Teachers find an unlikely attitude fix in juggling | TheUnion.com

Teachers find an unlikely attitude fix in juggling

It’s usually a slam to call a classroom a circus.

But at Community Day School – which meets at Lyman Gilmore Middle School and serves as a kind of temporary, institutional “time-out” for students with behavior or academic problems – teachers are finding that clowning around offers a path to reform.

On a weekday morning, a handful of shaggy-haired sixth through eighth graders are unusually focused, eyes fixed to the balls and bowling pins spinning in the air.

At CDS, which offers individualized class for fewer than a dozen students, juggling breaks function as P.E., recess and an incentive for finishing their remedial math and English assignments.

“The No. 1 thing is that it gives them personal pride,” said teacher Gary Novak. “These are kids who have been unsuccessful in regular schools. Here, they have something they’re successful at.”

Juggling is an unlikely teaching tool, delivered to the school this year courtesy of the recession.

For entertainer Izzi Tooinsky, who has 32 years of experience traveling the world with his juggling and storytelling act, gigs had dried up in recent months.

The job search led him to what he thought was a last resort – being a teacher’s aide.

Tooinsky – like all his siblings – learned to juggle from his grandpa after his family fled from their native Albania in the aftermath of World War II. He lived in Israel and Australia before moving to Nevada County.

Novak was skeptical when he heard his new aide was a juggler, he recalled. But when Tooinsky started teaching circus skills, and behavior took a turn for the better, Novak realized he’d hit gold.

“Juggling is a language,” said Tooinsky, wearing a dapper fedora and colorful tie. “There’s not a whole lot for us to say to these kids, but it becomes a medium to get to know each other.”

Every so often, the students interrupt Tooinsky to ask for help or to show off a new trick. Novak stands at the front of the classroom, nodding his affirmation.

In a typical alternative school setting, he spends much of his time disciplining the students, but juggling has curbed conflict.

“It’s made the relationship between teacher and student positive,” said Novak. “I’ve never experienced something this positive.”

Every student in the class can do some juggling. The newest class member, who happened to be the only girl, had learned a simple trick an hour into her first day.

The trend has spread beyond the single classroom of the Community Day School. Lyman Gilmore students play with Chinese yo-yos at recess and during lunchtime; 70 students are members of the schoolwide Juggling Club.

Lyman Gilmore Principal Brian Buckley even spotted students on Grass Valley sidewalks, practicing their juggling with a tip jar afoot.

But with drastic budget cuts, the entire CDS program may be headed for the scrap heap next year. If it gets the ax, struggling students may have to resort to a county-run program or stay in the main system.

“I understand the rationale: It’s a high-cost program for a small number of students,” said Buckley. “But particularly when it’s a successful program that really could turn lives around, I hate to see it go.”

For now, the students in CDS are rediscovering new motivation to succeed in school. Once dubbed the “bad kids,” CDS students and their juggling prowess now are the envy of the playground.

“Kids ask how to join,” Novak said.

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail mrindels@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4247.

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