Superior Middle School struck gold when it rebooted a literary-based contest this year. The school’s Battle of the Books team earned first place in state competition, beating out 84 other middle schools by a wide margin. When the scores were revealed, SMS was 10 points ahead of their nearest competitor.
Coach Andrea Moreau, a teacher librarian, said the school hasn’t had a Battle of the Books team for more than seven years. It was brought back this year by popular demand.
“What I remember is that one of the first days of school, I asked if there was a Battle of the Books team, because I was so hyped to do that,” sixth grader Adrian Cunningham said.
Nick Frane, a sixth grader taking virtual classes, had also been seeking to join a middle school team.
Moreau said initially she wasn’t sure about taking on the job of coach.
“And the kids were so excited and passionate and insistent that they’re just, we had to do it,” she said.
The librarian is glad she stepped up.
“It was just a joy and a blessing during this crazy year to have this,” Moreau said.
Roughly 27 students, mostly sixth graders, took part in this year’s team. Some joined to learn more about the activity, read a few books and spend time with other students. Others were laser-focused on the competition.
The students dove into 20 books, committing to memory the different character names and plot lines. They ranged from graphic novels like Jerry Craft’s “New Kid” and “Stargazing” by Jen Wang, to the 1937 J.R.R. Tolkien classic “The Hobbit.”
Competitions involve correctly identifying which book a situation, setting or character shows up in, or the author who wrote it. When the SMS team could only find a few lists of Battle of the Books questions to practice with online, they devised quiz questions of their own.
“I got my own Kahoot (a game-based learning platform) account, and then I asked everyone to help write down questions and stuff and I would implement them in a little Kahoot, and it turned out to be 100 questions,” Cunningham said.
Students made time to meet, discuss and quiz themselves during lunch, after school and virtually. When a spike in local COVID-19 case numbers led the district to move to all-online learning in November, the Battle of the Books students used curbside pickup to keep reading.
“These kids were every week picking up books,” Moreau said. “I had a special bag for Micah (Gunderson). Micah would get, like, 10 books at a time.”
Students took a test to determine who would represent the school at the state competition. The champion team consisted of four members — Cunningham, Gunderson and siblings Raven and Damon Pagsisihan — and one alternate, Frane. All were sixth graders, and each of them had previously competed in Battle of the Books in elementary school.
“The elementary librarians do such an amazing job that the kids are just ready to kind of push themselves,” Moreau said. “It taught me more than it did them.”
The state competition took place virtually in late February. By March 8, they knew they'd won. Earning the top prize in the state made all the hard work worth it, Cunningham said.
"I mean, that's a really good thing to know that you won against the whole state in something," the sixth grader said.
The group is blazing a path they hope future SMS students will follow.
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"I'm really happy that we did this for the school too, because it's the first time that this school's done it for a long time and we made a fabulous comeback, getting first place in the whole state," Cunningham said.
Moreau will be there to guide them.
"I love it. It was one of the greatest experiences of my career," she said. "I've never seen kids that read so much and are so excited about reading and they're so kind and supportive of each other."
There's a high school level competition, as well. The Northwestern High School team in Maple has placed second in the state twice: in 2019 with adviser Shari Olson and in 2021 with adviser Brianne Nelson.
Superior High School does not currently have a Battle of the Books team. That could change.
“We’ve been telling the high school, ‘You’ve got a couple years to get ready for these kids,’” Moreau said.
Visit the Wisconsin Educational Media and Technology Association's Battle of the Books website, sites.google.com/wemta.org/battle/home, for more information.