A Darien dynasty at the National Geographic Bee
Updated 2:47 pm, Thursday, March 30, 2017
DARIEN — Students across the state will flock to New Britain Friday, March 31, for the statewide National Geographic Bee. Each is gifted in geography, but perhaps none so much as students from Darien.
A Darien student has won the state competition eight times, more than any other town in Connecticut. In the past decade, they’ve claimed the honor five times, including Michael Borecki, now a senior at Darien High School, who won in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
In short, they’re the town to beat.
Jackson Hart, of Darien, an eighth-grade student at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan, will be at this year’s state bee. Since the bee began in 1989, Darien has sent students to states nearly every year.
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Some students train on their own, but in Darien, students have the help of Barbara Ivey.
A part-time aide at the library at Middlesex Middle School, Ivey also trains students for the Quiz Bowl competition. Ivey, who has always worked in libraries, has a passion for trivia, training Darien’s eight former state geography bee champions.
About 10,000 students across the state participate in the bee, which is run by National Geographic. Students in grades four through eight compete in their schools and if they win, they take an online test taken by qualifying students across the state. The top-scoring 100 students from the online exam are invited to participate in the state geography bee.
This year, Ivey is training four students who qualified for the state bee: fourth-grader Rajiv Pujara, from Hindley School; fifth-grader Sophie Bickford, from Holmes; fifth-grader Jack Morningstar, from Tokeneke, and eighth-grader Fin Kerli, from Middlesex. On average, Darien sends two students to states each year.
“To have four kids make it to states from one little town is impressive,” she said.
The students’ experience levels range from novice to expert when it comes to the bee. This is Kerli’s second time in the state bee. He was eliminated in the preliminaries in prior years, but this time, he’s hoping to study to advance further.
“It’s been pretty exciting,” the 13-year-old said. “I want to make it further, challenge myself and see how far I can go.”
This is the first competition for 9-year-old Pujara.
“This is the first competition I’ve won,” he said. “(My goal is) to learn a whole lot about the world and be able to teach my friends about geography.”
Bickford is also going to states for the first time, having come a long way from last year, when she didn’t win her school bee.
“I want to see how far I can go,” the 11-year-old said. “I like doing it ’cause I like seeing what I can do.”
Question categories for the bee vary from year to year. Some categories, like United States cities, continents and worldwide geography, stay consistent, but National Geographic adds categories based on what the company has highlighted in its recent publications. One year, it published a book about strange facts that became a category for that year’s bee.
“It’s a wide variety of subjects,” said Ivey, who is in her 27th year helping students train.
Students in Darien study geography in fourth grade and world geography in the sixth and seventh grades. In eighth grade, students study United States history with some geography.
“They get a broad spectrum of things they learn, but it’s luck of the draw, really,” Ivey said.
To train the students, Ivey has them fill out a “slew of blank maps,” go through questions from past bees and old issues of National Geographic, as well as watch travel videos and study fact books. The students said their preferred methods of studying are looking at atlas books and watching videos.
“I like looking at atlases, but I also like videos because they tune me in,” Kerli said.
Ivey also teaches students mental tips to memorize knowledge at the bee. Hart, the St. Luke’s student, trained with Ivey when he was a student in Darien schools and said she taught him to keep a “mental map” in his head to answer tough questions. Hart has been to the state bee six times. His goal this year is to make it into the top 10 finalists.
“Mrs. Ivey taught me to use mental maps,” he said. “Easy questions have hints to give you a general viewpoint of where you are. Having a mental map in your head can really help you to figure out where you are.”
The students practice with Ivey nearly every day after school, depending on their schedules.
Ivey has had students practice with her on weekends and vacations. Ivey worked closely with Borecki, the Darien High School senior who won the state geography bee and went on to compete on “Jeopardy! Teen Tournament.”
“If they want to practice, I make myself available,” she said. “The kids want to do it, and it’s my passion. I love this stuff.”
Ivey said though Darien has not had a student go on to win the national bee, she has hope. Several students have gotten close and even made it to the final rounds of nationals. Ivey has her eye on the future and there are students she thinks may be able to go the distance.
“They do a lot of work on their own,” she said. “Geography is hard because it’s in everything we do. ... There’s a lot to learn. If the kids are passionate about it, it’s easy.”