HOLIDAY — In the nation of PaulR, boys and girls wait anxiously to learn who among them will become tributes in the weekly Eagle Games.
One male and one female student from each of the nation's 10 districts are chosen at random to face off in a battle of math skills, tasked with correctly answering selected challenging problems and then competing for the ultimate prize: improved academic ability, plus homework passes and pizza parties.
"Ten classrooms, known as districts, took the FCAT that challenged them, made them nervous and caused many to lose sleep," PaulR president Chris Dunning explained in a video announcement to the masses. "Over the years, schools turned on schools until nothing but worry remained. Then came the news. Hard fought, slowly won, teachers and students rose up from the ashes and a new era was born. But knowledge has a cost. Those who were unmotivated were defeated. We swore as a school we would never know this lack of motivation again."
The Eagle Games were born.
"This is how we remember our math skills," Dunning intoned. "This is how we safeguard the future."
Sounds a whole lot cooler than a math problem of the week that scrolls across the screen during announcements, doesn't it?
That was the hope of Jimmy Rodriguez, Paul R. Smith Middle School's new math resource teacher. Hired with Title I funds to help shore up the school's math performance — just 46 percent of students scored at or above grade level on the 2012 FCAT math exam — Rodriguez sought an idea that would resonate with kids rather than turn them off.
What better than a Hunger Games-themed competition?
"I wanted to do the math problem of the week, but 'math problem of the week' sounds a little boring. So I gave it a twist," he said.
Each week, the school airs a video during announcements naming the 20 students selected to solve the weekly problems, which differ by grade level. The students have the week to figure out their answer and submit it for review. The wrong ones get tossed. The right ones go into another drawing to determine who will enter the archery contest for the final prizes.
The activity has generated quite a buzz within the school. Students, who in the past routinely ignored contests without the branding, participated with interest.
They closely watched the morning news, cheering as the first week winners — sixth-grader Hayley Snell and seventh-grader Jacob Fisher — shot arrows at a target to snag awards for their classes. And they chattered about how they want to become tributes in the next round.
"I want to show I'm smarter than eighth-graders," said sixth-grader Zack Slade, who asked Rodriguez if he could volunteer rather than wait to be selected. "It's fun. I want to do it. . . . I want to be picked soon."
Eighth-grader Kayla Engberg, who acted the part of announcer "Effie" on the promo video, said the initiative sparked interest among Smith students to get more involved in math.
"It's not just a game," she said. "It's a thing where kids can learn new things. It's like a challenge."
She had concerns that she might not get her problem right if chosen as a tribute. But that didn't deter her.
"I would like to do it," she said. "It seems really fun."
Finalist Jacob deemed the games "cool" as he waited for his chance to shoot for prizes under the spotlight, with the whole school watching him via remote access.
"It was pretty creative," he said, adding that he worked hard to perform well because "you're representing your team." Classmates and teachers helped him solve his math problem, giving him ideas and talking him through the processes to arrive at the correct answer.
Rodriguez encouraged such collaboration, noting that the questions are thought-provoking "higher order" ones requiring students to determine exactly what's being asked and how to solve it before doing the math.
When the archery began inside the school media center, the lights dimmed and the cameras whirred. "Ladies first!" Rodriguez announced as Hayley stepped up for her chance.
"No pressure, Hayley," he said, as she adjusted the bow, which was taller than she was. "Your district is counting on you."
She aimed and shot, three times, winning her class a popcorn party and homework passes. Jacob wasn't so lucky, missing the target twice and getting a candy party and homework passes.
Kids in the halls rooted for the two contestants as they returned to their classrooms. So did teachers.
Frank Fischer, Hayley's math teacher, led the cheering when she entered the room. He patted his stomach and said he looked forward to the food party (he was still holding out for pizza). He also urged the students on.
"Are you guys going to say thank you? You've got no homework for the next week!" he said, as the group clapped and shouted.
That's the type of enthusiasm that Rodriguez was aiming for when he came up with the idea.
"I hope out of everything, you saw that math is important," he told the class. "So important that we would do something like this."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.