Many students have had the opportunity to attend a circus at some point in their lives, and others have seen movies and television programs about the circus. In this lesson, students will investigate the history of the circus, from Roman times to today. Students should be able to:
1) Describe the various meanings of the word "circus" in different eras
2) Characterize the nature of the circus in different time periods
3) Explain how the circus evolved over time, and why
3) Describe how the circus operates today
After determining how many students have actually attended a circus, invite them to describe the activities occurring in the various rings or above the circus floor. (If many students have not attended, a video could be viewed.)
Divide the class into four to eight groups. Each group should research one “era” of circus history: Roman, 18th Century England/Europe; the Traveling American Circus (this has 6 "eras" of its own); and the Ringling/Barnum and Bailey Circus. Provide students with resources for their research, including the websites listed below. Books and video documentaries about circuses can also help students understand what a circus is all about.
Students should be encouraged to select one component of a circus and write an essay or design a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation. Such components might be: the circus "business," the life of a traveling circus performer, animal training, training for trapeze artists, clowns, ringmaster, daredevils, etc.
Students will present their projects or papers to the class for a class discussion.
Students might compile a detailed timeline of the growth of the circus, from ancient times to today.
Students might also build a model of a circus in a time period of their choosing (e.g., a circus maximus).
Fox, Charles Phillip. American Circus Posters. Dover Publications, 1978.
Jando, Dominique. The Circus Book: 1870-1950. Taschen: 2010.
The Circus in Rome.
The Circus Maximus.
The Circus in 18th Century England/Europe
The Circus in America: 1793-1940
The Greatest Show on Earth: Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey
This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.