Academic journal article Social Education

May Madness! A Classroom Competition Merges Historical Research with Public Debate

Academic journal article Social Education

May Madness! A Classroom Competition Merges Historical Research with Public Debate

Article excerpt

"When I first was told about May Madness I wasn't really sure what to expect. I thought that I wasn't going to be able to get in front of a group of judges and speak about my historical figure.... I was also not sure what to ask during cross the examination. May Madness was more exciting than I expected. It brought out the competitive side of the students. The challenging part for me was deciding what exactly to choose from my characters' accomplishments to show they took a stand and were influential.... Every time the judges gave us feedback, it gave us a chance to improve our speeches," (2006 runner-up representing Katharine Graham).

Many Advanced Placement (AP) teachers may struggle, as I did, with what to do with their students after the national examinations in early May. My advice is to do as the musician Prince once suggested: "... Go Crazy!" While I'm not suggesting a dance party in the classroom, I am recommending a phenomenon of a different kind: my cure for the post-exam blues is the "May Madness" competition.

For our May Madness final project, my AP U.S. History students and I make a list of native-born or naturalized twentieth century Americans and place them into a bracket--much like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournaments. The students then debate, head-to-head, which historical figures were "more significant" until we have a Final Four and, eventually, a winner. By the end of the tournament, the class has determined the most significant American of the twentieth century.

Origins of the Madness

Somewhere along the line of my 12 years in education, I must have heard about a "tournament of historical figures," and, as all good educators do, I appropriated the idea, putting my own spin on it in the process. I also borrowed the name, May Madness, from the March Madness college basketball tournaments.

In the inaugural year of the tournament, the competition was not one, but several tournaments, in fact. The students had to create their own individual tournaments; each student wrote four essays, one for each of the four regions of competition: East, West, Midwest, and South--just like the NCAA basketball tournaments. In the beginning of their essays, each student had to "seed," or rank, their historical figures--who the "favorites" and the "dark horses" were in that region--and explain why.

For the past four years, however, May Madness has gotten away from pencil and paper and moved to the podium. Instead of having the students write essays about their individual tournament decisions, we have a class tournament and have judges decide who advances. The decision to change the format was, in large part, a result of my participation in the District of Columbia Urban Debate League (see As a debate coach in that extracurricular league, I have seen the powerful effect that structured debate has on young people's thought patterns, research skills, and self-esteem; I wanted to engage my AP students in that type of dynamic activity. After spending most of the academic year expressing themselves on paper, May Madness gives my students the opportunity to showcase their verbal talents.

Setting up the Madness

During May Madness, I set aside my bowtie and pull out the referee shirt. Serving as the "tournament director," my work is primarily focused on recruiting the judges. Every year in April, I send out an e-mail to just about every adult I know in the city. Some judges are three- or four-year veterans of the tournament; and the job of recruiting gets easier every year as past judges tell their friends, spouses, and colleagues about the activity. Judges represent a diversity of backgrounds and professions; for example, May Madness judges have included Eleanor Roosevelt's goddaughter, National Archives staff, a member of the District of Columbia Board of Education, a D.C. Superior Court judge, a nationally syndicated journalist, and a former commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission. …

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