Battle of the Books

Ophelia Harris-Shaw and Morgan Robinson at Shoesmith Elementary School, 1330 E. 50th St.

This spring, students at Shoesmith Elementary School, 1330 E. 50th St., advanced to the finals of a reading competition during the first year they took part.

Battle of the Books is a competition in which late-elementary and middle school teams answer questions about a reading list; each team gets 21 fiction and nonfiction chapter books to read. Shoesmith's team of three 5th-graders and a 6th-grader met twice a week for an hour to go over what they read during the spring and keep track of story elements.

Students score points during three rounds, this year in an online competition, with bonus points for giving the full names of the books and authors. The highest-scoring team from each network at each grade level advanced to the citywide competition.. Sixty-one teams in Chicago participated, and 15 advanced to the finals.

"It's a lot of work. It's really for those students who are voracious readers who really enjoy reading and like to read a lot of books," teacher Nicole Yassky said. Her team divided the books because of a pandemic-induced late start; typically, the students meet in person and read all 21 books.

Yassky said the whole point of the program is to promote greater depth of student reading, cooperation, teamwork and motivation; it was the first year she taught it at Shoesmith after moving to Chicago, after teaching a Battle of the Books team as a schoolteacher in Brooklyn, New York.

The questions asked in the competition promote reading comprehension, asking in which book Lenox Coffee appears, in which book the main character likes a specific boy, or in which a line of dialogue appears.

Yassky said those questions help students read more critically and carefully. A student may be able to read a 6th grade-level book fluently, not missing any words, but if they're not able to answer questions about the reading, they are not comprehending the material.

"I think it really helps them read more critically, carefully and especially this year in 5th grade when I was coaching them, I was coaching them to take notes and stop and jot," she said. "All the skills in grades 4, 5 and 6, the questions reflect the skills that they're learning in the classroom."

"It's good enrichment, too, for the kids who are on the team, because we read chapter books in the classroom. So they were not only doing their work in the classroom, but once they were done with that, I would say, 'If you have extra time tonight, read one of your Battle of the Books.' "

Two members of the Shoesmith team, Ophelia Harris-Shaw and Morgan Robinson, read 13 books in total: Harris-Shaw eight and Robinson five.

Both said they have read far more books than that in one go before; Robinson, for her part, has an entire shelf devoted to library books she checks out and then records on a ledger once she finishes them.

Her favorite book was "Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero," by Kelly J. Baptist, about a boy "who was looking in his father's journals about what he wrote — and he loved to write — and his father had passed away. And he was living with his mom and his little sister in a motel. His mom had a drinking problem, and they went to go stay with his little sister's hairdresser, and he was getting bullied by a kid named Angel, and they became best friends and started a program where he wrote poems, and Angel wrote it, and they were making money for his mom."

Robinson didn't want the book to stop. She liked that it was about a real-life problem. Now that she is 10, she is excited to read books about real-world situations; she is excited to be growing up, looking forward to Shoesmith graduation next year and, one day, to going to medical school to study to be an obstetrician.

Harris-Shaw liked "My Year in the Middle'' by Quintero Weaver best, about a girl who "had a friend named Abigail, and she had a bigger sister named Marina and her parents. And then one day, she realized that she was really good at running track. And so she was going to do that on field day, but she needed her parents to sign her a paper, but her mother believed that girls shouldn't play sports. She just didn't like it, and so her dad didn't want to disagree with her.

"So one day, she was out with her neighbor, and they were eating, and then they went out to the store, and they saw her gym teacher, and she saw them and started talking about how good she was at track. And then her neighbor was wondering what she was saying about it. And she never really knew that she was good at track. And so then she explained to them her problem because field day was coming up, and she really wanted to run track, but she couldn't.

“And so her neighbor said that she would do something about it. And so finally, at the last minute, her neighbor did something about it, and her father went to watch her run one day. And she actually was really good, and he gave her private lessons with her sister. And then on field day, she won. She beat the third-fastest runner in the state. And her father and her mother made her medals. And then they were just really happy in the end."

Like Robinson, Harris-Shaw couldn't stop reading the book.

Both girls want to come back and win the citywide competition next year; Harris-Shaw said her goal is to read all 21 books. "I got most of my questions right, so I think that if I read all of the books, I can quiz the rest of the kids on it," she said. "I can make sure that they know it, and then I also know it. Just in case they get it wrong, I also know the correct answer, so that we don't have to rely on one person."

Robinson wants to read all the books, too. "If one person doesn't show up," she said, "I want to be the fall-back person, like 'Oh, I know the answer!' "

"Even though we didn't win, it was still a fun thing to participate in, because reading is one of my favorite subjects, and I hope to win next year," she said.

Harris-Shaw's mother, Joetta Harris, also plans to read all the books next year, when she hopes that the team can function as a kind of in-person kid-level book club for her daughter and her teammates. Rachel Robinson, Morgan's mother, said it was great for Shoesmith's team to get as far as they did given inequities embedded in public education and the pandemic.

Harris pointed out that the school that won the competition, the Level 1+-rated Oscar Mayer Magnet School in Lincoln Park, 2250 N. Clifton Ave., has predominantly White student body, 68.9%. Shoesmith, rated Level 2+ (good standing), is 91.8% Black.

"I knew that those schools on the White side, because of the economics, were going to win. I hated that, and I didn't want to tell her,” she said. “So there's that drive in me to say, 'Well, I want these kids to get a fair shot.' And if there aren't that many kids on the team, I want to see them win, because there's that competitive spirit in me."

"You can see how hard these kids tried. They don't have tutors. We're obviously active parents, but not all of the kids are going to have active parents. They were kind of at a disadvantage, but they really pulled through. So that to me really makes the story exceptional."

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