What it takes to be a clown at McDonald’s

In a time when it was still acceptable to eat at McDonald’s, the seed of a very powerful idea was placed in my mind – one that has had a hugely positive impact on my life. It was “family night,” which meant they hired a clown to do magic tricks and juggle for the kids. I was probably nine and definitely fascinated by the tricks. (Aren’t we all at that age?) Luckily, this clown brought a bunch of plastic grocery bags from Schnuck’s and, using them as a poor man’s scarves, he taught me to juggle three.

In truth, he taught me how juggling worked. I would have to teach myself to actually do it. Nonetheless the damage had been done, the seed placed, because I knew for certain that I could teach myself juggling.

That night, and every day for a while, I practiced with the bags and found balls and fruit, probably irritating my parents a lot, until I bought a little juggling set. It came with a book about juggling tricks, so I taught myself how to do them. I made up my own tricks and mini-challenges to myself, to see what I was capable of, and I just kept on trying them until I got it.

I dropped juggling and picked it up from time to time, but by the end of high school, I could juggle clubs, rings, balls, knives, torches, and do all sorts of tricks and routines – the same kind that dropped my jaw in McDonald’s. In fact, my first math/ed conference was a free trip to Las Vegas to juggle with Bill Thayer.

I had become an expert juggler, and all this because I knew I could teach myself.

* * *

“How do people become experts?” I wonder this a lot, lately. My first thought is that it can happen just like this. The juggling clown introduces it to you. Then you go off and try it, consulting books and friends, the internet, talking about it, practicing it, challenging yourself, and slowly getting better. You pick it up, you leave it, but you always know that you can juggle. What makes this kind of learning work is the idea that if you keep at it, you will improve, tied to the fact that you are doing something you like, getting better because you want to.

I’ve taught juggling several times, and though I’m not qualified to say so, I would guess that no one is juggling disabled. Surely some people come to it with a more developed sense of hand-eye coordination or spatial ability, but I’ve seen dramatic growth in every juggling student, no matter what struggles they have at school.

I can imagine if juggling were required at school, many students might lack engagement with the standard tricks being required for their yearly performance. Class might be so far from an aesthetic juggling experience that the students never feel that they can teach themselves. Yet in the students I’ve seen, the opposite is the case.

* * *

Expertise seems so critically vital today, in our huge and non-stop world where learning everything is ever more absurd and we rely on increasingly technical knowledge. It occurs to me that school would be a rave success if every student left it with a profound and fulfilling sense of expertise. They would transition confidently into adulthood, knowing they could rely on themselves to learn.

If I were designing a school around this idea, I don’t think it would look much like the schools we have now, perhaps not even my own. Here’s a blueprint – Intelligent and empathetic adults with something compelling to share; Far less requirements on student time; And a culture that celebrates their success, allows them to set their own goals and challenges, and improve on their own schedule.

I’m trying constantly to give my students a place to have this kind of experience with mathematics. School should be about them. It should be personal.

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12 responses to “What it takes to be a clown at McDonald’s

  1. Paul, I think your juggling metaphor for learning is particularly apt, since most of our students are already juggling too much—too much content, too much homework, too many activities, to really acquire a sense of expertise in anything. Great post.

  2. Natalie Passanante

    Loved this, Paul! Keep thinking and keep writing…

  3. I agree and disagree with this post. What I am totally sure of is that children will never truly feel like ‘experts’ if they are being force-fed a pre-fab curriculum concocted by a bunch of suits who are ‘experts’ in nothing but “EDUCATION”. Have you ever seen the Maryland State MANDATORY Geometry Curriculum Binder ? It’s depressing. I hated teaching it, and my students hated learning it. Even though by many standards I could have been considered an ‘expert’ in what I was teaching, I was not allowed to diverge from said curriculum. It was a ball and chain, and my students knew it. What’s even more depressing is that many of the teachers I worked with had an ‘expertise’ in mathematics that was entirely limited to that uninspired binder. They had no INTEREST or even DESIRE (and in many cases ABILITY) to diverge from its contents.

    That said, I was just talking with David this morning about the fact that I don’t need to be an expert in something to enjoy it. I will never be an expert glassblower. Ever. My work is good. On some days, very good. In fact, I am better than 99.9 % of everybody else on Earth. BUT I WILL NEVER BE THE BEST. Truly being the best … AN EXPERT … A MAESTRO … at something requires a time (and financial !) commitment that I simply cannot give. This is true for most folks, I think. What I value (over expertise) is the fact that I happened into glassblowing at all. I feel incredibly fortunate to have found a hobby that will engage and challenge me for a LIFETIME. That I am NOT an expert is more powerful than having having mastered the craft. Frustration whets my appetite.

    Maybe that’s the trick. Showing students, “Hey ! Look at this cool thing … it’s really fucking hard, isn’t it ? Every time you think you’ve learned all there is to learn, you’re going to discover a whole world of things that you can’t do. Find the pleasure in the challenge.”

    ps. If you’re looking for a hard-ass, I’ll come teach at your school. :-)

    • Surely the longest comment yet, and a great one at that! Thanks!

      I think you’re being a bit hard about what an expert is. I don’t mean a virtuoso or a prodigy or a professional or the best. I’m pretty sure I could convince you that I’m an expert juggler, but I have absolutely nowhere near the level of skill of the people I see in videos. Not remotely. I bet if I watched you blow some glass, I would say the same for you. Clearly there is a gradient for expertise.

      Your experience with glass is exactly what I’m talking about, though. You KNOW that you can improve over the entire course of your life if you keep at it. Your interest, and the challenges you set, push you forward on a road to improvement.

      Maybe you’re not an expert, the way you described, but you are definitely a glass blower! What percentage of kids leave school saying, “I’m a mathematician?”

  4. I should add that I think the recognition (and sometimes celebration) of milestones and success is critical. It helps us determine what our next goals should be.

    • Absolutely agreed. Every student should have a school that is pulling for them on a personal level. People should be talking with each other about their little projects and endeavors. That’s completely absent in test scores and averages.

  5. i’m sure that we completely agree. i’m just persnickety, and conversations about education get me all worked up.

  6. One problem you face is that people think juggling is cool (and glass-blowing is hot), but very few people have those positive feelings towards math. Even if they are reasonably competent, many people don’t particularly like doing math and don’t care whether they get better or not.

    The successes you see with people learning to juggle don’t necessarily translate to other subjects where the motivation is lacking.

    I’ve coached math teams where everyone was there because they wanted to be, and it was very much like your description of juggling classes—so it isn’t the material so much as it is the desire to learn it.

  7. Pingback: Is the math/juggling comparison fair? | Lost In Recursion

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