History of DemiDec
Where do Alpacas Come From?
A DemiDec Story
Preface: A Founder Makes a Mistake
Many Decathletes are lucky enough to compete multiple times. In 2006 alone, at least five returning Decathletes scored over 8,900 points; they had each enjoyed the chance to be part of more than one team. I was lucky enough to have that chance, but not wise enough to take it: I dropped out of the program as a junior. Mostly, I was scared of giving a speech. The team I left behind went on to take second nationally. When I returned as an incoming senior, with a different coach and all-new teammates, I did so determined not to squander this opportunity a second time. Ultimately, that determination, plus a jaywalking ticket, led to DemiDec.
The First DemiDec Team
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how different Decathlon was in the 1980s and early 1990s. Except in Super Quiz, curriculum booklets didn’t exist. Private organizations similar to DemiDec were emerging, including the very first, Acadec Resources and Testing, but their products were restricted primarily to practice exams. Every event but Super Quiz was entirely outside research, and every team had to do all that research on its own.
Our new coach, Dr. Berchin, was a living legend at Taft High School. He had won nationals in 1989, then mysteriously stopped coaching. He only returned my year because the coach who had replaced him, Mr. Wilson, had left the country (to teach abroad) after his own team’s second place finish at nationals in Phoenix.
When he first assembled us in his room, Dr. Berchin shared that he was coming back for only one reason—because he knew our team could win nationals.
We didn’t know that, and assumed it to be very unlikely, with no returners, no varsities and a late start. But he had gravitas; he had the credibility. We believed him. We read the outlines together, methodically. We glanced through a brochure advertising the national competition in Newark, New Jersey—then set that aside for nine months. We had to win city before we could even start dreaming of winning state. There were no wildcards then in California.
I watched with great admiration as he recruited two very strong varsities—one his own student, Chris, the other a peer college counselor with a cool name and interesting habits: Sage. He persuaded them to become part of the team. He persuaded all of us that we belonged.
Over that first summer, he taught us that to win we would need not just to study, but to determine what to study. He sent us on research missions to local college libraries; he inspired us to form a study circle and teach one another economics from college textbooks. He motivated us not only to find the right facts to learn but to create efficient ways of learning them. With this in mind, I composed miniature resource kits in different subjects, ranging from chemistry to the history of the former Yugoslavia. They looked a little like DemiDec’s cram kits do now: big, bold headings, mid-sized print. Later we wrote our own quizzes in the different events; we tried to imitate USAD as much as possible. (We also hid relevant books at local libraries, but that's another, slightly more shameful story.)
While a far cry from today's DemiDec Course of Studies, those first efforts were suggestive of what came later.
The Moment and Past
In the weeks leading up the city competition, we studied. We rehearsed our speeches. We tangled with the school police. We debated dinner plans (until our parents began catering.) But mostly, we studied—each in his or her own room, sometimes well past midnight. Dr. Berchin had convinced us by then that if we tried our hardest we might win—but also that if we didn’t try our hardest, we would lose. That drove us. (Sometimes, it also drove us crazy, but in a good way.)
It happened as he told us it would. At Super Quiz, we tied for first place with our top rival, Marshall—a team with its own great coach and a fierce disposition. For ten days, we weren’t sure of the overall outcome. We were reduced to nervously drawing comic strips and projecting individual scores. We had a pool going. Then, on November 30, at the Westin Bonaventure, the official results were announced, one event at a time. By the fourth event, it began to look pretty good; when we took seven of the top nine individual spots, it was certain. We had scored 50,515 points, the first team ever to do so; Marshall, about 44,000. I came away with 9,297 and, most significantly, a medal in speech. My teammate Andy took second with 9,026; his girlfriend Becky was third at 8,377, and our top varsity, Chris, managed 8,355. We had done it. We were on our way.
We had never seriously imagined breaking 50,000, had been aiming for 45,000. We were bewildered, overjoyed. A photographer snapped a picture in which half of us were off our feet and all of us were blurry with motion, even Dr. Berchin. We called it the Moment.
After that, we went on to win state and nationals. We had other moments, but they were all lower-case.
Along the way we became friends with our rivals from West; they mingled with us on stage in Stockton; it was the closest thing possible to a joint victory. Later they surprised us at the airport just before we left for Newark, bringing us a poster and wishes of good fortune. They didn’t know that we had tried to raise funds to bring them with us.
Our friendship with West underscored what had grown increasingly clear to us about the meaning of the competition. There’s no way to put this that isn’t melodramatic, nay, sappy: we began to realize that what mattered most to us was the time we had spent together. We had secretly painted our coach’s room, been arrested again, survived an earthquake. We had carried a toilet into our coach's classroom. As Decathletes we had a special bond, a quirkiness. We had, in short, an inner alpaca.
DemiDec was born of two things, then. Knowledge of a successful way to prepare for the Decathlon, yes. That was one. But the other mattered more. A desire to communicate what had made the year so special for us. A dream not just of writing footnotes, but of making DemiDec more than a footnote—not just what came after we competed, but what came of our competing.
From Decathlon to DemiDec
It was about six weeks after our national competition that I proposed to one of my teammates that we “make DemiDec real.” I remember the moment clearly: we were in the parking lot of a furniture store on a street called Sherman Way. We had just paid jaywalking fines at a Van Nuys courthouse. It seemed like a good day for taking responsibility for our own futures. Before long, we were chanting what would become an early DemiDec mantra—“focus on victory." The next day we secured our coach’s blessing.
That summer, we transformed our experience into an enterprise—working long nights, playing Ultimate Frisbee, drinking smoothies, and counting on our parents and our teammates for support. In mid-August, we were close enough to finishing that sent out our first informational mailing. " In recent years," we wrote, "Academic Decathlon has become a way of life."
It had certainly become ours—and remains mine and that of my many DemiDec teammates.
Our first product was imperfect. We didn’t know much about test-writing; I wrote mine without marking the correct answers, and he wrote his without any distracters until the final days before publication. Needless to say, my answer keys were off, and his distracters were sometimes comically bad. It was also a very small product: ten tests in each subject, plus a couple speeches, math formulas and impromptu topics. But coaches gave us the benefit of the doubt, and many have subscribed to our materials ever since, seeing us through all our growing pains with great interest and greater patience. For this, I am profoundly grateful.
That November, I was invited to speak at the Los Angeles Academic Decathlon Awards Banquet. I thanked the coordinators and commended the competitors, speaking of the experience they had all shared, of the unexpected joys encountered and difficulties overcome. Then, facing my coach, who had more or less retired again, and my former teammates, five of whom had gathered for the occasion, I said, "You were the medals that mattered most to me... and all of you are gold.” Half the audience went awww—mostly the parents, I think—while the other half, naturally, went, guh.
In our second year, Dr. Berchin joined us. He helped us design our first Sequenced Exams, in mathematics— tests structured to go from easy to hard. He brought us maturity and confidence, and, most importantly, he ensured that a one-year experiment became an ongoing venture. Decathletes can often expect in interviews to identify someone they respect, a role model they admire. If I were asked that question today, I would have no trouble deciding whom to talk about.
Grant Farnsworth and the First DemiDec Revolution
I assumed sole leadership of DemiDec during our third and fourth years. Around then, our team became more what it is today: a network of former Decathletes, curriculum experts and freelance writers who annually work together to craft the Course of Studies. To signal this change, I traveled with my new friend and associate, Sanjai Rao, to the national competition in Utah. There, we met with teams and handed out a new DemiDec Resource to mark the introduction of our Resource Kits: peanut butter ThinkBars.
Alpacas would come later.
That summer, we used a new tool—the “Internet”—to compose the first Complete Course of Studies. Looking back, those days now have a sort of mythical glow about them. There were fewer than a dozen of us on the project. One recruit from New Mexico, Grant Farnsworth, now a doctoral student at Northwestern, moved into the office for six weeks, single-handedly authoring two resource kits and editing most of the others. He would reappear at DemiSummit nine years later. Meanwhile, John Santerre from Maine took on Jane Eyre, Dawn Perlner of Massachusetts music, Bao Phan Super Quiz, Sanjai science, and Casey Alt, poetry. An Orange County Decathlete, Robert Pazornik, chipped in wherever he could—including typing for me when my hands went numb with carpal tunnel syndrome. I owe them all a debt of gratitude for being there at the beginning—and Grant the greatest thanks of all, for steering the ship at my side when I couldn’t have steered it alone.
A Steady Course of Studies: 1998-2002
From that initial group of a few steadfast contributors the DemiDec team soon grew size and achieved a new stability. Contributors returned from season to season, and new recruits joined each year. Our brainstorms resulted in our new workbooks, and in a Decathlon message board now hosted at [www.acadectalk.com].
In 1998, DemiDec nearly merged with USAD, but at the penultimate moment, we decided to remain separate. In 1999, we completed the acquisition of a smaller Texas-based creator of curriculum materials, Quizmart, integrating its test-writers onto our team and permitting the rapid and accurate development of new Super Quiz materials. And in 2000, we sailed a steady course, welcoming the return of outside research, and continuing to develop and refine our course of studies: exams, workbooks, resources, answer explanation guides, flashcards and other aids. We also released our new board game, AcaMania, which was developed by three members of my original team from Taft.
2001 and 2002 were banner years for us. Our newest products included scrimmage exams and our "DemiDisc" CD-ROM, while our growing number of subscribers brought home accolades and championships in many states. Our most important change, however, was to introduce “e-delivery”—so that coaches could download their materials as they were released, beginning in the summer. Furthermore, our experienced core of staff members (anchored by DemiDec veterans Craig Chu, Tom Brazee and Jessica Raasch) remained firmly in place.
The Alpacas are Here, the Alpacas are Here
One summer day, an Academic Decathlete named Esther Tsai, of Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, was studying at a teammate’s house when she spotted a pretty rug. “What kind of rug is that?” she asked. “It’s an alpaca rug,” her teammate explained. Esther looked up alpacas online and, naturally, fell in love with them. She soon joined DemiDec as a poetry specialist, and the love was catching. When DemiDec held its first (and last) election that summer to determine its mascot, the alpaca defeated the emu in a landslide. (Of course, I was ready to tamper with the results otherwise.)
The next year, a new DemiDec team member with an artistic gift, Tina Ye, proposed creating brand-new covers for all the DemiDec materials—and placing an alpaca front-and-center on each one. The rest is history.
New Team Members, New Ideas: 2003-2004
In 2003, a small group of new DemiDec team members, including Kevin Teeling, Greta Baranowski and Andrew Miller, convened to determine whether anything was missing from the Course of Studies. Their conclusion: that while DemiDec's Resource Kits were very helpful teaching instruments, something else was needed to help with reviewing the curriculum in a more systematic fashion. They collaborated to create DemiDec's first Power Guides, which are authored exclusively by Decathletes who scored more than 8,000 (often 9,000) points, and both outline and table every testable detail in each objective event.
2004 saw DemiDec switch to an entirely new mode of developing exams at [www.testperfect.com]. Team members, including important new contributors Melanie Goodman and David Kimel, could now write and proof their materials in an interactive database that vastly improved efficiency and quality control. The team reached its mature size, of about 100 contributors, and worked together more closely than ever before, taking advantage of wireless Internet connections to create virtual offices at Starbucks coffee shops and Borders bookstores across the country.
Enter (And Exit) the Czars: 2005-2006
In 2005, DemiDec held a DemiSummit in Chicago that coincided with the national competition. There, about a dozen DemiDec editors and coordinators met to discuss ways to improve our production process. The results included our new online beta test system, as well as the installation of coordinators for the workbooks, power guides, and resources. The coordinators (nicknamed "czars") included Catherine Chen (workbooks) and Dean Schaffer (power guides.) Later, over the summer, several of us retreated to Guadalajara, to work there around the clock amid abundant supplies of horchata. We also experimented with a new set of extra-challenging exams, dubbed Scimitar, that will be part of our regular lineup in 2006.
For twelve years, DemiDec’s motto has been that we do our best, so you can do yours. To continue achieving this, we’re scaling back our traditional internship program (though we will still be recruiting responsible, top-scoring Decathletes) in favor of more freelance writers and a smaller, nimbler team. And beginning in April 2006, we will publish earlier than ever.
Yes, That’s Me With the Alpacas
Two years ago, I was working for a [non-profit] in Ecuador when I came across an array of stuffed alpacas at a marketplace. That’s when it occurred to me that the best way to thank subscriber teams would be to bring each its own alpaca. So, nowadays, don’t be surprised if you see me wandering a competition with a bag of mischievous alpacas looking for new homes.
Editor: Sophy Lee
|Art||Economics||Music||Novel||Shorter Selections||Social Science||Super Quiz|
|Robb Dooling||Sujay Jayakar||Jonathan Spatola-Knoll||Kathleen Schaefer||Meaghan McNeill||Janet Lu||Alli Blonski|
Editor: Sophy Lee
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Editor: Dean Schaffer
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|Tracy Huang||Steven Zhu||Frank Li||Meaghan McNeill||Isabel Salovaara||Will Bishop||Avalon Owens||Sophy Lee|
Editor: Dean Schaffer
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