Two students representing Waldwick High School recently won high honors in this year's WordWright Challenge, a competition for American high school students requiring close reading and analysis of many different kinds of prose and poetry.
In the year's second meet, held in December, freshmen Peter Stahl and Dan Scherb, each of whom made only two mistakes, both placed among the 93 highest-scoring ninth graders in the entire country. More than 58,000 students from 46 states (and four foreign nations) entered the meet. The school's participation was overseen by Amy Baskin and Liz Getlik.
The premise behind the WordWright Challenge is that attentive reading and sensitivity to language are among the most important skills students acquire in school. The texts students must analyze for the Challenge can range from short fiction by Eudora Welty or John Updike to poetry as old as Shakespeare's or as recent as Margaret Atwood's, and to essays as classic as E. B. White's or as current as a Time Magazine essay by James Poniewozik. Though the texts vary widely in voice, subject, tone, and length, they have one thing in common: style. All use language skillfully to convey layers and shades of meaning not always apparent to students on a first or casual reading. Like the questions on the verbal SAT I, the SAT II in English Literature, and the Advanced Placement exams in both English Language and English Literature, the questions posed by the WordWright Challenge ask students both to recognize the emotional and/or rational logic of a piece of writing and to notice the ways in which a writer's style shapes and shades his meaning. Because the WordWright Challenge is a classroom activity and not a college-entrance exam, however, it can be a learning experience, not just a high hurdle. After completing a Challenge, classes are encouraged to talk about the texts and the answers to the multiple-choice questions, and are also given additional topics for open-ended discussion and/or written response.
The texts for the second WordWright meet this year were an essay by Peggy Orenstein (paired with a sonnet by William Wordsworth on a similar theme) for 9th and 10th graders and an excerpt from Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit for 11th and 12th graders. The students will participate in two more meets in the coming months, and medals and certificates will be awarded in June to those who achieve and/or improve the most in the course of the year.