The Big Top 2017

After three months of learning across four subject areas and numerous yards of wire, our second graders at Hillbrook were ready to share all that they had experienced and discovered with their families.  This year we flipped the performance experience.   Students used simple machines to move their characters through circus acts were pre-recorded in our newly remodeled Science Labs, demonstrating their flexibility of use.  The children accompanied those projected videos by performing their original musical compositions live for the families.

Beyond learning the aspects of composing, using concepts like:  beat, layered rhythms, (ostinato), tempo, timbre (quality of sound), dynamics, and form (structure of music), the children learned how to listen to one another, work successfully in a diverse group of personalities, and play in an ensemble. This work informs their later ensemble work in the spring concert and helps them to listen beyond themselves and play as one musical unit.

Here is a sample of video in the science lab that was filmed prior to the performance and projected.  We added audio from the performance to the video to enhance the listening experience.  The music was performed live and was not pre-recorded.  Look for the students’ use of simple machines such as ramps, levers and pulleys.

This short clip of the performance highlights our ringmasters, the whole class singing “Welcome to the Circus” and one of the small groups’ circus acts.

The students were inspired to do their own live acts using circus arts that they had learned during a field trip at the beginning of the unit, such as poi (juggling), plate spinning, creative hula hooping and clowning around.

In our Science Lab, we had a display of student work across the disciplines and this video of Alexander Calder performing his circus back in Paris in 1955.  If you haven’t seen it, don’t miss this opportunity to get a historic glance of his work.  Here is a brief walkthrough of the lab on that day.

After the performances, Ms. Engineer led a reflection time with the students where we made a collective mind map of all that we had done during the project.  Students thoughtfully shared their feelings, challenges and successes.  It was remarkable to hear the social and emotional skills that were realized for them in addition to the academics.


Making Wire Characters

So much preparation and the moment is finally here, when, just like Sandy Calder, the 2nd graders get to begin making their wire characters.

Their art teacher, Susie Heeter, first worked with students on basic wire techniques to fashion animals out of wire.  We carefully observed Calder’s 2D wire sculptures, almost like a one-line drawing.


Then we noticed others with cork that were 3D.


Then students got to work creating the characters and props to bring their small circus stories to life.


Hands On Simple Machines

In preparation for making their circus characters move, like Sandy Calder did, with simple machines, 2nd graders rotated through stations exploring how ramps, levers, wheel/axles and pulleys make work easier and have other benefits, such as changing the direction of motion in the case of pulleys.

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Using resources from Engineering Is Elementary:  Marvelous Machines , students manipulate materials and measure the difference in work required with different scenarios.  They record their results in the pages we have pasted into their Science Notebooks and then we redo each station one more time together and go over the data together to reinforce how to record their results in a table.

The Unistrut framework that was recently added to the ceiling of our Science Labs is the perfect support for the pulleys as it can hold up to 500 lbs.  We attach the pulleys onto the Unistrut trolley for moving circus characters horizontally and use the pulleys for vertical or lateral movement.

These stations provide opportunities to discuss new science principles and vocabulary such as friction, gravity, momentum, inertia and occasionally we even venture into centrifugal force for children that are curious about it.

At the same time as we are doing these stations, students are bringing in Forces and Motion Menu projects that they’ve completed at home to share with the class.  Students are given a Menu* of projects to choose from that are differentiated for different types of learners and are completely accessible to all students.  They are child-centered with only limited support required from parents.  It’s always amazing to me how remarkably different each of the products is from the others.

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*Menu Projects are optional at-home offerings for our K-4th grade students and are adapted  from the book Differentiating instruction With Menus – Science by Laurie E. Westphal

Adventures in Wire

As we prepare for making our wire characters, students are given some time to experiments with how the wire feels in their hands and how to manipulate it with pliers.  They are then given a series of tasks to accomplish with wire – bend a U-shape, cross it over and twist to make Calder-like hands and feet.  Make a spiral by twisting the wire around the tip of the needle nose pliers.  We decided to do this with several different gauges of wire so that they could understand that not all wire feels or handles the same, depending on it’s properties.

Students will now begin making their wire sculptures with only wire and cork.  We developed a checklist to help them (and us) monitor their progress through the steps before our circus performance.

Ms. Engineer and I decided that this year the students will record the acting out of their scene and will perform their musical compositions live instead of the opposite which we tried last year.  Students also made wooden prototypes of their characters before using wire this year in hopes of helping them solidify their scene in their mind and be able to compose for the mood.

Developing the Circus Scene – Preparation for Music Composition

The second grade students have been creating small wooden doll circus characters  during music classes with clothes and props made from felt and pipe cleaners to help add details to the circus stories and scenes that they have written in homeroom.  They then create an imaginary world inside of small circus tents or built from objects outside the tents to play with their circus partners to act out the scene complete with a beginning, middle and end. They were also required to add details that would introduce the characters, build the action in their act to have the most amazing things happen last to reach a climax, emphasizing what the characters might be feeling as they are performing their amazing feats.

Music of the circus played in the background to help expose them to the different ways that music is written and the mood that it creates.  Classical music as well as calliope music was played during the process. The calliope is an instrument originally used for the circus, because it is essentially a one stop shop with many instruments together on one machine. Students were introduced to a ballet written by Erik Satie called Parade (modern classical piece that was a collaboration between himself, Pablo Picasso (set and costume design), and Jean Cocteau (poet and writer)).  The ballet has an act with two acrobats, which is reflected in the music.

The students were given stopwatches after they developed their scenes to practice keeping the beginning, middle and end to three minutes.  These scenes will be recorded so that the students will be able to use the three minute action packed story line as a guideline to compose music for their circus.  This type of play with their circus partners assists them to bond more closely with each other while planting the seeds to help them think through what the music should sound like according to the action of their eventual Sandy’s Circus wire character they will create.

Balance & Symmetry in the Circus

We explored the idea of balance using this video and activity from the North Carolina School of Math and Science that introduces vocabulary and concepts of gravity, balance, symmetry and center of mass/gravity.  Students then created an acrobat that they tried to balance by moving two paper clips around to different spots on “Balancing Bertie”until successful.  They discover that having the center of gravity below the balancing point is key.

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The next activity with this lesson is done with a popsicle stick, wire, and hex nuts as weights.  It offers more opportunity to explore the same concepts.

As a creative extension, I offered students the opportunity to create “balancing sculptures” at home and then bring them in or share of video of it with the class.  These sculptures connect to Sandy’s mobile sculptures which we’re hoping our art teacher will be able to do with the students in the months to come.


Music – Acting and Movement

Here are students in the static pose of their character using the paintings of the circus that we studied in science. This type of acting and embodying characters informs their work with the wire characters later and to identify with a certain character by embodying that character in their imagination.  They were asked to show what would happen before the performer got on stage (the beginning) show what the performer would do for the act (the middle) and what they would do to end the show (the end.)  This also informs their small moments writing in homeroom and helps them to add details to their writing.  Music was paired to play for the performance from previously recorded circus music that the students selected.

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The following clip is an example of Joshua and Henry creating their own mood music for the beginning, middle, and end to their tightrope act.


Sketching Like Sandy – Part/Whole

To focus student thinking more closely now on Sandy Calder, instead of just the larger circus experience, we read the first half of the book Sandy’s Circus by Tanya Lee Stone and illustrated by Boris Kulikov.  This introduces the children to Sandy’s childhood experiences with wire and art.  We stop at the page where he is at the circus creating drawings for a newspaper and he does a pencil sketch of part of the scene he is observing.  This is a particularly good opportunity to introduce perspective in art as we can see Sandy’s hands at the corners of the images.

Given the same circus images that were used for unpacking student thinking at the beginning of this unit, students then use a small square of vellum to complete a similar sketch of part of a circus image.

From here students will complete single-line drawings of the character they choose to create before they build it out of wire.

Music – Form and Ostinato

During second grade music classes, students have taken their experiences from science, with the gallery walk and thinking routines about what they know about the circus, and translated the things they saw into small pieces of music.  Students built circus performer sculptures out of instruments and then used them to create short pieces of music that contained ostinatos (rhythms that repeat) and simple form AB or ABA (structure in music).  They were challenged to keep beat and tempo while having fun practicing performing for each other.

Using art from Henri de Toulouse -Lautrec, Renoir, Picasso, etc., students have been studying how to create mood for a circus act.  This will inform their original music they will create for their own circus acts later.

Duarte and Iris – Trapeze Music, ABA – the music of two people swinging from one side to the other – egg shakers representing the people and the drums representing the high platform. (Please excuse the camera work!  It was too good for me not share with you!)

Henry and Nico (EkNaam) – Lion and the Lion Tamer Music – ABA – Lion is represented by the cymbal and the tamer is represented by the drums.

MacKenzie and Luanna – Two Circus Horses Music – ABA – large drums and contrabars representing the horses.

Karla – Dog Tightrope Walker Music – ABA – Playing the xylophone was the dog running across the tightrope – the drum represented a hoop of fire.


Circus Arts for Kinesthetic Connection to a STEAM Project

To immerse the children in the embodiment of circus acts, we took a field trip to an after school circus arts specialist, TNT Circus, who specializes in facilitating these activities for young children.  After stretching exercises, the children rotated through stations of balancing on a ball, pair acrobatics, rope and silk climbing.  They had multiple opportunities to get comfortable with the activities and gain perspective on how challenging being a circus performer really is.



The next set of rotations included poi (an easier form of juggling with a tennis ball in a nylon sock), plate spinning and scarf juggling, building coordination and focus.

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These experiences offered a great foundation for writing our upcoming short circus scenes.  It also informs their kinesthetic connection to the eventual wire character they will build through this project.   These characters will need to move in a variety of ways, just like the students did at this field trip.  We now know more about how forces such as gravitational pull and centrifugal force feel on our bodies, and how we can use friction in different ways to slow or stop movement.