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Imagination as a Learning Tool


The winter Olympics have long since passed, but the snow covered ground reminded me of this lesson filled with imagination that my brother my created. While most of my lessons and writing focus on the art classroom ( because that’s what I teach), it’s also important to remember that creativity and imagination can be wonderful tools in all areas of life.

My brother, Ashley Sollenberger, is an elementary Physical Education teacher, elementary students walk through the doors, minds wide open, ready to imagine, and he doesn’t hesitate to take full advantage of this in the gym.

The Olympic ideals of fair play, good sportsmanship, and friendly competition were on display in the gym and for a few moments the students had Olympic dreams.


Today we will be participating in the Olympic Winter Games, I announced to student cheering, applause, and general merriment.  I never get tired of announcing the day’s activities and being treated as if I have just proclaimed Christmas to occur twice each year.  Recreating the winter Olympics with its many variations of skiing, skating, or zipping down and icy tube on a sled was a bit of a brain teaser.

I was stumped for a bit, not for lack of ideas, but rather too many, as I had notes created for 15 or so events.

I imagined students practicing individually, before entering events and creating a mini Olympic competition.  In my mind, students were off to the side, wearing stop watches and holding tape measures to record event statistics.  What a wonderful chance for some cross curricular integration.  Then reality hit, I don’t have stop watches, or tape measures, or students who know how to use them.  We wouldn’t have nearly enough time for all that anyway, my brain had gotten carried away.

And with that, the Olympics came to town.

During the first week we did the Luge, Speed Skating and Skeleton.  The Luge involved a wonderful piece of equipment called a roller racer, similar to a Luge sled only in that it is used feet first.  That was all it took, the students were transported; a few students asked where they could sign up to do the Luge for real.  This lead to a complicated discussion involving Lake Placid, travel times, and me feeling like I had just created a dream only to ruthlessly crush it!  Luckily, our present wintry conditions tossed me a life ring and the conversation was salvaged.  I suggested they build a snow track in their yards, smiles returned, heads nodded, and all was right with the world.  I had gotten caught in the moment thinking they actually needed the real Olympic training center!

On to the Speed Skating oval, or to those lacking vision, a circle marked by cones.

In my mind it was a wonderful arena, grandstands banking high all around, flags swaying from the rafters, and smooth clear ice.  I mentioned Vladimir Putin had personally dedicated the track declaring it to be, “world class.”  This comment was received with blank stares, but I was entertained by it.  Then one hand shot up, “my dad says Putin is a terrible man!”  At this burst of emotion the other students’ blank faces contorted to show looks of concern and overwhelming confusion.  Yikes, I can see the headlines now…”Elementary teacher is Russian sympathizer, advocates for students being sent to sport camps!”  Things were getting out of hand quick, “back to the ice,” I said, “we’ll use carpet squares for skates” and I began zipping around the ice, swinging my arms in ways which would appall the Dutch, but impressed the students none-the-less, the students nerves calmed and we were back in the Olympic spirit.

Finally, we arrived at the skeleton course.

I was sure this would illicit a student joke involving bones, alas I was disappointed as none took the bait.  I laid out an IOC approved course comprised of hairpin turns, and a fast straight finish.  “Surely someone among us has a record breaking run in them,” I told the students.  Since confidence is never in short supply at this age, most students looked at themselves knowing they had record breaking ability.   While the others, confused by my statement thought, “gosh I hope I don’t break whatever he’s is talking about.”

The first week was a stirring success, records were set and broken.  Student achievement was marked by good sportsmanship and encouragement for all.  Highly motivated, their energy was boundless, allowing for endless laps around the oval, and down the icy tracks.  Like any quality sporting event, things only got better as competition continued, which lead to an excellent second week.

to be continued…

I teach a version of these Olympics every 4 years, the story is based on events from 2014


Unlike the events of the first week, which weren’t nearly as good as my description leads you to believe; the events of week two will be placed in my permanent file to be used again in four years.

We participated in ski jumping, curling, and biathlon.

The ski jumping center consisted of a stack of folded mats with several open mats for the landing area.  Giving students’ permission to jump off an elevated surface is a rare thrill, and greatly aided me in my quest to be the most popular teacher.  I considered sawing off a few tree branches in the parking lot and scattering the twigs around the landing area for an authentic look, but I felt the custodial staff would find that a bit aggravating, so I refrained.  Using cones, students marked their best jumps, and readily took turns sure that each jump would be better then the last.

Next up was the biathlon.

This event must have been a hit with the all important 6 – 10 year old demographic because oddly, most every class knew what the biathlon entailed.  Among the athletes it is generally agreed upon that the courses in Austria and Sweden are the most physically demanding, but the Akron elementary course is the most technical on the World Cup circuit.  When skis consist of carpet squares and your poles are pool noodles a technical course can pose real problems.  Athletes crashed frequently; there must have been a problem with the imaginary bindings because they often just walked right out of their skis, suddenly their shoe sole was stuck fast to the floor, yard sales were common (when a skier crashes and loses skis and poles its called a yard sale).  Combine this with the fact that the ski poles buckled whenever pressed into action and you have a recipe for disaster. Several students exclaimed, “We need better poles,” as they traversed the course.  In spite of these challenges the students cheered when the targets were hit, and once across the finish line hurried back to the start for another run!

Curling was my personal favorite.  I spent most of my time providing live color commentary on the proceedings.  Since I don’t live in the Arctic, I’m not entirely certain of the rules, but that hardly mattered.  Our goal was to get the ball to stop in the center circle of the gym, and we pursued this goal with wild abandon.  Elementary students are like a light switch, either on or off; they don’t yet posses the dimmer button.  Over and over I used the phrase, “just a bit to much” to describe a ball that was rolled preposterously hard, the two sweepers frantically chasing, as it sailed past the target, out of the curling center and onto the biathlon course, tripping and athlete just before the line.  Alternately, describing a roll that barely completed three revolutions “she asked a lot of her sweepers on that one” I would say.  We don’t yet teach physics at the elementary level, which was readily apparent as student after student swept behind the rolling ball.  I attempted some verbal guidance hoping to remedy the situation, “in front, left, right, brooms up” the more I encouraged the harder they swept, shockingly it made no difference.  Fortunately, a few of the balls are a bit lopsided allowing them to curve miraculously as they slow; I could not have created a better allusion.  Scoring was marked with cheers, high fives and smiles all around.

As I received a hug a student said, “Thank you for making these activities, they were really fun!”  That was better then all the laughs combined, and I knew I had created a lasting memory.  Unfortunately all good things come to and end.  The following week amid questions of biathlon courses and ski jump ramps, I was forced to explain that the Olympics had ended and would not return for four more years.  The memories though will last a lifetime, which is a powerful thought that helps to guide my teaching.  The Olympic ideals of fair play, good sportsmanship, and friendly competition were on display in the gym and for a few moments the students had Olympic dreams.

These events occurred during week 2 of our 2014 Olympic Unit.

Imagination is a free tool that everyone has, are you using it?