “Shake it off. Take 10 seconds before you try again. Refocus.”   I relaxed. Everyone around me was smiling. My partner was already juggling.  Pressure.  So I picked up the balls again, tossed them on the air, one after another, and caught them.  That little bit of success emboldened me to try tossing the balls from one hand to the next and catch each in quick succession.  Another wall. I dropped the balls and they went rolling across the floor, under a table, and out of sight. I smiled at Tony and shrugged my shoulders.  “Ann, just keep at it. I promise, if you just give it five minutes a day, in a month’s time you’ll be juggling. Just try it.”

Later, when I talked with Tony over dinner and asked him how he got into juggling and performing at conferences, he told me he’d been an English teacher in many countries around the world.  Not only had he taught himself how to juggle, but he had also taught thousands of adults and kids how to manage those three leather-covered objects that had so baffled my hands. Tony knew what all teachers know and what often gets left out of a classroom experience: Managing all the balls takes practice.  Mistakes are part of learning. Consistency and persistence yield success. 

Here’s what I’m taking back to my classroom after that humbling yet enlightening experience.

  1. Start with the basics: Just like Tony starts every potential juggler with one ball tossed and caught, let the students work on one or two skills at a time until they develop some confidence.  I’m looking at how I have crafted all of my assignments and considering how to pare them down to include fewer new tasks. 
  2. Relax and take a break in-between attempts:  The 10 second pause that was so essential to regaining focus when juggling serves as a reminder to slow and vary some of the pacing of the assignments.  What could a pause look like in my class?  Perhaps we’ll do group work after some intense writing tasks. Or maybe we’ll do pair-share activities after a reading assignment.  Or  energize with brain-gym activities after completing a workshop.  What ideas come to mind for you?
  3. Practice something every day. Tony urged me to give juggling a try for just five minutes a day. I’m thinking he knows that five minutes won’t scare me and I’ll probably do it longer than that, which will boost my chance for success.  If my students would just write a paragraph a day and focus on word choice one week and then pacing another week, they’d most likely see some very interesting growth as writers over the course of the semester. 

As for me, I’ve just ordered the set of juggling balls from Amazon and I’ll be doing my five minutes a day. It’s one challenge I really want to master. And my teacher believes that I can.



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