About a dozen Washington Middle School students were huddled in a classroom one Saturday afternoon earlier this month taking a test together — not because they needed to complete any makeup work or because they were being punished, not even for extra credit. This was purely for fun, and the students were clearly enjoying it.
Questions like, “The 2011 massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square led to the ouster of which leader?” had more than a few of them literally leaping out of their seats to answer. “Hosni Mubarak!” they shouted.
David Dennis, moderator of the WMS Brain Bowl team, just stands in the background and smiles. He’s not allowed to get involved when the students are taking a test, including this one which was completed on a computer with a CD-ROM.
Animated is nice way to describe what happens to these students when they are in the midst of a Brain Bowl competition, said Dennis, who also is the WMS choir teacher.
For this Knowledge Masters Open test offered by Academic Hallmarks, the Washington team was competing with more than 600 other middle school teams around the world. The test included 200 multiple choice questions with a time limit for providing an answer and two chances to get it correct.
“They get five points if they answer it right on the first try, two points for the second try and, if they answer it fast enough, they can get five bonus points,” Dennis explained.
The test is a team effort, meaning the students are supposed to work together, and they did.
“Which is not a trace element in your body?” started a sometimes heated debate; and “Which composer was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps?” brought out the logical thinkers in them.
When a math problem flashed on the screen, the room suddenly became strangely quiet as each student separately put pencil to paper trying to solve it.
“Which year was a presidential election year?” didn’t require much equation for them. One student shouted out the correct answer in a matter of seconds, and although one or two among the group questioned him, they went with his answer and he was vindicated.
There also were questions about ecology, time, monuments, French expressions, songs, land surfaces, rock, fine arts and lawsuits — “In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to challenge the immigration law of . . . Texas, Florida, Arizona, California or New Mexico?”
The WMS team got that one correct — Arizona — as well as every other question on current events, and on the first try too.
With a final score of 1,180, the WMS team finished ninth out of 22 teams in Missouri, and 273rd out of 604 teams around the world for this particular test, said Dennis.
“We beat teams from France, Costa Rica and the United Arab Emirates,” he said proudly.
‘That Was Cool!’
Once the test was over, the students were instantly relaxed and friendly with each other, even if minutes before they had been arguing intensely over an answer.
“That was cool!” one said.
“Let’s do it again!” another remarked.
They said, for the most part, they don’t hold grudges against a teammate if his or her answer turns out to be wrong. They know it could just as easily happen to them.
It’s all for fun, anyway, they say. They respect each other for their differences, because in the end that’s what makes the team stronger, they said.
“We’re all good in different areas,” one student commented.
They like the competition aspect to Brain Bowl, which is referred to as Scholar Bowl at some schools.
“It’s something besides sports,” one student said.
That feeling seems to be universal among Brain Bowl teams. At St. Clair, Scholar Bowl moderator Devon Beste, who teaches sixth-grade math and science and is in her first year moderating the club, said her students like Scholar Bowl because it lets them be themselves.
“It is a place where . . . it is OK to be smart and show what they know,” she said. “The motto for our scholar bowl team is ‘Don’t Be Lame, Use Your Brain.’ They don’t always feel that comfortable in front of their peers.”
Diane Bruns, moderator of the Union Middle School Scholar Bowl team who also is a seventh-grade language arts teacher, said these academic competitions are very similar to athletic events — teams compete in rounds, with breaks in between, and during those breaks, team members talk about the previous round.
“At this level they will also just relax or play games, which helps with team building,” she said. “They also like to socialize with students from the other schools.”
Bruns started the Scholar Bowl team at UMS because she “saw a need for students who like to compete to have an outlet for academic competition.”
How Do They Know This Stuff?
So how do these seventh- and eighth-graders know the answers to sometimes very advanced questions?
“TV,” one WMS student suggested.
“It’s just stuff in the back of our heads,” another remarked.
The moderators admit their team members are typically very smart — one Washington student, for example, scored a 24 on the ACT in seventh grade — but those are not the only students who do well with brain/scholar bowl.
“What you really want are kids who are really good test takers,” Dennis noted. “If you know a student who never studies for a test, but always aces it . . . and being able to get the answer from your brain to the thumb (buzzer) is just as important.”
The Washington team has a couple of students who do well in Brain Bowl, but who aren’t the “know it all” type, said Dennis. “They’re able to pick up on clues and figure out the right answer.”
Bruns said her team members at UMS are “generally students who excel in academics, but not necessarily ‘gifted.’ They are also very competitive and inquisitive.”
And at St. Clair, Beste said her students “are all intelligent, but they are all very different. I have kids who also participate in band, book club, science club, basketball, volleyball, track, choir, and a variety of other activities.”
That’s ideal, the moderators agree.
The middle school Brain Bowl season runs from November to April, with only a handful of competitions in that time. What makes Brain Bowl a little unusual at the middle school level is that there is no governing body, said Dennis.
Schools arrange their own competitions and each one is a little different. It’s up to the school, too, to get the word out.
WMS holds a tournament each year, and so do St. James and Richland middle schools. The Knowledge Masters Open test that WMS students competed in was only their fourth event this school year.
Moderators say they welcome anyone who is interested to join their Brain/Scholar Bowl teams. There are no grade requirements or entrance test, although at Union in order to qualify for competition, students must attend a set number of Scholar Bowl practices.
“Practice is usually enough to whittle down the list,” said Dennis.
Practices can be tough, with questions just like those asked in the competitions. Dennis said he pulls practice questions from quiz books he keeps on hand. Bruns said she encourages her students to keep up on current events and have a good grasp of historical events and eras.
“Some students try it out for a while and decide it’s not for them,” said Beste.
Practices are held once or twice a week, sometimes more, before or after school. The schedules are worked around when the students are available, moderators say.
This year, the Washington team had 13 to 18 students, Union had 10 to 15, and St. Clair had about 18.
Looking back on the season, each of the teams was proud of its accomplishments.
“For this being my first year, and many of my students’ first year participating in the club, we did very well,” said Beste. “We placed third overall at the Washington (Middle School) tournament.”
UMS placed first overall at the WMS tournament, doing “exceptionally well” on the written tests, and fifth and sixth at the St. James Middle School tournament.