march madness tournament

If you’re looking to dust a bit of magic over your classroom this March, look no further than hosting your very own March Madness tournament! With limitless ways to set up your brackets, a tournament is a sure way to bring excitement and friendly competition into the world of ELA for your students. Not only will it add a fun twist and engage those basketball fanatics, but it’s a great way to engage your students in new literature and authors. In an effort to make planning for your tournament doable, I’m answering all your questions when it comes to hosting a tournament in this blog post!

Benefits of Hosting a March Madness Tournament

First of all, hosting a March Madness tournament in your classroom can be a total game-changer for the restless energy that comes with spring. I’ve hosted several tournaments over the years, and each time my students have been absolutely thrilled. Whether we are in the middle of a poetry unit, writing an argumentative essay, state test prep, or something else entirely, the tournament has always added a sense of fun and excitement to our class. Not only did it give students a chance to share their opinions, but it also helped to build a sense of community and camaraderie among the class. Plus, the competitive nature of the tournament had a way of encouraging students to dive into the content with renewed vigor.

march madness activities

Decide on Your March Madness Tournament Format

The first step in creating your tournament is choosing your bracket format. You can do either a 32-team bracket (ideal for short content like songs, slam poems, quotes, etc.), a 16-team bracket (ideal for medium-short content like poems, short stories, plays, infographics, characters, etc.), or an 8-team bracket (ideal for long content, like essays or novels). 

Once you decide on your bracket size, it’s time to select your content and map out a balanced bracket.

Choose Your March Madness Bracket Content

As I mentioned earlier, there are a million different routes you could take with your bracket. It all depends on how much class time you have to devote to your tournament each day. I’ve broken down several ideas and categorized them based on time-requirements. Let’s take a look.

Time Requirement: <10 Minutes Each Day

FanTastic First Line

This version can be an extension of First Chapter Friday. But instead of reading the full chapter to students, just focus on the first line.

If you’ve been doing First Chapter Friday in class then you likely have a bunch of options already. But if you need some ideas there are few easy options to find great first lines. First, have students source materials! This is a great task to incorporate into their choice reading activities. Another option is to use your class or school library to gather 16 books you know are popular with students or you want to encourage them to read. A final way to find some first lines worthy of competition is to check out these online articles:

  1. 38 Best First Lines in Novels (YA Edition) – HuffPost Entertainment
  2. Hook, line, and sinker: the best opening lines in children’s and young adult fiction – The Guardian
  3. 21 of the Best Opening Lines in Children’s Books – We Are Teachers 
march madness tournament ideas that take 10 minutes per day
Character versus Character

Brainstorm 16 characters you’ve read about or studied throughout the year. Consider providing a brief bio for each character to refresh students’ memories. You could run your tournament a few different ways with this theme:

  • Who Would Win?
  • Most Likeable
  • Most Underrated
  • Most Unlikely Hero

Again, the possibilities are endless. This is a great way to make your bracket easy and low prep because it’s all content you’ve covered throughout the year!

If you wanted to personalize your brackets, you could have each student create their own bracket from characters in their independent reading selections.

Pixar Shorts

Find an ELA teacher who says you can go overboard with Pixar shorts in the classroom, I’ll wait. 💀

Which is exactly why it’s so fun to bring them back in your classroom for March Madness! With so many amazing shorts, it’s hard to incorporate them all into your curriculum, so why not make a bracket out of them? The most difficult part will be narrowing it down with this one.

Time Requirement: <20 Minutes Each Day

march madness tournament ideas that take 20 minutes per day
Song versus Song 

You will definitely get cool teacher points with this one. Select songs from a variety of genres and eras for each round. You could choose songs for their poetic content, style, or message. Just be sure to match similar types of songs together on your bracket. 

Poet versus Poet

In this category the possibilities could be endless but narrowing the focus to former Young People’s Poet Laureates makes for an easy decision. But just in case you prefer some more classic poetry, there are options included here too!

Margarita Engle (Young People’s Poet Laureate 2017-2019): Turtle Came to See Me, Archetype, Peering Up From Mud, Kinship, More Dangerous Air, Memory of Metal, Tula [“City life is a whirl of poetry readings”]…, Tula [“Books are door-shaped”]

Robert Frost: Acquainted with the Night, Fire and Ice, Dust of Snow, Fireflies in the Garden, Nothing Gold Can Stay, Fragmentary Blue, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, The Road Not Taken

Langston Hughes: Harlem (Dream Deferred), Catch, Dreams, Dream Dust, Dream Boogie, Dream Boogie: Variation, Motto, Lady’s Boogie, If-ing, Snail, Winter Moon (It’s tough to pick only 8 by Hughes!) 

Kenn Nesbitt (Young People’s Poet Laureate 2013-2015): Swimming Ool, Perfect, Lunchbox Love Note, December Substitute, Good Morning, Dear Students, Halloween Party, Willie’s Wart, December 26. You can also check out featuring a lot of other poems; you can even search based on length, which can help to differentiate.  

Naomi Shihab Nye (Young People’s Poet Laureate 2019-2021): Shoulders, The Rider, What Changes, Gratitude List, Making a Fist, What She Said, Fuel, Empty    

Christina Rosetti: Color, Mix a Pancake, Who Has Seen the Wind?, A Dirge, “I wish I could remember that first day”, In an Artist’s Studio, A Birthday, When I am dead, my dearest  

Jaqueline Woodson (Young People’s Poet Laureate 2015-2017): on paper, Firefly, football dreams, a girl named jack, Absolute, geneticslessons, Occasional Poem. And this one Parents Poem is good but it is about the death of parents so proceed with caution.

Poetry with a Twist

If you want to incorporate poetry but don’t want to hone in on a specific poet, you could go a classic versus contemporary route or focus on a theme: love, food, colors, etc. This is an opportunity to tie the activity into essential questions you might have addressed in a previous unit or might be part of an upcoming unit! The Academy of American Poets makes this search easy with their “Find Poems” option. You can search by occasion, theme, and form. 

Another option is to focus on poetic forms like haiku or cinquains. If you’re using your March Madness bracket as a bell ringer activity, because of their length haiku (lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables) or cinquains (poems of 5 lines) are great choices! You can find a variety of classic and contemporary haiku through Acorn: The Journal for Contermporary Haiku and The Haiku Foundation, or use the search function on the Academy of American Poets for more haiku or cinquain options. 


If you’re accustomed to using podcasts in the classroom (like Smash, Boom, Best for arguments!), consider making your bracket out of episodes. Have students listen to an episode each day and then vote on which one they like best.

Time Requirement: 30 Minutes Each Day

march madness tournament ideas that take 30 minutes per day
Short Stories

If you’re in the midst of a fiction or short story unit, you are primed for a short story bracket! Incorporate various short stories from your unit, put a genre-twist on your bracket (like thriller, dystopian lit, etc.), or pit author against author.


Kill two birds with one stone and teach your students about the elements of drama while putting plays up against each other on a bracket. I’d stick to shorter plays like Sorry, Wrong Number, or The Hitchhiker in order to get through your bracket in a reasonable amount of time, but if you’re looking for more ideas, check out this blog post here.


This one definitely takes more planning beforehand, but hosting a tournament can be a great way to find out what read aloud or novel study your students like best. This could be something they do independently (each student has their own bracket), a school-wide tournament to crown a Best Book of the Year award, or anything else!

Crowning a Winner

Last but not least, creating a rubric, voting checklist, or scoring system for your bracket is an important part of the activity. It will help you provide a focus for student voting and the criteria they use to judge each poem, song, episode, or story. For example, create a short checklist for your short stories and award points for elements like character development, plot structure, and theme. Students can rate the story before determining the winner. Once everyone has cast their vote, you can crown a champion as a group!

Hosting a March Madness tournament in your classroom can be a fun way to add a unique challenge to what you are already learning about, increase engagement, and introduce students to more a wider range of literature. If you want to get started, grab a free march madness tournament bracket here.

free march madness tournament bracket

And while the activity is called March Madness, it can easily be adapted for any month of the year: Cupid Shuffle for February, April Adventure, May Mayhem or May Madness, Just Do It June, you get the idea! Don’t let the time of year stop you from introducing your student to this activity!