The lunch period has just begun at Merton School in Cote St. Luc when 10 students burst into the gym. They disappear briefly into a storage room and then emerge perched on unicycles; they swoop around the gym, deftly avoiding the various mats and pieces of equipment. Soon more kids arrive in the gym, some grabbing balls to juggle while one balances easily on top of a large green circus ball. In the centre of the gym, three girls take turns twisting and turning over and around a giant hoop suspended from the ceiling.
For the students at Merton, circus arts is literally part of their everyday learning thanks to their physical education teacher Romolo Finelli, known as “Molo”. Finelli, who competed for Canada in trampoline at the international level, came to the school five years ago. He decided to incorporate juggling, unicycle riding and acrobatics into his gym program. He still offers more traditional group sports and games, but always sets aside some time and space for the circus skills.
The children responded enthusiastically so the school principal, Raizel Candib, suggested Finelli organize an end-of-year show to highlight the kids’ exciting new skills. “I made him pick a date,” she says with a laugh, and then the pressure was on. But Finelli and his kids came through, putting on a show that Candib calls “life-changing.”
The show included children of different body types; petite, tall and broad. Several girls who had never thought of themselves as athletes because they weren’t particularly skinny turned out to be excellent unicyclists. “It was such a boost for their self-image and self-esteem,” Candib says.
Now the annual show has become a Merton tradition, with approximately 40 students taking part. This year, the shows will be held on June 3 and 4. The training and preparation has already begun. Finelli organizes several lunch-time practices a week, but, he adds, “I try to keep it fun and I don’t do too many of them so the kids stay interested.”
During the sessions, Finelli helps kids work on their skills, but he will also stand back and just observe, thus letting the young people figure out routines, or parts of them, on their own.
A sense of community
Candib, who arrived at the school about the same time as Finelli, says the focus on circus arts fits in perfectly with Merton’s approach to learning. With its small size — about 250 students — there is a real sense of community and belonging. “I can literally see the whole school from right here,” Candib says, standing near the building’s entrance and looking down two corridors that form a large L shape.
“I can get to know every child and it’s very unlikely that a child will fall through the cracks.” The circus program, she adds, encourages children to find something that interests them —- be it juggling or acrobatics — and then they work hard to develop their skills. As she watches Finelli and his student teacher during a gym class — a group of first graders who play with large hoops, dance with scarves and work in small groups to do acrobatics — she points out how much learning is going on. “They are developing their social skills because they have to work in teams. But they are also working on developing their own talents. They don’t compare themselves to others — they focus on what they like to do. It’s great for building self-esteem.”
That sense of community also makes teachers feel appreciated and proud. “A school is only as good as its teachers,” remarks Finelli, who praises his colleagues for their innovation and dedication.
Indeed, the classrooms and hallways at Merton are filled with examples of the children’s work, from robots that have won awards in robotics competitions to large drawings illustrating various fairy tales. In the past few years, two Merton teachers have won the federal Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence, given to only 15 teachers each year. The school has a computer lab equipped with about 24 Macs, a small but well-stocked library, and a huge number of extra-curricular activities from bead making to guitar instruction.
But in June, it will be the circus show everyone will be talking about. The school sells tickets to the public for one show. “We usually sell out in a couple of hours,” says Finelli proudly. He promises that it will be a show filled with excitement and surprises. It will also be a show that helps the young performers believe in themselves and their talents.
For information on the circus shows, call (514) 481-7425. Information on the school can be found at www.emsb.qc.ca/merton.