March Madness in The Classroom

March Madness in the Classroom?

The month of March is upon us, and it will be crazy. You can almost feel the buzz of Cinderella stories and bracket breaking going on around you. It’s time for the Big Dance. The Road to the Final Four begins here. Whatever you want to call it, for three weeks the entire country will be focused on the NCAA tournament, rooting for underdogs and holding their collective breath as each buzzer-beating shot is executed. Selection Sunday is the night when millions of people are riveted to their televisions, waiting to see which 68 tickets will be punched into the Big Dance.

As educators, we should instill the same sense of anticipation, hope, and drama in our students.

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I participate in AP Lit March Madness, which is a journey to select the best piece of literature we’ve read during the year. It is necessary to construct brackets and form seeding committees; each day, however, I place a piece of the bracket on the board and the works of literature back in students’ hands so that they can vote on which work they believe is the superior work. Everything is subjective, which is part of what makes it so great. Students are ready and willing to defend their favorite books and authors they admire. When a pupil who enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath is offended by Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” he or she may be a little disappointed. Others believe Dickinson’s poem “There Is No Frigate Like a Book” should be the winner, beating off heavyweights such as Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and George Orwell’s novel 1984. I simply tally the votes and smile on the inside when kids express themselves passionately in their debates. When it comes to college basketball, March Madness provides a window into what your students learned, what they valued, and what they are willing to argue for.

A poster on a classroom wall that looks similar to the March Madness win-loss brackets in basketball, but instead ranks books are shown.
Brian Sztabnik is a writer and editor based in New York City.


Here’s how I went about setting it up.

In my class, Selection Sunday is transformed into Maker Monday. A little video is shown to set the tone for the excitement that we’ll be trying to capture—for example, a compilation of announcer Gus Johnson’s greatest moments—and then we begin shooting.

I inform the kids that we will be participating in our version of March Madness over the following three weeks, intending to decide our literary champion.

The students are then assigned to one of the following roles:

Makers of Mega-Brackets: I give them four massive pieces of poster board to tape together and form a mega-bracket out of. They must calculate the number of brackets that should be placed on each side, the size of each bracket, and the best way to uniformly space them. We make use of 32 different works (novels, plays, poems, and articles).
It is the responsibility of the Seeding Committee to compile a master list of everything that we read and then, in the same way as the NCAA Selection Committee selects the top four seeds, they must determine the next four seeds, and so on until they have ranked all 32 works.
Class Logo: This group comes up with ideas for a class logo and names for each region of the bracket, and then designs and develops them.
Student voting will begin on Thursday, in conjunction with the start of the NCAA tournament. When students come into the room, I hand out slips of paper to them at the door. While they are always able to recall the novels, some poetry requires a little refresher course. On the Smartboard, such works are waiting for the students to have a sense of the importance of voice, imagery, and thematic weight once more. So that we may move through our bracket at a pace that is comparable to that of the collegiate tournament, I have us tackle only a handful of brackets per day. Furthermore, the evolution increases the level of excitement. Work begins to acquire traction. “The World is Too Much with Us,” a poem by William Wordsworth, was the No. 6 seed in one year’s tournament and advanced to the Final Four. 1984 was another year in which the competition was destroyed. If we had done all of the votings in one day, it would not have had the same influence on the overall experience. Although the daily process takes only around 10 minutes of one’s time, the effects are long-lasting. Students chat about it all day long: about the favorite making it to the Final Four, about the injustice of an upset, about the joy of a one-point victory, and so on.


This method is not confined to the study of literature. Social studies teachers can create brackets for the most vicious dictators or the most powerful presidents in history. Literacy instructors can create brackets for their students’ favorite characters. Biology professors can create brackets that feature the most physically fit mammals. Math students can take an alternative approach by calculating the statistics of the actual teams and making predictions for each bracket in turn.

Make use of your imagination. The brackets serve only to provide a backdrop for student engagement; they help students look forward to coming to class each morning. Just be prepared for the craziness that may erupt after that.