When it comes to teaching children life's lessons, Keri Burneston isn't like most grown-ups.
Instead of collecting brochures and spoon-feeding trite aphorisms, she corrals a professional clown, a few facts about bugs and throws a circus.
For the past few months, under Burneston's direction, 40 pupils from Johnston Square Elementary School have practiced stilt-walking, unicycling and other circus stunts in preparation for "BUGS Circus." Baltimore's Living Classrooms Foundation and performance art group Fluid Movement are presenting the project at 7 tonight and 4 p.m. tomorrow at Christ Lutheran Church, 701 S. Charles St.
This is no flea circus. Since October, the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders have been a part of Baltimore Urban Gardening with Students (BUGS), working hard inside warehouses and trailers, and learning facts about insects and their environment.
Burneston and BUGS program director Heather Rebstad said BUGS aims to improve pupils' social skills, math and reading grades by enriching them with hands-on learning that includes gardening, art, music, cooking and nutrition.
"We're all about offering the kids new experiences," Rebstad said. "We give them an incredible amount of responsibility, but we also give them the skills, knowledge and resources they need to succeed."
Funded by the Maryland State Department of Education, BUGS is based on academics related to the state curriculum. But even some children might not realize that the program is education disguised as something "cool."
The success and appeal of the program, in its fourth year, inspired Burneston to incorporate her talent of performing into the mix.
As founder of the eccentric group Fluid Movement, known for its hot dog operas and water ballets, her idea for a circus featuring insect escapades wasn't anything out of the ordinary.
Along with BUGS, Burneston's muse for the project was a trapeze and acrobatics workshop she attended in Vermont, which introduced her to the world of the youth circus and its value in teaching confidence and encouraging exercise.
She decided to pitch the idea of a BUGS Circus to Rebstad and her board of directors at Fluid Movement.
Under Burneston, Fluid Movement, in its fourth year as a community-based, nonprofit arts organization, has evolved into a collaborative troupe.
It has always sought to involve members of the neighboring community in its high art-made-accessible productions. But last summer, rather than perform another of its popular water ballets at Patterson Park pool, it partnered with the Constellation to present the Go-Go Pirate Show -- a takeoff on Treasure Island -- on board the historic ship in the Inner Harbor.
The BUGS Circus marks the first time it will present a show in which all the performers are children. Burneston says working in partnership with Living Classrooms accomplishes many things at once, including the expansion of possible artistic ideas and a greater opportunity to build community.
"It's funny that it took me so long to bring the two together," Burneston says. "I'm sharing my greatest passion with children that I love."
Rebstad was eager to have Living Classrooms collaborate on a performance that would benefit not only the children in the BUGS program, but the greater community.
"It's a tremendous venture and partnership," she said. "The circus is a great example of taking them out of their environment and exposing them to a world they would otherwise never know, with the ability to succeed in it, which will also benefit their parents and school."
Burneston hopes the circus will expand Fluid Movement's horizons and prompt more of its members to get involved with children.
She says the project has also taught her to "not to take anything for granted, to stay positive and keep it fresh."
"This type of supplement is invaluable to [children's] education, and it brings delight back to their childhood," she said.
The circus features juggling fireflies, tumbling caterpillars and globe-rolling dung beetles -- all brought to life by a group of elementary school pupils who have been working three days a week to perfect their creepy-crawly circus performance.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey-trained clown Greg May was brought in to teach the children and adults the tricks of the circus trade. Eventually Fluid Movement volunteers were coaching circus routines.
"There has been something every kid can excel at," Burneston said. "And they are learning those intangible things that will impact their lives at school and at home: to work together, face challenges and continue to push themselves."
Fourth-grader Olivia Thomas, 10, who plays a jump-roping fly in BUGS Circus, appreciates the opportunity to take part in activities she doesn't get at school. Her only complaint: "Still having to practice when my feet hurt." But as she hops back in line with fellow "fly girl" Jazmin Lomax, 9 -- who says "This show is going to be the best!" -- excitement and pride seem to be sufficient medicine.
"There are incredible things kids can do when they want to do it," May said. "The magic is not in the actual circus skills. It's in the kids who have the confidence in learning and performing them."