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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Madness of March is coming through! You can feel the frenzy of Cinderella stories and brackets busting. The Big Dance. The Road to the Final Four. Call it what you want, but for three weeks, the nation turns its eye to the NCAA tournament, falling in love with underdogs and holding its breath on each buzzer-beating shot. Hoops hysteria begins on Selection Sunday, the night when millions are glued to ESPN, waiting to see which 68 tickets will be punched to the Big Dance.

As teachers, we should create the same excitement, hope and drama in our classes.

I do AP Lit March Madness, a journey to determine the best work of literature that we've read all year. Brackets are made, seeding committees are formed, and each day I put a section of the bracket on the board and the works of literature back in their hands so that my students can vote on the superior work. It's all subjective -- and that's what makes it so spectacular. Students are ready and willing to defend their cherished reads. The student that loved Grapes of Wrath may be crestfallen when it is upset by Shelly's "Ozymandias." Some will argue that Dickinson's "There is No Frigate Like a Book" should go all the way, knocking off such heavyweights like Tennyson’s "Ulysses" or Orwell's 1984. I just tally the votes and smile on the inside as debates form organically with impassioned voices. Through it all, March Madness is a window through which you can see what your students learned, what they valued and what they are willing to argue.

Credit: Brian Sztabnik

Toe to Toe: Wordsworth and Orwell

Here is how I set it up.

Selection Sunday turns into Maker Monday in my class. I play a quick video to set the stage for the excitement that we will try to capture. Here's a compilation of announcer Gus Johnson’s best moments:


I tell the students that we will spend portions of the next three weeks in our own March Madness, determining our own literary national champion.

Students are then divided into roles:

  1. Bracket Makers: I give them four huge pieces of poster board to tape together and make a mega-bracket. They have to mathematically compute how many brackets go on each side, the size of each bracket, and how to evenly space them. We use 32 works (novels, plays, poems and articles).
  2. Seeding Committee: This group makes a master list of everything that we read and then, just like the NCAA Selection Committee, it has to determine the four #1 seeds, #2 seeds, etc, until we have all 32 works ranked.
  3. Class Logo: This group works together to brainstorm, design and develop a class logo and names for each region of the bracket.

Credit: Brian Sztabnik

That Thursday, as the NCAA tournament begins, student voting begins as well. I hand out tiny slips of paper at the door when students enter the room. While they always remember the novels, some poems require a refresher. Those works are waiting for the students on the Smartboard, allowing them to regain a feel for voice, images and thematic weight. I want our bracket to progress at roughly the same speed as the college tournament -- consequently we only tackle a handful of brackets each day. Plus, the progression builds the excitement. Works gain momentum. One year, Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much With Us" emerged out of the pack as a six seed and made it as far as the Final Four. Another year 1984 annihilated the competition. The whole experience would not have the same impact if we did the voting all in one day. The daily process only consumes about ten minutes of a period, but its effect is lasting. Students do talk about it throughout the day -- the favorite marching its way to the Final Four, the injustice of an upset, the thrill of a one-point victory.

Credit: Brian Sztabnik

Open Season

This approach isn't limited to literature. Social studies teachers can set up brackets for the most ruthless dictators or greatest president. Math students can calculate the statistics of the actual teams and make predictions for each bracket. Literacy teachers can set up brackets for favorite characters. Biology teachers can craft brackets featuring the fittest mammals.

Be creative. The brackets are just a context for student engagement -- it makes students look forward to class each day. Just be prepared for the madness that might ensue.

Comments (7)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

I love this idea and think it has so many applications. From fictional characters to historical figures, I can see so many ways to use this. I'll be sure to pass this one along!

Katelyn's picture

This is one activity that I will definitely incorporate into my lessons for next year. I am a basketball fanatic and many of my students this year have expressed interest in the NCAA tournament. I would like to try this out one year with a mathematical approach (like you suggested using statistics), another year with literacy and the novels that we have read thus far in the year, and see how they both work. Keeping students engaged is critical in their academic success. The more that you can relate to what students enjoy, the more engaged they will be, thus the more they will learn. I thought it was great how for the literature bracket students were debating with one another as to which was a better novel!

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY
Blogger 2014

Laura -- we finished the brackets in my class today to match the NCAA championship tonight. It was great. One class came down to a deciding vote between "Ozymandia" and 1984. I built suspense along the way by reading each vote at a time, pausing on the last vote with the score tied 10-10. The students were on the edge of their seats.

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

This would be fun for all ages....

connie gregory's picture
connie gregory
Founder, Lit' for Life Family Literacy Inc

What a fabulous idea! There are so many possible learning opportunities during March Madness! I plan to use it to teach geography to elementary and middle schoolers.
Thanks for sharing!

D. Keller's picture

I love this idea so much! You may have answered this question before, but have you tried this in a non-AP class? I would love to hear about strategies that you used for different students, or if you encountered any obstacles!

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY
Blogger 2014

The first year that I tried the activity I did it in AP and a Shakespeare course that was a senior elective. Don't let the name fool you, it was a mixed bag of students -- basically all the ones that did not want to take Creative Writing.

They took to it as well. I had the students choose their favorite Shakespearean character -- Iago, Romeo, Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, Friar Laurence, Roderigo, etc.

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