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Olivenhain Pioneer Elementary School Library Media Assistant Sue Foote poses with students who took part in The Who Was? History Bee. The school's champion has a chance to compete in the live finale in New York City in May. Courtesy photo
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Local students compete in new national history competition

ENCINITAS — Interest in history is at an all-time high for students at Olivenhain Pioneer Elementary School after they participated in a new trivia competition geared toward history buffs.

The Carlsbad school — which is in the Encinitas Union Elementary School District — was among 20,000 schools across the United States that signed up to take part in The Who Was? History Bee last fall. The competition was created by the publishers of the popular New York Times bestselling “Who Was?” book series.

In May, 10 finalists will be flown to New York City where they will compete for a chance to win a $10,000 college scholarship and for their school to win a library of more than 200 “Who Was?” books.

The live finale will be hosted by Jeff Kinney, author of the bestselling “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, and his brother, author Patrick Kinney.

Sue Foote, the library media assistant at Olivenhain, said that in the days leading up to her school’s bee last month, the campus was buzzing with excitement and 450 biographies were checked out from the school library as students studied and prepared.

“The books with the highest checkouts were about Steve Jobs, Susan B. Anthony, Michele Obama, and Galileo,” Foote said Jan. 21. “One student who loves history and was a finalist checked out over 60 biographies from the school library alone, in addition to checking out the books from the public library and listening to the audiobooks on road trips with his family.”

The competition began with each participating school conducting a Classroom-level Bee at their school, where third- through fifth-grade students went head to head answering oral exam questions. The next step was a school-level Bee, where the top winners from each classroom competed to win the title of school champion.

Foote said about 270 students took part in the classroom level bee at Olivenhain and that number was whittled down to 10 finalists who competed in the school bee held on Dec. 17. She said she asked the students 30 multiple-choice questions and 60 open-ended questions.

Some examples of the multiple-choice questions Foote asked were Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Abraham Lincoln all held the same job before becoming president. What was that job? Teacher, Reporter, Firefighter, Lawyer. Answer: Lawyer. Who founded the American Red Cross? Susan B. Anthony, President Garfield, President Arthur, Clara Barton. Answer: Clara Burton.
Some examples of the open-ended questions were: How many Olympic gold medals did Jesse Owens win? Four. What fantasy series was J.R.R. Tolkien famous for writing? “The Lord of the Rings.” Who is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Prize? Malala Yousafzai.

“Every class cheered their classmate on, and were so excited to watch them all compete,” Foote said, adding that the 10 student finalists were Dane Rowell, Katherine McCourt, Vendela Gazur, Duncan Tarwater, Natalie Lozuk, Charlotte Van Ert, Lila Levy, Asher Marc, Liam Rafferty, and Jim Tryon.

Fifth-grader Jim Tryon, 11, was named school champion.

With the school bees now finished, each school champion will now take a proctored exam, consisting of 80% multiple choice/open-ended questions and twenty percent short essay. This exam will determine the 10 finalists who go on to the final on May 4.

“I’m looking forward to taking the (proctored) test,” Jim Tryon said Tuesday. “I’m glad that Mrs. Foote made it so that OPE could participate in the history bee.”

Jim said that although it was required that all of the third- through fifth-graders at his school participated in the bee, he would have signed up anyway “because I like reading and history.” He said to prepare for the competition he checked out a number of “Who Was?” books including those on Blackbeard, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Amelia Earheart, Sally Ride, Marie Curie, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sacagawea.

“I learned that Blackbeard was the inspiration for almost all of the pirate legends we have today,” he said. “That was interesting to me because I like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and ‘Peter Pan.’”

He admitted that his school bee was a little stressful “because kids in my class told me I had to win, but it was fun overall because I liked answering questions about history, and my favorite authors and scientists.”

Foote said if Jim makes it to the live finale, she would like to invite the entire school to watch it in the auditorium together, to cheer him on.

She said students are continuing to read the “Who Was?” series, in preparation for next year’s history bee.

“The students loved the competitive aspect, and the chance to show their knowledge of history, and I love to create opportunities for reading to be celebrated,” she said.

She added that the school’s PTA gifted the 10 finalists with gift cards to Barnes & Noble — $25 cards for the finalists, and a $100 for the school winner — “because the best reward for reading is getting to read more.”