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Learning History as It's Made

Minority students club at Robinson sponsors annual Black History Knowledge Bowl.

Sharita Betourd doesn’t attend Robinson Secondary School anymore, but that doesn’t keep her away from the event she helped create four years ago.

The Black History Knowledge Bowl has become an annual tradition at Robinson. Betourd thought of the trivia competition with a friend, Candise Celstin, after Celstin participated in a similar event sponsored by Fairfax County. The girls thought Robinson needed a way to commemorate Black History Month, since the school lacked Black History Month recognition aside from its February curriculum.

“We have an International night, but it really didn’t mention African-Americans,” said Betourd. “We thought maybe we could do something.”

The event has taken off. It has been so well-attended that the school had to switch the venue to a larger room. The Minority Students of Robinson, a student club, sponsors the bowl. Teams, or panels, from each of the four high school grades compete to become black history knowledge champions. The panels study together once a week, for about two months. This year, the sophomores came out ahead of their older, but not necessarily wiser, schoolmates.

“It’s a way for kids to learn beyond the walls of a classroom,” said Manjot Kaur Jassal, a junior and the executive director of Minority Students of Robinson. “Everyone comes together to learn about their history.”

From questions about famous civil rights leaders, to trivia about African-American athletes, politicians and celebrities, students came prepared. Some questions were about events that took place centuries ago, and others were as recent as five days before the knowledge bowl.

“Who was the first African-American football coach to secure a spot in the Super Bowl?” asked Coy Pilson, the subschool 11 principal and the moderator of the Black History Knowledge Bowl.

“Lovie Smith,” answered the sophomores, after the juniors couldn’t come up with the answer.

African-American history is still taking shape today. Both Super Bowl coaches in Super Bowl 41 were African-American — the first time that has ever happened. Condoleezza Rice is the first African-American woman to serve as secretary of state, and her predecessor, Colin Powell, was the first African-American man to hold the same position. But the Minority Students of Robinson want their fellow students to realize that black history is not just about one race.

Jassal said every individual is a minority in one way or another. From gender and culture to social and economic status, blacks are essentially a minority of the minorities, she said.

“Black History Month is not just African-American history, but it’s all of America’s history,” said Christina Elder, a Minority Students of Robinson board member. “Everyone should take part in it.”

THE BLACK HISTORY Knowledge Bowl was set up like a debate. Two teams sat on either side of a large screen, where photographs of people or events from history were displayed. A judges table was set up in front of the stage, the moderator stood at a podium at stage right and the official scorekeeper stood at stage left.

The screen was a new addition this year, said Varlanda Witcher, the sponsor of the club and a former Robinson parent. It added a little curve ball, she said, since the students did not study images in preparation for the event. It added to some confusion for some questions, but eased the difficulty for others.

One message the bowl gets across to students is that it’s cool to be in the know.

“It encourages students of all ages and ethnicities to join together for a common cause to promote knowledge,” said Witcher. “It’s a great opportunity to promote academics.”

The founders’ touches are still seen throughout the event as well. Betourd, now a student at the Art Institute of Washington, still creates the program pamphlet. The girls also retained the main sponsor of the event — the Fairfax County Department of Family Services.

“I hope we’ll be permanent figures working with the school,” said Emma Marshall, of Foster Care and Adoption Services.