At the end of January, right before Super Bowl weekend, more than 150 students from eleven schools in Florida's Broward County came together to face off in a major competition of their own — a first-of-its-kind intramural Vocabulary Jam-a-Thon.
The epic word-learning event, dubbed "Broward's Big Game", was the culmination of months of planning and preparation by a team of educators from "Cadre 8", an affiliation of eleven Broward County Public Schools that collaborates and innovates to achieve improved student outcomes.
On the day of Broward's Big Game, the energy level was so high, you'd never have guessed this was a vocabulary challenge rather than a football game. Students and their literacy coaches, all decked out in bright t-shirts in their school colors, poured out of the buses and charged into the cafeteria at Tedder Elementary, the host school. Tedder Principal Shinita Coachman-Beavers and her staff were at the gates, welcoming and cheering on all their guests.
Once the students settled in, Cadre 8 Turnaround Director Jacquelyn Haywood gamely took the mic and stepped up to emcee, setting the tone for the competition itself when she told the crowd of beaming students (and extremely proud teachers) what geniuses she knows them to be. Then, it was game time.
The tone shifted to a hushed kind of intensity as the scholars leaned into their laptops and concentrated on answering the questions correctly. As each round of Jam tournament ensued, excitement mounted (these were some very close matches!). There were fist pumps and high fives, a few grimaces and gasps, and lots of smiles.
Prioritizing Vocabulary Improvement
For the past few years, the Cadre 8 schools have developed academic challenges that engage and motivate students to develop their skills and knowledge in a particular subject area. Math and science had already been done, so the focus of the 2019–2020 school year was literacy. But why the focus on vocabulary in particular?
Ms. Haywood explained, "This year I really wanted the initiative to be around vocabulary because the research around [weak] vocabulary skills has not been promising for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. And because this cadre predominantly serves many of those impoverished students, we wanted to make sure that we worked toward closing the word gap."
The next step was finding high-quality vocabulary activities that were also engaging enough to plan an entire event around. With those criteria in mind, Cadre 8 Instructional Facilitator Wanda Ponder knew she had found what she was looking for at a BCPS staff training session last summer. Fellow educators were trying out Vocabulary.com's Vocabulary Jam feature, and having an absolute blast. She got to watch teams of teachers compete in real-time, loving the energy as they tried to best each other by answering the most questions correctly. Ms. Ponder said, “As soon as I saw the Jam in action, I knew I wanted to bring it to the literacy challenge. I was hooked!"
Competition and Collaboration
She added, "Competition is what we do in Cadre 8, but we also look for opportunities for collaboration. Teamwork makes the dream work! So I was excited about finding a platform that could do both, where all even schools could come together, and would focus on our mission to improve vocabulary, which we know is a 21st century communication skill."
For the next few months, Ms. Ponder and her colleagues worked with Vocabulary.com to host practice Jams and provide implementation support to the teachers and literacy coaches at the participating schools. Every student had the opportunity to play, compete, and learn in their classroom settings in the time leading up to the event, and for the tournament itself each school selected a small group of students to represent their grade levels.
The tournament was designed as an elimination-style competition that narrowed the field after each round that would ultimately crown one school the Jam Champion for Grades 3, 4 and 5. In the championship rounds, with four schools left in the top brackets, everyone was on edge as the learners gave it their all. A large screen projected the action, making Broward's Big Game just as nail-biting for all the spectators as it was for the competitors and coaches!
Everyone's a Winner
Broward's Big Game culminated with an awards presentation that honored each of the more than 150 scholars with achievement certificates, plus trophies for the Jam Champions and Runners-Up in grades 3, 4 and 5. After the last students boarded the buses back home, Ms. Beavers shared these thoughts on what the event meant to everyone who participated. "Today was definitely a success, and to see who won the trophies today was special, but the best part to me was that every student that walked out of Tedder Elementary felt like they were a winner."
Jam Your Way
You don't have to set aside a whole day or invite hundreds of students to experience the fun and excitement of a Vocabulary Jam (although you're certainly welcome to!) Broward's Big Game tournament was a super creative and ambitious event, but most of the time Jams are happening spontaneously and with minimal prep.
Teachers often create Jams for their classes to come together for a few minutes of fierce-but-friendly competition that gets everyone excited about word learning. The Jam is especially popular these days as a remote learning activity because it allows educators to inject some real camaraderie to the virtual classroom. Some schools are having school-wide daily Jams to keep everyone motivated and connected while they're learning from home, and we look forward to seeing how people Jam when they're back in the regular school setting.
Try Hosting Your Own Jam
It only takes a minute to create a Jam. Another great option is to have your students join one of our scheduled public Jams! They start every ten minutes, and anyone can play. These public Jams are based on our curated vocabulary resources, and are a great way to get acquainted with what the Jam is all about.