For Coaches and Teachers, For Hosts and Facilitators, For Kids, P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box, Resources

P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box Time: Make it Memorable


US Academic Triathlon participants often compete against as many as eight other teams during a Meet, and they all have the same P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box prompts. It is up to the students to find ways to stand out and get noticed by the judges. Some judges use the first show they see to set a bar for all of the performances while others give preliminary scores and go back to adjust them after they’ve seen all of the shows. But no matter the style of the people on the panel that Meet, if the show is forgettable the scores will be lower.

Many of the prompts explicitly require the teams to showcase someone’s special skill as a part of their P.A.R.T.Y. solutions, but this is a good way to approach all of the challenges. Can anyone do funny impressions? Is there a juggler in the house? What about walking on one’s hands? There are lots of quirky little things that teams can share with their audience (and the judges), to make a show memorable.

Adding music is another great way to garner favor with the spectators. You don’t have to be a “good” singer to have a song make an impact. It can be a vehicle for moving the plot forward, a way to keep the audience busy during a scene change, or a mode of adding interest to a character. It is also an especially good way to build comedy into a show. Taking a song that people know and changing the lyrics in a clever way will almost always illicit chuckles. This is something that comes easily to some people, but it is also a skill that can be practiced.

It is also very important not to be remembered for the WRONG reasons. Having poor theater etiquette when it isn’t their turn or dissolving into giggles during a performance are both ways of making an impression on the judges, but in negative ways. Breaking the rules is another bad way to get noticed and the reputation can follow a team throughout a season. I was a judge during a performance once where they built their entire skit around a shirt that one of the students was wearing.

This is, of course, unfair to the other teams who were not provided with that shirt as part of their materials, and the other judges on the panel took it almost personally. In that case we decided that it was an innocent mistake and took off only 5 points from their overall raw score, but depending on the infraction a team could lose much more. And I can say from that experience it was difficult to judge the rest of their skit separate from the “cheating issue”, and I am sure that they received a lower overall score as a result. The skits are the responsibility of the students, but coaches should also make sure they understand the rules to avoid any inadvertent loss of points.

For Coaches and Teachers, For Kids, P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box, Resources

P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box Time: Front and Center


Acting effectively on a stage requires a special set of skills. Most of the time if we are watching actors they are on television or a movie screen and their faces are always perfectly framed. No matter if they are whispering or shouting, the audience can always hear exactly what is being said. But, being in front of a real audience without the benefits of a microphone or a cameraman is another matter completely.

Stage actors must have an awareness of where they are in relation to the audience at all times. All too often I have seen P.A.R.T.Y. skits with a good story get muddled because the actors turn their backs to the spectators. No matter how good the acting, it is wasted if the audience can’t see the actor’s faces. In a real conversation people usually face each other, but during a play the regular rules don’t apply.

Actors must remember to “cheat out” and angle their bodies so members of the audience can see everything they do. Whenever I take the stage I pretend someone is trying to sneak up behind me from the wings (the technical term for the areas beside the stage), so I make sure I can see off stage from my peripheral vision. This keeps the shoulders turned squarely to the front and most of the body open to the audience. All of the action of the show must be directed at the spectators even if it feels unnatural.

During P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box performances, teams should be provided with a minimum of 8×10 feet area in which to perform, but often get even more space. While doing their performances, students should endeavor to “fill” whatever space they get by ensuring the characters move around the stage. Oftentimes teams end up “stuck” to the backdrop holder which can end up functioning like a security blanket. The audience (and judges) will be much more engaged by a show that features people moving confidently around the stage. It is also possible through movement and props to delineate separate settings on a single stage, so if the action is occurring stage left, stage right is free to be prepared for the next change of location or scenery.

But, being seen is only half the battle– actors must also be heard. Fear of public speaking (glossophobia) is the most commonly reported phobia of them all. When a person is nervous their throats begin to constrict and it can be very difficult to get the words out. This is one reason that professional actors always engage in warm-up activities before a performance. These release tension and stretch muscles in the throat and the rest of the body in order to facilitate locution. Tongue twisters are a great way to get the lips and tongue ready for a performance, and ensure the throat muscles are relaxed enough to carry a voice to the back row and beyond.

Below are some of my favorite tongue twisters that I picked up in acting classes over the years. Speed is less important than precise pronunciation when it comes to using them to warm-up before a performance, but challenging students to race each other or beat a set time adds another dimension of challenge. They are also just plain fun to say and even making mistakes usually results in giggling so they are a nice way to break tension.

1. Unique New York, unique New York, you know you need unique New York

2. The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.

3. The teeth, the lips, the tip of the tongue,
The tip of the tongue, the teeth and the lips (x3)

4. I sit in solemn silence
on a dull, dark dock
in a pestilential prison
with a lifelong lock
awaiting the sensation
of a short, sharp shock
from a cheap and chippy chopper
on a big, black block

5. About Socks (Dr. Seuss)
Give me the gift of a grip-top sock,
A clip drape shipshape tip top sock.
Not your spinslick slapstick slipshod stock,
But a plastic, elastic grip-top sock.
None of your fantastic slack swap slop
From a slap dash flash cash haberdash shop.
Not a knick knack knitlock knockneed knickerbocker sock
With a mock-shot blob-mottled trick-ticker top clock.
Not a supersheet seersucker ruck sack sock,
Not a spot-speckled frog-freckled cheap sheik’s sock
Off a hodge-podge moss-blotched scotch-botched block.
Nothing slipshod drip drop flip flop or glip glop
Tip me to a tip top grip top sock.

Do you know any great tongue twisters you’d like to share? Please leave a comment!


For Coaches and Teachers, For Hosts and Facilitators, For Kids, For Parents, P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box, Resources

P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box Time: Theater Etiquette

When I was a kid competing in USAT, my favorite event was always the P.A.R.T.Y. performance. I loved getting up in front of the crowd of parents and other teams to share our interpretation of the PA.R.T.Y. in a Box problem. I went on to do two professional plays as well as many school and community performances over the years and I know that I achieved some of the confidence I needed to even try out based on my time in USAT. In addition to my own acting chops, I have also been a judge for USAT performances several times and I plan to share some tips to help students do their very best at each competition. Over the next several weeks I will be giving advice about creating costumes, backdrops and props, and making performances memorable.


But, let’s start with the basics. Getting up in front of a big group can be incredibly intimidating even if you have done it lots of times. The best way to help everyone feel comfortable and give it their all is to have a respectful audience. Many of the participants in USAT have never been to a formal performance of a play, orchestra or other event that would demand proper theater etiquette so they probably don’t even know the right way to act unless parents, coaches or facilitators tell them (and show them) how it is done.


1. Turn off all electronic devices. Smart phones, MP3 players, tablets and all manner of electronics have become the norm, but they have no place in a theater setting. Not only are the noises the devices themselves make distracting, but how many times have you seen parents leave their seats in the middle of a team’s performance when it isn’t their kid’s skit going on? It is distracting to the actors and to the audience members, and a gentle reminder from the host facilitator at the beginning of the performances can go a long way to keeping this from happening.

2. No talking during a performance. Unlike a real theater, the spaces like libraries, gyms and classrooms where most USAT performances take place have not been designed with noise in mind. Even a whisper in a small space can pull focus from the actors and derail their trains of thought. A policy of quiet during performances will also help ensure that teams who perform later due to their assigned letter will not have time to do additional planning and preparation during the performances of others.

3. Respect the rules about eating and drinking. In many school spaces there is no eating or drinking allowed. These rules should be respected by the coaches, teams and their family members throughout the Meet, and especially during P.A.R.T.Y. performances. Besides the potential for mess, many snacks come in noisy packaging and the unwrapping of a candy bar or crunching of potato chips can be just as distracting as talking.

4. Always applaud. We want students to gain confidence in their creative abilities and problem-solving through the course of the USAT season to promote positive risk-taking. Even performances that fall short of solving the problem, are difficult to hear or even are giggled through by the actors deserve the attention and respect of the audience. Every team should applaud and encourage the others, and in the rare case of heckling or booing this should result in a penalty against the offending team.

Unlike other types of performances, USAT teams also need to be sure to clean up after themselves. As soon as they are done with their performance they must clear the stage area and make it easy for the next team to set up. The facilitate clean-up, hosts can often arrange to have extra garbage cans brought in before the performances begin and set up near the staging area so the materials can be disposed of as soon as the students leave the stage.

Looking for more P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box tips? Check out the rest of the series: Front and Center, Make it Memorable, Backdrops Set the Scene, Costumes Make the Characters, and Props Add Pop.

For Hosts and Facilitators

Ready, Set, Facilitate!

Even if you have been hosting Meets and facilitating events for years it can always be a little nerve-wracking to start a new season after so many months away. Here are some helpful tips to make this and every Meet run smoothly.

Being a Host

  • Double check all of your room reservations.
  • Ensure that you have the right staff on hand, which usually includes a janitor to unlock the rooms and help you troubleshoot.
  • Test your equipment. Make sure that whatever system you are using for oral Face-Off is working properly and you have the right number of computers (and maybe a back up) accounted for.
  • Make the proper signs. Do you have signs for the registration table, directional signs to help people get around and a set of team letters to help organize the P.A.R.T.Y. in a box material distribution?
  • Make sure you have everything you need for each Mind Sprint. Count out the materials in each MS to ensure there are no surprises for your facilitators.
  • Send reminders. You don’t want to be caught short a volunteer because it slipped someone’s mind.
  • Don’t forget to have your volunteers check competitions kits at the first Meet of the season.

Facilitating an Event

  • Read over your responsibilities in the Program Manual. It is a good idea to also be familiar with the Student Responsibilities as well.
  • Once you receive your materials, make sure to read over the instructions and devise the easiest and most consistent way to keep score. Are you going to use hash marks? Do you want to keep score on a separate piece of paper and transfer the final scores to the score sheet or write directly on it?
  • Remember, unless something is forbidden in the rules, it is more than likely okay. We want to encourage students to be creative!
  • Make sure you have a watch or cell phone handy to keep accurate time.
  • Be consistent! No team should gain an advantage over another by starting early, etc.
  • Watch for teams and individuals who exhibit exceptional creativity. We have a special Award Certificate for these people to honor ingenuity even if they don’t end up in first in place.

Have a wonderful time today and good luck!

For Coaches and Teachers, Mind Sprints, Resources, SCAMPER Technique

Getting the Most out of SCAMPER: R is for Rearrange

We’ve reached the end of our SCAMPER journey and I hope these posts have been helpful! If you missed any of the intervening letters, here are the links to the SCAMPER sheet that should be in every team’s competition kit and the posts about getting the most out of the technique:

S-C-A-M-P-E-R Sheet
Background on the technique

S is for Substitute

C is for Combine
A is for Adapt
M is for Magnify/Minify
P is for Put to Another Use
E is for Eliminate

Print-and-Cut-TangramAnd now for Rearrange. During the USAT season, the writers often employ at least one Mind Sprint where spatial awareness is key. Objects and ideas are flipped over or reversed, or the sequence of events may need to be changed in order to solve a problem. We ask students to use shapes and tools to copy images or to create their own pictures. Some students find this fun and easy, but for others it can be a real challenge.

One way to tap into this skill is to try out a set of tangrams with your students. Tangrams are an ancient Chinese toy that gained popularity in Europe during the 1800’s. I had a set growing up and they are a lot of fun! With some imagination almost anything can be made by moving around these geometric shapes. Feel free to download and use both the tangram cut-out at left and the animal shapes at the end of the post.

Another way to hone rearranging skills is to use scrambled words. A day or two after teaching my ESL students new vocabulary words, I will often give them the words again but with the letters in the wrong order and ask them to figure out what the words are. For a native English speaker the exercise is mostly about moving the letters around in their minds and recognizing patterns, but it also helps my Bulgarian students learn to spell the words correctly. This is a fun game to play with your students, and it is quick and easy to prepare. Words can have a theme like foods, school subjects, toys, etc or they can be random to make it more challenging.

Likewise, you can scramble math problems. If a person is given the answer and all the components to a problem, she can use the order of operations to decipher the original equation. For instance, the answer is 49, the components are 3, 4, 7, ( ), + and x. What is the math problem?

Answer: (3+4)x7 = 49.

Happy SCAMPERing and good luck at the first Meet on December 12!