Reading Retrievers
Participating on the winning Reading Retrievers team are third graders Alida Benbow (upper left), Sophia Brandt (upper right), Scarlet Panico (lower left) and Sarah Workman (lower right). (Submitted photos)

The battle venue may have been a little different and the rules were slightly adjusted to account for any technical issues but the premise remains the same — students coming together to share knowledge gleaned from books that they’ve read as a team.

The Oregon Battle of the Books statewide reading program called off regional and state competitions during this year of COVID but reading lists were still distributed and many individual schools forged ahead with their own battles.

In Philomath, students in grades 3-5 staged their championship round last week with the Reading Retrievers defeating Ancient Owls in a best-of-three showdown.

Elementary school teacher Molly Bell said she enjoys Battle of the Books as a traditional annual endeavor that challenges students.

“The fact that they get encouraged to read books that they might not normally even pick up and find different authors and genres that they enjoy, I think I really appreciate that aspect of it,” Bell said. “I also appreciate that it is a team competition and they need to figure out ways to work with their teammates and trust their teammates when answering the questions.”

Debbie Johnson, Philomath Elementary librarian, assisted with Battle of the Books this year for the first time. She said interacting with the kids has been a favorite part of the experience.

“What’s really neat is that there is not a prerequisite or a minimum reading level that you have to have to be involved,” Johnson said.

She said some books are leveled higher and some lower with no expectation that all students need to read and comprehend every title.

Johnson said it’s set up for students to “read some of them and then we will pair them up in groups where they can work as a team and work off of each other’s strengths.”

She added, “So, they really do come together as a team and if you’re not a real proficient reader, you can be a contributing member of a Battle of the Books team, which I think is really cool for this level, this age.”

Battles occurred through Zoom and Bell modified the rules to fit the technology. For example, she read each question twice to make sure everyone heard it and the students are given more time than usual to come up with their answers in “breakout rooms.”

“You don’t have that excitement of watching the kids put their heads together and talk about their answers,” Bell said. “But we did some training with them on how to check in with each other in a breakout room and it just takes a little bit longer over Zoom to make sure they get a chance to hear each other and get their responses.”

Johnson said the third graders that have never participated in an in-person Battle of the Books did just fine on Zoom.

“I think they loved it, they thought it was fun, they didn’t notice anything different,” Johnson said. “The ones that had been a part of it before, it is a little less of a full experience doing it by Zoom. I think they’ll be glad to have it back in a more traditional setting next year.”

The Battle of the Books lists come out in early spring each year — and in fact, part of next year’s book list has already been released.

“It is really great if kids are thinking about doing it — that they start reading the books for sure over summer and then into the fall,” Bell said.

Teams are formed typically in late fall after some time has passed, Bell said, “because we really want the students fully committed to doing it before we put them on a team.”

Bell said that toward the beginning of this academic year, she had up to 40 different students that showed interest but the numbers dwindled down to the four teams.

“I did some work with all of the teams in terms of introducing the books and showing them practice questions, especially when we have third graders — that’s the first year they can do Battle of the Books,” Bell said. “It’s just helpful for them to hear the different types of questions and so we did some practice with that all together.”

Parent volunteer coaches organize which students are reading which books to make sure all 16 titles have been covered by their teams.

“The coaches also do some practice time with them,” Bell said. “They’re doing practice questions and talking about the books more in-depth.”

Although no regional or state competitions are happening, schools can set up battles amongst themselves. Bell said Philomath had an upcoming battle against Canyonville School.

“The state did give us a list of other schools that have shown an interest in doing Battle of the Books,” she said. “So we have an email list and it’s up to us to reach out to each other and coordinate that.”

Members of the winning Reading Retrievers team included third graders Scarlet Panico, Alida Benbow, Sarah Workman and Sophia Brandt. Meegan Benbow served as the parent volunteer coach. The runner-up Ancient Owls included third graders Anika Stimac, Toby Muravez, Spencer Schiminsky and Sam Noakes with Emily Stimac in the role of parent volunteer coach.

The Reading Retrievers won in two battles by scores of 42-23 and 45-28.

The other two teams making the semifinals were Masterminds and Terrific Tardigrades. 

Masterminds included fifth grader Brooke Griswold and fourth graders Emma Griswold, Alyssa Stanley, Ava Oster and Ruby Oster. The team was coached by parent volunteer Karyn Stanley.

Terrific Tardigrades featured fourth graders Brenna Schreiber and Bekah Workman, and third graders Kate Pyburn and Gabe Giftai. Jenny Workman was the parent volunteer coach.

Philomath received grants from Oregon Battle of the Books and Oregon State Credit Union to help buy copies of books on the reading list so students could prepare for competitions.

Oregon Battle of the Books also has age divisions for middle school and high school students.

Kiki Klipfel, the high school’s coach, has two teams with eight students participating.

“OBOB canceled all competitions but we’re still supporting teams with providing questions so we can organize our own tournaments,” Klipfel said, adding that a mini-tournament will be coming up on April 24.

Klipfel said she was happy to find teams from other schools interested in batting to provide an opportunity for the kids to compete. Philomath’s teams will be together in person but will go up against others virtually.

Philomath Middle School also has an active Battle of the Books team led by Laura Coen.

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