All in the Game

file_000“We need more letters!”

“We’ve got too many vowels!”

“Get consonants! Consonants!”

And with that, the 8th grader in the blue and gray PE uniform of her middle school jumped up, skipped to the center of the gym, picked up three more tiles and returned, skipping, to her group. The four students quickly employed the new letter tiles to complete their entry in this round of Bananagram Fitness.

My colleague at Wainwright Middle School, Mrs. Jessica Oertel, invented the game when she was a student teacher, assigned to a school where the gym was under construction. She needed hallway activities that could engage the students—and contain them—at the same time they practiced fitness skills.

The game works like this. Students are grouped randomly in fours. (Naturally, my colleague had a quick and easy strategy for that.) While the students sat on the floor in front of her whiteboard, Mrs. Oertel laid out the rules:

“You need twenty tiles, all underneath the cone in the center of the gym. When the music starts, skip to the center, do five curl-ups, and then take one tile. Skip back to your corner of the gym and put your tile in the cone at your place.  You have to do this five times. When you each have gotten five tiles, work together to create a bananagram that uses all twenty tiles.”


She had the students repeat the instructions—always a good idea. 

“How many tiles does each person get?” 

“Five!” the students roared.

How many trips does each person make?


“How many total does each group have?”


“No text words, no names of people, no abbreviations. If you start with a long word, you’ll have more success than if you begin with something like cat. Words that are side-by-side have to spell a legitimate word in both directions—across and down.

file_005Need more letters? You can get them anytime, but you have to take three letters and you have to go through the routine again: Skip, curl-ups, skip.”

(In Round 2, the locomotion challenges switched to galloping and push-ups.)

Initially, Mrs. Oertel’s game was the product of necessity, but today, well into her second year of teaching, her objectives go beyond that.

For one thing, the Indiana Academic Standards (and the Common Core) call for all teachers—even teachers of physical education—to incorporate literacy into their classroom instruction. While some of those literacy standards—like writing an argumentative essay—have been waived for physical education, some remain. These largely concern the use of vocabulary and discipline-appropriate explanatory or informative writing, including the use of non-linguistic tools such as graphs, flowcharts, and diagrams. By basing the game on vocabulary and the rules of spelling, my colleague was honoring the directive from the state.

But Mrs. Oertel had another reason, too, for playing a game based on vocabulary. She believes that learning should be interdisciplinary. “We’re all a team here,” she said. “I want to help out with academic goals.”  Indeed, she has a game based on math problems that involves fitness and stations where kids solve math problems on a whiteboard before moving on to the next challenge and another game designed to draw on knowledge learned in social studies.  

She’s not alone in believing that interdisciplinary lessons bolster what students have learned in other classes. The standards for National Board Certified Teachers of Physical Education include as one criterion for excellence, collaboration with colleagues in other disciplines to creatively apply knowledge and skills taught in each other’s classes. As one example, the NBCT document on Standards suggests that PE teachers could reinforce the concepts of angles in basketball.

The game continued. The students were getting a workout, but they were having fun doing it.  At the start of the period, Mrs. Oertel pointed out the objective for the day. Vocabulary development was written right into it, but my colleague didn’t rob the game of its fun by dwelling on the literacy standard and making overt references to English class and prior knowledge. Certainly their competitive spirit was tapped, but honestly, the groups were so far apart on the floor they didn’t really know how far along the other groups were. They were more focused on the intrinsic reward of accomplishing the task than they were on winning. Mrs. Oertel accomplished her fitness goals—developing cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength and endurance—and her literacy goal, and she did it all with a game.

Looking for more ideas?  Here are two sources with a multitude of ideas for PE teachers on making physical education cross-disciplinary:

  • Check out this wealth of activities at
  • Read a Teacher Blog:  This NBCT educator writes regularly about instruction in her PE classes—including her strategies for interdisciplinary learning.   Here’s a specific example: PE Monopoly. 

When we were in middle school, my best friend Anne and I spent long hours playing that timeless basketball challenge, H-O-R-S-E, under the hoop mounted above her family’s garage. When we took a break, it was to pass even more hours sitting on the floor of her breezeway, inventing board games that were, essentially, variations on Monopoly, Parcheesi, and Clue. Now I know why those pastimes were so engaging. Games present students with a mental challenge, an opportunity for creativity, and in the case of H-O-R-S-E, a chance to release energy.

file_003Coming up with literacy activities or interdisciplinary games for PE is a challenge—and a PE teacher wouldn’t want to be interdisciplinary every day or be artificial about doing so, either.  H-O-R-S-E was fun—but sometimes I wanted to play basketball.

So, as with all things, there needs to be a balance. Mrs. Oertel seems to have it with Bananagram Fitness and similar games which kids in her PE classes play with genuine enthusiasm once in a while during a semester.

Now: How about warm-ups before a geography test? Running in place at the start of English? Touching toes five times at the end of Homeroom?

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