It’s Thursday afternoon at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School in Old Metairie. Outside, moms and dads in SUVs gigantic enough to carry a gang of children line up to pick up or drop off a load. Many of the backpack laden, mussy-headed children crisscrossing the schoolyard are finished for the day but some are just arriving.
Within a few minutes, over 100 new arrivals drop their backpacks in piles and enter a beige cavern decorated with “I’ve Got Milk” ads. They take their places at long rows of tables. Usually used for luncheon, these tables have been readied for battle.
Soon the chatter reaches deafening proportions. The roar goes on unabated until Brother Neal Golden gives the signal. The cacophony drops to a civilized hum; the game is on.
Cade Daliet, a 6th grader at Edward Hynes Charter School, is pitted against two opponents from St. Charles Borromeo of Destrehan – Cherie Bergeron, a regular, and Patrick Dupuy, a freelancer. No pleasantries are exchanged. The board comes out, the cubes are placed, the challenge card is positioned. Daliet is armed with a fruit drink and a lime-colored Ring-Pop – a lollipop resembling a baby’s pacifier. Bergeron and Dupuy play sugar free.
A friendly discussion ensues about whose turn it is to play. Cubes are tossed and an equation of numbers and symbols is placed on the board. Each player writes on a tablet. They hide their answers. More cubes are placed on the board. More tablet scribbling takes place. The first player to create an equation resulting in the “goal” wins.
Daliet comes up with an equation but his opponents don’t buy it. They question him. He sucks on the Ring-Pop, curly head still, face calm with confidence.
The challenge card goes up. A serious-faced referee shows up.
“We don’t understand how he got that,” Bergeron explains.
“I can’t explain it because its math,” the referee says, “but he’s right.”
The game goes on. They are all at the top of their form, playing four rounds in 35 minutes; but in the end, Daliet pulls ahead. Without any formal farewells, the three go their separate ways. The following week they find out which schools’ teams scored the highest number of points.
What’s the game?
Equations. It’s one of the academic games that elementary through high school students play each week in competitions around the metro area and nationally. They also play Presidents, Propaganda, World Events, Linguishtik and On-sets, a logic game using math skills.
These games are refreshingly retro. The equipment includes a paper board and 24 cubes containing single digits and operation signs such as the plus, minus and square root signs. They come in a plastic container that looks like an oversized VHS box. No costly electronics. No flashy graphics. No Nikes. No strength training. It’s a battle of wits requiring old-fashioned critical thinking skills, strategy and patience.
The games allow students to apply their classroom skills in a competitive environment. Also, much of the material the students learn for competitions prepares them for future academic challenges. In math, for example, students learn material in the 7th and 8th grade that they aren’t normally exposed to until they take Algebra II in the 11th grade, says Brother Golden, director of New Orleans Academic Games League.
“When they get in Algebra II, they say that’s nothing new,” Brother Golden says.
Before Hurricane Katrina struck, the New Orleans Academic Games League boasted a healthy number of public and private school teams. Brother Golden says the numbers dropped post-Katrina when many of the coaches didn’t return after the storm.
“We are still hoping to get some of the schools back,” he says.
Other challenges include raising money to send top players to national competitions and recruiting new players. Sylvia Bridges, Edward Hynes’s faculty monitor, sponsored smoothie and T-shirt sales at Hynes throughout the year to raise $800 to send three players to the national competition in Florida at the end of April.
“I do it for the kids,” Bridges says. “They need to be exposed.”
Hynes Charter is a newcomer to the game thanks to Dwayne Fontenette, a junior at Benjamin Franklin High School, who has played the games since he was in the 5th grade at Lake Forest Elementary in eastern New Orleans. Last year, while playing in a national tournament, he decided to coach a team after noting how few New Orleans schools, especially elementary schools, were participating. His first phone call was to Hynes and his proposal was accepted on the spot.
Now, he and four other Franklin students coach about 22 players who meet once a week after school to prepare for the Wednesday competitions. Students study additional game materials at home. Preparing and competing is time consuming but students say their time is well spent.
“I’m devoted to it,” says Eva Someillan-Toohey, 12. “I believe practice makes perfect.”
The games began nationally in the 1960s. Now, the Academic Games Leagues of America sponsors competitions all over the country. Nearly 5,000 students a year compete in these events and national tournaments draw about 1,000 students, including some from foreign countries.
Brother Golden says that Mount Carmel Academy initiated the local games in 1966, after five of its female students participated in a national competition. He became involved when Mount Carmel invited area schools to join its players in competitions. Later as a coach, he wrote many of the worksheets and game materials that players use for the game. At present, 21 metropolitan area schools participate in the local league, including Vernon Haynes Junior High School, a Jefferson Parish school that has a multi-trophy winning team that dominates the league.
At one competition held in the spring, Haynes players took a string of trophies, prompting Bridges, sitting at Hynes’ table, to comment, “We just have to clap for them and be good sports.”