School wasn’t yet out for the summer a couple of Fridays ago when a group of students from Washington Middle School’s Brain Bowl teams were gathered in a classroom around 4 p.m. taking a quiz — not for a grade, but just for the fun of it.
It was a rare sunny afternoon when it wasn’t raining, yet these kids were happily huddled around a couple of oblong tables with their index fingers, or in some cases thumbs, poised over a series of buzzers, listening closely to each question.
That alone was no easy task, considering how fast David Dennis, their moderator/coach, was firing off questions. Before most people could probably even understand what he was asking, several of the students had hit their buzzers to deliver the answer.
Without much fanfare for getting it right or derision for getting it wrong among the group, Dennis quickly moved on to the next question . . . and the next and the next and the next.
To anyone passing by, it might look something like the TV game show “Jeopardy” on steroids, except these answers don’t have to posed in the form of questions and the students work as teams.
Yet, it’s every bit as fun as any game, the students said. In fact, that’s really the main reason they participate.
“When you answer a question, it’s like an adrenline rush when you get the answer right . . . that’s just really fun for me,” said Zane Rice, whose other hobbies include baseball, track, football and cross country.
His teammates shook their heads in agreement. They also like it because it’s a way to hang out with friends and use their brains.
While a few of the students joked that they like Brain Bowl because it’s a way to flex their intellectual power publicly, there’s a lot more that goes in to being a good Brain Bowl player than just being smart, said Dennis, whose main job is the WMS choir teacher.
“Sometimes there are really, really smart kids who don’t make very good players,” he commented.
“It’s one thing to know it, it’s another to actually push that button and be the one to take that on. Like at nationals, if you buzz in early and you miss, it’s minus five points.”
So at the beginning of each school year, when Dennis asks other teachers for player recommendations, he admits his approach may seem a little strange.
“I’ll tell them the kid who annoys you because they never pay any ounce of attention but still get 100 on every test — that kid is probably a really good player,” said Dennis. “It’s that ability to find the answer in the clues, to think on their feet, it’s a lot of that.
“I’ve had really smart players who wouldn’t ever push that button.”
That wasn’t a problem with this bunch.
“Our players are a lot more aggressive on the buzzer than other teams,” said Dennis.
And this year it paid off big.
State Champs, Place 17th at Nationals
WMS, which has two Brain Bowl teams, an A and a B team, was the highest scoring Missouri middle school team at the National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT) middle school national championship.
Since Missouri doesn’t have an organized championship tourament, Dennis and the students say that translates to WMS being considered state champions.
Even better, at the national competition held April 27-28 in Chicago, the WMS A team finished tied for 17th place out of 96 teams from 22 states, and the B team finished 49th.
And two of the WMS players placed in the top 50 for individual performances. Jonathan Amlong, a seventh-grader, placed 25th in the country, and Matt Dew, an eighth-grader, placed 45th.
Among the non-eighth-grade students, Amlong placed sixth in the country.
“He just missed out on the rising star award,” Dennis noted.
This was the second year the WMS teams attended nationals, which have only been held for the last three years.
Takes All Types
In addition to having an aggressive (think competitive) group of players, another reason the WMS teams do well is because of their diversity, said Dennis.
“We have kids who are into everything and some who this (Brain Bowl) is it for them,” he said.
“Some are super serious, others are not so serious.”
All of that helps because the questions can be so varied — from math calculations to pop culture to current events.
“Most people think of it as random trivia, but a lot of it is stuff you learn in school,” said Amlong.
Yet, there are also a lot of nonschool questions, which is why “you have to be willing to learn outside the classroom,” one student remarked.
Brain Bowl competitions have four major areas of questioning — literature, math, science and geography, said Dennis.
Then there are minor areas — more math (but more ideas and concepts than calculations), music, art, sports, mythology and religion, current events and government/social studies, to name a few.
The students say they know much of the information asked in competitions because they pay attention and do things other kids may not, like watch the news. They also intentionally study certain areas of interest and read as much as they can about any given subject.
“I know questions about the government because my dad watches the news while we eat dinner,” one student said.
Another said he personally watches a lot of ESPN.
Anna Sullentrup and Emily Wilson said they make sure to read as much classic literature as they can.
“You have to read a lot,” Wilson commented.
Yet the Brain Bowl competitions themselves are a way for the students to learn. Even getting an answer wrong in practice or a competition is an opportunity to learn for next time, Kennedy Siefken, a seventh-grader on the team, pointed out.
In fact, these opportuniies to learn more is part of what makes Brain Bowl fun, said Matt Dew.
“Sometimes we get to learn stuff that we don’t normally get in school that’s way ahead of us, like subatomic physics,” he said.
Tryouts Next Year?
In the past, Brain Bowl has been open to anyone who wanted to participate, with practices and competitions naturally weeding out students who weren’t up to the challenge, said Dennis.
But that may change for next year. Dennis said he may have to limit the number of students on the team, probably around 12. Who makes the cut would possibly be determined by tryouts, said Dennis.
“We started this year with 25 students . . . and that is too many for them to be able to get any play time,” he said.
How often the students practice is “driven by them,” said Dennis.
He holds regular practices on Friday afternoons, but also has his room open for practice every morning before classes start.
Many arrive around 8 a.m. and classes don’t get started until 8:25 a.m., so they find their way to Dennis’ room.
“I just start reading questions, and they fill in when they fill in,” he said.
In April 2011, The Missourian did a feature story on Brain Bowl teams, sometimes called Scholar Bowl teams, at area schools. The story can be read online at www.emissourian.com/features_people/feature_stories/article_8acd276c-0937-5273-8f86-f3473488fc1b.html.