Students go brain-to-brain in ‘Battle of the Books’

Students from St. Mary’s, Richmond (left) compete with students from Our Lady of Lourdes, Richmond (right) in the Battle of the Books competition in the new Brower Center at Blessed Sacrament Huguenot, Powhatan, Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (Photo/Kristen L. Byrd)

A sea of plaid and khaki flooded Blessed Sacrament Huguenot School (BSH) in Powhatan on Tuesday, March 26, as Catholic school students competed in a Battle of the Books.

Hundreds of students from eleven schools across the diocese gathered for an all-day competition of literary prowess where students sparred over plot details, titles, and authors of books. This event marked the first diocesan-wide contest of its kind.

The original “Battle of the Books” started over a century ago in a small rural town in California. It’s now known as “America’s Battle of the Books,” and is operational in every U.S. state, dozens of countries, and every continent except Antarctica.

According to the program’s website, its mission is “to support students in their love and discovery for reading by introducing them to quality literature, to offer books that build upon historical values and the dignity of life, and to develop friendships between students based upon socialization, competition and mutual respect.”

America’s Battle of the Books (ABB) is open to elementary, middle and high school students in grades 3-12. Each year, ABB creates lists of books and questions to be used for the competition. School systems request to participate in the battle and students volunteer to compete for their school. Teams are divided into groups based on grade level with 4-8 students per team.

Schools can also choose how many books they want to use: there are quizzes available for lists of 12, 20, 28 and 36 books. The Diocese of Richmond chose to use 28 books per grade group. However, each student does not need to read all 28 books. The books are divided amongst the teammates. If there are four students on a team, each student on the team is responsible for reading seven books.

Students read and re-read their assigned books, quiz each other with practice questions provided by ABB, and try to pack in as much information as possible before battling against opposing teams.

Tracy Hamner, Head of School at BSH, led the charge in bringing this unique competition to the diocese. Last year, he started a smaller battle for Richmond-area Catholic schools when he was principal of Saint Edward-Epiphany Catholic School, Richmond.

This academic year, when Hamner moved to BSH, he planned a bigger event, open to the whole diocese. He offered the new Brower Student Center on campus as an arena. Complete with classrooms, meeting spaces, studios, a gym and a cafeteria, it was the ideal setting for multiple matches to take place at the same time. Hamner also recruited judges and scorekeepers, created the tournament schedule, outlined the scoring, and handled other logistical matters.

“I think the Battle of the Books is a great way to encourage our students to not only read, but read with purpose and focus,” he explained. “The questions in the battle are specific and detailed. They require focus and effort. I feel it is a wonderful competition that brings out the best in all of the students.”

The diocese’s battle was set up like Family Feud. Teams were divided into two groups: third through fifth graders and sixth through eighth graders. Two teams from the same grade group went head-to-head in each round.

A judge gave contestants plot details from books as clues and the students were then asked to identify the titles and authors of those books. There were 24 questions per round. If the first team didn’t know the answer within 30 seconds, the other team had a chance to “steal” by answering the question correctly themselves. Five points were awarded for the correct title and two points for the correct author.

Points were added up after each round, and those teams would then face off against different teams in the next round. At the end of four rounds, whichever team had the most points was declared the winner.

Dr. Laura Clift, who has worked as Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for the diocese since 2022, served as a judge for the competition. She was also in charge of reviewing each book before approving it for the competition, making sure the books were appropriate for young readers.

“I think it was wonderful,” she said of the tournament. “The ultimate goal is to get the kids to read. Knowing they all read seven or eight novels over the last several months is encouraging. We are inspiring readers.”

For months they studied; for hours they battled. In classrooms and corners; indoors and out. And though all teams fought valiantly, in the end, only one from each grade group was named the champion. St. Edward-Epiphany School claimed first place in the third through fifth grade group and Virginia Beach’s Star of the Sea Catholic School ranked #1 in the middle school division.

Impressed with the level of participation, Clift hopes the diocesan event will continue to grow and perhaps expand to include high school students in the future.


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