This is the third year that I have a child participating in National Academic League competitions. I had never heard of NAL until my oldest son came home from junior high one day a couple of years ago and announced that he had tried out for the school’s NAL team. “What’s NAL?” I asked.
When I was a kid, they used to show academic competitions between colleges on Saturday mornings after all of the cartoons were done. They called them college bowl games. The games featured teams of brainy kids that answered brainy questions. NAL competitions are very much like those college bowl games.
The NAL website says that grades 5-12 can participate. The organization was founded by Drs. Terrel H. Bell and Donna L. Elmquist in 1992. Dr. Bell spent most of his professional career in Utah and served as Education Secretary under three US presidents.
NAL games are like team Jeopardy on steroids. While there is plenty of trivia, there are also problem solving and correlation exercises involved. Topics center on math, science, history, geography, English grammar, civics, literature, etc. Questions are specifically structured to correlate with national standardized test criteria.
Games are divided into four quarters, three of which last 12 minutes. Each quarter has its own format. In the first quarter teams face off with five players at each team’s table and five players on each team’s bench. Questions are delivered by series of three to each team in turn. On each team, the play rotates through the players in order. A 30-second shot clock runs for each question.
A correct answer earns two points. While no points are subtracted for an incorrect answer, the other team gets a chance to steal the series and earn one point by answering the missed question. At the end of the series of three questions, the opposing team begins a series of three questions. Once a player gets two questions wrong, that player rotates to the bench and is replaced by a player from the bench.
Answers must be precise. For example, at yesterday’s meet, players were asked to give the chemical symbol for table salt. When a player blurted out “nacl,” his team cheered. The correct answer, however, was “NaCl.” The opposing player that got the point had to say, “Capital n a, capital c l.”
The second quarter is played as a team. Each team has five members that cluster and conference. The questions are more complex, and are delivered to the team on cards. The moment the card is delivered, a 60-second clock begins running. Correct answers garner three points, with no points subtracted for incorrect answers. One question yesterday featured names of five living things. Teams had to correctly state what category each thing fit in. My son was particularly proud of knowing that perch was a fish, rather than a bird, as was assumed by others on his team. Of course, the first team to buzz in gets to answer first. The other team only gets a turn if the first team’s answer is incorrect. So it’s a matter of teamwork, knowledge, and speed.
A typical question during this round might include five or six math problems (some of them rather complex), matching five or six explorers with what they are noted for having discovered, answering which sections of the Constitution concern themselves with five or six issues, accurately describing the water cycle using the proper scientific terms, etc.
The third quarter actually begins at the start of the game. Each school’s third quarter team is given a question. They are then ushered into rooms that have a variety of resources. During the first two quarters, the teams prepare to present background information, pros and cons of the issue, and recommendations along with backup for those recommendations. It’s kind of a passive debate. Presentations must last at least three minutes, but must not exceed five. 30 points are possible for each team. Each team is judged independently against the stated criteria, which includes quality of research, logic flow, presentation skill, grammar, thoroughness, and persuasiveness.
Some of the questions are not bad. One recent debate concerned daylight saving time. Another discussed compulsory voting. But some questions are lame. I remember one from last year that concerned a proposal to go to twelve 30-day months each year, with three 10-day weeks each month. It was a stupid, totally unrealistic issue, and the teams handled it stupidly. Still, these kids have to work as a team to quickly do research, make a decision, develop a plan, create props, and create a cohesive presentation. They then must stand up in front of a roomful of people and calmly present.
The fourth quarter is my favorite. They are back to having teams face off at the tables, but this time each player faces off with the player directly across from them. Play repeatedly circulates through players one through five. There is a 30-second shot clock. Two points are awarded for a correct answer, but one point is subtracted for a wrong answer, so you only answer if you are quite certain. If neither player answers correctly (or in time), it becomes a free-for-all where the first one to buzz in gets a chance to answer. This quarter moves fast and the scoreboard changes fast. Many games are won or lost in this quarter. Once again, players rotate to the bench upon missing two questions.
One of my favorite questions from last Tuesday’s fourth quarter was about a girl that buys a beater car for $900, pays $200 down, has 10 equal payments and pays a flat 10% interest rate on the total beginning loan amount. What is the payment amount? Having once worked in that line of work, I almost immediately knew the answer was $77. The players have calculators, but it took one of our math whizzes 29 seconds to answer the question correctly. It would have been a lot tougher to have to compound the interest.
Last year, my second oldest tried out for the junior high team. He is now a starting player in his second year on the team. His team is feeling pretty cocky right now, having won the first three games of the eight-game season by at least 10 points each (one by 25 points). One of those games was against last year’s district champs. It is likely that they will get a humbling at some point over the next five games, but for now it is fun for them to revel in their success.
NAL is like sports competition for the nerdy kids, but the teams have an interesting mix. Some of the kids are popular. Most aren’t. Some have athletic prowess, but most don’t. It is amazing to see some of the less popular kids step up and shine. Some of the team members excel in specific areas. Some are just all around brainy. Many of them never thought of themselves in that way before they were coaxed into trying out for the team.
I highly endorse NAL. It is fun. It’s interesting (even for adults). It gives kids opportunities to grow mentally and culturally. I’m grateful to the teachers that coach teams and act as judges to make all of this possible.