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Outstanding Senior: Christian Fernandez
Christian Fernandez of Haynes Academy in Jefferson Parish in Louisiana won an Outstanding Senior Award at the 2016 AGLOA National Tournament in Atlanta.
Christian began playing in the 5th grade and has gone to Nationals every year since. Starting in 8th grade, his teams won championships in five different games – LinguiSHTIK, Propaganda, Equations, On-Sets, and Presidents. His team, “The Rascals,” completed a trifecta last April – three straight national sweepstakes titles.
Through it all, he functioned as a de facto assistant coach and was Head Counselor for an Academic Games summer camp hosted by his school’s team. As is typical for Academic Games players, Christian’s list of accomplishments makes you wonder how he found enough hours in the day: first chair saxophone player in the state band, vice-president of the Math Honor Society, president of the French Club, and a National Merit Scholar Finalist. He had his choice of Princeton, John Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Michigan, and the Peabody Conservatory of Music but decided on Yale.
Christian’s coach, Ellie Gamble, wrote the following in her nomination.
There aren’t enough words to describe how exceptional Christian truly is. He loves math, music, and all things French and Academic Games. However, being “the Supreme Nerd” did not stop him from being selected as Junior Prom King and then Homecoming King as a senior.
The old saying “You can’t teach an old dog a new trick” for the most part is true unless you find yourself surrounded by amazing kids. Six years ago, our Academic Games program was floundering because, in the words of Emily Dickinson, “Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed.” It was not fun for our kids. So the brainstorming began to change the tide of negativity with the Thinking Kids Project. Among the brainstormers was one eighth-grader, Christian Fernandez. The idea was to share our knowledge, strategies, goals, and objectives with anyone who asked. This old dog barked loudly at first, but the plan was put into action. We began with open Saturday practices for all teams in the metro New Orleans area, a summer camp, and teacher workshops Thursday nights at the Library.
This young eighth-grader sat in awe of his older counterparts and embraced the idea so that, when they left the program, it would still grow. When the mettle was passed, Christian went beyond our expectations, training anyone who asked or who may have needed a lift, or simply someone who talked. He held all our high school practices when I was coaching the Middle schools, made sure we had buses for tournaments, and packed all essentials for competition.
The best part is that The Thinking Kids Project has been a success story. The five kids on the New Orleans Jazz team [2016 Nationals team] are Thinking Kids Project campers. Seventeen 6th and 7th graders brought by Jefferson Parish to the 2016 Nationals are TKP campers.
An Interview with Chris Holstein
Chris Holstein of Detroit, MI, received the Outstanding Educator award way back in 1981. That was only his fifth year in Academic Games at the national level, but he had already developed a reputation for coaching well-prepared competitive teams.
Fred Schippert, the Supervisor of Mathematics for the Detroit Public Schools, recruited him for the Academic Games program Fred was initiating.
Chris recalls: He kept calling me every two weeks to go to a workshop in the summer of 1976. I said, “I don’t know. What is this?” “It’s math stuff,” he said.
Holstein first taught Equations in summer school the following year, then started a team at Longfellow Middle that met after school in the fall.
I learned On-Sets from others and, in our first Michigan League of Academic Games (MLAG) tournament, we played just Equations and On-Sets.
He went to his first Nationals in the spring of 1978 at Gatlinburg, TN.
Chris moved to Bates Academy in 1982. It took a while to build a program in the K-8 school, starting with an Academic Games elective that met twice a week. When I interviewed for the school, they wanted me to do Academic Games because they needed electives. At first it was just Equations and On-Sets. About 1986, we worked on Wff’N Proof.
He took to Equations the fastest. It’s so rich. There’s so much going on.
Since teams had to play at least one reading game to qualify for sweepstakes at Nationals, MLAG played Propaganda but dropped it because so few schools played it and switched to Presidents. It’s not my favorite. It’s more of a memory game.
After a few years, he decided to have his teams play all seven games at Nationals – quite a daunting task for him and the students.
His program peaked when he brought 107 players to a MLAG Saturday tournament.
Over the years, coaching Academic Games has become more challenging.
When I started, Academic Games was the only game in town. I had kids come to all six Saturday tournaments. Now they’ve got so many other things they can do – music lessons, STEM, STEAM, science program, chess. It’s hard to get kids to come to the tournaments consistently.
Originally, he could require his players to attend every practice and at least three Saturday tournaments. If I did that now, I wouldn’t have anybody.
When you deal with the best students, other teachers want the same students to help them. We practice at lunchtime for 30 minutes and they’re eating part of that time. One young lady, my best player, worked on the yearbook. So she came twice a week. The other kids said, “If she comes twice a week, I don’t have to work so hard because she doesn’t have to come.” If I said, “You have to come five days a week,” I’d have one kid probably.
He brought 50 players to the MLAG Super Tournament in 2016, with 15 qualifying for Nationals – five Elementary and ten Middle.
Chris has seen the number of schools in Detroit shrink.
The first few years Detroit came to Nationals starting in 1978, we brought about 180 kids. Then we were down to 150 – 30 teams. We have only 11 teams now.
The city of Detroit has shrunk in population from a high of 1.8 million in 1950 to 700,000 in 2010, a loss of 61%.
Another part of our problem is that charter schools have taken a large portion of the students. When I started teaching in Detroit, we had 250,000 students. Now we’re about 50,000. Michigan does have one charter school participating in Nationals – Plymouth Scholars Academy.
Chris is proud that so many of his former players are still involved in Academic Games. First and foremost, there’s AGLOA Tournament Director Rod Beard. Also Adrian Prather, the Georgia representative on the Tournament Council, among many others.
Rod talks about it all the time. He was a young man who lived with his mother in a family of low means. I used to pick him up for tournaments all the time. Academic Games gave him that drive that he has for what he does now, which is being a sportswriter.
The smartest kid that I might teach doesn’t want to do Academic Games. He’s got other things to do. It’s the kid that’s on the lower level that wants to do it. I think it makes them succeed beyond the other person. When you take a bunch of kids and ask, “Who wants to do it?” it’s not the kid getting all A’s that everybody says is the great student around. It’s the other kids that come forth. There’s a lot of kids who weren’t champions, and they come back to me and say, “I did this, I did that because of Academic Games.”
His Academic Games players do well in high school. We have 35 Cass Tech and Renaissance players [at the 2016 Nationals], and half those kids came from Bates. That’s every year. Kids who didn’t do well with me have blossomed in high school.
What team does he remember the most fondly?
Rod Beard, Dorian Smith, Sarah Trombley, Abimbola Afariogun, and Andrew Stettner were on the “Rejects.” That was our first team that was really outstanding.
They stayed together in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades for me. I called them “Rejects” because they were good. Then in 7th grade, they were “Rejects Return” and in 8th, “Rejects Return Again.”
At age 69, does he plan to retire any time soon?
No. Like most people, you gotta have something to do, and I like what I’m doing. I enjoy good health.
I guess sometime I’ll get really tired of it. When Madison goes crazy in my room for the 15th time, I’ll say, “That’s it.”
MLAG honors Chris each year by presenting the Christopher Holstein Lifetime Achievement Award to deserving coaches.
Down Memory Lane
Here are the individual and team winners at the 1976 National Academic Games Olympics in Gatlinburg TN.