What makes kids smart? Ask middle school Brain Bowl winners and you'll recognize a pattern to success:
"My parents are teachers." "I watch Jeopardy." "I pay attention in class." Experts agree that intellect isn't the only determining factor of whether or not a child triumphs academically.
"Successful students have schools and parents who foster an environment that makes learning fun and engaging," says Crystal Greene of the Oregon Department of Education.
Students who do well usually are enrolled in school districts with teachers who challenge them and they also participate in sports, clubs and youth programs, she says.
After-school programs allow kids to develop time management and social skills, and help them build the confidence to be assertive in class and know that they can succeed when they take risks.
Top grade earners, Greene continues, also turn to books for information and enjoyment. "Until third grade, children are learning to read," she says. "After that, they are reading to learn."
On Thursday, a dozen kids gathered in adviser James Johnson's classroom at Ashland Middle School to celebrate their victory in the Southern Oregon Middle School Brain Bowl Championship.
Under a paper dragon and Chinese lanterns, they ate pizza and homemade banana cookies, and talked as kids do.
Well, as do these kids, who, under the pressure of competition, can answer three out of every four questions correctly.
They critiqued "King Lear" and "Two Trains Running," the August Wilson drama at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
They rattled off examples of homonyms (words with multiple meanings) and homophones (words that sound alike).
And they talked nonchalantly about being in the Science Bowl, the Battle of the Books and other academic competitions.
Sixth-grader Sarah Aaronson, who, like many of the others, plays a musical instrument, says wanting to learn is just a part of "being us."
That statement spurred others to joke that the secrets to their success are they are motivated by pizza parties and they speak "Elvish."
Eighth-grader Jacob Johnson, dapper in a black-and-white plaid shirt, said, "We embrace the geeky life." Later, his mother, Melissa Johnson, explained that Jacob "was born a curious, studious child" and grew to love reading.
"He is very self motivated and isn't content until he has his questions answered," says Johnson, who has a bachelor's degree in voice performance and whose husband, Justin, has a doctorate degree in podiatric medicine.
In the middle of the pizza-laden table was a gold-colored trophy with a plaque that recognizes AMS students as champions in Southern Oregon Unversity's pre-college Brain Bowl youth program.
Sam Sagal, wearing a Science Brain Bowl T-shirt, hoisted the trophy into the air and Frank Yanez gave it a thumbs up as parents — one for every four children — stood back and listened to the conversation.
Near a shelf holding six thick college dictionaries was Jim Westrick, a high school science teacher on hiatus and a current member of the Ashland School Board. His wife, Linda Hopkins, is a maternal fetal-medicine doctor.
He nodded toward his daughter, sixth-grader Alex Westrick, and said she thrives when she is given high expectations and backed by the freedom, time and support to achieve them.
"For as long as I can remember, my answer to almost all her questions has been, 'What do you think?' or 'Let's try it and find out.' The latter tends to be messy," he says. "Then we puzzle out the answer together."
During the school day, he says she has teachers who motivate, challenge, inspire and push her even further.
AMS Brain Bowl coach James Johnson says he's noticed that although team members have varied personalities, there are consistencies among them. From that, Johnson has formed a profile of what makes for a good Brain Bowl participant.
"Engaging in diverse activities provides a broader range of experiences and concepts with which to apply to questions and problems," he says of his students, who are involved in the arts through band, orchestra, video production or theater.
He says that team members may be stronger in one or two subjects, but they have comprehensive ability in most subjects. Their grade point averages around 4.0.
More important, he says, is their willingness to take risks. Competitors have to be confident to hit the buzzer and blurt out an answer in front of a TV audience.
"They have to be willing to risk answering wrong a few times to ensure they have the chance to answer correctly most of the time," he says, comparing it to learning an instrument or playing sports. "They must risk failure for the sake of success, and when they fail, they must get up and try again."
Toward the end of the pizza party, AMS assistant principal Ken Kigel came in the classroom to congratulate the team and suggest that next year there be a competition between the Brain Bowl team and the faculty.
Then he got serious.
"What an awesome group you are," he said. "I thank you for your hard work and dedication. And I ask you, have you thanked your parents, your teachers and each other for this win?"
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email@example.com