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April 11, 2013

Diversity taught through laughter

Performers provide character education in circus-themed show

By Michelle Miller
Cooperstown Crier

---- — It’s not always the biggest guy who is the strongest, the short girl might be a great basketball player, and the kid with the funny clothes and accent might just turn out to be a best friend.

This was the message brought to Cooperstown elementary students during two performances of “Diversity Circus” on Friday. The show was performed at the district to further reinforce its character education program, and more specifically explain in an engaging way what the Dignity for All Students Act truly means, according to Christine McBrearty-Hulse, the elementary counselor.

McBrearty-Hulse said teachers were asked to educate students about the word “diversity” before having students see the traveling performance from Michigan. She said each month students learn about a character trait — the word for March was respect, and the word for April is dignity.

“With the recent ‘Dignity for All’ regulations from New York state, this program addresses the topic head on,” she said. “It is important to educate students early about the meaning of diversity more so than just a person’s size, shape and skin color.”

McBrearty-Hulse said the concept of diversity means to accept and respect. It means understanding that each individual is unique, exploring those differences in a safe positive and nurturing environment and understanding each other and not treating people unfairly on their differences, she added.

According to the show’s creator, Doug Scheer, learning to accept others is the ultimate form of bully-proofing. Living in the metropolitan Detroit area, home of the largest population of Arab Americans in the U.S., Doug and his wife, Heidi, wanted their sons to learn to be fair to everyone and to treat others the way they wanted to be treated.

“We wanted them to understand that people who are different from them — people who don’t look or act like they do — have the same feelings inside. We wanted them to know that it’s okay to be different and that different isn’t bad. We have more than a passing interest in helping kids understand this — our son Gannon is different. Gannon, 11, has PDD-NOS (one of the five autism spectrum disorders),” wrote Doug and Heidi in the “Autism Spectrum Quarterly” spring 2012 publication.

Heidi, who plays Smudgy the Clown in the show, began researching autism as soon as Gannon was diagnosed and has become a national spokeswoman and advocate for the autism community.

During the performance, children learn respect with a version of Aesop’s fable of “The Lion and the Mouse”; Martin Luther King Jr.’s message is presented as “The Amazing See-Through Kid” and even a kindergarten student from the audience helps prove that people should never judge others based on their appearances.

Doug, the ringmaster, began the show by moving an oversized box of blue crayons to demonstrate the value of diversity. While showing crayons that all look the same he asks, “What fun are they?”

“A real box of crayons is better than this,” he told the students watching from the gymnasium floor.

“In a real box of crayons, some are blue, but others are red, yellow and purple,” he continued. “Some are thin, some are thick and others are sharp. Some are dull and there is short ones and tall ones. Some even have crazy wrapping papers and funny names, but you can’t draw a nice picture if they’re all the same.”

Over the course of the show, children are taught to be F.A.I.R. — an acronym that stands for Fair, Aware, Include and Respect.

Smudgy the Clown does not use words to communicate. Instead, she uses honks of a bicycle horn, whistles and hand gestures along with facial expressions to get her messages across. 

“Smudgy doesn’t talk like the rest of us,” Doug told audience members, “but you can understand her pretty well if you give her a chance.” 

As part of the show, five students were brought in front of their peers and given puzzle pieces. Doug puts the pieces together, but only four of the five pieces fit together seamlessly.

“I’m afraid everyone isn’t going to fit,” he said.

Smudgy comes storming out blowing her whistle reminding Doug he must include everyone. Doug tries again, making it work the second time.

Doug and Heidi have been putting on school assembly productions since 1987. Some are curriculum-focused, but 75 percent of their shows focus on character education. The first was called “Les Trouble, P.I. (Problem Investigator),” a conflict resolution show and their flagship production. According to the performers, “Les Trouble, P.I” began morphing in 1999 after the Columbine shootings. Doug and Heidi said after analysis by the Secret Service found that bullying played a major role in more than two-thirds of premeditated school shootings, they began receiving requests for a bully-proofing show. That is when “The Mystery of the Super Character Surprise” was born.

Two years later, after 9/11, the couple asked themselves whether shows about bully-proofing and conflict resolution were really enough. Doug then wrote “Diversity Circus.”

The performances at Cooperstown were made possible through funding provided by the Cooperstown Parent Teacher Association.