Longfellow Elementary's form of March madness? Read books, play basketball

Reading challenge, basketball combine for month-long event

Longfellow's Recce Williamson adds a paper basketball to the 'Reading Madness' wall on Thursday, March 2, 2023, at Longfellow Elementary School.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

MITCHELL — Students and staff at Longfellow Elementary School are gearing up for the very own version of March Madness.

The Mitchell elementary school is hosting Reading Madness throughout March. The event combines a student reading challenge that will culminate in a basketball game between students and teachers at the school, complete with band performances, cheer demonstrations and a few surprise guests along the way.

“It’s going to be great. The kids are excited for it,” said Lisa Heckenlaible, principal at Longfellow Elementary School.

The entire building is excited for the return of an event that was born during the 2017-18 school year and continued the following year, but it was essentially put on hold for the next three years due to the outbreak of COVID-19. And while the event has been dormant since, everyone is ready to bring back the reading, the competition and the special basketball game that will see select students and teachers square off against each other in a light-hearted basketball game on March 31.

Reading Madness restarted for the first time since the 2018-19 school year Wednesday and students have already begun their part of the activity. As part of the event, students at the school read books of their choosing, are given a comprehension test on those books, and are allowed to fill out a small basketball representing their achievement and progress.


All students at the school can take part, and there are prizes for successfully completing books. Students in third, fourth and fifth grades, however, will have the chance to have their names put into a drawing to be selected for a team that will take on staffers and faculty from Longfellow Elementary School to be played in front of their fellow students.

Shown here is the 'Reading Madness' wall that students of Longfellow Elementary School will be adding basketballs to for each book read in the month of March on Thursday, March 2, 2023, at Longfellow Elementary School.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

It’s a challenge that encourages students to embrace reading and setting goals, and it builds social connections through a friendly, competitive activity.

“The learners will play our team of teachers,” Heckenlaible said. “We have really competitive teachers in our building, and I think our students are a lot like that. They see a challenge and like to put themselves up to a challenge, whether it be reading, whether it be on the court outside or on the soccer field or in the classroom.”

Marissa Abts, who along with Esther Witte and Stetsen Ericksen helped found the event five years ago, said the month is a great way to build a student’s love of reading while taking part in an activity that extends beyond the traditional classroom setting.

It’s also a great way to get students into a beneficial lifelong habit.

“Our goal is to just increase the reading,” Abts said. “It’s being exposed to books and language. Every year, the more you read, no matter what it is, the more your language is going to grow and your social skills will grow.”

While the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students are eligible to compete in the basketball game, younger students will also take part in the reading portion of the activity and can receive prizes. Along the way, they can see their older schoolmates take on teachers on the basketball court and hopefully find inspiration in seeing what they accomplished.

Abts, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, said while it’s important for elementary students at all levels to embrace reading, older students in particular are just beginning to develop their own personal tastes and interests. That’s an important time in a student’s growth when it’s vital to encourage students to pursue those interests.


“At fifth grade, a lot are starting to get into what they really like, and helping them find books they like and relate to or are interested in is good,” Abts said. “If we don’t set that tone for the love of reading, it will be harder the older they get.”

The basketball game, which will be played at the conclusion of the month on March 31 will feature more than just a game. Elementary students will perform a few band numbers and cheer students will host a performance. Several surprise “celebrity” coaches and referees will also be on hand to add to the excitement.

The basketball game is, of course, an exhibition and held in good fun. And though it may seem like a team of adult teachers playing elementary students would hold an unfair advantage, Abts said not to count out the students and their drive to be successful.

Longfellow's Recce Williamson adds a paper basketball to the 'Reading Madness' wall on Thursday, March 2, 2023, at Longfellow Elementary School.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

She also said not to count too heavily on the teachers putting on a dominating performance.

“Most of us are not super-coordinated when it comes to sports,” Abts said with a laugh. “But it’s super-fun to have a healthy competition with the kids to show them we’re human and like to have fun. It doesn’t have to be serious all the time.”

Mason Hajek, a fifth-grade student at Longfellow Elementary School, is looking forward to the competition. He suspected the teachers will hold an edge in the big game due to their height advantage.

“The teachers (will win) probably, because they can get a lot more rebounds,” Hajek said. Other students sounded off on Reading Madness on video in the Mitchell Republic elementary school newsletter roundup for March.

After an unplanned three-year hiatus, organizers expect a lot of buzz for reading and basketball over the course of March. The older students eligible to play in the game this year were young students when Reading Madness was last held at the school, and now they’re finally getting a chance to show up their teachers on the hardwood.


Between the students, the staff and a host of community volunteers pitching in, it stands to make for a great month of reading for the students and for instilling that love of reading for the teachers.

“I love to read. I’m always reading with my class to show that it doesn’t stop. It continues the older you get,” Abts said.

Heckenlaible agreed.

Longfellow Elementary School hosting Reading Madness throughout the month

“It shows them teamwork, and shows them that having a goal in life is not just about reading. You have to set goals for yourself. And if your goal is to be part of this game because you enjoy basketball, then we’re going to tie our reading to it because it’s a way to set a goal,” Heckenlaible said. “And reading is important. Reading is priceless.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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