The Fighting Fourth

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By Ken Begley


“Learning is not a spectator sport.” ~D. Blocher
Have you ever heard of an elementary school academic program called the “Book Bee?” 
It’s something the Archdiocese of Louisville, which has over 20,000 students in their charge, came up with to improve reading comprehension.
It’s like a spelling bee, only the participants are required to read designated books for their grade level, and then answer questions about them as a team, while competing against other schools. 
The levels of competition are grades fourth, fifth, sixth, and junior high (seventh and eighth).
St. Dominic School students, competing against mainly Louisville-area schools, advanced to the finals at the end of three separate competitions over a one-week period.
You might think that was “neat,” right?
OK, so they read a book and answered a couple of questions. Not that big a deal.
Not so fast there, partner.
Each level has 12 books on their reading list for the students. 
Each student on the team will then read anywhere from five to seven books each. 
Each round of competition requires the students, as a team, to answer 36 questions. 
These questions can be on anything and everything possible out of those 12 books. 
It’s no cakewalk by any measure, and most adults would have a very hard time competing in this contest.
The volunteer students who go into the competition start reading and having practice sessions together for weeks in advance outside of school hours. 
Can you imagine the level of commitment required by the students?
Now get this.
The program is pretty much run entirely by parent volunteers. 
Yep, parent volunteers. 
You can bet when a parent takes on this project, they’re really taking on a large commitment themselves.
You might think that this program would be pretty much drudgery for our high-tech students with their Internet, iPhones, iPads, etc.
However, I watched it develop and it seemed to be anything but that for the students. 
In fact, it was a great deal of fun. 
Who would have thought reading books by kids in a group would have been fun?
Our daughter, Jenny, was on the junior high team, and Belle was on the 4th grade team. 
Several times, I had to go pick them up after practice.  
Jenny’s team had so many young men and women on it that they had to compete in relays. 
When’s the last time you heard of an academic team with that deep a bench?
I still remember Belle’s team, in particular, with Mrs. Julie Medley and a very-pregnant Mrs. Sara Buckman coaching them. 
There were nine in that group. 
I walked in to see them all over the parish meeting room, while Mrs. Medley drilled them with questions she had made up. 
Suddenly, I heard one answer come out from under the table, and felt verified when I told Cindy earlier that I thought the baloney I ate for lunch had gone bad.
I then reared back to see a laughing Mary Medley down there, which eased my mind considerably. 
Real work was happening out of what looked like chaos from the average observer.  The added benefit was that the kids really did have fun while doing it. 
Most of the practices happened near suppertime, so parents would be tasked to bring in food while they worked.
The competition began after all the studying was done. 
The students traveled to Louisville each time they advanced to the next level.
I got to attend the final competition in Louisville with Cindy last Thursday evening, when parents drove down loads of students. 
We were seated in the gym bleachers, and the kids were led away in teams to the oral competition in separate classrooms.
You know, it was really fun, even for me.
All the parents that drove the kids down sat up there and horsed around talking with each other for about an hour or so. 
Teams would come and go. 
The kids not competing were running around the gym. 
Strangely enough, it was one of the more relaxing times I’ve had in a while.
There was a real excitement in the air when the winners were announced.
I’ve seen few athletic events that had this much energy coming from the participants while they waited in eager anticipation. 
DeSales High School was sponsoring the event, and the moderator actually had to ask us to hold down all the applause and cheering because it was already getting late in the evening and everyone needed to head home. 
You know, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an academic event, or even an athletic event, where someone had to say that.
So how did the students of old St. D do against the city slickers of Louisville? 
They came down like rolling thunder out of Washington County, whipping up on those other schools.
The fifth grade came in second at their level. 
Our seventh and eighth graders came in second, as well, after losing a tiebreaker question for first place. 
That was a heart breaker.
However, our youngest group, the fourth graders, came out swinging and ended up at the top of heap with a first-place win.
Unbelievable that such a small school could do so well against such tough competition, while having a lot of fun. 
That is creative education in action.
 It was a great job by all the students participating. 
I end this column with a big congratulations to the Fighting Fourth’s   Patrick Arnold, Belle Begley, Mason Boone, Mary Medley, Catherine Mulholland, Maddy Sagracy, Grant Satterly, Anne Claire Smith, and Hannah Willis for their first place win.
We’re proud of you, and you’ve got good reason to be proud yourselves.