Sunday, September 27, 2009

To Bee or not to Bee (updated)

Quick: What is the capital of Burkina Faso? In our house you will get two quick answers to this question; Benedict (8) will say:"Well Ouagadougou, of course" while Teddy (11) will give you a quick eye roll as in "no geography questions again, please". A question of this sort usually is followed by a frenzy of globes, atlases, encyclopedias jumping off the shelves and ending up in a large spread on the dining room table. You will see Benedict pouring over Ouagadougou facts and quickly checking to make sure he still remembers all his other African capitals, every one of his moves followed closely by his sister Cecilia and every hard to pronounce (but always with a thick American accent) word parroted back by the same 6 year old fan. The frenzy often continues with pleas from our little geographer for more books from the library. This pretty much summarizes the place geography has in our family.
I don't remember exactly how it all started. It was probably soon after Benedict's obsession with math turned tepid, that his ambitious nature pushed him into discovering some other academic passion. Little by little he started reading atlases, maps, borrowing books about countries from the library and before we knew it he had memorized quite a lot of facts which he was proudly willing to display at the first sign of interest from any of us. Our trips to the library started being more numerous and we made sure that the librarians at the Edmonds branch did not get bored, by placing lots on books on hold.
It's been over a year since this geo-craziness started and Benedict is showing no signs of slowing down. We obviously got to the point where we considered the possibility of him participating in the National  Geographic Bee. After a little research, however, we discovered that the geo bee is only open to students in grades 4-8. Our then 2nd grader decided that he will use this opportunity to practice the virtue of patience and to work on increasing his geography knowledge until he is in 4th grade. Whether to Bee or not to Bee, is not really a question for us, we will Bee, of course, and I say "we" because this is a family affair in a way; we all love drilling, questioning, providing Benedict with learning materials and opportunities and just marveling at his ever expanding knowledge of the subject. Yes, even his big brother, Teddy, has been known to get excited about it, except, maybe for the occasional time when a particularly annoying and hard to pronounce word like Oagadougou reaches his ears, then he will very likely roll his eyes in exasperation.

Since I can't conclude a post without a list of some sort, here is a plan I came up with, for preparing my child for the National Geographic Bee (some are things that have naturally happened and some are things that we've planned for the future):

1. Figure out if your child is interested, or rather passionate enough about geography for this road to even be worthwhile following.If the answer is yes then the second step is:

2. Follow your child's lead. Only do the geography related activities the child asks for. This will assure that his excitement will grow. No teaching, no drills, no flashcards yet.

3. If you haven't done this already, make sure there is a world map and a US map available for the child somewhere in the house. Ideally they will be displayed on a wall in the kitchen or dining room or in the child's bedroom. In addition to the maps, you will need a globe (our favorite is the smart globe) and an atlas. Make sure they are all very recent, and be prepared to replace them every couple of years, since almost every year new countries are being created or are becoming independent.

4. Visit your local library and show the child the area where the books about countries are. Let  her choose a few books about her favorite countries and remember the ones she particularly liked, then put on hold other books from the same series (I've noticed that many geography children's books are part of a series or another). Chances are if she liked one, she will like the other ones too.

5. Make subscriptions or borrow magazines from the library. Almost any children's magazine will add to the child's knowledge about the world. I've posted our favorites in my previous post, but I would say that the most useful for us have been: National Geographic, Ranger Rick, Kids Discover, Times for Kids and Scholastic. Each issue of National Geographic comes with a list of 5 questions used at the Geo Bee, but you will only get them if you have a subscription.

6. Buy or borrow a book about the geography bee. It will give you, the parent, a lot of useful  information about the bee. There are a couple of books about the subject available at bookstores and at most libraries. These books will give you details about age restrictions, dates, preparation, sample questions and advice from former bee champions.

7. Watch documentaries together. Again, the library has a large collection of videos about countries and cultures, but don't omit the ones about nature, animals and history; there's always some geography to be learned from almost any kind of documentary. If you let the child watch by himself, you might want to preview some of these videos, especially the history ones if they are geared towards adults, but I've found even some films about animals to be disturbing for smaller children.

8. Watch the film "Spellbound" with your child. It is about the spelling bee not the geo bee but it will give you and your child a feel for the actual contest. Also look for you tube videos of actual geography bee contests. Your child will get an idea of what kinds of questions are being asked at different levels of the contest and will better know how to prepare.

9. Help the child stay on top of the world news. Many of the questions on the bee will be related to current events.

10. Make flash cards together with your child. The ones I made for Benedict have the country written on one side in a certain marker color and the capital on the other side in a different color. I also added a colored dot (different colors for each continent) in the upper left corner. After he was well on his way to learning his capitals (by the way currently there are about 195 countries in the world, but not everyone agrees on this number since there are some countries that are not universally recognized), I started adding information about the religions of the countries and the next step will be to add languages. There will probably be enough room on each card to add a few important historical data and important natural landmarks. The idea is to add information little by little so as not to overwhelm the child. When Benedict studies his capitals he takes the cards of the countries starting with a certain letter and studies them until he knows them well then I quiz him until he gets 100% and then he gets a little reward. Every couple of letters he does a review.

11. In the higher grades, 7th and 8th, if your child is still interested, encourage her to make an actual study plan, where she will review all her previously acquired geography knowledge and add to it every day. Two hours or more a day of studying geography is not uncommon for middle schoolers who are dreaming of making it to the national level of the bee. The key here, however, is not how much time they spend every day on it, but how efficient their study plan is.

This is a quick summary of what I think would be a good plan for preparing for the National Geography Bee. The botom line, however, is that the child should love the whole process, because if he does, all these steps will happen naturally anyway. This whole process is about learning, widening your horizons and having fun.

 Our Favorite Geography Resources

1. Oregon Scientific Smart Globe 
We bought ours for about $79 from Costco before Christmas. Benedict spent many happy hours listening to information about countries, capitals, distances between places, languages (it even teaches you how to say "hello" in the language of every country), national anthems, presidents (many of them not in office anymore, since our globe is a few years old) and more. There is an option for playing games and taking quizzes. There is also a pull out map of America.

2. Faces and Places Series
These were the first geography books Benedict read. When he finished the whole series he moved on to the Discover Cultures series. These are appropriate for 2nd-4th grades or even younger as read-alouds.

3. Discovering Cultures Series
These are written at a 4th-6th grade level.

4.Visual Geography
 For the advanced reader who is ready for more, this series is very informative and has great pictures. Benedict and I enjoy checking some out once in a while just to look at the pictures and browse through them. Reading level :teen-adult

5. True Books
We love the true books. They are so easy to read yet cover so much information. They are not only about countries, but also about civics and government, science topics and more. Reading level: 3rd-6th.

6. Time for Kids Almanac

7. National Geographic Kids Almanac

8. 1000 Place To See Before You Die Page-A- Day Calendar
I bought this one for Christmas also, almost expecting the boys to leave it on a shelf somewhere and forget about it. Well, I'm happy to report that it has been on the boys window sill since January 1st and a page was removed and read almost every day. Indeed, every time I open the window in the boys' room, the calendar is showing the correct date (except for when the boys were out of town).

9. The Geo Bee Challenge
When he remembers to do it and if I allow him to go on the computer, Benedict likes to take this daily quiz. It has two different levels: apprentice and expert.

10. Sheppard Software Online Geography Games
The most educational online games we found are the ones on this site. They teach countries, capitals and landscapes for each continent and have quizzes at different levels. The games are fun and quite addictive. Recently they started adding games for science, history, math and more.

11. The Geography Bee Complete Preparation Handbook
This is the best Geography Bee preparation guide, in my opinion. It gives a step by step plan on how to prepare, offers lots of practice questions and includes tips from former national winners.

12. World Map Shower Curtain
This shower curtain has allowed us the opportunity to learn a bit of geography every morning for the 10 minutes or so while we're taking our showers. The only problem with these shower curtains is that they break easily when kids pull on them. Ours last less than a year.

 Final questions in the 2007 National Geographic Bee : Caitlin Snaring is/was a homeschooler from Redmond, Washington.

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