Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My Love/Hate Relationship with Battle of the Books

Yesterday marked the beginning of Durham Academy's 2013 Battle of the Books (BOB) team. Twenty-seven bright, eager readers showed up at lunch for the first of at least 30 team meetings over a six month period, leading to a competition date sometime in March. If you don't know about the North Carolina Battle of the Books program, you can read about it here.  In a nutshell, there are 27 books on this year's reading list and students must read the books to memorize as much detail as possible.  In the spring, they will enter a competition with other middle school teams where they are asked "In which book does____?".  They must know the correct book and the correct author to be awarded points.  Winners of the competition advance to a regional and then state level battle.

I have been coaching a Battle of the Books team for twelve years.  My summers are often spent reading books on the list and writing hundreds of practice questions for my team.  When school starts, I lead a weekly discussion of the books and organize practice sessions.  Every few years, I host the district competition at my school.  It is a tremendous amount of work, and only twice have I had teams advance to the regional level.  I'm often left scratching my head as to why I continue to be involved in this program.

The heavy workload is not my main issue with Battle of the Books.  I question the program's purpose, which as stated in the BOB manual is to "encourage reading by all students at the middle school level."  My experience has been that the students who compete in Battle of the Books are already voracious readers.  When they participate in the program they tend to read less books than they normally would because they read the BOB titles over and over to memorize details.  I do not encourage this behavior; it just happens.  Also, many of the titles on the list are below my students' reading level so they are not being challenged by the material.  It pains me every year when I suggest a great new book to one of my team members only to be told there isn't time to read that book because he or she is reading BOB books.  Finally, I am only allowed to take 12 students to competition.  Even if all 27 of the students who showed up yesterday read every book on the list, I will have to cut 15 of them by March.  I'm sure you can imagine how popular that makes me.

Despite my reservations about the program, I have to admit that my students love it.  They acknowledge that it eats up their time, that they miss out on other books, that it has silly rules, and that they may do all this work and still not end up on the team.  All of these negatives do not suppress their enthusiasm for BOB.  After being defeated by a stronger team, my kids want to know when next year's book list will be released.  At open house, they race to the library to find out when will be the first meeting.  They show up each week for practice hopeful that this will be the year that they bring home the championship.  Honestly, BOB is fun.  So I put in the hours and put a smile on my face.  If they love Battle of the Books so much, I can find a way to love it too.

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