Seventh-grader Alex Agosti and eighth-grader Danyel Ashkensay ponder a question in the final round of the 2008 National Geographic Bee at Kenai Middle School Jan. 24.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
Name one of two land-locked countries that border -India to the north.
What is the most populous city in Wisconsin?
Lake Tahoe is bordered by which states?
What independent country is located within Rome?
Can you answer these questions? Kenai Peninsula Borough School District students can and do as part of the 2008 National Geographic Bee. (For those who may not have a middle-schooler around to ask, the answers are: Nepal or Bhutan; Milwaukee; California and Nevada; and the Vatican.)
Thousands of schools across the country participate in the challenge, where fourth- through eighth-grade students compete to see who knows the most about the world they live in. School competitions take place from November through January. One winner from each participating school then takes a test from the National Geographic Society. The highest scorers go on to a statewide competition in early April. The statewide winner then goes to the national contest in Washington, D.C., in May.
At Kenai Middle, the schoolwide battle pitched 10 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders against each other Jan. 24 in the library. Students were asked to dredge up a worldwide array of knowledge in three rounds of question.
They also had to put up with an enthusiastic rendition of the theme song to "Bonanza" and subsequent "Hoss" references from seventh-grade teacher Ken Felchle, sparked by a question about Wild West farms. But those didn't affect the outcome of the competition.
Incorrect answers did. Two wrong answers got a contestant eliminated. By the final round two were left to see who could answer the most questions of three.
Seventh-grader Alex Agosti came out on top, besting eighth-grader Danyel Ashkensay in second place and sixth-grader Josie Jones in third.
Alex attributes his win to paying attention in class, a lucky guess on his first answer and a general interest in the topic. "I like geography and history and stuff, so that just helped a lot," he said.
Being an avid reader helps, too, said KMS eighth-grade teacher Bob Summer.
"There's always a setting in the story, which, if they're inquisitive, they'll want to know where that is," Summer said.
That's what history boils down to - real-life stories. Where those stories take place plays a large role in the story, because place affects everything else.
"What a story is about, the plot, there's a theme. Like in any history, setting is going to be huge," Summer said. "(It can help tell you) why people are fighting where people are fighting."
"As Americans, you know, we always get the rap of being ignorant of the rest of the world," he said.
That reputation can be deserved. At the beginning of the school year, Summer gives a geography quiz to students. He asks them to name the oceans and continents; place the Prime Meridian, International Dateline, Equator, and Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn; identify the U.S. states and place stars in the area of the state capitals; and locate Iraq. The results are not good.
"It's pretty astounding," Summer said.
But as the year progresses, he makes a point of relating to students that the rest of the world isn't some far-off, irrelevant place. Students can go to any of the places they study. He illustrates the point with photos from his own world travels, always with a Kenai hat stuck somewhere in the picture.
"Geographically, we're the spoiled brats of the world. ... We're concerned with what's new at the mall instead of learning a second language," Summer said.
The U.S. is isolated, with oceans on either side and an English-speaking neighbor to the north. It's not like that for most countries in the world, surrounded by different nations with different cultures and languages.
The Internet and other communications technology largely erases isolation as an excuse for ignorance, Summer said, but just having the means to be more aware of the world doesn't mean everyone uses it.
"The Internet hasn't really helped people learn who don't really want to know more," he said.
In that regard, curiosity is a geography teacher's best friend. Even if a region hasn't been covered in class yet, that doesn't mean a student doesn't know about it. They could have soaked up the information from any number of sources, just because they were interested.
"It's stuff they just inherently seem to know," KMS eighth-grade teacher Jean Dixon said of the geography bee questions. "It's pretty cool."
Jenny Neyman is the communications specialist for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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