Professionals-in-training practice poise under pressure

They worked the room like a boss.

They extended their hands and gave a firm shake.

They smiled and made eye contact as they introduced themselves.

They asked thoughtful questions — and listened to the responses.

When another person asked, “Do you mind if I join your conversation?” They replied, “Not at all. We were just talking about …” and then welcomed the newcomer into the discussion.

These fifth-graders at Hawthorne Elementary School in Kennewick showed poise, politeness and confidence under pressure as they worked a room full of community business professionals.

It was all part of the Amazing Shake, a nationwide challenge designed to teach students manners, discipline, respect and professional conduct.

They learned how to give a proper handshake, to “work a room” with small talk, and to think on their feet.

Joe Peterson, owner and principal at Joe Peterson Insurance Agency in Kennewick, volunteered to judge. He said he was impressed, with the students outperforming his expectations in every way.

“The ability to look others in the eye, speak up and yet listen, introduce themselves and carry on a conversation is essential in the workplace, as well as other personal and business endeavors. It is invaluable in leading a meaningful and productive life. I found myself encouraged by what I saw and experienced with them. Having these skills in the insurance business, where we are either selling, servicing insurance products with our clients, or dealing with difficult situations of loss to life or property, having these skills practiced and natural allows the user to focus on what’s important: the client,” Peterson said.

Jason Gradwohl

Jason Gradwohl

Jason Gradwohl, a fifth-grade teacher at Hawthorne, organized the school contest. He took the school’s top finisher to the national competition in Atlanta last year.

“I’m really proud of all of them and for you to see what talent and great kids we have at Hawthorne,” he told the judges Nov. 29.

Thirty-five community judges scored the kids in five rounds over two days. After each round, the pool grew smaller.

Gradwohl encouraged the judges to be tough critics. To watch for eye contact. To note politeness. “Some of them are real cute, but don’t take pity on them,” he cautioned.

Sixty-two fifth-graders from three classrooms competed in the competition, which involved providing a 30-second first impression and being thrown into different scenarios to test problem-solving skills, a round called The Gauntlet. The stations included handling an angry customer as a diner employee and strutting a catwalk in front of adoring fans as a fashion model.

Another round, called the Circle of Doom, involved a spotlight and background music.

“Judges asked a question and didn’t interject and let the kids talk for two minutes on that topic. The intent was to make it intimidating and put them on the spot,” Gradwohl said.

It appeared to work. It was the most nerve-wracking round, said Alia Fernstrom, 10, who went on to win the contest.

“It was dark in the room and there was a spotlight on you with kind of scary music in the background and the judges were sitting across from you. … They asked me questions like, ‘What would you want everyone to know about you?’ And another was, ‘How has this Amazing Shake experience changed you?’ It was pretty terrifying but it showed me how to handle things when I was put right on the spot,” she said.

The final round had three finalists — Alia, Somia Abaker and Rivion Brooks — participated in a live mock TV show on stage during an assembly. They had to answer three questions: What are the benefits and drawbacks of kids owning cellphones? Should kids their age be on social media? If someone you knew was being a cyberbully, what would you say to them?

Somia placed second and Rivion third.

Alia said she was surprised she won against “really tough competition.”

“I was up against a student who has done pageants. A lot of them are really smart and give really great handshakes and can make conversation very easily and they all did so wonderful. I was happy about how well all my peers did,” said Alia, daughter of Michele Alvarez and Brandon Fernstrom.

The school contest was modeled after the one at the Atlanta-based Ron Clark Academy, an elite private school. “We’re definitely trying to emulate what he does and adapt it for Hawthorne,” Gradwohl said.

Eric Otheim, one of the judges, said he was impressed with the caliber of the young students.

“These life skills are so important and oftentimes they are forgotten. I think it’s terrific to do this,” said Otheim, a teacher for 37 years, who works as a peer and assistance resources teacher, coaching Kennewick School District’s newest teachers.

Judge Leon Lindblom, a retired civil engineer, called the students “congenial young people.” “Our future is bright,” he said.

Lindlbom said he asked each student what they thought of Hawthorne Elementary and was impressed with their responses.

“Everyone thoroughly enjoyed being a student at this school. They all gushed about it,” he said.

Hawthorne Elementary, where 78 percent of students come from low-income families, was named a state School of Distinction in 2017 and 2018, for showing improvement in language arts and math.

Alia’s recent achievement taught her an important lesson about herself: she’s more confident than she knew.

“I can make conversation with others more easily than I thought. I’ve become less afraid to be in front of a group of people,” she said.

And teaching students to stretch and grow is Gradwohl’s mission.

“My goal as a teacher is to not only send kids to the next level as better students, but also to send them on as better people,” he said.

Help send Alia to Atlanta

Alia Fernstrom

Alia Fernstrom

Fundraising is underway to send the winner of Hawthorne Elementary School’s Amazing Shake contest to the February national competition in Atlanta.

Money raised would be used to pay for Alia Fernstrom, winner of the contest, a parent and her teacher to travel to the two-day event on Feb. 22-24.

About $8,000 must be raised, which would cover transportation, food and lodging, contest fees and a substitute teacher for the classroom. Any money received above the needed amount will go toward sending students to future national Amazing Shake competitions.

To donate, contact Hawthorne Elementary School Principal Craig Miller at 509-222-5600.

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