Elementary school students learn teamwork through circus arts and tumbling

Globe walkers spin lights in a darkened gym during the final performance. (Photos courtesy Kadee Gray)

Last week, students at Cedar Way Elementary in Mountlake Terrace jumped, flipped and globe-walked their way into the hearts of hundreds of watchers as a school year of hard work culminated in the second-ever C-CATS performances. C-CATS, which stands for Cedar Way Circus Arts and Tumbling Squad, is a unique PE program led by Cedar Way teacher Kyle Gray.

“The hardest part is trying to describe what it is,” said Gray, who also coaches men’s basketball at Edmonds College. “It’s taken a life of its own.”

The program goes like this: Throughout the year, during PE class and a before-school program, kindergarten through sixth-grade students are introduced to skills including tumbling, globe-walking, pogo-sticking, unicycling, jump roping, juggling and various combinations of these skills (pogo-sticking double-dutch, for example). Students can practice what they like in gym class, and if they are feeling confident in a skill, they audition for the performance group. The performance group practices at the end of the year during school, when groups of students learn segments of the performance. As the school year ends, the different segments — many of whom haven’t seen each other –come together in a coordinated spectacle of acrobatics set to music.

Sadie Hoss and Cedar Way third-grade teacher Dave Pacher  lay down mats for safety at the C-CATS performance Friday, June 23.

“I think it is important to note the students are not forced to do any particular part of C-CATS – they can just start with one portion of it and stick with that,” Gray said. “So if they don’t want to learn to unicycle they will never be forced to get on one.”

Gray also emphasized that safety is the first step. “The very first thing every student is taught is how to fall and dismount safely,” he said in an email. “There is also progressions for everything. You can’t just try a flat-mat flip, you have to progress from the wedge mat to the flat mat while I assess you. We spend a lot of time talking about creating a supportive environment where students feel safe to fail. It means they are trying new things and that is something that should be encouraged rather than laughed at.”

This year, 212 kindergarten through sixth graders – nearly half the student body — participated in the final performance at Cedar Way. “Couldn’t be more proud of those kids,” Gray said in an email after the performance.

C-CATS of all ages cheer on their peers while they wait to perform.

Gray developed this program while teaching at Viewlands Elementary School in Seattle. He was inspired by a similar program, the Seattle Cirque and Acrobat Teams (SCATS), run at Dearborn Park Elementary. With the help of a fresh budget, a staff of early career teachers at Viewlands, an enthusiastic PTA, and an inspiring performance from Dearborn’s SCATS, Gray was able to “hit the ground running” with his version of SCATS.

“I added a little twist to it of my own, just like you do with anything. I added pogo sticking, that seemed to be something we could add, and it’s kind of an entry way now, here, into C-CATS,” he said.

When Gray moved to Cedar Way two years ago, there was no question whether he was going to bring the program to his new school. He was also determined to ensure the performance group was free for students.

“It’s really important for me that we try to keep this no charge to them,” Gray said. “You know a lot of those kids, the best part of their day is PE. And to find ways to be challenged in that really makes a big difference for them. It’s something they can’t really get somewhere else; you know, they can’t just go to a park and do this.”

Cedar Way is Title I school, meaning it receives federal funding specifically for programs to help close education achievement gaps. Over half of students at Cedar Way qualify for free or reduced lunch, and over a quarter are designated English Language Learners. Gray noted that the nearest sport to what students learn in C-CATS is gymnastics, and “gymnastics is super expensive.”.

Kelcie Trine is a C-CAT parent and a PTO board member at Cedar Way. She was there when Gray asked for funding for the C-CATS, and explained it would be a long-term investment. ‘

“As a Title 1 school, we understand not all of our students have access to the equipment or skill sets required to learn these new things. By providing funding to the C-Cats, we are offering more accessible diverse physical programming to our students,” Trine said in an email. “The end-of-the-year performance is the highlight of the year for most students, who can showcase talents and abilities that otherwise wouldn’t have been developed without this program.”

C-CATS show off their tumbling while a student walks on a globe behind them.

Trine’s son Tucker participated in the first ever C-CATS performance last year, as a kindergartener, doing flips.

“As a kindergarten parent, I was blown away at the level in which he was able to incorporate all K-sixth-grade-level students with a range of abilities,” she said. “What really struck us was the encouragement that all the students displayed towards each other — chanting their names, cheering and how proud they were of themselves and each other was astonishing.”

Riley Nakamura is a fifth grader and a “team leader,” according to Coach Gray. She said one of her favorite parts of C-CATS is the positive, supportive environment.

“When people fell, they got back up, no one made a comment, everyone would cheer for them,” she said. “There was a lot of partnership, there was no being excluded.”

Addison Anderberg, another fifth grader, said her favorite part is “The excitement and joy it all rushes through your body when you are waiting for your turn to go out and perform!”

Students in C-CATS learn more than just their physical skills. They learn how to overcome failure, mitigate safety, and above all else, how to work as a team while developing their own skill.

“I think any PE teacher would tell you that, at the elementary level, one of the hardest things to teach is how to be on a team,” Gray said. “And this kind of tricks you into being on a team. When you’re not performing, you’re cheering on your team. We have over 200 kids that are all formulated on the same team, and they don’t realize it. They’re supporting each other.”

— By Mardy Harding

 

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