Schools give lessons a five-ring spin

Teachers take advantage of the Olympics to enliven academic subjects

Quick: Where's the salt in Salt Lake City? How do the laws of physics affect Olympic speed skaters? What's the Spanish word for bobsled?

Teachers across the United States, adroitly aware of their students' enthusiasm toward the start of the Winter Olympics this Friday, have taken action. For months, they've been slipping in math equations and distilling life lessons, all cleverly couched in five-ring rhetoric.

"The Olympics are a perfect way to grab students' attention and get them to learn new things," says Vicki Perella, a teacher for gifted third- through fifth-graders at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School near Chicago.

Her 22 students, some of whom have never seen a mountain, spent the past year raising money to go to the Winter Olympics via taffy apple sales, garage sales, and roller-skating fundraisers. In two days, they will finally set off on a 22-hour bus ride to Salt Lake City to watch the events - and even receive their own gold medals from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), which has recognized their hard work.

"Like the US Olympic athletes, these kids set a goal, stayed committed to achieving that goal, and with persistence and discipline, realized it," says their exuberant teacher.

Ms. Perella also has been reading stories every week to her classes from a book called "Awaken the Olympian Within," and has recruited Olympians to speak to her students.

Pondering persistence

A few months ago, for instance, Dan Jansen spoke to her class on the value of persistence - and on the four attempts it took him to finally capture a gold medal in speed skating. The students then practiced math by calculating his scores, and wrote the lessons they learned on a poster of a giant ice skate they created.

In Chinle, Ariz., Navajo elementary students are learning from an Olympic participant who is a bit closer to home. Their principal, Jan Reed, was nominated to be a torchbearer because of the dramatic academic improvement of her students at Chinle Elementary during the past few years.

Ms. Reed, however, didn't feel like she deserved all the credit. "I wanted the students to be able to showcase their own talents and feel honored, too," she says.

So she asked students to nominate a classmate who was an inspiration to them or to others, and to create a related essay, rap song, sculpture, or Power Point presentation. Last week, about 30 of the selected students wended their way through their own mini-Olympic torch relay course on the playground. And yesterday they rode in school buses to St. George, Utah, to cheer Reed on during her quarter-mile performance.

"I think the students gained a lot more self-confidence through the activities, and they certainly know a lot more about the Olympics now than I do," Reed says.

In Utah, students have been perhaps the most eager to gobble up lessons about the 17-day event. Most schools in the state, from Grades K through 12, are utilizing at least some portion of a 140-page curriculum booklet that was designed by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) and distributed a year ago.

The lessons are geared toward third- through fifth-graders, but can be adapted for students in other grades. Activities range from a math lesson on converting American units of measurement to metric units, a geography activity that follows the Olympic torch on its long way to Salt Lake City, and a science lesson on the weather conditions during the Games.

Each school was also assigned a different country to study.

Students at Joel P. Jensen Middle School in West Jordan, Utah, focused on Iran. Even though the Sept. 11 events caused the country to pull out of the Games, the school stayed the course, and created a large display of cultural items and information in the lobby. An Iranian mother and daughter also spoke to the school about their culture.

"That's been my favorite part so far," says eighth-grader Kelli Borrowman. "I learned that Iranians are really neat people," she says.

Resource teacher Jana Whetten says the students are having fun with their Olympics curriculum. This week is spirit week, when four teams - three made up of students and one of teachers - compete in Iranian and Olympic trivia, and in "Olympic" games like scooter races and pie-eating contests.

But Ms. Whetten emphasizes that the school has also been cautious to make sure its Olympics curriculum is substantive and relevant to what the students are required to learn.

"We can't afford to do too much just for fun," she says, adding that the SLOC lesson plans have been really educational.

Olympic-size resources

SLOC says schools in other states and even in Japan and Canada have adopted some of its curriculum. The entire book is available online at www.uen.org/2002.

Other resources for teachers abound. An anchor from CNN Student News, CNN's daily program for classrooms, reports from Salt Lake City Feb. 11 to 15 at 4:30 a.m. Eastern time.

Daily lesson plans for each on-air segment, plus more educational resources, will be available at www.cnnstudentnews .com.

And today, the USOC will launch www.usolympicteam.com /kids. The site is aimed at 8- through 12-year-olds, and includes educational and interactive games. There are also profiles and audio from the US Olympic athletes, who tell about their favorite music group or what paths they took to become world-class athletes.

Students, in turn, can record their own video messages and e-mail them to an Olympian or an entire team at nearly 300 Gateway stores nationwide. (For locations of stores with the "CyberSpot" kiosks, visit www.gateway.com.)

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