Cannon School students prepare for geography bee

In two out of the past three years, Cannon School students have placed well in the N.C. Geography Bee.

Mike Hoffman believes the keys for students are confidence and working on being the best they can be.

Hoffman is Cannon School eighth-grade American Studies teacher and head of the history department.

In April 2009, Logan Herrera, an eighth-grade student at Cannon at the time, competed in the state bee. This year, seventh grader Davis Nelson of Salisbury competed and finished in 15th place.

Students in grades five through eight can participate in the state geography bee. Each year, in preparation, Hoffman organizes a school bee to prepare and select the best candidate. Four students from each grade compete in several different phases to narrow the candidates to 10.

Ultimately, one student from each school is chosen to take a test along with the other winners from other schools around the state. The top 100 students compete in the state bee.

"(Herrera) is one the smartest people I've ever met," said Hoffman. "He would text me while he was in Raleigh and one of his texts said 'Wow, these people really know what they are talking about.' And for that to come from him is really incredible."

For Herrera, the state bee was a fun highlight of his middle-school years. Currently, he is a sophomore at Hickory Ridge High School in Harrisburg.

"Cannon school prepared me very well through the depth of its curriculum, which exposed me to a variety of facts and cultures," said Herrera in an email. "The way the bee questions were phrased, there always seemed to be a tidbit of information that led to material I had learned in class at Cannon."

Students who participate in the geography bee really know their stuff, explained Hoffman. They are passionate about history and geography and it's already a natural interest for them.

"Eighth-grade is about the time they've heard about all American history," said Hoffman. "But to see them light up and say 'Ohhh' the first line of the Marines hymn is what we are talking about in history...I love those points of being able to connect the dots in their lives with what's happened in the past."

Hoffman prepares his students throughout the year and tries to make the learning experience fun. Students do not receive an academic grade for participating in the geography bee.

"It's that inner competition that they would enjoy," said Hoffman.

The whole purpose of preparation isn't to make them feel bad but to get them to learn and think about current events and the world around them, he said.

Students who participate in the state bee have the opportunity to meet other students with the same interests and same attitudes from other areas, he said.

"It was great to meet new people at the state competition," said Herrera. "It really showed me what you can be capable of if you put your mind to it."

Hoffman's interest in history and geography began when he was a child, listening to stories of what happened way back when. The comparison between the fairytale stories he heard as a kid to what really happened was so much more fascinating and rich, he said.

Hoffman received his undergraduate degree in history with a focus on pre-1715 Europe and ancient and medieval history from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.

Although he did not have a passion for teaching at the time and planned to attend law school after graduation, he was offered teaching job opportunities. One thing led to the next, and eventually Hoffman became a history teacher at Casady School in Oklahoma City, Okla.

However, Hoffman had his mind set on earning more money.

In 1995, Hoffman moved to Charlotte and worked as a warranty manager for a car dealership for several years. And for the time, he was done teaching.

It was a whole different world from teaching. In the business world when you take vacation, life goes on, he explained.

But Hoffman soon realized his passion was teaching, and he took the 25 percent pay cut when he decided to teach at Cannon.

"I think I might have the maturity of an eighth grader so that might actually help," he said. "It is the unexpected nature of this age. Some years I can zip through the history and they get it and we're moving along. And sometimes the level of that group, the maturity...where they are in that spectrum varies from year to year and child to child."

Hoffman teaches his students to be resourceful and to demonstrate what they know with confidence.

According to Hoffman, it's all about the relationships he has with his students. And that simply means listening, being a coach, and helping them figure out where they are going in their lives.

"In a changing world, you constantly have to stay on top of things," said Hoffman. "You got to be able to adapt and be the best you can be at what it is you are being asked to do." .