The Doctor Is In
Dr. Bonnie Burt is an AGLOA Hall of Fame coach. She started coaching Academic Games in 1982 as the Gifted and Talented teacher at Keller Elementary School in Jefferson Parish (LA).
My principal wanted someone to do Academic Games because the school was not involved at the time. He wanted Academic Games to be part of the Gifted Program.
She started right in with Equations, On-Sets, LinguiSHTIK, Propaganda, Presidents, World Card, and Wff ‘N Proof!
I figured I could handle this. I had in-services with Steve Osborn [head of the Jefferson League at that time]. Don Shannon taught me WFF because nobody else knew how to play it. I was using the rules from the game kits, not the tournament rules that we played. The reading games didn’t take long to learn. The worse game for me was On-Sets. I could learn the technical part. But I never saw the patterns, never saw the sets. It took me forever. When I taught On-Sets, I prayed some kid would catch on because I didn’t understand.
She has coached only in Elementary Division, winning innumerable local titles (even in On-Sets) as well as national titles, including multiple sweepstakes championships. One year, her team won all six games they played at Nationals. Dr. Burt won the Jim Davis Outstanding Coordinator Award in 1991.
Bonnie recalls her first Nationals at Rock Eagle.
I wandered around like this lost soul. I thought: “I know nothing about these games.” I wasn’t judging. I just watched. I started as a scorekeeper in the Throne Zone. Somebody asked me if I wanted to read Prop. I said, “I just learned Prop.” They asked, “Can you read?” “Yes, I can read.” So I started reading Propaganda questions at Nationals. I started judging my second year mainly because we didn’t have enough judges, and they took anybody. You just had to look like you could tell the cards from the cubes. I told them I could spell well, and my English was fairly good, and I knew the addition facts through 10.
She mastered the games because of the wide range of subjects she taught in the Gifted and Talented Program.
I taught everything – English, math, social studies, computers, thinking skills, anything we thought appropriate for gifted kids. We liked Equations because all the content was equal to or exceeded the curriculum they were taught. Once they learned a concept, they could go as high as they could figure out strategy for it.
I knew Academic Games was worthwhile when I got kids from teachers who said, “Bonnie, he’ll never do anything for you because he does nothing in class.” These were kids who wanted to practice on Saturday and Sunday. From then on, teachers saw a difference in their attitude toward school. They lived to play Academic Games. They got motivated and thought school was worthwhile. Parents said their children couldn’t wait to come to school but before would call home sick frequently. It was directly due to Academic Games.
I’ve always liked to play games – any kind of games. I got really addicted and spent my summers with the games, figuring out strategies. I would roll cubes until I was sick of rolling cubes and find patterns that seemed to work and make a sheet of strategies for each game. To this day, I keep adding to my strategies. I would walk around and consciously look to see what Goals were being set. I’d make my players write down any Goals that tricked them. I taught the kids, “This is how you get better.”
I don’t know everything. There’s always something new that will come up. It’s thinking, and that’s what I tried to teach my kids to do – think. The thinking that’s involved in these games is unreal. They can transfer that to how they deal with real situations. I’ve never found anything better for kids to be involved with, and I’ve been teaching for 40 years. I continue with Academic Games because these games are still valid. They still have all the skills people need to succeed. Real situations, not just textbook problems. And there are consequences. You win, you lose. You get a trip to Nationals, you don’t. Everything is real. That’s the selling point. And that’s what they like.
I started learning how to teach what I knew to the kids so they would know what it takes to win. They only play what they know. If they don’t understand it and feel comfortable with it, they’re going back to setting a Goal of 1+2. SO the real trick was me learning the strategies that would win and presenting it to them in a way that they could understand the concept and use it any way they wanted to. Once they feel comfortable with the concept, they’ll play it over and over again.
Bonnie required all her Gifted and Talent students to play Academic Games, at least in the classroom.
I decided every student would learn the games and play them. I didn’t force them to play in the tournaments. But I told them, “You’ll be missing a chance to qualify for Nationals. You’ll stay at school while we’re gone” [to local tournaments and Nationals]. So how many participated? All. Nobody was ever absent the day of a tournament.
She took charge of the Elementary Division of her parish league many years ago when the previous coordinator retired.
I had been the assistant person. I stuck my foot in the water and said, “OK, I’ll do it.” I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m trying to find other people to train so that when I decide this is it, somebody can take over. But it’s getting harder to find someone to make that commitment.
Hurricane Katrina knocked the Jefferson Parish league for a loop.
After Katrina, we weren’t sure we’d resurrect. The first year (2005-6), we played only Equations and On-Sets with the New Orleans League. We didn’t have enough coaches; we didn’t have enough kids. We gradually built back up to where we are now. But we’re not as large as before the storm.
The Jefferson schools split after 5th grade, with 6th graders moving to middle school. So her Elementary Division has just 4th and 5th graders, which makes competing at Nationals a challenge.
The students have a great time at Nationals. Their big thing is getting a 6 in a round against anybody. It’s hard to compete against 6th graders with three years experience. They beat or tie a 6th grader – that’s their championship. I tell them Nationals is gravy. The big thing is you qualified against everyone in the parish and you got to go to Nationals.
Bonnie was a member of the initial AGLOA board in 1991-2.
I knew there was friction among the top administrators, but I was too involved with coaching kids. They said they were breaking away and changing some of the rules. Now or Never sounded good to me. I never thought the avoid move was that good. I was worried if I was picking the right group to go with. But I felt more comfortable with Larry’s group [AGLOA]. I’ve never regretted making that decision. I was on the first AGLOA board because they wanted to have all the different leagues and states represented. That was an interesting experience because I felt like the new kid on the block. What did I know about being on a national board? I was kind of intimidated. The first few meetings I thought, “What am I doing? Talking about all these plans. Hey, guys, I’m just a coach.” But I got over it quickly and starting giving my two cents worth. I was on the board for 15 years.
Like everyone else, she has noticed changes in the students over the years.
I don’t see the commitment, the motivation. At the 4th and 5th grade level, too many other things attract their attention such as video games. They don’t want to spend the time it takes to perfect their skills. They want it given to them. You can go online to find information about the presidents and make your own study guide. I would have nobody with more than one page on any president. Even if I give them worksheets to work on, they don’t do those anymore. When I first started, kids begged me for worksheets. “Can we practice together?” Now, it’s “I don’t have time for all that.” It’s hard to get them to concentrate to learn the games well. There’s no focus. They want that remote. If they can’t click to the next channel after two minutes, they’re bored. It’s a different generation. We have to find ways to get them interested in what the games entail. We need younger coaches. It needs to be coming from people the kids see as relevant people for their time. We start looking like grandma and grandpa and what do they know about anything? Yet, the relevance is still there. The games still provide kids with life skills in a game format. That’s why it’s lasted. Teach kids in a game format, and they will learn anything you want to teach them.
If she had to pick one game that makes the most long-term impact on students, which one would it be?
Propaganda, because this goes on every day in your life. If you can’t analyze what’s being said and recognize reality from propaganda, you’re not going to be successful. On the trip to Nationals, the kids look at signs and call out the techniques being used. They watch TV commercials and tell me techniques. Watch political campaigns. Tell me what they’re doing to persuade. Everybody’s exposed to this kind of stuff. If you can spot it, you’re ahead of the game. If not, you’re just one of the crowd.