Kids, full of energy and exuberance, can barely contain themselves as they pay close and careful attention to every move made by local magician and entertainer, JR Russell.
“Now what’s the secret?” Russell asks when he completes his demonstration. There’s a slight pause as the children search their minds for the answer.
“Physics!” Russell declares.
It’s all part of an after school enrichment program class at Hillcrest Elementary school. The point of it is to engage children in a fun activity and teach them life skills at the same time.
“There’s a whole skill set, life skills, that are falling off,” said Russell. “Kids don’t know how to relate to people. They don’t know how to be polite, they don’t know how to talk in public, they don’t know how to introduce themselves, they don’t know how to competently stand up and say anything. And it’s getting worse.”
While there are advantages to today’s technology, it has come at a price, believes Russel.
“They say we’re in an age of social media, but we don’t know how to be social,” Russell said. “Everything that is a creative outlet is now an app. Whether it’s drawing, writing, singing, everything is an app. Kids don’t know how to tie their shoes? There’s an app for that.
“The flip side of all that is that there’s so much cool stuff out there,” Russell continued. “There’s potential out there, but how do you use that the correct way and mix old school and new school?”
The Oak Harbor School District’s after school enrichment program is one way to combat what Russell feels is missing. Each school in the district is part of the program. Classes vary from school to school and according to student and teacher interests, said Kellie Tormey, communications officer for OHSD.
“After school enrichment programs provide structured learning activities for children outside of their regular day and typically supplement some course topic that pertains to their grade and age level,” she said. “Kids are exposed to a wider range of interests and also have a chance to engage in productive after school activities with their peers.”
In Russell’s case, he said he is teaching important life skills along with magic.
“There’s eight life skills that I’m teaching them that I’m disguising as magic,” he said. “Confidence, humility, respect, creativity, preparation, enthusiasm, generosity and authenticity. But they don’t know I’m teaching them that.”
Each session focuses on a different skill, such as practice and preparation, for instance. The goal is to help kids gain confidence through performing the simple tricks they’ve learned after school. Getting them comfortable standing up and performing the tricks they learn helps build confidence and helps the kids learn to relate to people in a way that also builds some of the other social skills Russell feels they might be missing.
“I start with three basic rules,” he said. “Rule number one – have fun; rule number two – respect; number 3 – it’s all a secret. Just because you know something now you’re not sharing the secret. You can share with your mother or father and you can share the secret with each other, but you don’t go around sharing the secrets of magic. That’s the code.”
Russell, a retired Navy captain who served 30 years, said the structure and leadership skills he learned in the military can easily be applied to learning magic. Since his retirement, Russell said he is fortunate to be doing something he loves and enjoys teaching. He was one of 52 magicians from across the country who was chosen to participate in a workshop recently in Las Vegas to learn how to teach a program called Discover Magic.
“There’s a course that goes eight lessons and there’s another course that I’m calling one-day wonder workshops, where I can take kids for an hour, especially in a school environment, and basically do a magic show, then show them some magic so they can learn it and get the three basic rules out as well,” said Russell. “It’s kind of a teaser to see where I can go from there.”
Russell hopes to get more schools involved in magic classes and has also developed the Northwest Magic Academy where children can enroll in classes. To learn more, go to www.northwestmagicacademy.com or www.jrrussellmagic.com.