I remember the first day my mind was blown by a picture book. It was 1983 in Littleton, Colorado. Every week our second grade class at Damon Runyon Elementary would file quietly through the library and circle up at the feet of Mrs. Webber for story time. Mrs. Webber was exactly how you’d picture an elementary school librarian – a tall, thin woman with curly brownish hair and silver glasses. She seemed to always wear beige.
Mrs. Webber would read a page, then flip the book around and slowly scan it across her audience so we could catch a glimpse of the illustrations. She was an expert at the “flip/scan.” Usually two or three seconds were enough to soak in the image, but sometimes we knew we were being shortchanged – that there was more going on in the pictures than the typical flip/scan would accommodate. Such was definitely the case the day that Mrs. Webber introduced us to Masquerade.
The story, beautifully written and illustrated by Kit Williams, was simple enough – the moon falls in love with the sun, crafts a special jewel for him as a token of her affection, and commissions a hare to deliver the gift. Along the way the rabbit encounters several strange people and situations, but ultimately arrives at the sun empty-handed, realizing to his horror that he had lost the jewel somewhere in transit.
But here’s where Mrs. Webber (and Kit Williams) dropped the bomb on us: the jewel was REAL. There was even a photograph of it on the back cover. Mr. Williams had actually designed a $5,000 golden prize and buried it somewhere in the British countryside. The clues to its location were right there in front of us, scattered throughout the illustrations that Mrs. Webber was flip/scanning before our riveted eyes.
The book was nothing short of magical. It was on library back-order for months. I remember hating that even the kids you wouldn’t normally see in the library – like Zach Fredrick and Chris Markwell – were somehow on the waiting list ahead of me. As the book passed from 2nd grader to 2nd grader, we each took our turn studying the intricate, bizarre illustrations and trying to make sense of the numbers and clues we could find. We knew the chances of one of us finding the treasure were slim, but the whole concept was mysterious and haunting.
Last summer, almost thirty years later, Masquerade came up in a conversation with my wife Heather, who as a researcher about online learning, frequently fields questions from family and friends about which online programs their kids should be using to “get ahead.”
But this day, the conversation was about our own five children. What were our plans for the summer? What did we hope our kids would accomplish during the break? Should we establish some goals for them, or some sort of challenge? If so, how could we incorporate some of the cool emerging online technologies Heather was finding through her research? And more importantly, how could we get the kids to stick with something like this without being nagged? How could we structure a program to be irresistible – almost magical – to our children?
At that moment, Mrs. Webber, the Runyon library, and the story of Masquerade all rushed back into my head. As I described the book and the treasure hunt to Heather, our minds began racing about ways to infuse some of some of Mr. Williams’ genius into our brainstorming around online learning technologies. The pieces quickly started falling into place, and the Brain Chase Summer Learning Challenge began to take shape.
Now, several short months later, a treasure of our own has been buried in the ground. It’s not a $5,000 jewel – it’s a gold-plated mechanical globe that holds the key to a $10,000 scholarship. Its location isn’t limited to the British countryside – it could be hidden anywhere on the planet. The clues have been carefully concealed – not in an illustrated story of a rabbit, but in an animated tale of an adventurer named Mae Merriweather and her quest to save the day by locating a lost artifact. But most importantly, unlocking the clues will take more than turning a page – kids will need to complete weekly tasks in a meticulously designed Summer Learning Challenge.
Those who know us well might say that Heather and I have a tendency to get carried away with unusual business ideas. And Heather might blame some of that on me. So why are we jumping back on to the startup rollercoaster for an idea like Brain Chase? It’s true that it began as a brainstorm to inspire and motivate our own children. But it has quickly grown into something bigger. Last week we heard from a concerned parent whose middle school-aged son, Jonathan, struggles with a difficult learning disability. She wanted to know if Brain Chase could accommodate her son, or if he would be left behind. She was delighted and relieved to hear that the Challenge isn’t simply age-based, but is right-sized to the needs and abilities of each individual student. Conversations like this are the reason Heather and I feel a sense of calling about what we’re doing. Brain Chase is our way of helping students like Jonathan around the world to not only stay sharp during the summer months, but to really fall in love with learning by working when and where they want, at their own pace, and entirely at their own level. You could say that like Mae Merriweather, our mission is to save the world – one summer at a time.
But as personally fulfilling as our social mission may be, there’s still another reason why we’re doing this. Part of me is hoping that this perennial summer event will take on a life of its own and grow into something truly magical. At the end of the day, I’d love nothing more than to see a new generation of elementary and middle-school students in Littleton, Colorado have their minds completely blown by a story. I’d really love to be a part of that. And if the cryptic riddles and clues can thoroughly stump one of Zach Frederick’s kids, well that would be even better.Allan Staker, Brain Chase Co-Founder
More: Watch a BBC documentary detailing the burial and discovery of the Masquerade treasure: