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Sylvie Lann, a fifth-grader at Green Street School in Brattleboro, recently competed in the Vermont Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Town and Village

Challenging herself to learn

Green Street School’s Sylvie Lann competes in Vermont Spelling Bee

BRATTLEBORO—Sylvie Lann, a fifth-grader at Green Street School, recently competed in the Vermont Scripps National Spelling Bee at St. Michael’s College in Burlington.

Although Lann didn’t win the Bee, competing represented an advance for the 10-year-old.

In November, she competed with her Green Street teammates at the Vermont Principals Association School Team Spelling Competition, or Spelling Bee, for fifth- and sixth-graders.

That one was a team bee. Scripps is for individuals, and any student up to eighth grade can compete. The winner goes on to represent Vermont in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., later this year, with $40,000 going to the winner of that contest.

“The team spelling bee was sort of a stepping stone” for Lann, said Alice Charkes, spelling coach and French teacher at Green Street.

“The words this time are ridiculously hard... [and] esoteric,” Charkes said as she flipped through a 14-page list containing “at least a thousand words.”

The Scripps organizers give spellers this list to help them study — all words at the Bee come from it. The words come from “lots of foreign languages,” said Charkes, and are ostensibly in use in English.

But Charkes wasn’t convinced.

She gave one example: foggara.

When neither Charkes, Lann, nor a visiting professional writer recognized the word, Charkes read the definition. “It’s an underground water conduit beneath the desert. It’s Arabic,” she said.

When asked how she got involved in the Scripps Bee, Lann said, “I volunteered to compete.”

“I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to learn 1,000 new words, increase my skills to the next level, and engage in competition,” Lann said.

“The other Green Street [School] spellers didn’t want to compete in this one,” Charkes said.

This is Lann’s first individual bee.

When asked her thoughts on competing in a bee without teammates, Lann said, “I honestly enjoy knowing I can make an influence by myself without having others responsible for that. I’m responsible for my own competition."

One pivotal moment was when Lann watched the 2002 documentary film, Spellbound, about a group of youths competing at the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington.

Although Lann said she was interested in competing in the Vermont Scripps Bee before seeing the film, “I was a little bit unsure, [but] the movie was really inspirational” and it helped her decide to go for it.

Lann attributes some of her spelling success to her family.

“My mom is a good speller,” she said.

She practices spelling exercises with her parents, and her older sister, Emma.

During Sylvie’s spelling exercises with her sister, “Emma would give me the word, ‘unconstitutional,’ and I’d spell out, ‘D-O-N-A-L-D T-R-U-M-P,’” said Lann, who added, “most of the time she’d say it was correct.”

Lann said preparing for the Bee increased her confidence and skills, but, “I always considered myself proficient at spelling.”

“It’s not just learning those individual words, it’s the language of origin. It gives me more of a feel for how to spell those words,” Lann said.

“It takes a lot of courage” to participate in the Scripps Bee, Charkes said.

“Another thing that sets Sylvie apart is, she’s willing to work hard to do this extra thing. Once school is over for the year, the spelling team is done, but not Sylvie,” said Charkes, who noted Lann practices her spelling in the summer.

“We were both hoping for a better finish,” Charkes said, “but as the vagaries of the spelling bee world goes, you don’t always get the words you can definitively spell, but you can spell other people’s. I hope she sticks with it for next year as she’ll do better and better.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #402 (Wednesday, April 5, 2017).

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