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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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Little Statesmen: Teaching Geography on the Spot

Last year was my first experience as a tutor at Salvador Elementary School, in Napa, California, for ArtLinks, an after-school arts-integration program created by Salvador and On the Move, a nonprofit organization focused on building effective leadership within the public sector. I volunteered because my girlfriend was the coordinator for this recently launched pilot program. I came to keep her staff afloat. I came to be a male presence. I came to play soccer with the kids because it was cheaper than a gym membership.

When the school started paying me for my time, I stepped right into an activity rotation slot on Fridays. My girlfriend lined one-third of the kiddies up behind me that first Friday and whispered, "So, now what are you going to do?"

My eyes settled on a map of the United States painted on the school's blacktop. We could form teams and race across the map -- advancing by identifying state names and winning by crossing the finish line in Maine. The rest of the rules I would make up as we went along. And though I'm comfortable in geography, I was relieved that first day when the whistle blew. The leading team stood on Colorado, perched on the edge of my cartographic acumen. I had some brushing up to do.

"Maya?" guessed Felix at the buzzer of my five-second countdown -- a good guess in a pressure moment. We were at the end of a third straight Friday of our after-school geography race, and all three teams -- Andrew, the Four Musketeers, and the Travelers -- huddled around a purple-painted Maine with blacktop showing through the cracks and a tuft of chamomile where Nova Scotia should be.

All three teams, consisting of kids in grades 1-5, were familiar with Maine because I had told them in the beginning the first team to reach "that purple state all the way up there" would be the winner. But I didn't tell them they'd have to know the name of the capital.

Our game worked like this: A team had to stand on the state they wanted to move to and announce its name or, if they didn't know it, request help by asking another question about the state. Teams could advance only to a state bordering the one they stood on, and two teams could not be on the same state. To move forward, a team either had to leapfrog the team ahead or take a southward or northward route around them. One team pioneered the technique of gaining a foothold on the sliver of Mexico the map's painters had included and on their next turn inching along to Texas, bypassing Arizona and New Mexico.

If a team named the state correctly, I asked them a bonus question. For example, in Utah, I asked, "This state has a large lake filled with what unusual substance?" The group mulled it over before shouting, "Ice!" Back in Nevada, my description of Las Vegas got a playful glare from the program coordinator; in Arkansas, Little Rock provided a fun round of charades; Cape Cod involved Dracula and fish; and then we were in Maine and the students were trying to guess its capital from this clue: It's the name of a month followed by the letter a.

Having struggled through the cumbersome guesses of "Novembera," "Octobera," and "Decembera," Miguel shouted, "Julia!" after Felix's "Maya." Getting closer. "Marcha"? Nope.

And then, finally, Justin shouted out, "Augusta!"

"What month is in 'Augusta'?" the kids demanded during my applause.

"August," I said.

"Ohhhh," a chorus of students rang out.

Now that we've conquered America, it remains to be seen what we'll do next year. But I do know three things: The budget can support a few cans of paint, there are six other continents in the world, and there is a lot of empty space on that blacktop.

What do you think of this geography game? Feel free to send your comments.

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