BRATTLEBORO—On a recent afternoon, the Green Street School spelling team gathered around a classroom table to practice for the upcoming Vermont Principals Association School Team Spelling Competition — or, the Spelling Bee — for fifth- and sixth-graders.
“Okay, David, ‘macaroni,’” said spelling coach Alice Charkes.
David Berkson-Harvey paused for a moment, let out a “hmm,” then spelled the word. Charkes smiled. He smiled.
For Berkson-Harvey and his teammates — Thomas Hyde, Sylvie Lann, and Eben Wagner — the spelling exercises, held after school, helped them advance from the local spelling bee to the regional bee and, on Nov. 19, to the state bee.
Like the old adage about how one gets to Carnegie Hall, these kids practice, practice, practice.
For about an hour, twice a week, Charkes, who also teaches French at the school, has the students spell word after word. She tracks which ones they misspell and “these, we do over and over,” Charkes said.
All students report practicing at home, although Hyde admits he only practices regularly during the summer. “My parents ask me if I want to practice with them,” Lann said.
“I’m impressed with their dedication,” Charkes said.
Their reward is not just the satisfaction of a job well done, the medals, the plaques, or the prestige of winning the regionals and possibly the state bee. Although the kids expressed pride in those achievements, they took immediate delight in tastier rewards.
Charkes gives each student a treat — an M&M (two kinds!), a jelly bean, a Goldfish cracker, or a Skittle — for each word they spell correctly. Students who make it through a 50-word list with no errors are rewarded with an ice cream.
Most of the words the students spell during the bee are chosen from a 600-word statewide master list — all children in every team across the state use it, and each coach has the list, so there are no surprises. But, Charkes said, there are also bonus words at the bee, and those are unknown ahead of time. “I compile a list of bonus words for our practices, and they’re often bonus words from former bees,” she said.
On the list of words the fifth- and sixth-graders are expected to spell, a few stood out as problem words for this reporter — accommodation, carriage, embarrass, lieutenant, and mischievous — but I have spell-check, and I’m not on stage.
This year, all members of Green Street’s spelling team are in the fifth grade. Through their regular classroom spelling tests, the teachers identify students with particular aptitude and recommend them to Charkes. “I invite them to join the spelling team. Some are interested, some aren’t,” she said.
“We have a lot of talented fifth-graders this year,” Charkes said, noting Green Street “has a good history” in winning regional and state spelling bees. The school placed second at the state bee in 2011, the year Charkes began coaching the team; the next year, they won the state bee.
A team effort
Charkes explained the structure of the spelling bees. Each school’s team, all fifth- and sixth-graders, compete as a team, not as individuals; their score is a cumulative count of all words spelled correctly during the bee. Thus, no student is eliminated for misspelling a word.
The students spell their words while seated in a chair in a row of their teammates — nobody has to face the terror of going up to a microphone alone.
Still, every word counts. This year, Green Street won by two words.
So, how do the students manage their nervousness during the competition?
Lann said she uses empathy, paying attention to the other participants when it’s their turn to spell a word.
“I don’t think about the people in the audience,” said Wagner, noting that the lights shining on stage prevent him from seeing too many of them.
“I don’t give up and I try not to make a mistake,” Hyde said.
“I don’t think it’s scary to compete,” said Berkson-Harvey. “Winning is nice,” he added.
Lann said she enjoys the spelling bees. “I think it’s fun, I get to meet people I like, and I get to compete.”