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How to Win the Geography Bee

By Howard and Susan Richman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #35, 2000.

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Howard and Susan Richman


Ever wonder which US state capital, founded as a gold-rush town, is not linked to the rest of its state by roads? Or can you tell which African country borders both the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea? How are you at naming the large island country off the east coast of Africa that is one of the world's leading producers of natural vanilla?

If you're curious about such things, you're made for the National Geographic Society's Geography Bee. Our family is a Geo Bee family, and I hope you soon will be too.

At our old farmhouse, we decorate with maps. And I don't just mean I post a nice world map in my dining room on a bulletin board. No, we wallpaper with maps in this house. We have the whole ceiling of our living room papered with old National Geographic maps, two bathrooms covered in maps, and quite a few maps as "wainscoting" in the dining room and all hallways. Basically, any wall without a bookshelf covering it gets the map treatment around here.

So way back in 1989 my kids weren't surprised when I was eager to find out how homeschoolers could take part in the new Geography Bee. National Geographic, the sponsors of this new competition,were surprised at how many homeschoolers all over the country there were asking about taking part. They'd never even suspected homeschoolers existed as they planned the Bee!

Ever since then homeschoolers have been getting together in groups to have local bees, using this as a great opportunity to expand their geography learning at home.

Homeschooler David Biehl accepts top Geographic Bee award
Homeschool students have been doing really well, too. In 1999, the national winner was 14-year-old homeschooler David Biehl of South Carolina, and 10-year-old homeschooler Mallika Thampy of Missouri also made it to the top-ten finalists nationally. She was the very youngest student to ever make it to the finals - watch out for her in future competitions! Her brother made it to nationals twice also. In 1998, the second-place national winner was homeschooler John Kizer of Ohio. Last summer John Kizer and David Biehl were part of the US Geography Team of three students that competed internationally in Canada, helping bring in top gold awards for our country against 10 other teams.

Homeschoolers have also been qualifying for state level bees for years - often at a much higher rate than their school counterparts. Last year in Pennsylvania there were eight homeschoolers present at the State Geo Bee out of 100 students, and we certainly don't have 8 percent of the school-age population homeschooling (yet!) in PA.

Our family has loved taking part in the Geo Bee for years. My two sons, Jesse and Jacob, each made it to the state level Geo Bee when they were junior-high age, and this year my youngest daughter, Hannah (age 12, 7th grade), has qualified for state level. A family tradition is continuing!

I just can't imagine homeschooling without the Bee. You might find it enriches your home learning also. And this will happen whether your kids win or just take part for motivation and fun. They'll become more aware of the world, more knowledgeable about why things take place where they do, and more ready to notice and understand the news. The competition aspect helps kids feel more enthusiasm, but winning shouldn't to be the focus of the event. Learning more about the world is what it's all about.

So what do you need to learn about to be ready to take part in the Bee? How can you study and prepare at home? Well, you're going to need to help your kids learn lots more than just states and capitals, which is sadly the extent of some homeschoolers' geography study. Kids need to become active thinkers about the world and the people in it.

Your kids need to be familiar with what geography educators call the five themes of geography: location, place, human-environment interaction, movement, and regions. That is, first they need to understand where places are located and have good "mental maps" so that they can relate locations to one another. They need to begin to understand how places are unique, what makes a specific country or city or desert or mountain range different from other places, both physically and culturally. They need to think about how people interact with their environment - how they use the materials at hand to create unique buildings, raise crops and animals for food, or develop mineral resources and advanced technology. In short, how people change the place they live in to meet their needs. Then kids need to think about the theme of movement - why and how people move from one place to another, and how ideas and inventions and foods and other products move with them. Finally there's the idea that places can be thought of as being part of different regions, based on whatever criteria are chosen - regions where certain religions flourish, regions where certain crops are grown, regions with deserts, regions with specific industries or mines or types of transportation.

Next kids need to start connecting their geographic knowledge, gradually building up a larger understanding about this complex world of ours. It's not just a matter of memorizing lots of disconnected facts and trivia - it's about relating what you read about in Heidi to a general understanding about the Alps and Europe and where these places are on a map and then to the winter avalanches you just heard about on the news. It's about being an active learner.

The good news is, there are now so many wonderful materials and resources to help your kids get ready for the Bee, and enthused about geography. Here are some favorites of our family and of other homeschoolers who love the Bee:

www.nationalgeographic.com Check out this site, and order the GeoBee CD-ROM. This fun CD gives kids actual Geo Bee questions, all in a fast paced lively format. Every now and then special features pop up: map questions, photos from around the world, and a fast-paced lightening round. $39.95. Also ask for the full National Geographic educational catalog. They publish zillions of CD-ROMs, videos, and books, and all are fine quality and engaging. Their website also has interactive Geo Bee questions that change daily, plus a section of lesson plans and ideas for teachers and families.

Social Studies School Service, www.socialstudies.com. Go online to request their full geography catalog, and check out all their sample online lessons and links to related websites. A treasure trove of materials, and most homeschoolers don't know about it. Books, videos, maps, and much more.

Geography Matters, Inc., www.GeoMatters.com. A real find! Homeschool parents Maggie Hogan and Cindy Wiggers started this company to encourage real geography learning for homeschoolers. Besides great outline maps, they also publish the very useful book The Ultimate Geography and Timeline Guide. Although the book never mentions the Bee, it does share just the types of on-going family activities and focused lessons that make geography learning fun and meaningful, helping kids retain information and do well on the Bee. The website includes terrific links to other geo sites also, including many that lead to online geography quizzes with questions similar to the Bee.

www.dorlingkindersley.com This site introduces you to all of the marvelous books in the DK Family Learning library. We've found their world geography CD-ROM programs, atlases, and books to be some of the most helpful resources around for Bee prep. Often when a really obscure geo bee question comes up in our practice times, we head to our DK Geography of the World reference, and there it is - from a photo of the reed homes of the Marsh Arabs, to the causeway linking Bahrain to the Saudi Arabian mainland, to the new Friendship Bridge opening up Laos to the outside world. We often say that we are sure the Geo Bee question makers have this reference book on hand when devising the new questions for each year! Many homeschool families are involved as DK reps. Check out this resource!

library.thinkquest.org/10157 This terrific quiz website was developed by several high school students for the annual ThinkQuest website competition, and I'm positive these kids must have been Bee participants! Has a full range of interactive geography games right on line, really useful for special Bee preparation. Includes links to many other geography sites on the web.

www.dis.dpi.state.nd.us This is the site for the North Dakota Dept of Public Instruction Division of Independent Study. It's one of the few places to offer a web-based distance course in world geography to middle-school students. My daughter Hannah has been taking this course. Although it is largely text-based, still with lots of supplementation it's a real help and structure for our studies. The program will also soon be offering AP Geography, helping high school students prepare for the new advanced placement exam in this area - so if your Geo Bee kids want more geography learning through high school, you'll be able to find it.

Many people also find that materials from their church on missions abroad are very helpful, as you can gain more understanding of other cultures and their needs. You might especially want to order the terrific catalog from the Mennonite Central Committee, which shares their many free-loan videos on different cultures around the world. Call (717) 859-1151 or email mccresources@mcc.org for your catalog.

Don't ignore one of your best resources around - other homeschool families. Many groups like to get together regularly to prepare for the Bee, often forming geography clubs for playing geo games, sharing research, doing group activities, watching geo videos, making salt-dough maps together, and more. These kids will be really well prepared to enjoy the Bee, as they'll have developed the background and connections to help them understand what the questions are all about. The Bee gives the group a focus and a reason for meeting, helping kids set goals for their own learning.

How to take part in the National Geographic Bee: Guidelines are simple. You must have a minimum of six homeschool students from grades 4 through 8 participating. You can't do a Geo Bee with only one or two students, and getting together with other homeschoolers for the event is part of the fun anyway. Wondering how they came up with that guideline? The very first winner, Jack Staddon, came from a very small Seventh Day Adventist school with only six students total, and the Society felt they couldn't ask homeschoolers to have more students taking part than this school.

The deadline for registering for the Bee is always in mid-October, so start planning now. There is a registration fee of $30 per group. Call (202) 828-6659 or write to the National Geographic Bee, National Geographic Society, 1145 17th ST NW, Washington, DC 20036 for registration forms. Schools and homeschool groups can schedule their local Bee anytime from early December to mid-January. The packet you receive from National Geographic will give you all the guidelines and rules, plus a full booklet of the questions to ask (save that question booklet - makes a great study tool for the following year!).

After seven rounds of oral individual questions, the local finals are held. Now the questions get harder and harder, and for some rounds all students get the same question and write down their answers. Eventually you get to the school-level winner. An Olympic-style medal and special certificate provided by National Geographic are awarded as prizes. In our local group I also like to have simple fun geo prizes for other students too: donated AAA United States maps, dollar store inflatable globes and map puzzles, miniature globes, etc.

The winning student in this group then takes a 70-question written multiple-choice geography test. This is sent off to the National Geographic Society for scoring. The top 100 students in each state and US territory are then invited to take part in their state Bees, which all take place on the same day in early April. If you make it to the state level, you can contact the state coordinator to ask what other homeschoolers will be taking part; that way you can plan to meet at your state Bee, giving each other support and encouragement. One tip here: it's really useful to put "homeschool" somewhere in your group name, instead of just acronyms that don't communicate who your group really is. This will make it easier for other homeschoolers to find you at states, and help the media realize how many homeschoolers are taking part.

At the states there are oral Bee preliminary rounds. Eventually the top ten students are chosen for a final round before the whole audience. For the finals some questions involve maps or photographs, and for some questions all students write answers to the same question to make it more fair. All students making it to the state level receive nice Geographic Bee t-shirts plus nice certificates.

The top state winner heads off to Washington, DC, all expenses paid, for the national Bee, which is held each year at the National Geographic headquarters building. You can buy videos of the finals - they've been favorites around our house for the last several weeks, as Hannah prepares for the PA State Geographic Bee. Call Maryland Public Television (800) 858-8678 for your own videos; they're worth the price. There are major prizes for the finalists. All of the top ten students win a $500 scholarship, and the top three divide $50,000 in college scholarships, and also often win trips to different parts of the world.

Next year I hope your homeschool group opts to take part in the Bee. They'll be part of the more than 5 million kids nationwide who take part, and you'll be encouraging your students to take geography seriously, while having some real fun. Hopefully soon you'll be able to say, along with the National Geographic Society, that your "students seem to be getting the message that they are part of a larger world."


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