Publication:The Columbian; Date:Feb 12, 2011; Section:Clark County; Page Number:C1

Putting their STAMP on the world

Monthly exercise builds geography savvy for Illahee Elementary students

By HOWARD BUCK Columbian staff writer

As Egypt has shown, the world can turn on a dime. It’s best if American students can actually locate significant countries and know a little about each. That’s why waves of Illahee Elementary School students rolled through the media center Friday: It was February quiz time for the Passport Club, an optional enrichment activity that brings world geography to life. One youngster at a time, students sat at tables with a world map and stabbed with their fingers when a parent volunteer asked for several of 20 countries tested this month.

    Prep work clearly paid off, for many students had little trouble homing in on a list of nations that included Romania, Libya, Ivory Coast and Oman.

    And that was the easy stuff: Students reaching higher tiers of achievement found Andorra, Belarus, Guinea-Bissau, St. Lucia, Kosovo, Malta, Togo and Vanuatu, among others.

    That about 525 of Illahee’s 738 enrolled students take part in the program, well into its fourth year in the Evergreen district school, is testament to its lure.

    Students who complete all five levels from September to May will have mastered all 194 recognized countries (not quite yet, newly formed South Sudan), plus 45 capital cities. Trends show about 10 percent of Illahee students will do just that.

    Each month, participants show their stuff to earn colorful postagestyle stamps from various nations to glue into their own model passport booklet.

    “Ivory Coast — it looks like toast,” said Avinash Naidu, 8, a third-grader on track to ring up each nation, recalling one study trick offered by a teacher or class volunteer.

    Sure enough, the African hub does resemble a slice of bread.

    Avinash has visited a grandmother and cousin who live in India. That travel, plus a world atlas at home, have given him a leg up.

    “It makes me more interested, and it helps me,” Avinash said of the Passport Club pursuit.

    Will he ever see every country? Probably not, he replied, but he’s got two in mind: North and South Korea, “because I take tae kwon do (class), and it originated from there,” he said.

    Fourth-grader Madi Schalk, 9, said she is motivated, too, after conquering Friday’s list: “Oman, I call that the front part of the ‘boot,’” is her take on the Arabian Peninsula.

    “I have a little bit of Czech in me. I like the Czech Republic,” Madi said, when asked about favorites. She cited a fascinating “Dancing House” building there (indeed, a striking Frank Gehry-designed insurance office is now a Prague landmark).

    There’s a chance Madi’s family will tour some of Europe soon, she added.

    The Passport Club was created in 1994 by teachers in Olympia’s Centennial Elementary School. It since has spread to scores of schools in more than a dozen states as an entertaining way to challenge young students.

    “It’s an opportunity for kids to kind of keep in touch with their world,” said Deb Alden, Illahee principal. It helps build map skills, world awareness and supplements limited elementary grade geography curriculum, she said.

    Gaining serious grasp of the world is more than simple fun, said one Illahee parent who has strongly embraced and helped boost the Passport Club. Divya Jain, whose fourth-grade daughter, Anusha, joined the testing on Friday, has helped to recruit volunteers and rapidly grow the program since the parent-teacher group first spotted it.

    “We really need to take our kids a level up” in geography to compete in the world and break down cultural barriers, overseas and at home, Jain said.

    “Students know where Egypt and Cairo is. It keeps them up on current events,” she said. “I’m for providing opportunity. If we don’t teach kids at a higher level, we will be behind in the future.

    “Everything that happens has a global effect,” she said, with Egypt a prime example.

    Jain, who has Indian roots, said it helps that Illahee families are a “cosmopolitan” bunch, representing many ethnic groups. Now, she’s had nibbles from other area schools thinking of picking up the Passport Club, too.

    Don’t worry: The good ol’ U.S.A. is not ignored. Passport Club enthusiasts may complete the 50 states and their capitals, for additional stamps and honor.

    In fact, one snack habit helped Sarah Aurish, 9, a third-grader, navigate some tricky Atlantic Coast state capitals on Friday. When Sarah froze on Virginia, Jain offered the clue, “If you’re not poor, you’re …” — and she quickly blurted, “Richmond!”

    Next up, West Virginia, and Sarah didn’t hesitate.

    “Charleston. My mom’s favorite candy is Charleston Chew,” she told Jain, grinning.

Photos by ZACHARY KAUFMAN/The Columbian Illahee Elementary School fourth-grader Madi Schalk, 9, points out countries on a world map to Passport Club coordinator Divya Jain. Schalk has Czech heritage, which makes her right at home in a student body that represents many nationalities. The Passport Club ON THE WEB:

Illahee Elementary School fifth-grader Owen Murphy, 11, participates in the monthly Passport Club test Friday. The optional program builds geography knowledge, rewarding students with country stamps to help fill each participant’s replica passport.

Only in The Columbian print edition

ZACHARY KAUFMAN/The Columbian Illahee Elementary students enter the media center to begin Friday’s test. About 525 of the school’s 738 students are taking part in this year’s Passport Club program, first used by Olympia schoolteachers.