Groups of students around the Kenai Peninsula could be found whispering to each other this week.
They weren't gossiping about their classmates or cramming for tests, though.
Battle of the Books is just one of several literacy-related activities slated for area schools during February Love of Reading Month.
For more Love of Reading Month activities, check out your school's Clarion brief or newsletter.
The students, participants in the 20th annual Battle of the Books contest, were discussing the plots and details in stacks of books read throughout the first part of the school year.
The contest, a statewide program designed to promote reading comprehension and motivate students to read, pits school teams against one another in a race to the state competition. Students are asked plot details about the books they read all from an assigned reading list grouped by grade level and have to identify the book's title and author.
The questions range from easy, asking about general plot themes, to quite difficult, such as those that ask students to identify the book in which particular phrases are used.
The competition is intense, students said. But it's also something they love.
At Nikiski Elementary School on Friday, five students were gathered in the library preparing for the third- and fourth-grade battles.
The morning was definitely tense.
"This is scary," said third-grader Daniel Ribbens, waiting for the first battle to begin via speaker phone. "I'm kind of ready for this to be over, because then my mom won't ask me a million questions."
He admitted the pre-contest quizzing helped, though, as the team quickly won its first two battles.
And, he said, he enjoyed the preparation.
His teammates agreed.
"I like all the reading," said fourth-grader Dylan Holloway. "And I like to memorize stuff."
Her sister, third-grader Taylor Holloway, added that she found the timed battles fun, as well.
Students on all participating teams have 30 seconds to confer on each question privately before announcing their answers. Answers that include both the correct book title and author name earn eight points. Those with only one correct element earn five points, and wrong answers are worth no points. Each battle between two or three schools includes 16 questions.
Though the Nikiski Elementary team got off to a good start Friday morning, beating Nikolaevsk and Hope teams in the first round and Cooper Landing in the second round, the team placed 10th out of 21 third- and fourth-grade teams.
Connections, the district's home-school program, placed first and will go on to the state competition in the third- and fourth-grade bracket. Soldotna Elementary placed second; West Homer Elementary placed third; and Chapman Elementary placed third.
On Monday, the scene was much the same in the Kenai Central High School library, where a rookie team of freshmen competed in the high school level battles.
Spread out in the library conference room with doughnuts and juice, the freshman team members prepared for KCHS's first battle in several years.
Coach Susan Nabholz explained that the high school hasn't had a team in years, but this year's freshman class included several students who were strong Battle of the Books competitors at Kenai Middle School.
"They came to me and asked, 'Can we have a team?'" Nabholz said.
The students have been meeting informally since the beginning of the year and reading the 12 assigned books on their own, some as many as three times.
Last week, they took a test to determine who would be on the official team and who would serve as alternates and back-ups.
The high-schoolers, who teased each other about nerves and obsessive-compulsive behavior, said they enjoy the competition in the contest.
And, they said, the contest always provides new books to read.
"They have a real range of books, fiction, nonfiction," said team member Hannah Watkins, who said she couldn't pick a favorite out of the pile.
Other team members had a varied list of their favorite books, but almost all listed Michael Crichton's "Sphere" as a top pick.
The students also said they like having an excuse to delve into reading.
"It gives me an excuse to read and not be bothered," said alternate Kim Kurzendoerfer.
The students' love of reading seems to have paid off, too. The team, though new to the high school competition, placed second in the district Monday.
"For a team of rookies, I think they did awesome," Nabholz said.
The first place team, Skyview High School, will go on to the state competition in a couple weeks. Other district finalists were Homer High School in third place and Nikiski Middle-Senior High School in fourth place.
Seventh- and eighth-grade teams competed Tuesday, and the fifth- and sixth-grade teams will compete today.
About 71 teams from 31 of the 42 sites in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District participated in Battle of the Books this year. Five schools also used Battle of the Books in kindergarten through second-grade instruction, though districtwide competitions are not held at that age.
State competitions will be held Feb. 24 to 27. Battle of the Books is sponsored by the Alaska Association of School Librarians
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