K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.


As you read this essay, here are some questions for new teachers to consider and for mentors to discuss with new teachers.

Questions for new teachers

  1. Do you believe the March Madness activity is time invested or time lost?
  2. Would this activity be appropriate to do with your students? Is there a different relationship-sustaining activity that you prefer?
  3. Can you think of a content-related activity that might have the same relationship sustaining effect?
  4. How might you respond to an administrator who questioned your decision to engage in a March Madness type exercise?

Questions for mentors

See our mentor’s guide for suggestions on using this article in small and large group discussions.

  1. What relationship-sustaining activities do you practice throughout the school year? Which ones might you consider sharing with new teachers?
  2. How would you respond to a new teacher who believes these types of activities are contrary to the Standard Course of Study and therefore should not be practiced?

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The First Year
Essays on the author's experiences in her first year of teaching: the mistakes she made, what she learned from them, and how she used them to become a better teacher — and how other first-year teachers can, too.
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This essay is a confession.

During the month of March, there is one day when I devote a full fifteen minutes of class time to a non-academic activity — and there are several additional occasions when our whole class takes three minutes to revisit that non-academic work. All in all, every March, my students lose about thirty minutes of academic attention as a result of this external focus. What are we doing that could be worth sacrificing that precious instructional time?

We’re building relationships. We’re connecting with each other. And…we’re doing it during a conversation about college sports.

It’s March! Around the country, college basketball teams are preparing for an incredible tournament. And so every March, I hand out a blank copy of the tournament bracket to each student in my class. I spend fifteen minutes teaching those students how to complete a bracket that accurately represents their athletic predictions. And students who have no knowledge of sports are shown how to use tournament rankings to make an educated guess. Throughout the month, as teams advance through the tournament, I use an overhead projector to post a bracket that reflects the actual outcome of games in the tournament. When that bracket is posted, every few days, my students are given three minutes to compare their picks to the actual winners. At the end of the tournament, the student who has picked the most games correctly wins a small prize.

The students love it. Many mornings, those who would never dream of seeing a teacher outside of class stop by my room to view the updated bracket. They take special pleasure whenever their picks prove more accurate than their teacher’s. I receive good-natured ribbing from students in that situation. “Ms. Smith, if you do this with your classes next year and don’t want to embarrass yourself, feel free to consult me.” And the next year, I can guarantee that they will remember. It is not uncommon for former students to stop by to pick up blank brackets and ask if they can participate on an unofficial basis. “I just want to see how I do, even if I’m not eligible for a prize.”

Instructional time vs. relationship building

Still, it takes a several minutes of class to get the game up and running. Is it worth losing that instructional time?

Some teachers would say no — thirty minutes of time lost is thirty minutes too much. But I would argue that instead of being lost, that time has been invested. As a class, we have a renewed sense of community every March — a focused re-engagement with each other as people who can connect on a variety of levels. Relationships are strengthened, and those relationships serve us both as people and as an intellectual group.

When the students feel connected to me — and to each other — they are more likely to engage in the academic activities that connect all of us to course content. Investing those thirty minutes sustains our relationships, and those relationships provide support for our intellectual work.

So this March, take a look at your relationships with students and ask yourself if reinforcing classroom community could serve your goals for the classroom. If the answer is yes, find some way to reconnect with your students. There are many ways you can do that, some of which I described earlier. In March, my method involves thirty minutes of class time and a few basketball brackets.

Managing March Madness

In case you’d like to try it, I’ve included a few tips below. (I have only done this with middle and high school students, so I don’t know how it would work in an elementary school class.)

  1. Let an administrator know that you’d like to do this activity with your students, emphasizing your belief that it will improve community in your classroom. Ask that administrator if it is o.k. for you to proceed. Assure him or her that the commitment of class time is minimal, that students are not paying an entry fee to participate and that no students are betting on the games.
  2. Tournament brackets will be posted on several websites, including ESPN and CBS, after the pairings are announced. Download and print out either the men’s or women’s bracket (whichever your students would enjoy more) and make a copy for each student.
  3. Make sure you know how to fill out a bracket and what the numbers in parenthesis on the brackets mean. (The numbers represent how teams were “seeded” in sections of the bracket. A team that has a number “1” next to it is expected to win that section of the bracket.) Use your school’s basketball coach as a resource if you need expert advice.
  4. Make a copy of the blank bracket on an overhead transparency that you can use to demonstrate the correct method for making selections. Allow students to fill in part of their brackets in class so that you can make sure that they understand the approach. Do this at the end of a class period so that they can finish their brackets at home. (You may also want to offer after school assistance to anyone who needs extra help.) Participation on the part of the students is voluntary, but make sure they know it is risk-free. No one other than you will see their picks unless they show them to a classmate.
  5. Fill out your own bracket. The students will enjoy comparing their performance to yours. And be open about which team is your favorite. I always pick Alabama to win the entire tournament, and most of my students love pulling against them just to give me a hard time. I have also been known to require participating students to pick my favorite team to win at least one game, and we have some lively conversations outside of class if my team lets everyone down!
  6. Insist that students fill out the entire bracket (not just the first round), write their names on their completed brackets, and turn those brackets in to you before the first game is played. (Brackets will contain a play-in game that is scheduled a couple of days before the actual tournament begins.) Make a copy of every bracket and return the original to the student.
  7. After the first games are played, check the scores on ESPN and note the winning teams on the overhead bracket (or if you don’t follow sports, ask a colleague who watches the games for an update each morning!) Allow students to check their picks every few days and instruct them to circle each game winner they picked correctly. This may take three to five minutes the first day, as students learn the process. After that, it takes even less time.
  8. After the tournament is over, have students count the number of circles (correct picks) on their paper. That number represents the number of points they have earned. Each student should write that number at the top of his or her bracket and turn it into you. (Some sports fans have more complicated methods of assigning points, weighting the final games more heavily. I have found that assigning one point per pick is by far the best approach when working with kids.)
  9. Check the bracket of the student with the highest number of points against the copy you made of his or her bracket (to make sure they didn’t change any picks after the games were completed).
  10. Give the student with the highest number a small prize. (I usually give a candy bar to the winner in each class.)

It sounds complicated, but actually isn’t that difficult. Still, if managing this activity seems overwhelming, simply find another way to connect with your kids. This weblog is here primarily to remind you that even after you’ve built relationships with your students, you have to work to maintain them. They know you care about their academic performance. This March, find some way to remind your students that you also care about them.