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Track and field star David Oliver joined students from 51st Avenue Academy at Madison Square Garden in 2012.

Track and field star David Oliver joined students from 51st Avenue Academy at Madison Square Garden in 2012.

Mackenzie McCluer

First Person: Bringing the Olympic spirit to my fifth-grade classroom

Last spring, I felt as if all of the energy and momentum of the first half of the year was being sucked into a vortex. Was it caused by consecutive years of teaching the same grade, or was the inevitable arrival of test season to blame? I knew my students were feeling it too; I found myself refereeing more than the usual number of disputes over pencil ownership and hurt feelings. It was about that time that a link appeared on GothamSchools: “How to get an Olympian into your classroom. Teachers, apply here to adopt an Olympian to work with your school.” It sounded like something that would be good for kids, so I applied. The truth? I am a full-on Olympics fanatic, so I applied.

The organization behind this intriguing offer was Classroom Champions. Their stated mission is to use Olympians and Paralympians as role models for success and goal-setting, while increasing students’ digital literacy. They would accomplish this by connecting athletes and students via blogs, videos, and live video chats.

I teach a fifth-grade Integrated Co-Teaching class that includes general education students and students with special needs. Engagement and community are always issues. I was hoping that Classroom Champions would give me a boost in these areas. It sounded so cool; what kid wouldn’t want to meet an Olympic athlete? But I’m never really sure that what thrills me will have the same impact on my students.

Each class is paired with an Olympic or ParaOlympic hopeful, and each month the program has a theme, such as Community or Goal Setting. I know that my students hear me remind them to treat each other well or to do their best. I suspect that to them, I sound like the adult in a “Charlie Brown” cartoon- mwa, mwa, mwa. It turns out, however, that they do listen when their athlete sends them a greeting and a message in a video. At first, they just sort of parroted the sentiments: I will treat people with respect; I will set a goal and work toward it. But the videos that the students create using the program-provided Flip video camera show that Classroom Champions is touching something deeper. Sometimes their videos have the raw intensity of a reality-show confessional:

Some people laugh at me; how I dress and talk. I want them to stop. But I know that I also need to be nicer and friendlier. If you were the new kid, I would show you around and sit with you at lunchtime. I would make you feel at home. I want to be a better friend. I’m going to read at least one book a week to raise my reading level. Kids think I’m bossy. Sometimes I get involved in issues that are none of my business.

I started to see my students in a different light. I thought that they would be reticent about having others see their videos, but the exact opposite has been the case. They write, revise, and film their own thoughts and skits, and can’t wait to share them. One child, who never speaks, not even to her teachers, has recorded three videos. On camera, she shines like the sun. My principal has commented that my students are unafraid to express themselves, and I believe that she meant it in a very positive way.

It turned out that Classroom Champions has put some powerful bait in my room. The self-motivated are all over it, and the reluctant learners are sitting up and taking notice. Students who struggle to complete writing assignments will write and revise in order to use the Flip camera. Geography is more interesting when you use map coordinates to track your athlete. It’s more fun to do a landmark data project when you use your athlete’s stats, and see your work posted to the program’s website. Classroom Champions does not make the content connections for me; it’s been a conscious effort on my part to integrate the program into the curriculum. Teachers have to post two lesson plans per month to the networking site, so I’m sure that as the program grows, so will the bank of lesson ideas.

Through its technology sponsors, Classroom Champions has provided its classrooms with teleconferencing equipment for “live chat” with our athletes. We are preparing for this now, and it would have been the high point of the year, except that my class had the unexpected thrill of watching our athlete compete live and then meeting him in person at Madison Square Garden. It was an intense experience for some of the kids, one of whom cried with joy, and another who found it a bonding experience and told me in a letter that “it felt like we were a family.”

Last spring I clicked on a link and made three wishes: to engage students, to improve their communication skills with the use of technology, and to provide them with some useful life lessons. The program, for us, has delivered. It is a resource, not a cure-all. Some of my students still don’t like each other, but they manage to get along. Not everyone is sticking to their plans in order to reach their goals, but many are. Yes, it requires a little extra work on my part. I have to find ways to integrate it into my plans, but I like being able to mold it to my needs. I never know when our athlete’s video will post, so it’s up to me to keep the momentum going. This is not difficult, as we enjoy all the photos and videos that the other athletes and classes are posting. Every time we make a video, I wish we kept the room neater. C’est la vie; I stopped stressing about it. Our athlete may not always come in first, but there are lessons, important ones, to be learned about how to handle disappointment and adversity. The bottom line is that Classroom Champions is what you make of it. You can choose to bring it to the forefront, or you can keep it in the background and draw from it as needed.

Classroom Champions said that it would connect students and athletes, and it has. David Oliver, a 110-meter hurdler, is our athlete. You can be sure that my students and I will be watching all of the Classroom Champion athletes competing this summer in London, but we will be cheering longest and loudest for David. He is my students’ hero, and he is their friend.

Lois Kivelson teaches at 51st Avenue Academy in Elmhurst, Queens. Classroom Champions is accepting applications for next year’s class-Olympian partnerships through March 31.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.