The days of dreading summer school are in the past for rising fourth-graders at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto as a new alternative-learning program using board games to sharpen their math and language-arts skills has brought fun into the classroom.
Ohlone co-teachers Michelle Yee and Cathy Harkness understood the importance of stepping away from traditional methods of teaching summer school so that the students learn different subjects through hands-on applications.
"Summer school can be such a drag unless you do something fun," Harkness said.
Using the Palo Alto Unified School District's new STEAM-based learning system, which teaches students science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, Harkness and Yee sought to develop their students' inquiry, dialogue and critical-thinking skills.
The initial idea to make board games came from Harkness' husband, who used a similar activity when he taught an after-school program. Harkness then took to NextDoor.com, a social-networking service for neighborhoods, where she found 23-year-old board-game maker and Mountain View resident Justin Leong.
Harkness and Yee asked Leong to help their students create their own board games so they could apply the various STEAM subjects in a fun way.
"The goal here is for them (students) to go back to their regular school year loving school," Yee said.
Leong's childhood dream of making his own game came true with the creation of Rushin' Roulette, a high-stakes card game similar to poker in which players must bluff their way into being the last person standing. Players are dealt three character cards and each takes a turn "pulling a revolver's trigger" to take out opponents, according to its description on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform Leong used to raise funds for the project. Leong now sells the game on his website, playrushinroulette.com.
Leong said he wished he'd had a support system to inspire his creativity and dreams early on.
"I didn't have someone to tell me that I could do it," Leong said. "If someone like me had come and showed me the ropes like this at a much earlier age, I think I would have been inspired a lot more."
This hindsight is what prompted him to respond to Harkness and Yee's request.
Leong first visited the school earlier this month and spoke to the kids about the various stages of creating a game, including identifying resources for the game and coming up with the rules. The students absorbed his information and spent a week collecting game tokens, spinners, cards and boards from donated games in order to make their own.
Through creating the games, the students were able to learn multiplication by having to deal with scores and play money and practice their language arts skills by writing out the rules for their games and reading them to their peers, among other lessons.
Genesis Suarez and classmate Mireya Reyes created "MoonUno," a spin-off of the classic card game "Uno." Both said they learned a lot about effort and trying their best when creating the game.
"He inspired me to try and make games," Suarez said of Leong. She added that she hopes to see her creation sold at Walmart one day.
Last Friday, Leong returned to "play test" the students' games — and the kids came prepared.
Mayte Sanchez-Bazan and Andrea Magana-Magana created a combination of Monopoly and Scrabble, in which each player rolls the dice and lands on a square that has a letter on it. The player collects all of the letters he or she lands on and uses them to spell out a word. For every word spelled, the player wins Monopoly money, and the person with the most money at the end wins.
Leong said he was blown away by the kids' imaginations. After playing their games, he told both classes that he wasn't as creative as them when he was a kid.
"These kids wanting to go to school and wanting to create something, it's such a positive thing," he said.
He added that he would like to see similar initiatives at other schools.
Yee agreed, noting that she hopes to introduce alternative teaching programs like this one to her own third-grade class during the regular school year.