I’ve gotten a ton of mileage out of the idea of academic tournaments. Here’s a specific use: guiding students through a discussion of resiliency along with folks who have demonstrated this trait.
The Set Up
I worked with four groups for 90 minutes each: two sets of 5 – 11 year olds and two sets of 12 – 18 year olds. Class sizes ranged from 20 – 30 students. Kids were all identified gifted (many were profoundly gifted) and I didn’t know any of them before hand.
Introduce Resiliency Through Materials
I introduced the concept of resiliency by first discussing rubber bands. We chatted about how rubber bands are not useful just because they stretch, but because they bounce back. I showed an edited and sped up version of this video of a rubber band stretching.
We brainstormed three categories of objects:
- cannot stretch or squash (like a rock).
- can stretch or squash, but don’t bounce back on their own (like the neck of a t-shirt).
- can stretch of squash, and will bounce back on their own (our rubber band).
Naturally, the ideas were fantastic in each group — so much better than if I gave them examples. All four groups mentioned “non-Newtonian fluids”. Kids revealed their deep interests in metals and rocks and I needed their help with spelling many of their ideas!
Then I gave a quick talk about Walt Disney’s incredible failures plus his ability to bounce back.
Then I introduced the possibility of a fourth group. Walt not only benched bounced back, but he got stronger with each failure. Could kids think of objects with the same property? You bet they could.
I proposed that our muscles get stronger when we push them past their breaking point, they named obscure metals and animals.
I finally introduced the word “resiliency” — bouncing back, but also getting stronger.
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Thinking Of Examples
Then, we brainstormed people and characters who displayed this trait. (I added two qualifiers with later groups: people could not be alive [I did not want to deal with current events with kids who I didn’t know well] and people could not be “infamous” [we were getting a lot of Stalin and Hitlers early on]).
This was very fun because kids blew me away with their thinking: lots of Hamilton characters, esoteric historic figures, plus characters from kid-friendly movies. One student gave a passionate explanation of Yi Sun-Sin, a 16th century Korean Admiral (everyone was into Admiral Yi by the end of the period!). I also enjoyed a moment when a student made it very clear he wanted “the original” Martin Luther on the list 😝
I jotted their ideas onto a big list, and then we broke into groups of 3. They had to decide on eight examples. They could use the big list or their own ideas (the list helped a lot of groups get going). We then put those 8 resilient people into a tournament using chart paper, and students decided who advanced in each round. Eventually, each small group came to a winner.
Some of my favorite matchups were:
- Voldemort vs Winnie the Pooh (multiple groups ended up with this one!)
- Eliza Hamilton vs Ruth Bader Ginsberg
- The Buddha vs Abraham Lincoln
- Ghandi vs Martin Luther King, Jr
- Admiral Yi vs Batman
Why Did This Work?
Here were some reasons I think this worked (and got better as I tried it each time):
- Students had many opportunities to share their thinking in non-threatening ways.
- I got better at this by letting students think and write first, then going around and sharing one idea each (they could pass if they didn’t have an idea).
- If the group got a bit wild, I let them tell their neighbors their extra ideas (especially with the younger group).
- I assigned random groups rather than letting groups pick (if I knew this kids, groups could have been planned better). Letting kids pick is bad because some kids are super intimidated and end up roaming alone. You also get cliques popping up. I made this mistake with the first group.
- By jotting their ideas down in a big list, it helped the groups get going faster.
- I emphasized “criteria” so groups had a definitive reason for passing one person along in the tournament.
- I also gave them the instruction to just do a vote for each bracket to avoid intense debate and keep them moving.
- I did very little lecturing (other than the Walt Disney portion) and allowed them to come up with ideas and feel like they were guiding the experience. As a result, each of the four groups was quite different.
You’ll note that most of the qualities are focused on keeping the task’s ceiling high while trying to scaffold the floor down.
In every class, a student asked to do something that we just didn’t have time for:
Could we make a big tournament with all of the groups’ winners?
This would have been a great second round: a tournament of winners. We would have benefited from more research time, a chance to do an official gallery walk, and perhaps a presentation at the end. I could also have turned this into a writing task: explain why one bracket turned out wrong or defend your final choice.
I squeezed this in a bit, but I’d love to have discussed the recovery aspect of resiliency. How do you care for yourself during/after a failure so that you can come back stronger?
Let me know if you give this a try, we had a real blast.
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