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Team-building medals all around

Activity blends balance, communication skills

Wyoming — Staring down a line of tape on the floor in front of them, three teams of unconventional athletes were challenged recently to complete four rounds of walking with books on their heads to the end of a line. 

Once there, they performed a task and returned to their team without the books falling. That was the goal, anyway. 

Team USA, alongside their competitors and peers, Team OREO and Speed Team, were going for the gold on Feb. 17 in the Leadership Olympics in Anna Servo-Christiaans’ classroom at Wyoming High School. 

Team USA took the silver medal in the exciting winter Olympics event, the book race. 

The first round required balancing one book and picking up an object at the end of the line. For the remaining three rounds, a different teammate walked with two, three and then four books on their head and completed a slightly more challenging task. 

If a book fell at any point, the whole team had to start over with a single volume.

Sophomore Buster Cross attempted to use his right ear as a flat surface, tilting his head to balance the final four books. He made it to the opposite side of the line, but experienced a devastating tumble on his return. 

In the end, junior Bernie Varnesdeel crossed the finish line with four books on his head to bring home a win for Speed Team. Their victory brought them up to second place in the class.

After falling to third place overall, Team Oreo member, junior Royce Shropshire said, “Not every team can be the best of all time, but we will come back by the end of the year, no doubt.”

Junior Royce Shropshire and his fellow Team Oreo teammates prepare for the first round of the book race

Building Peer-to-Peer Leadership

Special education teacher Servo-Christiaans came up with the idea to incorporate fun team-building challenges and activities into her peer-to-peer leadership class from the winter Olympics. 

“I was sitting and watching… and thought, how cool would it be to do something Olympic-style in this class,” she recalled. Now, “we do Fun Fridays every week with some kind of competition to use the skills the students learned throughout the week.”

In her class of 12 general education and 12 cognitively impaired students ranging from sophomores to seniors, students learn how to work together, be mentors and strengthen social, leadership and communication skills.

Servo-Christiaans began teaching the year-long combined class two years ago.

“I have a passion for inclusion and leadership, especially the inclusion of special education students,” she said. “The class is like a big family. We have a lot of fun together because I do a ton of team-building activities and games, not just notes and tests.” 

She added: “It’s my baby. I built it from the ground up and can change the curriculum every year to fit my students’ skills and abilities.” 

For the weekly challenges, Servo-Christiaans formed three teams to match each student’s strengths, with general education students and students with disabilities evenly divided. Even after spending time creating the teams, she will watch them throughout the year and “change things up” if needed. 

Each week, the teams compete for first, second and third place, earning five, three or one point, respectively. The team with the most points at the end of the year wins a “really cool prize” of their teacher’s choosing. 

“If we get to a Friday and I do not have a game planned, there is outrage,” Servo-Christiaans said. “It’s their favorite thing and they look forward to it. Over the next couple weeks they will also have the chance to come up with their own games for everyone to play.”

Junior Lex Hudson created the book race leadership game, shared it with her teacher and then the whole class got to play it.

Hudson’s favorite thing about participating in the Leadership Olympics is how it bonded her and her classmates and helped them get to know each other.

“I really like making new friends in this class, and I also enjoy using my public speaking. I really enjoy public speaking,” Lex said. “I hope we can all learn something from this class and spread kindness throughout the school.”

Royce described the class as having no barriers when it comes to making friends with anyone. 

“This class feels like a family; it brings us together,” he said. “I enjoy coming to school because of this class.”

Servo-Christiaans conceded it’s “not a typical class. Students look forward to coming and they can relax and not worry about grades. I genuinely look forward to this class. The relationships are my favorite thing. I am building connections I wouldn’t build outside of this class or with other students.”

“It’s been amazing,” she said. “After students take the class, they build strong bonds with their special education peers, and I couldn’t be more proud of them and the success of the class.” 

In addition to forging bonds within the classroom, Servo-Christiaans plans to collaborate with other high-school classes, as well as middle school classes down the line. 

Later this semester, her students will partner with John Doyle’s Educators Rising class for a competition modeled after the reality show “The Amazing Race.”

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio

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