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Back-to-School Survivor Day Offers Lessons About Quality Learning

Voice of Experience

Each week, in the Education World Voice of Experience column, an educator shares an Aha! moment in the classroom. This week, Brenda Dyck recounts how her school's administrators used the Survivor TV show as a theme to strengthen teams, build camaraderie, present challenges -- and teach a few lessons about how to create a quality classroom environment for students! Included: Survivor activity ideas and teacher reactions!


I've spent most of today covered in face paint, glitter glue, feathers, and beads. This apparent masquerade was part of my school's first-day staff training -- a staged simulation based on the successful TV series Survivor. It didn't take long, however, to realize that the purpose of this day was about much more than fun. A day spent in an environment in which top-down leadership, ranking, and shaming were the rule taught all of us some valuable lessons about how to create a quality classroom environment.


Within minutes of arriving at school, my colleagues and I were ushered into a darkened room filled with eerie smoke (from dry ice), foliage, tiki torches, climbing ropes, and cargo containers. Theme music from Survivor played in the background, and flag-sized replicas of the Survivor insignias hung on the wall. Support staff, all dressed in scary tribal gear, directed us into five different teams, gave us a box of art supplies, and explained how we could earn "tribal bucks" to make our lives easier. We were warned to watch for the other chiefs (our administration) who would be watching for infringements to the stated rules and who would reward compliance.

Each team spent the next 20 minutes establishing a team persona -- a look, a tribal chant, a banner, and a presentation. After covering ourselves in face paint, feathers, and fancy hair apparel, we created a convincing tribal chant full of various grunts and groans that would define who we were.


SurvivorJust like the real Survivor show, teams spent the day attempting activities in which they might outwit, outplay, or outlast one another. In the background, members of the administration pointed out our blunders, reminded us that they were watching and, during lunchtime, ate take-out pizza while the rest of us made do with broth and bread! Competition activities -- a blend of brawn, brain, and fortitude -- included some of the following:

  • Tribal Feud Challenge: a timed competition in which teams named as many things as possible in a specified category, such as kinds of cheese, Looney Tunes cartoons, and types of boards.
  • Tribal Fitness Challenge: an elaborate obstacle course on the school playground.
  • Tribal Wisdom Challenge: a test based on the school vision and mission.
  • Tribal Shootout: a free throw basketball competition.
  • Tribal Explorer Challenge: pattern maze competition.
  • Tribal "Feast": a true Survivor lunch -- clear broth, bun, water, and extras that could be purchased with tribal bucks.


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After the fun of the day, our staff sat down to discuss what people had learned from the simulation. Following are some of the comments participants shared:

  • The simulation created a winners-losers atmosphere.
  • There was lots of recognition for the winners and little recognition for those who tried hard.
  • Teams and individual players were constantly ranked. Losers felt discouraged and even embarrassed.
  • Ongoing losers started to mentally "check out" so that they could make it through the activities.
  • Administrative comments about some individuals' poor showing induced a sense of shame in those underachieving team members.
  • The chiefs -- the hovering administrators -- represented an obvious "top-down" (us-them) leadership model.
  • Camaraderie developed among team members.
  • Team members learned to schmooze in order to get rewards from the chiefs. Those who didn't missed out on the extra points and "tribucks."
  • Participants found it humiliating to have to ask to go to the washroom or to get a drink.

Our school's teaching team had just spent the first day back at school in an environment that was the direct opposite of a quality learning environment. Before our Survivor day, we might have known that fear, humiliation, discouragement, and ranking could exist in the learning world. Now we knew how it felt when it does!

Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "Electronic Thread" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.

Article by Brenda Dyck
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Updated 06/21/2015