When it comes to hitting the mark on test scores, one innovative educator at a San Diego charter school may be onto something. Ron Owens, a fifth-grade teacher at Cosner Exceptional Academy, has daringly defied conventional wisdom by putting pocket knives in the hands of elementary students. While many educators might cry foul at the very idea of ignoring zero-tolerance weapons policy, Owens has the full support of CEA’s CEO and principal, Horace Cosner.
“The results speak for themselves,” gloats Cosner. “Children who regularly participate in Mr. Owens’ Mumblety Peg Club score anywhere from fifteen to thirty-seven percent higher than their peers on the Language Arts and Math portions of their state STAR tests.”
Yes, mumblety peg, the quaint knife-tossing game that disappeared from schoolyards generations ago, is making a comeback thanks to Owens, and while no one can conclusively prove a causal connection, there is no denying that a correlation between the pastime and higher test scores apparently exists. What is it about this erstwhile bygone pursuit, a series of motions in which players fling knives from their wrists, elbows, shoulders and heads, that seems to sharpen student skills?
“Mumblety peg is all about the moment,” explains Owens. Dressed casually and with a cherubic grin that belies his forty-three years, he produces a pocket knife from his desk drawer and pulls out its 5-inch blade. “You’ve got the tip of this blade resting on the back of your wrist, not quite heavy enough to break the skin but still sharp enough to remind you that it means business. One false move and you might be looking at a knife sticking out of your shoe. Not only that, but there’s a lot of peer pressure to make that blade stick into the ground. I’ve never seen kids concentrate harder or longer than they do in the mumblety peg ring. And that’s what you need to succeed on the STAR tests: sustained concentration.”
He dismisses safety concerns with a wave of his hand. “Look, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that accidents never happen. They do. But it’s nothing major, and I can promise you this: one puncture wound and a tetanus shot later, and you’ve got a kid who’s never going to make that mistake again. In fact, the students who have had that experience are our highest-scoring test takers.”
When Owens began the after-school club in 2006, his first challenge was persuading skeptical parents of interested students to sign liability waivers releasing him, Cosner, and the school from legal responsibility in the event of injury. Once that hurdle was cleared, however, and especially after test scores started to climb a mere two years into the program, Owens had more applicants than he could accept. The CEA Mumblety Peg Club now has a waiting list of more than three dozen students hoping to secure the next open spot.
Wanda Johnson, a pediatrics nurse whose 10-year-old son, Kenneth, can be found tossing knives with Owens every weekday afternoon, vouches for the so-called mumblety peg miracle. “Kenneth started with Mr. Owens when he was in third grade. At the time, he was not, shall we say, a motivated student. That year, he became a mumblety peg maniac. He stopped wasting time with his iPod and video games. It was mumblety peg, mumblety peg, mumblety peg, all the time. And he became a voracious reader. By fourth grade, he went from ‘Below Basic’ to ‘Proficient’ on his STAR’s. We’re expecting to reach ‘Advanced’ this year.”
None of this is surprising to Rafe Codell, president and founder of American Mumblety Peg Enthusiasts, a Florida-based non-profit seeking to restore the neglected game to its former glory. “This just confirms what we at AMPE have always known. Mumblety peg increases dexterity, fosters the growth of neural dendrites, and some preliminary studies we have funded indicate that it may also deliver up to fifty percent more oxygen to the brain. It’s what we enthusiasts call a mumblety peg high. I think you’re going to see a lot more knives on elementary school playgrounds really soon.”
Codell may be right, at least if Owens and Cosner have their way. The teacher and principal have teamed up as educational entrepreneurs. Already they are finding success booking speaking engagements on the lucrative professional development circuit. This summer, they plan to introduce a series of workbooks targeted at teachers who are willing to try something new in order to increase student achievement.
“This is Mumblety Peg Math,” says Owens as he holds up a pair of garishly colored trade paperbacks, “and this one is Mumblety Peg Reading. These are the foundational titles in a series that will gradually expand to cover all curricular areas. In fact, my wife, who has taught high school science for nearly twenty years, is currently writing Mumblety Peg Biology.”
Meanwhile, Cosner takes care of the business end. “We’re in the process of obtaining all of the necessary trademarks and domain names related to our venture. Mr. Owens has sacrificed a lot of time and effort developing the Mumblety Peg brand, so we have to be sure that no unscrupulous outsiders can capitalize on that. We really see this as just the beginning. With test scores expected to continue to rise, we’ll be licensing Mumblety Peg Clubs across the country. I’m also reviewing bids from several leading manufacturers for the official Mumblety Peg Elementary Jackknife. It will be a quality product, properly weighted with a three-year warranty on the blade, so parents and children alike can rest assured that they’ll benefit from the genuine Mumblety Peg educational experience.”
If all of this sounds somewhat exploitative, Owens is quick to defend his endeavor. “Look, I’m an educator first and an entrepreneur second. You can’t argue with the data. More mumblety peg equals higher test scores. And if that gets kids excited about learning, then I’m okay with that. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about the kids.”
And at the end of the school day, that’s where you’ll find Owens, cheering on his young charges as they flip knives from their wrists, elbows, shoulders and heads.