Juggling academics on tour with Cirque du Soleil

Masks used in the show (Photo: Rocky Smolin)
Masks used in the show (Photo: Rocky Smolin)

By Marsha Sutton

Attending school in a traveling circus is much the same as normal school. Yet at the same time it’s as different as night and day.

At Cirque du Soleil, trailers adapted for school are transported from city to city across the continent and are occupied by students who utilize workbooks, textbooks, a library, art, computers and other curriculum materials one expects to see in traditional educational facilities.

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Teachers Patricia Elliott and Julie Grenier (Photo: Rocky Smolin)

Once inside, there is no mistaking the space for anything other than a classroom. There, the students are like other ordinary children — studiously learning math, reading, writing, history and foreign language in consistent, stable surroundings.

The difference is that the outside keeps changing.

Currently showing in San Diego at the Del Mar Fairgrounds is “Totem,” a visual wonder of spectacular proportions. The show travels with 60 trucks, 120 employees and performers, 60 more family members, and literally tons of sets, lights, electronics, musical instruments, 250 costumes and accessories, physical therapy equipment, gymnastic equipment, a full kitchen, security — and of course the giant blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau tent.

When the tour heads to Boston after its run in San Diego ends May 27, the outdoor landscape will once again change for the children in this most unique of schools.

Totem tours with 21 children under the age of 18. Eleven attend the Cirque school, and 10 of them are 5 or younger. Three little ones will start school this fall and join the 11 older students, bringing the total enrollment up to 14. With three full-time teachers, that’s a fairly nice ratio.

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Teacher Marie-France Roy outside “Totem” classroom (Photo: Rocky Smolin)

Because Cirque du Soleil is based in Montreal, the teachers, all Canadian and fluent in both English and French, follow the Quebec curriculum and report in to a pedagogical director regularly. Standardized instructional materials are used, and grade-level assessments are given each year to measure achievement.

“We do a subject-specific division,” said teacher Patricia Elliott. “I get the students for math and science, Julie [Grenier] gets them for English, and Marie-France [Roy] gets them for French and social studies.”

Elliott, who has been teaching for 10 years, nine with Cirque du Soleil, said she applied for the job for the opportunity to travel.

“And professionally it’s very stimulating,” she said. “You can do projects and you have a lot of flexibility with the activities. It makes it very interesting for us and for the kids.”

Marie-France Roy, who also teaches citizenship, history and economics, has been teaching for 11 years, the last five with Cirque du Soleil. Besides the opportunity to travel, she was attracted to the chance to teach in different contexts with very small groups.

“So I applied and was lucky enough to get the job,” she said.

“I’m the oldest one here,” said Julie Grenier, who has been teaching for 20 years – at all grade levels, in both French and English, and internationally. She came upon her teaching career with Cirque du Soleil after seeing the show in Mexico and noticing a young performer.

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