Doing My Part

Writing Classroom Jeopardy! Questions

The downside of the format I have chosen for my blog--a simulacrum of a weekly column--is that it requires… well… that I come up with something to say every week. This was relatively easy when I first started, since I fumed about the Clinton impeachment. Then I wrote about my life on the Internet, then the end of my life on the Internet, then my progress towards becoming a teacher, and then my utter panic at actually teaching (including concomitant health problems). It has gotten harder to blog on any week when all I do is my job--teach. As I enter my fourth year, I am living proof that teaching gets easier every year. This year is complicated by the presence of a new principal and a new textbook, but all that's working out pretty well.

Last spring, we bought two sets of Classroom Jeopardy! Games, and discovered that students love them. I knew this. In 1966, at Beaumont Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, during the era of the Art Fleming version of Jeopardy, I organized an 8th grade Jeopardy! Tournament. I had students write the questions. I served as host--which irritated the rest of Mrs. Ward's class, as I would also have been our best player.

Larry Wheeler--Larry, if you object to the use of your full last name, write and tell me; I've been trying to find you and get in touch for five years. Maybe someday you'll be googling yourself and find this.

Larry Wheeler was the top player from Mrs. Blood's room. He was also, head and shoulders, the brightest student in my grade. He wrote most of the Jeopardy! Questions turned in by all the students, which made it rather easy for him to dominate the game. Also, the participants had to ring little bells when they knew an answer, and like most right handers, I favored the team on my right. From this experience, I learned that you should be sure that, if students are writing their own questions, they aren't answering them.

In 1987, I fulfilled my 20-year dream and became a contestant on Jeopardy! I lost to David Traini, who won five times and then placed second in the Tournament of Champions that year.

Sometime after the Internet caught on--probably during the late 90s--I fulfilled another life-long dream, and purchased a lock-out buzzer set. It cost me about $750. It was College Bowl style--two teams of five. I hoped to use it with my girls in their classrooms, but the opportunity never arose. Then I tried it while student teaching at Miramonte. Smash success. Tried it again as I started teaching at J Middle School. Also a smash success. At first, I just read the questions, then I projected them using PowerPoint. Then F, my fellow teacher, noticed the Jeopardy! Game on the Internet. It uses wireless buzzers, and if you have video projectors, as we do, you can project the game board nice and big. It also keeps score automatically, and clocks out the time allowed for an answer (I was always too generous with the seven seconds). We bought one set for her room, one for mine. Smash hit! We play six players at a time (widens participation) and change players after every question--so one player each from six teams plays every question.

Of course, you have to write your own questions if the game is actually going to review the material you covered. Here's the funny thing; that turns out to be a third and final (for this week's column) dream of mine: to write Jeopardy! Questions. It has been very difficult for me to watch the show since I lost, so I'm a bit out of touch with recent question trends. Do they still do Potent Potables? I actually considered trying out for a writing position, but decided I could do society more good as a teacher. I am still proud of the category I would have offered as a sample: "Hap"py People, where the word Hap or Happy would appear in the each question. Happy Rockefeller, Hap Arnold, and three other clues that slip my mind.

Anyway, to make the game more fun for yourself and the students, you have to try hard to write Jeopardy! Style questions. I don't make my students respond to the clue in the form of a question--in the classroom it's about answers, not style--but I am tickled when a handful of them do. I have a little Art Fleming/Alex Trebek in my head when I write, and try to make it sound like something I've heard, or would hear, them say. Also, I don't know if you've ever noticed, but they often slip in an extra clue to the correct question. That; I think, is the best of Jeopardy writing. In the last chapter, the clue was "This man, whose name was not his title, wrote the final draft of the Constitution." That would be Goueverner Morris. "He was Washington's seceretary of the Treasury, and appears on the $10 bill." "This "m" word means to free a single slave."

I spent several hours this week writing (and proofreading--very important, proofreading) the questions for Chapters 5 and 7 (F., also a former Jeopardy! Contestant, writes the even chapters). And I loved every minute of it, as I did the half hour it took me to compose this column entry. I just love to write, that's all there is to it. It was nice when I got paid to write, but as my experience of recent years has proven, I must be a blockhead--for as Dr. Jerry Pournelle loves to quote Samuel Johnson: " No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

I am writing for no money and loving it. I hope you are too. And if you're teaching out of The American Journey, I've got some Classroom Jeopardy! Questions for you.