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'Survivor' Fosters Community
Through Friendly Competition


If you'd risk it all for the "Immunity Idol," you've already fallen for the primetime reality-TV show Survivor. Capitalizing on the popularity of that program, schools are establishing their own competitions to promote community spirit and teamwork, and organizers say these programs are working. Should your school host a sequel to "Survivor"? Included: The challenges and rewards of Survivor programs.

"Survivor Gerisch really pulled the school together," teacher Ali Kopp told Education World. "The students and the staff loved it! The teachers took on the extra work because they believed in the program. It was such a positive experience for the school."

Middle schoolers pose in their tribal uniforms -- T-shirts that feature a tribal name and the Survivor Gerisch logo.
During the last school year, Gerisch Middle School borrowed from the success of the Survivor television series and created its own program, complete with challenges, a tribal council, and an immunity idol. Kopp and her teaching teammates -- Chris Robertson, Beth Hinzmann, and Melissa Kasprzyk -- formed the idea and, with their principal's blessing, developed it into a yearlong team-building program for the sixth and seventh graders of Southgate, Michigan.

The program began even before students arrived with a Survivor-like staff meeting. Refreshments of coconut macaroons, trail mix, and punch were served. The theme song for the show was played, and competition began. The teachers separated into pre-existing class teams and were given an overview of the year's theme in a game format. Each team was asked to select an original tribal name or choose one from the television program. Every team was also expected to choose a color for its students' T-shirts. The teachers were told that monthly Survivor challenges would be held, and points would be awarded.

A Matter of Belonging

According to Ali Kopp, one of the best aspects of Survivor Gerisch was the strong sense of community that it created among students, especially for newcomers to the school.

"Survivor Gerisch really helps students identify and belong to something," said Kopp. "All too often in middle school, students feel they do not belong, and this allows them to have a sense of belonging, and to be proud of themselves and their team. New students to the school are given a shirt the first day they arrive, and that is such a comforting thing to them. It is great to see students work toward a goal and to be proud of themselves. Survivor Gerisch is for all students, not only the athletes or the smart students. It really provides an opportunity for all students to shine, which is truly rewarding."
During the Survivor overview to teachers, "we periodically asked questions based on our presentation or about curriculum or just about fun things," explained Kopp. "If teachers knew an answer, they held up their flag and answered. If correct, their team received five points toward Survivor Gerisch. The next event was an obstacle course in the gym."

The final portion of the teachers' Survivor training experience was an eating contest. Kopp and her cohorts provided sardines, pigs' feet, jalapeo peppers, gummy worms, candy turtles, and oysters. Players rolled a die to reveal an eating challenge. If they were willing to try the food on the die, their teams received points. Because the teams' points carried over into the school year, each team was ready to hit the ground running when the students joined the competition.


"We kicked off Survivor Gerisch with the whole school at an assembly," recalled Kopp. "Students wore their shirts and competed in team-building games of human knots and human bridge. We also explained the rules of the game and the point system."

The focus of the program was three-fold -- teamwork, integrity and pride. At this first assembly, students described what those words meant to them. Throughout the year during the advisory period, the character traits were discussed and many activities were done to help the children understand their importance. Gerisch has established teaching teams with teachers of extracurricular subjects assigned to them, so it was a natural extension to designate each team a "tribe." Sixth-grade tribes included Ogakor, Samburu and Yanamamo, and seventh-grade tribes featured Raokae (Random Acts of Kindness Affect Everyone), Barramundi, and Jambalaya.

The four teachers who created Survivor Gerisch presented the teams with monthly challenges. The tribes earned points for their performance in those challenges, and the top team hung an "immunity idol" in its hallway until the next monthly winner was determined. The challenges included highest attendance, cleanest hallway and lockers, most canned food collected during the annual food drive, number of students on the honor roll, highest amount of homework turned in on time, and most pennies collected during a penny drive. Assembly activities -- including an obstacle-course race, a trivia contest, a cootie-bug-building contest, a stacking-cup relay, and a dress-the-teacher-competition raised points for the teams. A field day of events held at the end of the year was a source of many Survivor points too. The assemblies and field day were favorites among the kids.

"Each team could earn up to ten points extra each month by doing their own challenges," Kopp added. "Some examples were a team shirt day, in which teams received a point for every 10 kids who wore a team shirt, and a competition that awarded 10 points to every team that returned all of its field trip slips. The teams decided what they wanted to use as a guideline and then told the council how many points they earned. Those competitions were above and beyond Survivor Gerisch monthly challenges."

Students display ribbons earned for keeping lockers clean.
Teams received points on a sliding scale -- first place earned 30 points, second 25 points, third 20 points, fourth 15 points, fifth 10 points, and sixth 5 points. It was important to the organizers of Survivor Gerisch for all participants to earn some points for their effort in each event. Points were tracked by the "tribal council" and displayed in the commons for the students to view. Teams lost points for poor sportsmanship and disrespect.

"Field day was a huge undertaking by our group and the physical education department," explained Kopp. "We had the students move to stations with their advisory teachers and peers. They rotated through 11 stations every 20 minutes. Parent volunteers manned the stations so the teachers could be with their advisory groups."

Stations for the day included tug-o-war, bucket brigade, jump rope, Hula Hoop, and more. For events like the water balloon toss, 50-yard dash, softball throw, and free throw, winners from the advisory groups competed at the end for Survivor Gerisch points. The points were tallied, and on the next day an announcement about the first-place team was made. The winners, members of Jambalaya, received bandanas that read "Ultimate Survivor."

"When the winner was announced, the sixth graders were already excited for the next school year so they could try to finish as the ultimate survivor!" Kopp reported.


At Kelly Elementary School in Benton, Missouri, Survivor helped kids and teachers survive summer school! The concept for the four-week program was so popular with students that its enrollment doubled.

"This year our main focus was on math," explained Kelly's principal, Fara Jones. "We wanted students to become more familiar with their math facts at all levels. The Survivor theme was also used to develop lessons in social studies, geography, science, and communication arts."

Summer school at Kelly provides both remediation and enrichment. In Missouri, students may attend summer school outside of their home district, so Jones used a brochure and newspaper announcements to put out the word to other areas and private schools. The central theme lent continuity to the experience, but its flexibility allowed teachers to choose their own subjects and concepts on which to focus. Within the framework of Survivor, classes studied Australia, Africa, New Zealand, Greece, and more. The 14 tribes (two for each grade) included Think-a-lotta and Learn-a-buncha as well as names based on the subjects being studied, such as Australian Dingos, Hurricane Fever, and The Alphas.

"The students and teacher chose their own tribal name on the first day," Jones said. "Once they came up with a name, the tribe had to create a banner that they brought to tribal council with them each week. Each grade level had its own colored T-shirt with a Kelly Summer School logo on the back and front. That was a lot of fun and also worked out great on field trips. The colored shirts made it easy for the teachers to keep up with their own students. They were color-coded!"

One grade competed in an obstacle course in which the participants picked up marbles out of a bucket of water with their toes. The different colors and sizes of marbles were assigned unique point values, and the students used math skills to calculate the tribes' totals. Each task, or "challenge," had a problem-solving or academic aspect.

"One group ate whipped cream out of a pie pan only to find out that there was a question at the bottom of the pan," recalled Jones. "They had to go all the way back to their tribe members to find the answer to the question. We had two groups of each grade level, so it worked out perfectly for the pairs to compete against each other. When we had to merge one grade because of a drop in enrollment, it was really interesting to see two tribes become one after competing against each other for two weeks."

Kelly's pice de rsistance was its "tribal council," a small storage room decorated as a jungle. Brown paper covered the walls, and vines hung from the ceiling. The room was filled with plants, and a faux fire sat in the center. The Survivor logo was projected on one wall, and the theme song quietly played in the background. The lights were dimmed, and each student received a flashlight as he entered the room.

"The decorations really set the mood!" observed Jones. "Each tribe came to tribal council once a week. We used the time to discuss what the students were learning in class. I acted as the leader of the council, and the students often called me Jeff. [Jeff Probst is the host of CBS's Survivor television series.] I challenged them each week to get to know each other better, so I would ask them questions about their tribe members. The tribe member who was able to answer the most questions correctly about their own members won a prize at the end of summer school."

In the lower elementary council meetings, participants wrote their names on pieces of paper and put them into a vase. As the vase was passed around the circle, each student drew a name and voiced a compliment about the individual.

"We were all equal," Jones stated. "I told the students that is how we should remain -- equal team members all participating and working for our tribe."


Learn more about the CBS television show Survivor through this official Web site.