Something in the air

24th September 2004 at 01:00
A primary teacher who took up juggling to revitalise her assemblies drew an unexpected response. Elaine Williams reports

Carole Farrar was getting bored with her assemblies, so she was damned sure her pupils were bored as well. She wanted to liven things up, and a spot of juggling seemed just the thing. A slim, long-limbed person, Ms Farrar is, by her own admission, a little unco-ordinated, so juggling is a skill she has steered well clear of.

Until now. She decided to illustrate her next series of assemblies, about learning, by learning how to juggle, reasoning that at least she would give everybody a laugh until she got the hang of it. And she was determined to succeed. That was the whole point she wanted to get across to pupils: keep going, bit by bit, and eventually you'll get there.

What she did not bargain for was that the whole school would follow her lead. It's not that her points she was trying to make - about learning in bite-sized chunks; about it never being too late; about practice making perfect; about persistence making the winner - were lost on pupils. It's just that the juggling took on a life of its own.

These days, when you step into the playground of New Earswick primary school in York, the air is thick with rainbow-coloured balls thrown into showers, half-showers, cascades and reverse cascades, snatched and pirouetted through lines of children, all intent on mastering the art of juggling. Playground tiffs, according to midday supervisor Audrey Barnes, have become rare, especially among the boys, who are particularly obsessed with perfecting the skill.

What Carole Farrar did not know when she ineptly launched her first balls during that first learning assembly back in the spring was that other staff had been hiding their juggling talents. As her balls sailed off at wild tangents (prompting the first of many lewd jokes among staff), Andy Peacock, a long-term supply teacher, asked Ms Farrar to pass them to him, and then demonstrated the seemingly effortless beauty of expert juggling: round and about, over and under, a wonder of geometric shapes and agile balancing tricks.

Pupils, and Ms Farrar, were amazed. Then Year 5 teacher Ivor Leonard followed suit; less skilled, but demonstrating a proficiency they never dreamed he could possess. A former traffic planning engineer, Mr Leonard confesses that while he was a student at Leeds University he took to juggling as a diversion from writing projects about traffic flows.

That was it. The balls were out of the bag and pupils were determined to outdo their teachers. What's more, says Ms Farrar, the juggling passion has transformed relationships between adults and some of the more challenging pupils at the school.

Take 11-year-old Ben. A bright boy who has found it difficult to "make the right behaviour choices", he was often at loggerheads with Mr Peacock and his firm style of discipline. Until Ben saw him juggling. It changed everything, says Ms Farrar. Ben caught the juggling bug. Now he practises hard, constantly pressing Mr Peacock to show him the next trick, and the next. "Now we have something in common. It helps. Plus Ben picks things up quickly, and he's like me, a physical person," says Mr Peacock. "I trained as a PE teacher and I can tell he needs to be on the go. I can see Ben juggling on a unicycle. That boy is clever enough to do anything he wants, and he's beginning to realise it."

But Ben didn't just take to juggling. He wanted to make a film about Mr Peacock juggling, so he set about producing a video with some other boys.

Ms Farrar says making the video involved many other skills that Ben took in his stride. "And he swept other children along with his enthusiasm."

New Earswick, a school of 250 children, is in the middle of a social housing estate, with 20 per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals - a high proportion for York. Since taking over the headship four years ago, Ms Farrar has been on a drive to improve behaviour. She is amused and touched that her juggling japes have made such an impact. "I've had fewer children in lunchtime detentions and far fewer children on my behaviour tracking sheet."

The jugglers readily admit that they find juggling relaxing, therapeutic and de-stressing. "If you can't do summat with your work in school," says Callum O'Donnell, aged nine, "and then you go out and do some juggling, it calms you down."

When Ben achieved level 5s across the board in his key stage 2 tests this summer, his grandfather wanted to reward his efforts with a gift. What did the lad ask for? His own set of juggling balls.

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