A Movable Feat
Within Earshot of the Frenetic Midway, Children of Traveling Carnival Workers are Getting a Serious Education
Linda Brewer sits at a blue table at the front of her narrow classroom, working her audience. She shuffles cards and deals. "Carlie! Gabriella! Jordan! Noah! It’s time to check on your states!" This morning, Brewer is using flashcards to teach four students, ages 6 through 11, to identify the shapes of states. At the same time, she keeps an eye on three others bent over their math and spelling assignments, oblivious to their classmates’ shouts of "New Hampshire!" and "No, Vermont!"
With her preppy sweater vest and strand of pearls, the 39-year-old teacher looks more like an assistant professor at an elite college than what carnival showmen refer to as a "talker" and outsiders call a "barker." But that is, in a sense, what she is—reaching out to her audience with her soft voice, using rhythm and repetition to draw in the stragglers at the edges of the crowd. Carlie and Gabriella, 4th and 5th graders, pump their arms in the air, almost bursting with the answer as Brewer holds up the next flashcard. But she looks past them, scanning her audience. "I know you know. I know you know," she tells Carlie and Gabriella. "Let’s get somebody who’s not sure." This carnival operator’s aim is to teach everyone how to be a winner.
It’s no coincidence—the classroom trailer where Brewer works is within sight of a roller coaster and a giant slide. Part cheerleader and part taskmaster, as a teacher in a traveling carnival, she’s the one who makes sure that the children of concessionaires, ride owners, and the other men and women who make up the Conklin Shows carnival know, among other things, the geography of the states they travel.
Jordan, a 3rd grader, finally chimes in: "Ohio!"
"Ohio, that’s right!" Brewer replies.
Memorizing states has to be a cinch for these kids—their carnival’s schedule takes them as far south as the Miami-Dade County Fair in March, as far north as Canada’s Calgary Stampede in July, and as far east as New England’s Eastern States Exposition in September. But over the next few hours, they also tackle long division, diagram sentences, chart the stars, and pick out the C major scale on the school’s portable piano. And that’s just the morning.
On this spring Tuesday, Brewer’s classroom—a 45-foot trailer equipped with two computers, a printer, shelves stacked with paper and pencils, and cupboards full of books and games—is set up at the Belmont Stakes Fair in Elmont, New York, just outside Queens. Because the peak summer season is still a few months off, she and Fara Williams, the school’s second teacher, have only eight students. But when the carnival swells to its full size, the two women will be joined by another teacher and a second, larger trailer to accommodate more than 20 students, from preschoolers to high schoolers, making Conklin International Academy the most ambitious operation of its kind in North America. For that, the carnival can thank Brewer, who has been the driving force of the movement to educate carnival children on the road for the past 15 years.
Brewer, like me, learned how to draw and hold a crowd by working carnival stands. Her love affair with the midway started in middle school, when she began working game concessions for a family friend. Over time, she eventually ran just about every type of carnival game. "I liked working the microphone, that’s for sure," she says. But she never thought she’d have a career just steps from the roller coaster. "I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision, ‘I am going to teach carnival children.’ It was never like that," says Brewer, who was certified to teach high school math when she earned her undergraduate degree from Penn State in 1987. When the carnival company Deggeller Attractions recruited her to help establish a school, Brewer was still spending her summers working carnival games; but she agreed to "play with the idea" of teaching for a year after finishing her master’s in mathematics from Texas A&M in 1989. A decade and a half later, she’s still teaching at the carnival, and while her playful spirit persists, she’s dead serious about educating children of carnival workers.
As I watch her work with the kids, I find myself wishing Brewer had been around when I was growing up with a small show in the 1960s. My parents, who operated game concessions all over New England, took me out of school in the spring when it was time to go on the road. There was little choice, since there was no such thing then as a school that traveled with the carnival. An April morning such as this one would have found me studying in our house trailer; I was the first-ever "correspondence student" in my parochial school—at least until my principal abruptly decided I had to stay at the school until June, separating my mother and me from my father. Today, though, all that has changed. The Conklin school has transformed the lives of kids such as Makyla, 12, the show owner’s daughter, and Matthew, 17, whose parents are independent ride owners. Both come from families with a proud history in the amusement business, and while they are their families’ fourth generation to go on the road with the carnival, they’re the first to attend a school that goes where they do. (About one-fourth of Brewer’s kids attend traditional schools for part of the academic year, but the rest are full-timers at the Conklin school.)
Traveling classrooms for carnival kids didn’t really come on the scene until the 1990s, when Brewer helped the idea get off the ground, and they’re still fairly rare. The trade publication Amusement Business lists 325 carnivals in its annual booking guide, but fewer than a dozen shows have schools. It’s easy to see why. It’s expensive—Brewer’s school costs about $200,000 a year to run and requires parents to run a never-ending series of fund-raisers and raffles to help make up the difference between that sum and their kids’ $2,500 yearly tuition. Then there’s the almost intractable problem of finding a teacher who’s not only qualified to teach a shifting roll of students at many grade levels in different subject areas in the same room but also willing to do so in a trailer that travels across the continent.
"Unfortunately, there’s just not enough Lindas to go around," says Pia Dobos, the administrator of Amusements of America’s Little "A" Academy, one of several carnival schools that Brewer helped set up in the ’90s. According to Dobos, most schools struggle with recruiting and retaining teachers; most have to train new ones every year or two. "You need a very independent person," Dobos says, "a person who is pretty much willing to give up everything to do that sort of thing, and she is."
Dobos isn’t the only one who recognizes Brewer’s gift. At lunch, I chat with Carlie’s dad, Danny King, whose experience being pulled out of school as a youngster mirrors my own. "She gets a great education," says King of his daughter, a vivacious10-year-old who works at the family’s funnel cake stand to earn money for frilly clothes. King believes that Conklin International Academy, which is recognized by the state of Florida, actually gives Carlie a better education than she might get at a school with a fixed address. "It’s amazing," he says. "She gets a lot of one-on-one that you wouldn’t get with another school."
Brewer’s brother, Dean, who teaches physics at Southern Columbia Area High School in eastern Pennsylvania, can attest to that. "Linda’s got a nice system compared to a public school teacher," he says. He adds with a trace of envy, "Since the school is right there in the middle of the workplace, the parents are much more involved in her school than in mine." He’s as amazed by her career trajectory as anyone else, but he says she was always a teacher, incorporating offbeat techniques and funny stories. "Linda was always making up games for the family to play," he recalls. One Christmas Eve, he says, his sister created Mad Libs-inspired handouts with such whimsical original tales as "The Surprising Sock is a Shocking Story."
Brewer’s creative use of games remains a staple of her teaching technique, as evinced by her recent lesson on World War II, which she taught with the help of a map and candy. "As they conquered lands, they would add pieces of candy to a map, and as they were losing they’d have to take the candies off," she says with a chuckle. "It was very visual and fun, and everyone learned."
Not that her class is just fun and games. Some elements of Brewer’s curriculum—particularly her spreadsheet-driven system of daily "contracts" that keeps students on track in their various subjects of study—wouldn’t look out of place in an MBA program. Each student’s contract is a slip of paper divided into five or six subjects—science, social studies, arithmetic, language, spelling/vocabulary, and writing. Assignments range from reading, reviews, and copy lists to composition checks and quizzes. "As they hand in the work, they’ll highlight it on their contract," says Brewer, who developed the system to keep track of everyone’s progress in the multigrade, multilevel school. "But the work’s not done until every repair is fixed. It’s not just done to be right, but done to be understood." It certainly appears to be understood—many of her charges are doing work at advanced grade levels. "If they have been here long enough, they score above average on standardized tests," Brewer notes with pride.
‘You’re probably getting good enough for slope/intercept," Brewer tells Makyla, a 7th grade algebra I whiz, that afternoon. "By the time she’s 15, she’ll be doing calc," Brewer tells me before shifting her attention to a question from Noah: "What blocks particles of the sun?" Meanwhile her co-teacher, Fara Williams, says to Samantha, "Write out your whole story, then we’ll look at the grammar!" as she helps Matthew review the Vietnam War. Nothing has prepared me for the increasingly fast pace of the day’s lessons. It’s as dizzying as trying to keep your eyes on all the spinning, reeling cars on the Tilt-a-Whirl. At one point, it gets so hectic that Brewer suggests I dive in, and I do. Noah needs help with division, and Samantha has a grammar question. I’m not sure my answers are correct, but I remember what Brewer said earlier about what she looks for in a teacher: "The top quality is a willingness to learn because there’s nobody who’s going to just walk into this job."
This isn’t just an idle comment. She’s been wrestling with how best to teach students in this unique environment for the past 15 years—both because she wants to improve her craft and because she sees Conklin International Academy as a prototype for a large-scale reimagining of education on the road. "This is what I want for other shows," she says. "Every time I get the Conklin school to progress, then I know that I can use what I’ve learned to overflow into the industry as a whole."
Other teachers have used work experiences with carnival schools as springboards for different kinds of unconventional teaching. One foundeda charter school in her hometown. Another tutors children who work on movie sets and in Broadway shows. But Brewer’s ambitions are even more audacious. Her "lofty and important goal," as she calls it, is to create a central administration for teachers in the carnival industry schools and to replicate and standardize her contract-based curriculum into an off-the-shelf learning tool, so other teachers won’t have to waste time reinventing the wheel she’s already engineered and refined.
"If I could get this two-dimensional thing," she says, gesturing toward the spreadsheet of student contracts, "into a database...." Brewer pauses for a moment, sighing at the enormity of the task. "Then teachers could just step into the classroom and not have to think about what to teach but how to engage the students at the highest level. It’s taken me 15 years to figure it out."
For now, though, Brewer is guided by the sense that destiny has placed her where she needs to be. "If you’re somewhere, do your very best and wait for the next step, and be ready for the next step. And that’s pretty much what I’m doing—continuing to make this school the best that I can."
Vol. 16, Issue 2, Pages 22-25Published in Print: October 1, 2004, as A Movable Feat