Canandaigua student wins geography bee - Catholic Courier

Canandaigua student wins geography bee

Alex Gilges won’t likely forget that Tenochtitlan was the Aztec civilization’s capital city and was located where present-day Mexico City now stands. That little tidbit of knowledge certainly helped him out on Jan. 26, when the seventh-grader won the National Geographic Bee at St. Mary School in Canandaigua.

The National Geographic Bee is a national contest prepared annually by the National Geographic Society. St. Mary School has been participating in the bee for about six or seven years, said Jean Mercandetti, kindergarten teacher and cocoordinator of the school’s contest. The goal of the bee, according to, is to encourage teachers to include geography in their classrooms, spark student interest in the subject and increase public awareness about geography.

Each year St. Mary’s contest starts in the fourth- through eighth-grade classrooms, where students test their geography knowledge against that of their classmates. Two winners are crowned from each grade, and these 10 students then advance to the school final, Mercandetti said. At the final all 10 students are quizzed using the same bank of questions, she added.

“That’s why it’s very impressive when the younger children do so well,” she said.

Alex was one of the top two seventh-graders in the classroom competition and thus one of the 10 competing in the school final. As the final competition began Alex didn’t really plan on winning, but he wasn’t counting himself out of the running, either.

“I had a chance, I knew that,” he told the Catholic Courier.

When the moment of truth finally came no one else could recall which ancient civilization inhabited Tenochtitlan, but Alex remembered learning about the Aztecs last year in sixth grade.

Alex wasn’t quite finished after he won his school’s final competition, however. He then took a written geography test, which was mailed to National Geographic headquarters in late January. Alex said he wasn’t fazed by this written test even though it was different from the school’s earlier oral competitions.

“Some of it was harder. Some of it was easier,” he said. “When the map was provided, it was just using your resources.”

Alex’s test will be graded by officials at National Geographic, and Mercandetti said she expected to learn of his results by early March.

“The top finishers in New York state go on to the state bee, and they’re whittled down to one person who would represent New York state. That person would go to the national bee in Washington, D.C., with Alex Trebek,” she said.

Mercandetti said St. Mary’s students eagerly await the school’s National Geographic Bee each year. The bank of questions for the classroom and schoolwide competitions covers everything from the cultures of different countries to those countries’ physical locations on the map.

“We do (the competitions) to enhance the children’s geography skills, and they look forward to participating. They get excited about learning the different places,” Mercandetti said. “It’s a good academic competition for the children to participate in. We do it for the competition, and we do it for the fun.”

St. Mary’s students have been able to fine-tune their geography skills through the school’s Passport Club, she added. Through this in-class activity, parent volunteers come into the classroom, meet with the children and assign them one country to learn more about. The next week the parents return to the classroom and quiz the students about that country’s culture, landmarks, geography and resources.

One sixth-grade girl called upon the knowledge gained through Passport Club to help her master a particularly difficult question during the bee, Mercandetti said.

“It was a geography question about a country in Africa, and only one person out of all the fourth- through eighth-graders … got the answer, because she said she remembered learning about it through Passport Club,” she said.

For his part, Alex said he’s always been a geography buff.

“I find it interesting to know where everything is,” he explained.

He especially likes learning about the Mediterranean region.

“It just interests me — the Parthenon and Greece and all that stuff,” he said.

Some of the questions in the National Geographic Bee were confusing and forced him to really think before answering, but Alex said he enjoyed the challenge and thinks the contest is a valuable part of his and his classmates’ education.

“It shows you what you’re competing against and how everyone else learns,” he said.

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