Fun and Games: Utah Students Study The Winter Olympics

By Michelle Galley — January 16, 2002 5 min read
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Like many other residents of Utah, the students at McPolin Elementary School in Park City can’t wait for the 2002 Winter Olympics to begin in Salt Lake City next month. For the past year, the youngsters been learning about the Games, the athletes, and the participating countries through extracurricular activities, assemblies, special projects, and classroom lessons.

The 2002 Winter Olympics curriculum, as well as other Olympics-related resources, is available from the Utah Education Network.

As in most Utah schools, the teachers at McPolin have been using lessons designed by the local Olympic committee. Judy R. Stanfield, a former elementary and high school principal, helped develop the curriculum as the director of education programs for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. She said the lessons are geared to 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders but can be adapted for students in other grades.

And that’s what has happened at McPolin. “The teachers can adopt it in every grade level,” said Linda Johnson, the principal at the 350- student school.

The 140-page, full-color curriculum booklet has been distributed to every teacher in Utah as a way to get students involved in the Winter Games, which begin Feb. 8, said Ms. Stanfield.

Many schools, including McPolin Elementary, started using the materials last fall, but some schools in Utah have been using the curriculum for the past three years, Ms. Stanfield said. The lessons integrate some aspect of the Games into almost every subject, from language arts to mathematics.

The curriculum guide, for instance, includes a math lesson on converting American units of measurement to metric units, a geography activity that follows the Olympic torch on its long journey to Salt Lake City, history lessons about different areas of Utah where the events will be held, a science lesson on the weather conditions during the Games, and an art activity in which students design an Olympic pin.

Close to the Action

Getting students actively involved in what they are learning is invaluable, said Susan Adler, the past president of the National Council for the Social Studies, based in Silver Spring, Md. The lessons “could be a good way to tap in to [students’] interests and get them excited,” she said.

It is important to get students to relate what they are learning to something that is relevant to them, she continued. “Teachers are always trying to make those connections,” said Ms. Adler, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

And current events are a great way to grab a student’s attention, she said. For example, many social studies teachers used the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as a vehicle to introduce new lessons to their students, she said.

But Ms. Adler cautions that teachers need to be certain that their curriculum is substantive and relevant to what the students are required to learn. “It’s tempting just to do it because it is fun,” she said. “But we can’t afford to do much just for fun.”

Teachers and administrators from states such as Hawaii, Missouri, and Mississippi have called the Salt Lake City organizers to inquire about using the curriculum. In addition, teachers at several schools in Japan and Canada have adopted some of the lesson plans, Ms. Stanfield said.

There is more to the Olympics education program at McPolin Elementary School than what can be found in the lesson book.

Each of the 800 schools in Utah has chosen to study one of the 80 countries sending athletes to the Winter Games. At McPolin, that country is Norway. The school’s 350 pupils have learned about different aspects of Norwegian life, including food, currency, and weather conditions.

The students also painted tiles that were plastered onto a wall in the school to create an Olympic mural.

And last year, exactly 365 days before the Olympics were scheduled to begin, students at the school met Picabo Street, a top skier on the U.S. women’s downhill team, and Bonnie Blair, the speed skater whose five Olympic gold medals are the most won by an American woman in any sport.

The two athletes gave speeches at the school, but other students in the 4,000-student Park City district southeast of Salt Lake City have been fortunate to get even closer to the action.

Because Park City is located near the slopes where the Alpine skiing events will take place, and Park City High School has an extensive weight room, some of the Olympic teams have been using the facility to practice and train, said Nancy DeFord, the district superintendent.

“The students get an opportunity to learn how an Olympic athlete trains,” she said.

Many students have also been on hand in recent years to watch athletes compete for slots on Olympic teams. A few Park City students even tried out for the U.S. bobsled team, but didn’t make the cut, Ms. DeFord said.

And some of the school buildings in Park City will be used by Olympic officials and teams during the Games. Judges and other officials will use some classrooms at McPolin Elementary for meetings, and some skiers will be waxing their skis in portable rooms at Treasure Mountain Middle School.

Proximity Problems

About four years ago, district leaders in Park City realized that because Olympic events were being planned in their back yard, there would be no easy way to get their students to and from school.

The added congestion to the already small roads in the mining town of 6,500 people would make traveling difficult at best.

The logistical problems, along with security concerns, convinced Park City school officials that the district should close its seven schools between Feb. 4 and Feb. 25 because of the Olympic Games.

Only one other Utah district, Morgan, plans to close down during the Games. However, two high schools in Salt Lake City near Olympic venues also will close.

The Salt Lake City school board voted last year to keep most schools open during the Olympics, despite calls from the teachers’ union to shut all schools in the district for safety reasons and so that students and teachers could attend the Games. (“Most Salt Lake City Schools to Stay Open During Games,” Oct. 31, 2001.)

Though Superintendent DeFord had expected some negative reactions to the decision as the Games approached, she said this month that she hasn’t encountered many complaints.

“I haven’t heard any grousing because people think it is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” she said.

Some Utah students will have an opportunity to attend some of the events. Proceeds from the sale of commemorative Olympic license plates in Utah and a grant from a corporate donor went to purchase more than 60,000 tickets for the Olympic events and the Paraolympics, a competition for athletes with disabilities, that will be held in Utah in March.

Groups of students from every school in Utah will be able to attend the events. Ms. Stanfield of the local organizing committee said the students were chosen by different criteria—including leadership skills, academic achievement, sports ability, and risk for academic failure—or by random drawing.

“We wanted a broad-based group of kids to be able to attend the Games,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as Fun and Games: Utah Students Study The Winter Olympics

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