Beginning as an offhand conversation in passing between two colleagues, the annual Halstead High School "Middle East Wing Challenge" — held this past week — has grown into a highly anticipated event for the (mainly freshman) students in the World Studies class of HHS social studies teachers Derek Schutte and TJ Warsnak.

Typically held around the time of March Madness each year, the wing challenge was meant to be a break from ordinary projects — giving students a little competitive, interactive outlet in the classroom.

How it works is students have to choose a country in the Middle East, research that country and then come up with a metaphor comparing the relationship between that country and the U.S. to a Buffalo Wild Wings (which has sponsored the challenge since its inception) sauce.

"It's kind of like the idea of trying to get away from just the whole diametrically opposed 'hate or like;' there's all these shades in the middle that go into foreign relations as far as how we deal with other countries," Warsnak said. "It's just a different way of trying to get kids to recognize that."

For example, Warsnak pointed to the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia — one that has been strong in the past but is somewhat fraught given recent events.

Meanwhile, Schutte highlighted the relationships between the U.S. and Iran, with both noting that there are several factors to consider — with the wing sauce variety making for fitting comparisons.

"If it's a conflicted relationship, a contentious one, well maybe that would compare with a really hot sauce from Buffalo Wild Wings," Schutte said.

Part of the challenge itself is for students to make their metaphorical arguments based on their research. Those arguments are then rated, which gives the students a certain number of opportunities in a variety of tailgate games (e.g. putt-putt, washers, pop-a-shot, etc.).

Once a game is successfully completed, students then must eat three wings — each with progressively hotter sauces — for the chance to earn a spot on the "Wall of Fame."

Annually, the lesson is one students look forward to, according to Warsnak and Schutte. Admittedly, eating buffalo wings may be a big part of that, but it also allows the Halstead teachers to introduce their students to concepts they may not be familiar with — wings for some and diplomatic relationships in the Middle East for most.

Halstead's "Middle East Wing Challenge" also allows Warsnak and Schutte the chance to work in something that is often not covered in textbooks — current events. More than that though, in the eyes of Schutte and Warsnak, making the lesson so hands-on is a way to truly engage the students and help get them more invested in the subject matter.

"They're not always gonna remember every little detail that we talked about with the Middle East, even though we'd like them to, but they are gonna remember that experience," Schutte said. "It's different than taking a test and having them memorize something. It was 'hey, I got to do something that was totally outside of what I'd ever thought I would do in a classroom,' and they're going to remember that experience."

"Kids need to be looking at their educational journey as one that is full of experiences that open new doors to them and lets them see things that aren't typical. This is a day that's going to be nontypical because it's going to be fun, but it's going to be based off the background of a lot of interesting, Middle East studies."