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Middle School Games Teach Lessons for Life

Wednesday, March 16, 2016  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Teamwork, collaboration, and communication top the list of 21st century skills that schools strive to teach students along with the usual subjects of English, history, and math. How schools teach those skills in the classroom vary from one campus to another, but teaching them in a way that students retain and reach for in other aspects of their lives is tantamount to any student-related goals in an independent school.

At Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School (HIES) in Atlanta, middle school students participate annually in themed games with a series of academic, physical, and artistic challenges. Competing against their grade-level peers in small group teams, every component of their school experience is called upon in some way during these games, according to Middle School Principal Theresa Jespersen. Each student contributes to the team in different roles, such as leader or recruiter.

This year’s 4th annual games, held February 25-26, were called the Colonial Games. Each team had a goal to establish its own colony and learned about all the different aspects of colonization, from acquiring land to trading for goods to coping with natural disasters. Check out this promotional video HIES created.

Students competed in physical challenges to earn beads, which were used as currency to purchase land, spices, cotton, and food, and even to declare war on another colony. For example, in one timed physical challenge, team members linked arms and all hopped on one foot to the center of the athletic field to pick up colored eggs, which corresponded to beads that they received at the end of the challenge. As they earned beads and acquired more land, they plotted their colonies on a large map in a hallway of the middle school. Students lost beads for breaking the rules or for failing challenges. If they were found guilty of black market trading for beads, they could either go to “jail” or lose squares on the map. “Some of the teams formed alliances, which is interesting,” said Carrie Mocyk, middle school learning resource faculty member. 

Throughout the two days, students traded their roles on the team by exchanging color-coded wristbands, giving every student a chance to lead or to experience the different requirements of each role. “They really have to work together and act in concert with each other,” Jespersen said. “They also have to yield leadership and accept new leadership.” 

The teams followed a highly detailed schedule, with each team and grade level rotating through activities on different parts of the campus. Every area was managed by both faculty and a total of 45 parent volunteers, but the adults did not get involved with the students’ work, other than ensuring they followed the rules. “They had to be really focused and directed, and they had to work things out on their own,” Jespersen said.

Part of the activities included a documentation phase, in which each team reported on their activities by creating a newspaper in a Google doc, which brought a technology aspect to the program. In the end, the teams received awards and rankings based on who had invested the most in their land and infrastructure, acquiring sufficient food and other goods for survival.

The games were created by two middle school teachers at HIES, and the program has been replicated at Montgomery Academy in Montgomery, AL. In February 2014, middle school students at Montgomery participated in "Clash of the Colonies" games. "It was a wonderful experience to turn our campus into a living board game and get our students to realize that learning can happen outside of the classroom but on campus, in unique ways," said John McWilliams, associate head of school. "Holy Innocents' was so gracious to share their video, manual, and documents. A few of their teachers also came down to meet with our committee and kept in touch with us leading up to the games."

With a change in middle school leadership two years ago, when McWilliams moved to the associate head position and Sarah Barton Thomas took the reins of middle school head, Montgomery put the games idea on the back burner but the school hopes to revive the program in the near future. The school created a video to share all the activities of the games.  

Tampa Preparatory School in Tampa, FL, also is looking to launch a similar program in spring 2017. Three middle school teachers went to HIES to observe the games in action this year. “We’re always looking for things that are signature programs and that differentiate us from other schools,” said Joe Fenlon, director of the middle school. “We’ll put a lot of energy into it and we’ll see what happens!”

Teachers from HIES assisted at Montgomery Academy for their games and have volunteered to go to Tampa Prep to help with their program as well. Jespersen said they are considering including a Skype-based challenge with Tampa Prep during the games – an activity to further the powerful lesson of collaboration between students and faculty, and even between schools with highly similar goals. 


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