Many students find the thrill of competition not on the stage or playing field but in academic clubs like Mock Trial, Ethics Bowl and MathCounts.
On a Thursday in January, students are spread out in the Board Room, conferring over binders and making notes.
But this isn’t a class. It’s nearly 8 p.m. and these students are solidifying their arguments and prepping witnesses for Mock Trial, an Upper School club. All of them are eager to be there despite the late hour.
The team draws from every grade, though many are sophomores and juniors, and is preparing to compete against a nearby school—in court, in front of a real Philadelphia judge and a jury of practicing attorneys volunteering their time. The judge and jury award points, and the side with the most points—for preparation, arguments, witness cross- examination and more—wins.
“The club functions like a winter sport,” explained Jackie Kazimir, one
of the club advisors and an Upper School social studies teacher. “We scrimmage other schools, compete on weekends, and there are knockout rounds as you move toward finals.” Students might also be involved in a winter sport or the musical, but they make time to practice with the Mock Trial team because they enjoy it.
“Mock Trial throws you into public speaking—you can't avoid it,” sophomore Bridgette Gold said. “It's pretty scary to just be thrown in front of people and expected to speak on legal matters, so participating in your history class discussion doesn't seem so bad after.”
“Mock also has a bit of a workload,” she noted. “Each case we get for the year is pretty thick, and you have to learn it fast, memorize random facts and quotes, and then be able to interpret and analyze them.”
Navigating Nuanced Problems
Clubs of all sorts are a big part of life at PC, allowing students to expand their minds and explore their passions, to dabble or to fully immerse themselves. Clubs range from affinity groups—Black Student Union; SAGA, the Sexuality and Gender Alliance supporting LGBTQ+ students; or Club Shalom, to name a few—to the interest-based, like Chess Club, Book Club, Green Club, Microfinance Club or The Mirror, PC’s student newspaper (and also the nation’s oldest school paper, started in 1777).
“The academic clubs provide a unique opportunity for our students to engage in deep learning,” Director of Upper School Kim Berndt said.
“They explore challenging, real-world problems and leverage the unique strengths, passions and skill sets of the students involved. Our students are engaging authentically as intellectuals having to navigate nuanced, multifaceted problems and navigate them collaboratively.”
Students can pursue passions or find new ones in a club. “Being part of extracurricular communities at Penn Charter has elevated my Upper School experience,” senior Davina Kennedy said. “Acting as an expert witness in Mock Trial has surprisingly led me to want to have a forensic science career specifically in toxicology. I also have been able to get to know peers from all grades.”
Taking the Lead in Ethics Bowl
Mock Trial isn’t the only academic-focused club that competes against other schools. Penn Charter’s Ethics Bowl team won regionals amid a field of 400 teams, which propelled them for the first time in school history
to Nationals. Over spring break PC traveled to Durham, N.C., to compete against 24 other schools at Nationals, sponsored by the Parr Center for Ethics within the University of North Carolina Philosophy Department.
Since the beginning of the year, students have been honing their skills during group meetings each Friday over lunch or after school. The team discusses a set of 15 case studies published by the National High School Ethics Bowl organization, focusing on a case a week. Some are fictitious, but many are real-life and have ethical implications in the realm of politics, culture, economics and life in general. Competitions look like an informal debate, with civil discourse emphasized over power of argumentation.
“What I have done in recent years is use many of these cases in both the AP Government and Philosophy classes that I teach,” said Ed Marks, club advisor and Upper School social studies teacher. “I’d like to think that many students in my classes have benefitted from the process of bringing ethical consideration into the understanding of human interactions.”
“As a member of Ethics Bowl and our math competition team,” said senior Harrison Signorello, “I am able to translate skills from these clubs into my actual classes. Ethics Bowl allows me to practice my public speaking and presentation skills.”
Students who have expressed a genuine interest in philosophy and ethics are invited to learn more about and, if interested, join the Ethics Bowl team at the end of their sophomore year. Teacher Ed Marks, who founded the team in 2015, advises the students with help from teachers Michael LoStracco and Robert Vierlinck.
From MathCounts to Math Club
Middle School students also have an opportunity for academic competition. The MathCounts team has been competing against other schools for more than 30 years, advised since 2000 by math teacher
Jen Ketler Hon. 1689. The extracurricular activity appeals to kids who love math or want additional challenge. They practice in homeroom and during scheduled club blocks and then sharpen their skills by challenging their math teachers during boisterous assemblies.
Finally, they are ready. As part of the MathCounts Philadelphia chapter, competitions are complex. “Students compete in person at Temple University in a written, two-part competition,” Ketler explained. “In one part students can use their calculator, and in the other part they cannot. Based on scores of the test, the top 10 students go head-to-head in oral competition, and the top four students move on to the state competition.”
Although MathCounts is extracurricular, some Penn Charter teachers use the MathCounts material in their classes. “There are some good, engaging problems,” Kelter said, “so even students not in MathCounts have their in- class experience enhanced by the type of problems MathCounts presents. The problems in the competitions include topics in algebra and geometry and can be any sort of math problem, like projection in a calendar, or solving for X.”
Some students move on from MathCounts to the Upper School’s Math Club, advised by Liz Flemming Hon. 1689. The club is centered on AreteLabs competitions like Math Madness, and the contests are mainly online
with an in-person collaborative component. Students practice at lunch. Although the competitions look different from MathCounts, the premise is the same—students who love math find a way to advance that passion.
Eighth grader Bailey Handler appreciates the exposure to new material and figuring it out as she goes. “This year because I'm in eighth grade it's a little easier but, even so, there are many math topics that I didn't yet know,” she said. “It sets you up for future math classes in the Upper School.” Before MathCounts, Bailey wouldn't have considered math her favorite subject. “MathCounts feeds into why it is,” she said. “It adds a good spin to a class that's really intense—makes it more fun.”
MathCounts isn’t limited to those who have strong math instincts and enjoy solving challenging problems on the spot. “For kids who are great at classroom math but who aren’t as quick when they have to be creative and integrate their knowledge, the club helps them develop that, which helps with their classroom math and with standardized testing,” Flemming said.
Mock Trial club participants, divided into plaintiffs and defense, have been preparing for court since they—and all the other schools competing—were given the case in November. They must learn state laws as well as courtroom etiquette. In mid-February, the PC plaintiff team argued against Roman Catholic High School’s defense. Roman, which has four teams, is known as a Mock Trial powerhouse, but PC’s plaintiff team of attorneys and witnesses won.
"Now that is how you conduct a cross-examination!" one impressed “juror” remarked.
Later in the month, competing via Zoom, PC’s defense team defeated Masterman and competed against a more seasoned Roman Catholic team in semifinals for the city, though the jury awarded Roman more points.
“Our witnesses earned particularly high points for their ability to stay calm and in-character during tense cross-examinations,” Kazimir reported. “Freshman London Marshall was told by another juror that she fully embodied the role of the expert witness, and was incredibly persuasive in her opinions on the stand.”
In the Zoom trial versus Masterman, PC’s Maisie Optenberg won best attorney for her opening statement and cross-examination. Karya Karabucek stepped in as a substitute witness and then won best witness. Bridgette Gold had such a solid cross-examination that Masterman’s plaintiff’s witness wasn’t able to talk around most of Bridgette’s questions.
“Her demeanor made her a really convincing attorney,” said Erroll Flynn, another Mock Trial faculty advisor.
Most participants don’t aspire to be lawyers, Kazimir said. “They see it as fun, and there is an element of performance and acting. They really have to think on their feet. It’s a great opportunity to be in competition in a non-athletic situation.”
As for Ethics Bowl, at Nationals the PC team went two-and-two in their competitions. “A strong showing,” Marks reported. “There were no soft spots.”
“I think because they are so dedicated, they've developed great relationships with each other,” Vierlinck reflected. “Plus, the seniors all participated last year as well, so they have great camaraderie. Everyone in the group, including the faculty, really enjoys thinking through the cases, so getting together with others who enjoy that too is really fun.”
As much as clubs provide opportunities for students to explore interests and develop passions, they may also inform new directions for Upper School course offerings.
“These clubs create a special space for this type of learning and can serve as incubators for how to engage students in deeper learning in academic courses,” Berndt said. “As we continue to expand our understanding of what Advanced Studies courses can be, these academic clubs will serve as exemplars and inspiration.”
– Julia Judson-Rea