HICCUP educational philosophy

Kohala 1982

I arrived in Hawaii as an enthusiastic but frustrated educator unable to surrender to the bureaucratic craziness of the standard school system. Following my brief experiences as an elementary school principal and community organiser in St. Lucia and then a short flirtation producing Macnut butter I accepted my personal life assignment was to find alternative ways to work with children and build community. Juggling and circus arts magically arrived in my life and became the catalyst for my mission.

There was no route map available for a circus arts teacher so I was pioneering along, in virgin territory, for many years. By the mid 1990’s the philosophy and methodology I’d been practicing and refining with HICCUP programs was collecting loads of praise for positively influencing our kids and community. We all realised that we were on the right track. Over several years I had built a powerful HICCUP team (Karolyn, Michele, Gene, Jirong, Monnya and Rebecca) who were super skilled at teaching a variety of physical circus arts.

Kohala 2013

Our mission was “to promote the healthy development of children and community.” We primarily targeted children aged seven to seventeen, mostly considered ‘youth at risk’. Representing the demographics of east Hawaii, the majority came from families living rurally and well below the poverty line.  HICCUP was totally inclusive and we always invited parents, family members, friends and local residents to participate alongside the kids. Over time all ages of people, all shapes and sizes, from a broad diversity of cultures and socio-economic groups attended classes and were welcomed into our Ohana (family). We presented HICCUP programs throughout the islands until 2002 then decided to focus more specifically on meeting the needs of Puna people. After building S.P.A.C.E. in 2008 our board members chose to change our mission to “developing sustainable local community in Puna Makai.” 

Malama I ke kai 2002
Peace Parade 2009

Out team utilised a very informal teaching style in all HICCUP classes. I figured that after school the students are sick of being under the control and direction of a teacher and tired of listening to group instructions. In our classes, after a very quick group greeting, we progressed directly to individual practise or peer to peer engagements. After my first classes in 1991 everyone learned from someone else who had more mastery of a skill. The knowledge was passed down from student to student – it’s the social circus trickle down theory and it works very, very well. With everyone cast as both student and teacher we all felt much closer as a family without the usual institutional hierarchy that dominates most teaching situations. New skills developed surprisingly fast with this method while group instruction was limited to demonstrating a new prop, safety reminders, acrobatics or rehearsals.

Our class routine typically began with students helping to unload the circus gear from our van. Overflowing with excited anticipation they then chose any prop they fancied and stuck with it for as long as they liked before changing it for something else. Instructors circulated around randomly helping students, and suggesting peer to peer hook ups or prop substitutions, as and when the need arose. Sometimes instructors got to practice themselves, demonstrating more advanced skills for students to learn and showing that we were all still engaged in having fun with the activities, making mistakes and dropping props ourselves.    

Whenever older siblings or parents came around to see what was going on we would give them the hand of a stiltwalker or pass them juggling props to try while they waited. They usually loved the chance to be kids themselves and some became proficient enough to perform with us. We even had mum’s and toddlers playing with us and this approach got families engaged and supportive of our program. Inclusiveness really worked.

Our educational philosophy was founded upon the belief that play is the work of the inner child inside each of us and lots of learning happens when we play. Engaging in play positively supports everyone’s social, emotional, physical, cognitive, language and even literacy skills. Play is essential for overall healthy development. Research shows that participation in activities and hobbies has an essential role in building personal resilience through pleasure, emotion regulation, stress response, peer and place connections, learning and creativity.

It’s claimed that membership in a thriving tribe creates more resilient people. By learning to be positive, committed, and persevering they are much less likely to experience depression and anxiety, and more likely to have healthy relationships. Resilience is an essential attribute for strengthening the ability to overcome difficulties, bounce back and feel positive afterwards. Without resilience to help manage emotions in difficult situations we can quickly become depressed and disillusioned with life. Circus education provides unlimited opportunities to practice resilience skills. It repeatedly demonstrates the value of practice and in a non-competitive environment reinforces that we are all individual’s with our own personal skills and abilities. 

Isla Puamana

Developing the confidence to simply have a go at a new skill is another part of building resilience. Children who never face formidable tasks don’t learn how to deal with them. In circus education we confront physical and mental problems constantly. Resilient children are better equipped to deal with transition, failure and vexatious situations because they develop the ability to rebuild their self-esteem. Our HICCUP programs helped achieve this by using lots of praise and describing numerous failed attempts as steps towards success. We helped our students solve their own problems, make independent decisions and value themselves. HICCUP program activities provided stress in small doses in the context of a safe environment supporting them to respond positively to challenges and disappointments.

An essential teaching tool for developing self-esteem is the setting of realistic goals and targets. Assigning a task that is simply too difficult is counter productive and sets up students to fail and damages their self-esteem. On the other hand not setting realistic goals is equally disingenuous and can stall a person’s progress. Determining the optimum balanced approach for each individual is a pedagogical art. Our HICCUP strategy was to make each task or experience achievable and measurable encouraging the child to develop a sense of pride and confidence as they progressed step by step. 

These circus lessons provided our students with skills to face and rise above the obstacles that inevitably happen in life. My wish was for our program to help our HICCUP students gain a positive attitude to cope better with the disappointments and challenges they will invariably face in their lives. As I attempted to do for myself.

Earthday University Hilo 2004

I can testify that our circus school kids have gone on to be wonderful people! A few become successful in circus careers. Some start their own companies or take on highly valued professional careers. Some don’t. But they change. For one short time in their lives they touched the sky, they did the impossible, they smiled and a crowd applauded. That moment stays with them forever. Through the HICCUP program we were a able to foster human connection and a sense of belonging by encouraging civic engagement, acts of community service plus opportunities for cultural and socioeconomic integration. Circus builds tenacity and resilience enabling everyone involved to transcend their own, and society’s assumptions.

In this way participants in social circus programs learn how to effect change in their lives and also the world around them.  I like to think that after performing in a circus, however small, however local, the world looks different. From that point on, if you work at it, you know if you can be in a family, a group or a community where people support each other, then even the impossible is achievable.

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

One thought on “HICCUP educational philosophy

  1. I cannot express how valuable this was for the kids in rural Hawaii. To succeed at something fun and raise their self esteem was such a gift. Not just a few kids, not a few dozen kids but hundreds. So impressive and Graham, the ring leader is so terribly missed. However, the magic of this circus continues!!!!


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