SALEM — One student was tasked with explaining how the Chicago Bears botched a game-winning field goal attempt last week, while another had to lay off a loyal but problematic employee at Bates Co. 

After two minutes, a bell rang — and the students put to the test on various real-world scenarios switched places, roles, and pressure.

It was all part of the Amazing Shake, a life skills-training competition happening this week at Bates Elementary School.

The school's 72 fifth-graders took turns talking with volunteers in the school's gym Monday morning, discussing everything from celebrating New Year's Eve to hosting a cooking show. At each station, students were graded on verbal poise, body language, adaptability to unexpected challenges and more.

"We think it's important, now with all the computers and cellphones. We see students that still have to learn how to verbalize how they're feeling, how to conversationalize with people," said Jose "JJ" Munoz, the school's interim principal. "What the Amazing Shake does is allows students to have an opportunity to practice their soft skills — eye contact, handshakes, adaptability in real-world situations."

Monday's sessions helped narrow the student participants down to 10 top scorers. Those students moved on to "work the room" at the Salem Rotary Tuesday morning. Five high-scoring students from that group will give campaign speeches for president on Wednesday in front of a three-person judging panel, including Salem State University President John Keenan and Salem Superintendent of Schools Margarita Ruiz.

The two finalists are scheduled to have a formal lunch with Mayor Kim Driscoll and state Rep. Paul Tucker, out of which the winner will be chosen.

Amazing Shake started about a decade ago through the Ron Clark Academy, a nonprofit middle school in Georgia. The competition celebrates not that a student can do something, but rather how they can do it.

"It wasn't about the answers," Munoz said, "but (instead) how they composed themselves."

The fifth-graders have been preparing for weeks, according to Munoz. Upon entering their classrooms, students would shake their teachers' hands and make eye contact, and presentations took a bit more priority in the day-to-day rigor of academic life.

"We pulled them aside last week and said, 'let's put you through a couple scenarios, give you feedback,'" Munoz said.

The volunteers Monday included several familiar faces in Salem, such as past Salem Mayor Stan Usovicz, his chief-of-staff Tom Philbin, and Ward 3 City Councilor Lisa Peterson. Past and present School Committee members appeared at three of the 24 stations.

Local attorney Scott Grover was a Salem health inspector talking to students about their recently opened restaurants. While they chatted, he also held the controller of a robotic cockroach that would emerge during the interview. As the insect rolled into view, he'd stop and ask, "what are you going to do about that?"

Angelina Evertsc, 11, said she has been practicing heavily for the Amazing Shake with her father.

"He'd work on us, so I'd practice with him a lot, and he told me some things to fix and some things to do," Angelina said. 

Some might think the competition is too extreme for the fifth grade, but Angelina — a confident, smooth talker during her Salem News interview — would disagree.

"This gave me something," she said, "because when I grow up, I want to be a teacher."

Theodore Winsor, 10, said the restaurant challenge was one of his favorites. 

"I felt a little bit nervous," he said, "but I didn't think it was that bad."

For 10-year-old Katherine Tsimounis, the one-on-one conversations with strangers was the most profound part of the weekslong journey.

"My mom practiced with me at my house. She'd grade me on my handshake, like, 'oh, no, that's weak,' or 'you're holding me too long,'" Katherine said. "Then you're feeling comfortable talking to other people."

Perhaps the event's strongest advocates are Christine McClory and Arial Ysalguez, who broke from their daily routines at the Salem YMCA to put students on the spot to narrate sports footage.

"The early access to real-life skills is what we try and push every day for the students," said McClory, Salem Y's director of operations. "Just being here gets me thinking about what the Y could do with our after-school programs."

The most surprising part of being in the Amazing Shake was how it is "relatable," McClory explained.

"We were once children ourselves," she said. "We can see that there are a few students who were a bit shy. This is a stepping stone for them."

Salem Congressman Seth Moulton, who was a guest at the event, said he wished "I had this in fifth grade. Maybe I would've run for Congress earlier."

"This is tremendous training," Moulton said. "This is part of a much more wholesome education for our kids."

School Committee member Mary Manning, who volunteered at a college admissions interview table, said the competition was the least important part. Rather, it was all the practice that had the greatest effect.

"The lead-up activities for them are the most beneficial," Manning said. "For some of them, it's hard to picture themselves doing this, applying to college. So it's good to plant that seed, you know? This could be real 'for you' someday."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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