Michael Falk believes in the power of facts.
The math teacher at Saint Mary's Visitation School in Elm Grove just coordinated the third year of the multi-school Gladiator Open quiz bowl on campus. Preaching the value of knowledge is easy for him - he just has to point to his own past to explain.
Falk, who previously worked as a meteorologist and computer programmer, holds the distinction of not only competing on television's "Jeopardy!" in 2006, but also walking away with $300,000.
Practical learning tool
He said studying facts for a competition helps students learn, as well as build an appreciation of teamwork.
"Quiz Bowl helps students learn anything they want to learn," Falk said. "It could be science, fine arts, anything. By studying these specific areas, students can learn how to make connections between apparently unrelated areas. It puts a different spin on the subjects."
The latest Quiz Bowl competition featured 14 teams from five schools. Barrington Station Middle School from Barrington, Ill., won the competition while the St. Mary's "gold team" finished third. One of Falk's students, seventh-grader James Kearney, finished second out of 63 individuals.
Falk said students learn to research facts, work within teams and have confidence.
"One of the most important things to get across to students is that they may not think they know the answer, but they can make an educated guess," he said.
For example, if the question is about a military commander in the 1700s, they can make an educated guess that it's George Washington, or if it's about an American author in the 1800s it could be Mark Twain. You have to learn to listen to clues so that it truly is an educated guess.
The other thing he teaches his teams is to work quickly.
"I do everything faster," Falk said. "I think and speak and, luckily for me, I press the buzzer faster."
Students enjoy experience
Going into the competition, St. Mary's students Tim Carrig, an eighth-grader who had competed for two years, and sixth-grader Emma Kaczynski, a first-timer, were confident they would do well. Falk said both scored well individually as well as in the team competitions.
"I wanted to be involved because I thought it would be cool to learn facts from a lot of different subjects," Carrig said. "I have learned a lot from Mr. Falk, and my parents give me sheets of questions to practice on. I like history, geography and science."
While St. Mary's does not yet know if it qualified for the national competition in the Chicago area, Carrig said last year's experience was fun because he and his fellow teammates met with and talked to a lot of students from other parts of the country.
Kaczynski said her dad helped her prepare. She said she especially is interested in world history.
"It's fun because even if you don't know the answers you learn," she said.
Carrig's mom, Jane, said the competition works because the school family supports it.
"We have had three different teachers commuting back and forth between here and Chicago, taking the kids to the competition," she said. "I think it's a neat opportunity for the kids to celebrate their intelligence. On any given question, the team collaborates and there is always someone who knows the answer or can give their team a good chance to know the answer.
"Mr. Falk is great at identifying the individual strengths of the kids and putting them together."
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