She Got Game

April 01, 1999 3 min read
Lois Gardner goes to the hoop to teach her 6th graders.

The Big East Conference has had a good year in college basketball, landing nine of its men’s and women’s teams in the NCAA playoffs. But if you want to put some money down on which of these squads will advance to the Final Four, get in touch with Lois Gardner’s 6th graders.

A math teacher at Broadview Middle School in Danbury, Connecticut, Gardner teaches a unit each year that turns her 10- and 11-year-olds into amateur scouts and statisticians. With fellow teacher Robert LeFebvre, she divides the students into groups and asks each to round up statistics and inside dope on the men’s and women’s basketball programs at one of the 13 universities in the Big East.

Many of the assigned research forays are geared to honing the kids’ math skills. The students, for example, use spreadsheet software to make charts and graphs showing their teams’ league standing in rebounding, shooting percentage, steals, turnovers, and blocked shots. They also collect head-to-toe measurements of each team’s top player and use ratios and proportions to make life-size cutouts. On the days when the kids make these paper giants, they abandon Gardner’s classroom for the open space of the school’s halls. “You should see the place,” says Tom Evarts, a Broadview assistant principal. “Lois is on the floor with all the kids, and they’re spread out up and down the hallway so that you can’t get through.”

Gardner also uses the unit to start the kids thinking about going to college. As part of their research, they report on the college’s curriculum and degree offerings. “By the end,” the teacher says, “a lot of them say, ‘This wouldn’t be a bad place to go to college.’”

Gardner started this unit six years ago, and over time, the kids’ research has gone high tech. They get stats delivered from a fax service that Big East officials set up for sportswriters, and they download player bios, logos, and other information from university Web sites and the conference home page.

Still, the kids need plain, old-fashioned persistence to reel in some of the required facts. Gardner’s classroom is equipped with a telephone, and part of the unit teaches the kids phone etiquette and strategies for hunting down information. A few years ago, a student was so persistent in her search for the hand and foot measurements of Boston College’s top player, Danya Abrams, that her phone call was put through to the gym floor and then-coach Jim O’Brien. O’Brien halted practice on the spot and traced the hands and feet of his six-foot, eight-inch star. “Twenty minutes later,” Gardner says, “we had a fax in the classroom with the tracings.”

Gardner, 54, is a natural to teach the unit: As a high schooler in Montrose, Pennsylvania, she played on state champion teams, and she went on to become a five-foot, eleven-inch shot-blocker for Kutztown University, in central Pennsylvania. Thanks in no small part to the University of Connecticut’s powerhouse programs, many of her students are basketball fanatics, too. “You can’t live here without being crazy about basketball,” Gardner explains.

At the end of the unit, the kids make presentations before the teachers, who assume the role of sportswriters. Using the evidence accumulated over the unit-the spreadsheets, the posters, and the like-they argue that their teams deserve the top ranking. The class then votes on who should be No. 1.

Of course, for the students whose teams spend the season in the Big East cellar, the presentation is no easy task. But Gardner says that a few years ago, when the University of Miami was a doormat, the kids representing the team made such a convincing pitch that they won the top ranking. “Theirs was the most persuasive presentation, by far,” Gardner says. “But then again, they had the most work to do to convince us.”

--Drew Lindsay