February 8, 2011

Learning for the fun of it

West Running Brook student Brianna Lindsay, right, balances a stack of dice on a popsicle stick while teammates JoJo Morse, left, and Maddy Garnick, center, encourage her steady-handed stacking strategy.

DERRY -- In today’s episode of “Academic Jeopardy,” the category is “Game Theory.” The answer, for 500 points and a window into what’s going on in your child’s school: A pair of Derry schools that believe it’s all fun and games until someone learns something.
And that, naturally, answers the question of the day: What do East Derry Memorial Elementary and West Running Brook Middle schools have in common? 
Of course, the bigger, more eternal question for 21st-century educators is how to motivate students to do their best, particularly with the pressures of No Child Left Behind legislation and its many funding loopholes. 
Sabrina Thomas, center, keeps her eyes on the dice 
during a “Minute to Win It” game show moment a
 teammate Miranda DMeo, right, looks on. 

Teacher Monica Cataldo readies some flameless torches
 for teams participating in “Math Survivor: Season 1.”
While it’s nothing new for schools to incorporate team spirit, physical challenges and tangible rewards — a la today’s popular TV game shows — into everyday lesson plans, shining a spotlight on positive results can be inspirational. 
But for schools like East Derry and West Running Brook, just two of the more than 200 schools on the state’s extensive Schools In Need of Improvement list, coming up with creative solutions to lagging math and reading scores are part of the official School Improvement Plan, a federal requirement of NCLB that is based on annual New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP testing.

On Friday, EDMES launched “Math Survivor: Season 1” with much fanfare. Students, geared up in tribal colors, assembled in the cafeteria to the strains of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and sat on the floor in neutral corners, awaiting instructions from game show hostess and Assistant Principal Cara “Jeff Probst” Donati, who welcomed the four tribes — the Red Reasoners, the Blue Balancers, the Green Graphers and the Orange Operators. 
She gave them an overview of how, from now until the end of the school year, mental math skills would be the focus of the daily challenges each team would face, and that there would be no eliminations, but rather a point accrual system for achievement based on individual, classroom and school-wide challenges, all under the watchful eye of the Tribal Council. 
Donati said she came up with the idea of borrowing from the popular “Survivor” reality game show concept after reading about a school in Massachusetts that did something similar on a much smaller scale. 
Principal Thomas Poliseno commended Donati for her exhaustive efforts to create a unique and effective in-school program that could certainly be replicated at any other school in the district. 

East Derry Memorial Elementary School
 Principal Thomas Poliseno introduces students
 to Math Survivor, combining elements of the popular
 reality TV series with everyday mental gymnastics.
The bottom line is improving mental math skills, a state requirement for which there are no particular guidelines for teaching. 
“The state requires students to have a certain level of mastery in math. It’s up to us to figure out how best to do that,” Poliseno said. “Each school adapts what works. For us, Math Survivor is a great way to promote learning while also getting the kids to work together in teams, because we’re all in this together.” 
A mock tribal fire pit was “burning” with the help of a horizontal fan and some flame-colored streamers. 
Brown-painted paper-cup torches were handed out to representatives from each team, who were told to take the torches back to their classrooms “and keep the math fires burning.” 
Whenever students hear the familiar “Survivor” theme song over the loudspeaker, no matter what they’re doing they will know to Drop Everything and Practice, a five-minute skill building exercise that each teacher supervises inside the classroom. There are also take-home tasks, and a bulletin board where rope ladders will chronicle each team’s progress as they climb the ladder of mental math success. 
On the same day East Derry launched “Math Survivor,” West Running Brook Middle School Principal Leslie Saucier and Assistant Principal Lorrie Belinsky were scavenging in the cafeteria for tubular pasta, an essential element for the upcoming “Minute to Win It” challenge. 
“Today’s assembly is all about recognizing the five students who got perfect NECAP scores, as well as those 461 who made or exceeded their math and reading targets,” explained Belinsky. “I was watching the game show, ‘Minute to Win It,’ on TV and thought that the focus it requires, to accomplish a task, is exactly what we want to promote in our students to succeed. We’re going to kick off the assembly with team challenges, mostly for fun.” 
Again, team spirit was apparent as students filtered into the gymnasium bleachers, decked out in color-coded school T-shirts — orange, pink, green, purple and two shades of blue. If your idea of middle school students includes an overriding indifference, punctuated with abundant apathy, think again. 
These students were all revved up for the “Minute to Win It” physical challenges with some pre-competition organized foot stomping, cheering and even a few unsuccessful attempts on the orange team’s part to start a school-wide stadium-type wave. 
In three separate challenges, selected students had to either slide ziti onto spaghetti noodles without using their hands, stack dice on a tongue depressor held in one team member’s mouth, or slide nuts and bolts onto a ruler, without touching them. 
As Belinsky said, the games were meant only to motivate and inspire the students for what they had really been assembled for — cheering their fellow students for their academic achievements on the NECAP tests. 
And in a twist, Belinsky and Saucier also formally recognized teachers and support staff who’d helped each of the five students with perfect NECAP scores along their way — from janitors for keeping the school clean enough to take a test in, to cafeteria ladies, for serving up a nutritious, brain-fueling lunch. Among those present for the pep rally was district Superintendent Mary Ellen Hannon, who said she liked that West Running Brook was celebrating all the hard work that goes into the annual testing process. 
“It reminds everybody to celebrate the successes of our students and the teachers that work hard all year,” Hannon said. “As for this assembly, or the Math Survivor at East Derry, everyone involved in education is looking for ways to engage kids. It’s so not about worksheets anymore. 
There are so many other ways to express your creativity, as educators, and that’s what we’re really celebrating here today.” 

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