Behind the Scenes of “Granite State Challenge”

A slim device that puts all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips has made such arcane concepts as memorizing historical dates, state capitals and American presidents seem pointless, but at least one screen in your house still requires you to know a thing or two, assuming that screen is tuned in to NHPBS’ long-running student game show.

A match between Bow High School and Farmington Courtesy photo

Back in the 1950s, Art Linkletter, host of “Art Linkletter’s House Party” on network television, was daily interviewing small children on TV, from which he authored a pair of books, titled respectively, “Kids Say the Darndest Things” and “Kids STILL Say the Darndest Things.” And they still do, even after they are no longer small fry. Jim Jeannotte, who hosted New Hampshire’s “Granite State Challenge” TV quiz show for more than 30 years, recalls one query he tossed out when he had run out of prepared questions and still had a minute or two to fill.

“Who was killed at Chappaquiddick?” he asked the competing teams of bright young high school students. The question was a softball for “seasoned citizens” in the TV audience, but not so easy for millennials. An eager student pushed the buzzer and blurted out his answer.

“Pocahontas!” he declared confidently.

Alas, for the student, the adventures of Pocahontas did not include a midnight ride in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s Oldsmobile-turned submarine. In fact, neither did the adventures of Amelia Earhart, who took to the air to meet her apparent demise. But the Pocahontas answer brought an amused response from a viewer and supporter of public television, who wrote the station to tell of his enjoyment of the incident, adding, “Tell Jim I’m doubling my contribution in his honor.”

“Granite State Challenge,” the popular TV show, has been on New Hampshire Public Television (now known as simply New Hampshire PBS) since 1984. It pairs teams of high school students in competition to correctly answer questions on subjects ranging from history, literature, science, popular culture and several more categories. Apparently the famous incident on Chappaquiddick happened after the textbooks the students were using had been published. And even old pros can easily lose track of how long ago it was.

Taping a match between Kingswood High School and Winnisquam High Courtesy photo

“That was probably sometime in the 1980s,” Jeannotte mused. In fact, Kennedy’s splashdown, with the unfortunate Mary Jo Kopechne as his passenger, happened in July 1969, on the same weekend that American astronauts walked on the moon.

“Was it that long ago?” asked the surprised Jeannotte.

When the show started, some high school principals were reluctant to have teams from their schools participate, fearful perhaps of a “Pocahontas moment” that might embarrass students and their respective schools. Actually, the show has brought honor and respect to the educational process. Schools, both public and private, and their students have been well acquitted by their performances on the game show, as students show off their knowledge about matters obscure as well as better-known incidents in history or in popular culture. Those who wonder aloud, “What are they teaching in schools these days?” might be surprised to learn that obviously the subjects are being taught and there are at least some students who are paying attention and learning, though the competitive nature of the program inspires students to do some extra studying and learning on their own. They have to be quick to hit the buzzer, while at the same time accurately expressing the correct answer. Susan Adams, the network’s education manager and the show’s producer, says the judges manage to be reasonable and strict at the same time.

“If the answer is, say, ‘The Great Gatsby’ and a student says simply ‘Great Gatsby’ [omitting the “The”], that would be accepted as a correct answer. But if the answer is ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ and the response is, ‘Badge of Courage,’ that would be a wrong answer.”

Susan Adams, who has been a producer on “Granite State Challenge” since 2013, read encyclopedias for fun when she was a kid. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

Adams has the burden of finding the questions and verifying the correct answers. The game may sound like “Trivial Pursuit” but it’s a bit more involved. A trivia question that an old political buff like me could answer is, “Who was Barry Goldwater’s running mate?” Challenge questions need to offer a bit more context than that, says Adams, who was but 4 years old when Goldwater ran for president in — well, never mind what year. Even a question about Goldwater himself would include certain details, like the fact that he was a longtime US senator from Arizona and a popular champion of post-World War II conservatism in American politics. After all, the show’s producer is not trying to confuse the contestants — or is she?

“We once offered hip-hop as a topic,” she recalls. A student/contestant familiar with the musical genre by that name was quick to choose it. So he and his teammates were surprised to find themselves confronted by a series of questions about … rabbits.

“We try to keep them guessing,” Adams says. “We want them to be creative, to think outside the box.” The idea is not merely to show off how much the students know, but how quick they are to learn. “Is it important for them to know this?” is one of the questions Adams asks herself during her extensive research. Perhaps it’s not important to know, as we near the third decade of the 21st century, that Goldwater’s running mate was Congressman Bill Miller from Upstate New York. Years later, Miller would gain renewed notoriety by doing a commercial for American Express on the importance of having the credit card with one wherever one travels. “Don’t leave home without it,” because “You may not recognize me but I once was …”

Producer Susan Adams gives a quick thumbnail history of “Granite State Challenge,” from prehistoric 1984 to present — 971 games played; 11,700 questions asked; 6,300 students participating.

Thanks to the producer’s dogged research, names to be pulled up from the mists of distant past are more apt to be more renowned, like those of Caesar, Galileo, Mahatma Gandhi or Alexander the Great, none of whom had an American Express card with him in his travels. Popular culture might include anyone from Beethoven to the Beatles to Beck. For some math questions, the contestants are given a brief amount of time to scratch their way to the answer with pencil and paper. But it is television, after all, so 30 seconds might be as much “dead air” as can be allowed.

“We try to choose questions on which we can anticipate about 80% of the answers will be correct,” says Adams. Not all the students become stars, but one of the hosts did. The show’s host/moderator in its very first year was Tom Bergeron, who has since become a fixture on commercial network television, having hosted for years “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and now is on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” Since his one year with the Challenge was 35 years ago, Bergeron does not pretend to have much of a memory of it.

“I was just glad the answers were on the cards,” he says. Bergeron, who years later hosted “Celebrity Jeopardy,” says, “I think it’s always wonderfully fulfilling to moderate a powerful show like ‘Granite State Challenge.’” But don’t expect him to come back to New Hampshire any time soon. “I’m not looking for more work right now,” he insists.

Current “Granite State Challenge” Host Jon Cannon is also a history teacher at Bedford High School. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

Jon Cannon, about to start his second season as host/moderator of the show, is a history/social studies teacher at Bedford High School. Having been a contestant himself in the 1990s, he stresses the importance of continuing to study and analyze changing events.

“What I try to teach is that perspectives of the past are constantly changing as new evidence comes up,” Cannon says. “We have to spend more time to decide whether the new evidence is worth listening to in order to change our perspectives.” The format of “Granite State Challenge” does not allow for much in the way of perspective or analysis, but it does reward memorization of a wide range of facts, a pedagogical technique that has often fallen into disfavor among students and teachers alike. Nonetheless, “I think facts are worth knowing,” Cannon insists. While facts can be rather quickly Googled today, knowledge already in the head can be illuminating, the teacher notes.

“If you’re in a boardroom where you’re the one who knows and everybody else is trying to look it up, you’re the one who’s going to shine.”

The show might be considered a mild antidote to popular TV stunts like Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” routine in which the former “Tonight Show” host would walk about city streets getting incredibly uninformed answers to some very basic questions, as in this exchange between Leno and a rather clueless young man:

“What was Hitler’s first name?”

“Hitler.”

“No, his first name.”

“Hitler.”

“Hitler Hitler?”

“No, just Hitler.’”

“He had only one name?”

“Yeah. Like Cher.”

Cannon speaks at the lectern to some of this year’s crop of hopeful students auditioning for a spot on the show. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

Now it was time to see some of the students who would take the tests that would qualify them and their respective high school teams for entry into the ranks of Granite State Challengers. I arrived early on a Saturday morning at Manchester Community College for the event. Having skipped breakfast, my priority was to find the coffee. Lots of luck with that. Any and all coffee must have gone to the grave with Pocahontas.

“We just prepared for the students,” a PBS official explains to me.

“Don’t students drink coffee?” I ask irritably. Probably not, I later reflected. Not unless they pour that hot liquid into those tiny plastic “juice boxes” that students seem to have in their hands at all times. “Don’t parents who might be with them drink coffee?” The PBS official promises to look for coffee for me. I wish her well, knowing full well that if I don’t get a cup of coffee, I’m going to be grumpy all day.

Eventually a cup of java is brought to me. I take it with thanks. Soon the students arrive and start filling up the multipurpose room. Not long after, Kendal J. Bush the photographer arrives with her small arsenal of cameras, lenses and other equipment. We chat to pass the time while more students, teachers, judges and proctors arrive. I ask Kendal, who was not yet born when Chappaquiddick became a household word, if she had ever heard of the place.

“Is it an Indian or Native American place?” she asks. I tell her the story of Senator Kennedy and Mary Jo and the midnight ride of 50 years ago. Then I tell her about the student who thought the one who lost her life there was Pocahontas. She laughs so hard her head nearly hits the table.

From left: Becky Zheng and Alssandra Sargent from Bow High School Photo by Kendal J. Bush

Students continue to pour in. They will be tested in waves, with the last wave to be tested scheduled for 3:45. I realize I will not be staying for the whole thing. By 3:45, I will be home in front of my TV set watching Georgia battle Auburn, no questions asked. Kendal will be back home in Francestown.

Finally the event gets underway. Before the day is over, roughly 222 students from 37 high schools in New Hampshire will participate. Producer Susan Adams gives a quick thumbnail history of “Granite State Challenge,” from prehistoric 1984 to present — 971 games played; 11,700 questions asked; 6,300 students participating.

There was one year, sometime in the 1990s, when “Granite State Challenge” was off the air. Much of the funding for the program had been provided by the University System of New Hampshire, which holds the station’s broadcasting license. When the state made deep cuts in the University System budget, there was no longer enough money to produce the program. That left NHPBS officials scrambling for more corporate sponsors. Unitil, whose name was prominently displayed at the Saturday event, stepped up and continues to be the primary sponsor, with additional funding by NEA New Hampshire, Heinemann Publishing, Cognia, New Hampshire Lottery, HRCU, and Safety Insurance. Manchester Community College donated the use of its facility for the Saturday preseason event. With all that, the season has nonetheless been shortened with 15 programs, requiring 16 teams, down from twice those numbers before budget cuts The next season will begin on Saturday, February 1, from 6 to 6:30 p.m. on NHPBS.

As the names of the different schools are called out, the students roar their response and react as though hailing touchdowns by their respective football teams.

Rules and procedures are explained. I look for the opportunity to quietly question a few of the early arrivals. Jamie Maddock, a senior at Nashua North, says he was asked by his friend and current tablemate to join the team. “I remember watching kids on the show and thought it was good to see the kids up there,” he adds. The teacher with the team is Tim Bosch, who teaches “world history, military history, psychology and whatever else they decide,” he says. Especially for students not involved in athletics, it’s “a good opportunity for them to compete on a statewide level,” he adds.

For Christian Page of Stevens High in Claremont, it’s a natural progression from participation in his school’s quiz bowl and working on technical aspects of theatrical productions at Stevens. “It’s fun coming here with some of my friends and meeting other people,” he says. As the names of the different schools are called out, the students roar their response and react as though hailing touchdowns by their respective football teams. Not a problem. Moderator Jon Cannon told them to “make some noise.”

“I feel it will be a good challenge,” Becky Thend of Bow muses. “My math teacher recommended it.”

Olivia Bowser and Mercede McIntyre from Belmont High Photo by Kendal J. Bush

“I like to challenge myself by trying different things,” says teammate Ali Sargent.

Looking over the students attending the event, I find nothing unusual. They might have been a throwback to the long-ago days when I was in high school, back before students got radical. No long, purple, orange or spiked hair. No mini or micro-miniskirts. In fact no skirts at all. (It was Saturday, after all.) Guys and gals were both resplendent in blue jeans.

But how does a history professor like Cannon avoid being discouraged when an Annenberg study shows just under a third of adults surveyed could name the three branches of American government?

“I don’t look at it as discouragement,” Cannon says. “I look at it as an opportunity and challenge. It’s my job to educate kids and it gives me a sense of purpose in my profession.” To make it purposeful to the students, Cannon structures the lessons to include student participation. Though Harry S. Truman may never know it, a couple of history classes in Bedford, years ago, put the former president on trial for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Witnesses included students in the roles of Truman, Stalin, Hirohito and others. Even Franklin Roosevelt came back from the dead to testify. Cannon had students in different years do that exercise twice, and though he remembers many of the details, it interesting that he does not remember either verdict.

“The point is, I could have gone over the reasons in 15 minutes.” But that, he says, would likely have bored the students. For many of them, whose grandparents and great-grandparents may have been in the military at the time, it may have been eye-opening just to discover there is another side of the story.

“I don’t think my job is to move the needle,” Cannon says about the students’ perspectives. “My job is to make them aware that there is a needle.”

The students from the first wave of testing are returning. Some kids from Manchester Central arrive at our table. What was it like?

“We can’t say much about it,” one of them says. Students in the following waves would be taking the same exams, so students were urged to be circumspect in their comments. Karishma Manchanda, a senior who has been in the challenge twice before, offers her summation.

“It was fun!”

Imagine that! Educators have found a way to make learning fun. Lorraine Mayette, who teaches English as a second language at Manchester Central, tries to do the same.

“My job is to try and teach as many people as I can to be informed and to make it as interesting as possible,” she says. “I try to find something that might clue them in.” For those who watch and listen, “Granite State Challenge” provides lots of clues.

“New Hampshire gets to see some of its best and brightest students.” Mayette says. “There’s more learning than people realize, and it’s demonstrated by these students on ‘Granite State Challenge.’”

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