Let the Games Begin!

Using Olympics to increase engagement and build community

Games in the classroom are obviously fun. But are they educational? What do we learn from games?

I once worked with a teacher who said she never played games, or rather, never used the word game in her classroom. “Everything we do is a learning activity,” she told me. As a new teacher, I adopted her philosophy thinking that games were fun, sure. But they were a waste of valuable instructional time. Recently, however, my GMWP colleague Aaron Pavao enlightened me by his Teacher Workshop on classroom gaming to reinforce classroom goals, encourage collaboration, and increase engagement.

During the summer, my Spanish IV counterpart and I were looking for a new way to kick-off the year. We were chatting about the upcoming Rio Olympic games and it occurred to us to build a short unit to capitalize on Olympic spirit. We planned to emphasize global citizenship and use Project-Based Learning to answer the driving question: What country should host the next Olympic games? The premise would be that students had to do a presentation to the “Olympic committee” about a Spanish-speaking country.

The bulletin board of country flags and awards.

The Project

The first four weeks of class our unit unfolded. In groups of four, students chose countries and got to work researching topics relevant to the Olympics. The driving question was intentionally open-ended. We hoped students would control exactly what they researched and how they presented their findings in order to answer it. The goal was to increase ownership and enable students to take their projects very seriously. Following the presentations students would vote on the winning country where the “Olympics” would be hosted.

“Wait, we’re actually having Olympics?” My students inquired upon learning of the project. Yes, kids. Get excited!

The day following the presentation would commence the games. Each group would participate with their “countries” in several events. To prepare students, we incorporated team-bonding and practice events into our lessons throughout the unit. We shared the list of events and did some preliminary rounds. Each team came up with a patriotic chant (in Spanish), created flags, and talked strategy.

Let the games begin!

We kicked-off the hour with a short opening ceremony that included an Olympic torch gif and the national anthem of the host countries (Puerto Rico in one class, Argentina in another). Our first event was a silly, nonsensical relay where students had to walk across the room and back with Popsicle sticks in their mouths balancing dice. Following were a series of games related to Spanish skills such as: verb conjugation, circumlocution, and cultural jeopardy with questions they had written about their own country presentations.

Keeping Score

First, second, and third place finishers for each event were awarded five, three, and two points respectively. Points were totaled to determine the winning country overall. Our closing ceremony involved the groups earning medals as we listened to the winning teams’ national anthems. Chile and Venezuela brought home the gold!

What I would change:

  • Speaking Spanish: I’d try to hold students more accountable for speaking Spanish during the games. I was able to maintain my instruction in the target language, but with a little more preparation and vocabulary support, students would have been able to do so as well.
  • Structuring Project Requirements: Students wasted some time while working on their projects. I tried to make the requirements open-ended, but a little more structure would have ensured they were on-task and didn’t finish early because their presentation was, in their opinion, good enough.
  • Clarifying Game Instructions: I’ll be honest, one game was a mess! I put post-its around the room and asked them to run and find them to conjugate verbs. It was chaotic and not really well-structured. Seriously, I’m lucky nobody got injured. After playing the game, it was clear more rules were necessary for safe and purposeful execution.
  • Reinforcing the Olympic Spirit: I’d like to spend a little more time reinforcing the idea of the Olympic spirit. Not only do the Olympics invite healthy competition, but they also serve to unify people. Next time I’ll spend more time on written reflection before and after the games.

Why I loved the Olympic Games:

  • Team spirit and camaraderie was amazing. Students made inside jokes with team members who they otherwise probably wouldn’t have gotten to know.
  • ALL students were engaged in class that day. Different types of activities enabled individuals to shine at something different and feel like they contributed to their team.
  • In school we don’t take enough time to play, laugh, and enjoy our students. After this experience I feel so much more connected to them and appreciate the bond they share with their teammates, the class, and myself.
  • I’m hoping the momentum from this unit will carry through the year. Even several weeks after our games students were cheering “¡Cuba, Cuba, Cuba!” with their groups as they were working in their literature circles.
  • Collaboration was at the heart of the entire unit, not only among our students, but between my colleague and I. From start to finish, the Olympic unit was a team effort and there is no way I could have come up with the idea or created everything on my own.

If you were to walk by my room during my Juegos Olímpicos, you may have thought my classroom was unencumbered chaos. Students were running, chanting, shouting, laughing, and singing. To the untrained eye, it may have appeared that I forgot to make a lesson plan and was just letting them run rampantly around the room. But don’t be fooled. Yes, they were wild. But they were engaged. They were bonding. They were using Spanish and experiencing culture. They were unified and celebrating the Olympic spirit.

No longer will I use the euphemism learning activity to hide the fact that we’re playing games in my class. I will proudly say that, not only do my Spanish students play games, we do Olympics. And they are epic.

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