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How to mine Sochi Olympics for teaching and learning

This is an updated version of a piece that Jeffrey S. Hacker, a teacher at Beall Elementary School in Rockville, wrote years ago for The Washington Post about the possibilities that the Olympic Games provide for teaching.

 By Jeffrey S. Hacker

Every few years, most school children across America lose out on an extraordinary opportunity for learning. By and large, teachers throughout our country forego the chance to make the most of a spectacle that offers a rich array of possibilities for teaching students: the Olympic Games.

For most of their history, the Summer Games and the Winter Games took place the same year. The moment when teachers could turn to the games as a tool for teaching came about only once every four years. Nowadays, we are treated to one version or the other every second year. Since the Summer Games rarely start as late as September, after the school year has begun, it is typically the Winter Games that present this opening for teachers. Yet chances are that few teachers are looking to the upcoming Games, to be held in Sochi, Russia, as the ripe opportunity for learning they are.

The Olympics can be mined for rich learning possibilities in dozens of ways and across all academic content areas. This applies to all grade levels. Whether speaking of history, geography, art, culture, science or mathematics, there are myriad ways to hook the attention of children and deliver to them rich, exciting and valuable lessons, by making the Olympics a high-profile area of focus for a few short weeks.

Teachers can begin by discussing with students what the games are and the history and spirit of the Olympic Movement. In the current Olympiad, Russia, the host country, and the Black Sea region of eastern Europe can be highlighted. Students can make flags of the nations as well as a set of Olympic rings to hang in the classroom or school hallway, thereby creating an Olympic environment that can last as long as the Olympic flame itself burns.

In order to study the Olympics to their fullest, schools should communicate with parents and encourage them to promote watching events on television, beginning with the always moving, visually beautiful and culturally rich opening ceremonies. It should be stressed that parents and their children watch together and discuss the spirit of competition, dedication, endurance and sportsmanship.

Schools themselves can promote this home-based activity by encouraging teachers to lessen the homework load for those few weeks. Students in the intermediate grades and above should be asked to take notes about events they view, and each morning in school, a daily update can be devoted to having them informally report aloud on what they’ve seen. Students become reporters in a program such as this.

The visual presence of the games in the classroom can grow during the course of their run. Students can be asked to bring newspaper clippings to school to help an Olympics bulletin board evolve day by day. Graphs on a variety of subjects can be made: favorite sports to watch, the medal count, “sports we’d like to try.” This display can be embellished with original artwork of mountain vistas, ski jumpers, and speed and figure skaters.

Students can write and present mini-biographies on individual athletes, or report on events they knew little about, such as the luge or biathlon. Students can compile an Olympics vocabulary list, categorizing dozens of new verbs, nouns and adjectives.

The Olympics provide an excellent opportunity for students to gain greater knowledge of world geography and of the metric system of measurement. They come to a more thorough understanding of the meaning of meters and kilometers. Time and decimals take on a greater significance as they watch competitors try to outdo one another by tenths, hundredths and even thousandths of a second. They learn more about averaging as they watch judges score the ice dancing competition. The list of possibilities goes on and on.

One final area that can be beneficial to young people is for them to see the ways in which the Olympic Games strive to unite rather than divide nations. They show that people can cooperate beyond borders and beyond their differences to come together in an international celebration of excellence.

To culminate a class’s Olympic studies, it has been my practice to have each child create a final Olympics folder, with a decorated cover, table of contents, reports on events and other items that students wish to include. This permanent keepsake can become a cherished reminder of a particularly exciting moment in a child’s education.