Teacher talk: GervOlympics: Taking a big risk on just a hunch

Posted: Friday, December 02, 2005

Not long into the school year, I started dreaming again about an event that I have always wanted to put together and do with my geometry students. My vision was modeled after one of my favorite days in elementary school, Olympic Day. Olympic Day at Farwell School was a schoolwide competition where all students competed in events like the wheelbarrow race, the obstacle course and the 100-yard dash. We took the entire day off to catch water balloons and carry eggs. Together, we all tried our best and together we had a blast. My best friend, Rebecca, and I were so into it that we even ordered, from the Sears catalog, special matching sweat suits for our mighty, important three-legged race. I wanted to figure out how to create that kind of kid excitement at the high school level and to have the underlying premise be "having fun with math."

About a month ago, I mounted the energy to execute a celebration of sorts. I called it the GervOlympics. My dream was to have my students compete as teams in mini-math challenges of my own creation. I scheduled it in the afternoon on a half-day during conference week, in order to give kids a choice about being there. I wanted my students to celebrate their learning together, but most of all I wanted them to be there because they wanted to be.

So many of the math standards I am asked to address don't seem like math to my students. As a fellow math teacher recently reminded me, some math standards "live in the shadows" and therefore, take a back seat to calculations and correct answers. Standards like problem-solving, logical reasoning, spatial reasoning, communication and developing strategies are very valuable skills, but they require consistent practice in order to show improvement and are hard to assess. Sometimes I find that a little healthy competition, where the stakes are raised and performance is needed, is just the thing needed to hit those standards a little harder. Through the GervOlympics, I wanted to challenge my students to work together to solve their problems, to work more quickly, to develop their strategies ahead of time, to think logically and to play fair.

Designing a culminating event, like the one I threw together, is not a new idea. When I taught in the Phoenix Program, more than six years ago, our program geared up three times a year for big culminating events far more grandiose than mine. Those performances represent some of my most memorable moments as a teacher. Seeing kids take basic information you have been teaching them or encouraging them to discover, make it their own, and apply it to new and more challenging situations can be breathtaking magic. Though the process takes time, nurturing and endurance, I find that when I can launch a project with the right energy and can maintain that energy through the low points, then all I need to do is get ready for the show.

The GervOlympics did not match my vision, but an initial stab at a developing idea rarely does. It was, though, a great first round with around 90 students participating in some crazy math dramas like Creative Hoops, Big Time Logic, Speed Crane, Least to Greatest, and the 2X4 Challenge. My students laughed and focused and laughed some more. There was risk-taking happening, and some kids even got a little worked up. All in all, they handled themselves well. At one point, I found myself getting ready to launch the Sampan Challenge, which involved origami boat folding, two troughs of water, straws and cans of Playdough. Eleven teams of two sat in rows along a skinny table before me. I made them sit with their hands held in the air to keep the sneaks from starting their folding a little too early. As they looked up at me, waiting for the signal, I scanned the table one last time. I flashed back to that feeling of anticipation I liked as a kid, when Rebecca and I were tied together in our matching outfits, ready for the whistle. I looked down at my students, and I could see the little kids inside of them so clearly. For me, that moment made the GervOlympics worth the energy. I took a risk on a hunch that my current mix of students could meet me halfway on my idea, and they exceeded my expectations. I've been recovering ever since.

• Mary-Lou Gervais is a math teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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