Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lee Ann Sides Garrett
For the Salisbury Post
It started out as a way to get out of homeroom, Knox Middle School student Katherine Shields said.
Most of the students who make up this year’s Battle of the Books team at Knox Middle just wanted extra time with the friends they were separated from in homeroom.
But it soon became much more.
The group of eleven eighth graders and one sixth grader made Rowan County history. The team won both the county and regional events and placed ninth out of about 577 middle school teams from across the state.
“I’m really glad we won county because most of us have been doing this since the sixth and seventh grades and we never did very well,” Shields said. “We were so happy we won regionals because no one had ever done that from Rowan County.”
The team read 27 books from a list provided by the N.C. School Media Association and studied questions about small details of each story.
Among thousands that can be asked in competition are questions like, “In which book does a boy consider chewing tobacco similar to friendship?” Participants on each team must answer with the title and author of the book described.
“The questions come off an online program that we subscribe to as a county and we just pull off thousands and thousands of questions,” said Liesa Montag-Siegel, Knox librarian and team coach. “And they’re only tiny details. They’re not trying for comprehensive questions, just memory questions.”
The group got just 20 minutes every morning during homeroom to study, but even that was not uninterrupted: ten minutes of practice, five minutes of announcements and ten more minutes of practice.
Outside activities like sports and other clubs kept the busy group from practicing after school. All the students are involved in multiple activities including band, honors chorus, soccer, tennis, Boy Scouts, youth activities with their churches, theatre and the Christian Youth Club.
Such busy students reading 27 books may seem like a daunting task, but they had a plan.
“The cool thing about this team is not one of us read 27 books. We just kind of divvied them up and each knew what the others knew,” Mary Margaret Mills said. In sixth and seventh grade, we tried to read all the books and we were just really crammed. We didn’t know the books well, all the details.”
Each team member had different favorite books and all had some they just couldn’t get through.
“Some of the books were just like, ‘Come on, finish it,’ ” says Steven Page.
Montag-Siegel says competitive spirit and willingness to work together made the team winners.
“I’ve always had a group of kids that were committed to reading the books, but this group was competitive enough that they were willing to vote on who was the strongest and who should be on the team every round, which people were weaker and maybe would rotate,” Montag-Siegel said.
The strategy worked well. But the team was still surprised when they won.
“We had about 212 points and they called out fifth place. They had 205 points. We thought, ‘Oh gosh, we must have added wrong somewhere,’ ” Page said.
The team painted “Knox Goes to State” on the windows of the cars they drove to state competition. They approached this competition with the same strategy, but their busy schedules caught up with them.
“After regionals, we kind of just crashed,” Mills said. “We thought, ‘We’re the first to ever go to state. If we win, great. If we lose great.’ We had a huge project in English and we couldn’t work that hard.”
Still, Montag-Seigel said, the team members are proud of themselves and they’re thankful for the opportunity to work together.
“All through their lives they’ve been the best. They’ve been winners. A lot of them are AG students,” she said. This is one of those happy circumstances of this juxtaposition of people, personalities and desires.”
And they might have had one more thing in their favor.
“We decided we definitely won the award for having the coolest shirts,” Mills said. “Everywhere we went, people were telling us, ‘You all have the coolest shirts.’ “