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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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March Madness Meets AP Lit

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.

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