Battle of the Books returns to Lenihan

T-R PHOTO BY ROBERT MAHARRY From left to right, Lenihan Intermediate fifth grade students Yuritzi Soriano Marroquin, Harvey Whitmore, Hakeem Scates, Riley Snider, Delilah Lizarde Velazquez and Kamila Andrade make up Team Read Zone, one of 18 participating in the recently relaunched “Battle of the Books.” Also pictured at right is Coach Roxane Shanks.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on groups of people and social distancing, Lenihan Intermediate School’s annual “Battle of the Books,” a friendly competition that breaks students into reading teams, assigns 10 books and provides an award for the ones who can pass comprehension tests after completing them, was temporarily discontinued in 2020.

But thanks to a passionate team of volunteer coaches and the behind the scenes work of Lenihan Instructional Coach Tonya Gaffney, the battle is back on four years later.

“It’s a friendly competition to read from a list of books that they were given, and it’s to encourage the kids to be readers and to enjoy reading a variety of genres of books,” Team Red Zone Coach Roxane Shanks said Thursday. “They’re in small groups. They can pick out — we had 10 books to select from, and they’re supposed to read three or four of them — and then they’re gonna take a test next week.”

Gaffney noted that the post-pandemic educational environment, the time teachers once had to coach the teams all but disappeared. It was actually a Lenihan parent, Christine Roberts, who stepped up to make Battle of the Books happen again and committed to finding coaches.

Roberts has four kids in the school system and is also in her second year as a substitute teacher, and she feels so strongly about providing unique academic opportunities for students that she stepped up to help make it happen herself.

“If you’re a student who qualifies for XLP (Extended Learning Program), you’re automatically given a lot of those opportunities, but if you’re not qualifying for XLP, you really miss out on a lot of those things,” she said. “It’s always been a passion of mine that wherever my kids are, that I can help promote and just really call for more unique academic opportunities.”

In all, there are 18 teams this year — some teams have two coaches, and some coaches have two teams. Both Roberts and Gaffney admitted it was a challenge to find them as some people find it easier to simply make a financial contribution than to actually give up their time, but they loved the chance to bring readers young and old together.

“The biggest problem for us is having enough coaches to support the teams. All the other stuff like reading the books and writing the tests, that’s the stuff we can do behind the scenes,” Gaffney said. “But without coaches, it can’t happen, so Christine said ‘OK, I’ll do it.'”

But at the end of the day, they were still able to find at least 15 of them, and Roberts described being a coach as “a really positive experience.”

“I had some amazing kids. At times, it was really hard work for me, especially getting Battle of the Books off of the ground, it was a lot of legwork,” Roberts said. “But I was really able to especially see the last two weeks, these kids who otherwise would not have had this opportunity really enjoying the experience, loving the books they’re reading, loving being able to meet and participate in something special for them and seeing them challenge themselves. It was hard work. They had to build a habit into their daily lives of reading every day… It was challenging for them, and to see them be proud of the work that they did while also being exposed to really interesting characters and places and stories (was great).”

The week after that is the payoff for those who stay committed — the celebration or “bash” where kids get to play games, have a pizza party and receive awards for their efforts in reading. The students have a period of eight weeks to read three or four of the assigned books and pass the comprehension tests. On Thursday afternoon, the fifth graders who make up Team Read Zone said they were enjoying the competition so far and mostly just enjoyed reading the books.

One chimed in that his favorite was “Out of My Mind” by Sharon Draper, a story about a young girl who struggles to communicate due to her cerebral palsy.

Each team of four to six students gathers around a table and takes the test together to see who can get the most questions correct. For Shanks, a retired Central Rivers Area Education Agency (AEA) employee and a former substitute teacher, Battle of the Books is a fun way to once again get involved in schools.

“Some of our coaches have teaching (backgrounds), but most of them don’t. Most of them just like to read or they like a friendly competition or they like to work with kids,” Gaffney said.

For anyone who wishes to read along with the students, here are this year’s 10 titles.

• Buried Alive by Elaine Scott

• A Different Pond by Bao Phi

• Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

• History Smashers: Pearl Harbor by Kate Messner

• Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

• Last Kids on Earth by Max Brallier

• Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

• Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai

• Tumble by Celia Perez

• Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

With a strong foundation now back in place, the people who have helped to revive Battle of the Books are optimistic the annual contest will carry on for years to come.

“We want our community and our schools to build a culture of readers and a culture of reading and to go beyond teaching our kids to read and really wanting to fuel a love of reading and a curiosity of reading and to find opportunities to really just fuel their passion for reading and become lifelong readers,” Roberts said. “That’s my dream with it.”


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