JACKSON TWP — The lights are low. The tables are set. The students take their seats and —
“This is my favorite activity of the year,” said Ken Koncerak, a history teacher at Bethlehem Center High School. “You've got a roomful of teenagers who are excited to read.”
Koncerak traveled 90 minutes with a group of students to compete in the Butler County Reading Competition at Seneca Valley on Thursday. He has brought competition teams for almost 13 years.
The Butler County Reading Competition was started in 2006 by former Seneca Valley interim high school librarian Peggy Mourer. Teams of no more than eight students read 16 assigned books before competing with other teams to answer questions about those books. Students come up with group answers in three rounds of 32 questions.
Historically, the competition took place in the evening.
“This is our first year doing it during the school day,” said Mike Stebbins, Seneca Valley Senior High School librarian.
Seven schools from across Western Pennsylvania competed in nine teams at the event.
The goal is simple.
“Just to get as many kids involved as we can,” Stebbins said. “To get kids reading.”
The Book Nerds are five Seneca Valley students who average three reading competitions a year.
“It's really fun,” said Victoria Lydon, a senior.
“I love challenging myself and my memory,” said Zoe Stebbins, a senior. “It's a brain sport.”
The event is definitely competitive, according to Stebbins and Koncerak.
Before they face their rival Mohawk Area School District, Koncerak said he always gives his students a pep talk.
He jokes that he has one instruction for them.
“I don't care what your score is,” Koncerak tells them. “Just beat Mohawk.”
The booklist, generated by Stebbins and his fellow librarians, is crafted over the course of a year.
Books are researched and gathered based on both contemporary reviews and literary canon. Students are introduced to a variety of genres, from nonfiction to romance.
“They're all quality books that we want to own,” Stebbins said.
The books on this year's list cost about $250. They will be added to the school library after the competition.
Each book has six associated questions, all content-based. Students work together to compile answers, which are checked by teachers.
“It's reading (comprehension),” Stebbins said. “It's just for fun.”
An important part of the competition is challenging the answers to questions developed by teachers. Students are allowed to challenge one answer in each round if they believe the teachers' answer is incorrect.
“You want it to be black and white,” Koncerak said.
Ava Stewart is a freshman who competed this year for the first time. She said she'll be back for the next event.
“I like it,” Ava said.
The Book Nerds originally had eight students on its team. When three of them dropped out before the competition, those remaining scurried to make up the book knowledge that was lost.
They didn't mind taking on more reading.
'Reading is cool'
“It's good to be with people who think reading is cool,” said Rebecca Hotton, a senior. The competition, according to Zoe, brings together students who might not know one another otherwise. Junior Allison Flatt believes the competition does more than that.
“You're also getting new books that you wouldn't (normally) read,” Allison said.
The competition has become smaller over the years. Stebbins said one year, 21 teams competed for reading glory. Koncerak has brought as many as 30 students at a time.
But between increases in busing costs and busy student schedules, attendance has been low the last few competitions.
Still, the Butler County Reading Competition continues to draw together groups of different types of students: gifted, IEP, athletic, introverted.
The Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf attended Thursday's event for the second consecutive year. Kids come with their books and leave with their friends.
“It's kind of like a leveler,” Koncerak said.
The top three teams win books. Their school name is engraved on a plaque, and they record their victory in a traveling scrapbook.
Stebbins and other competition teachers continue inviting districts from as far as Ohio.
The mission of the event, according to Stebbins, is to make connections with people through reading.
“We're always trying to spread the word,” Stebbins said. “Everybody can read.”
WHAT TO READ
Every May, students who compete in the Butler County Reading Competition at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School receive a list of 16 books.
The books are assigned for the reading competition when students return in the fall.
This year's titles:
- “Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend” by Karen Blumenthal
- “The Grand Escape” by Neal Bascomb
- “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon
- “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean
- “Moonraker” by Ian Fleming
- “A Morbid Taste for Bones” by Ellis Peters
- “Mosquitoland” by David Arnold
- “Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo
- “Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland
- “Layover” by David Bell
- “Orphan Monster Spy” by Matt Killeen
- “People Like Us” by Dana Mele
- “As You Wish” by Chelsea Sedoti
- “Love, Hate & Other Filters” by Samira Ahmed
- “Girls in the Moon” by Janet McNally
- “Anna and the Swallow Man” by Gavriel Savit.