Why they're taking juggling seriously in a Queens classroom

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The ''first jug,'' ''home position,'' ''three-ball cascade,'' ''two-bag exchange.'' If these terms sound unfamiliar, it may be because you haven't juggled lately.

Juggling is taken with utmost (almost) seriousness in a bouncing Queens classroom in New York City, where the play-skill has become an effective learning incentive.

Sixth-grade students with academic and behavioral as well as coordination difficulties are making significant headway as they verse themselves in the fine points of juggling - and reading and writing.

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In 1981-82, the program's first year, the class average gain was 3.0 years on citywide reading tests. For the 1982-83 school year, the class average gain was 4.3 years.

''Juggling is Catching'' says a poster on a door at Public School 91. Behind it is the classroom of William Stone. Several years ago the young educator lost some of his fingers in an accident. To buoy his spirits, his wife gave him a book, ''Juggling for the Complete Klutz'' (Palo Alto, Calif.: Klutz Press. 1977 ).

Mr. Stone absorbed the book and taught himself to juggle in a victorious six hours. Not long after that, he introduced juggling to his class of 10 ''street-wise kids from Corona and Jackson Heights,'' as he calls them. It was to have been what the teacher calls ''a sequence lesson to wake them up'' - a short diversion from the regular classroom remedial work.

To Stone's surprise, though, his students asked for more. They arranged to bring in money so that the teachers could purchase beginners juggling equipment and the instruction book.

At first, the rule was 'no juggling until the day's work was finished,' says Stone. ''It was amazing. All of a sudden, the day's work was done by 1 p.m. instead of 3 p.m.''

Next came actual integration of juggling with the remedial language arts curriculum. This included assigning students to write daily in their journals chronicling their juggling progress.

One of the students at that time was Luis Ramirez.

''I had him for two years,'' his teacher recalls. ''When he walked in here, he couldn't read or spell the word 'cat.' At the end of two years, he had a reading score of 6.9, and he could juggle better than I could.''

Luis Ramirez today is enrolled in a New York City junior high school. He earns money by juggling at children's birthday parties. Mr. Stone and his former student occasionally meet after school hours for ''partner juggling.''

''A lot of this is self-confidence,'' says Stone. ''These students think they'll never be able to juggle. My philosophy is, if you break it into simple steps, anyone can do anything. ''Once they're juggling, they say, 'I can learn to juggle; I can do anything.' ''

There are traditionalists in education today who would see the juggling/language arts program as close to diversion, not ''basic'' enough. How does Stone address that point of view?

''I think this is even more 'basic' than the traditional approach. I'm giving these students hands-on experience, and they're writing about what they've done. The biggest problem they have is understanding abstract (concepts). What they get here is concrete. That's 'basic.' ''

While he talks, Bernadette Perna, one of his students, painstakingly presses masking tape along a rough edge of what will become a handmade duckpin.

''The first time I tried to juggle,'' she says, ''it was fun. The second time , it was more exciting than the first. I was proud.''

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