May Madness – A Classroom Competition Merges Historical Research With Public Debate

This article reflects on a theory introduced by Isaac Hunt III which was published in the Social Education in 2006. It outlines a classroom competition, modeled against the NCAA collegiate tournaments in basketball, where the object is to rate the historical significance of 20th century persons based on argument and debate. The tournament originated from the need for this teacher, Isaac Hunt, to fill time with his AP history student after they take the May AP exams; after the exams, there was nothing else for the students to work on for the last month of class.

As previously stated, May Madness is based on the NCAA basketball tournament, where 64 historical figures are bracketed and given seeds by the teacher based on his perception of their level of significance. Each student is assigned two figures by the teacher and is given a week to decide on two people of their own choosing. When all contestants are chosen, there is a week of study/research time in which students develop arguments for their figures based on primary and secondary source material. This is the main purpose of the competition, to force the students to thoroughly researching their figures and developing compelling arguments based on source material.

Judging the competition is a panel of judges, the numbers of which go unspecified but the author does mention that the number is odd, as to prevent any ties in votes. Judges are recruited by the teacher from outside the classroom which provides an authentic audience and spurs the students to do better research. Judges of past competitions have included such folks as the goddaughter of Eleanor Roosevelt, a D.C. Superior Court judge, a nationally syndicated journalist and members of the D.C. Board of Education. The judges score the students based on source choices and usage, solidity of argument and presentation among others.

The day before the competition begins the teacher and a colleague debate on figures of their own choosing, as to provide an example of what is expected and how the process is to be conducted. The students are the judges which gives them further knowledge of and practice with the rubric which is to be used to measure their performance.

The format of the competition is as follows: First there’s a four minute introduction from both contestants in which the student lays out the basic arguments; next is a two minute cross-examination by the opponent; then there are two minute closing statements; finally, the judges have ten minutes (total) to ask both students questions about their historical figures. When all this is completed, the students leave the room while the judges tally the scores. Before the students hear the results, the teacher gives his critique of their performances and offers tips for future rounds. After the judges offer their thoughts, the winner is announced. This process is repeated until there is a finals champion.

I for one love this competition. I think it’s a fantastic way to introduce students to in-depth primary research, which I have found in my collegiate experience is lacking in most college freshmen. I think the tournament format is key in keeping the students enthusiastic about the project; giving the students a familiar system of competition relative to their interests is ingenious. I was also quite impressed with the list of judges the teacher was able to assemble. Additionally, giving the students a chance to judge and familiarize themselves with the competition and rubric is a great way of insuring student understanding of the expectations and objectives of the project. A technique, as we’ve learned in this class, is very effective in increasing student achievement.

The two best aspects of May Madness are that it keeps kids focused on school and provides legitimate learning opportunities at the end of the year, a time when students typically are quiet lethargic, and that is adaptable to content areas outside the social studies realm. Furthermore, the author explains that this competition is currently being addressed as a possible inter-school tournament within the local school system. I can definitely see myself doing something like this in my classroom. I know from my own experience that students love it when the teacher keeps things fresh, and May Madness is as fresh as it gets.

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