At a time when all manner of auto-correcting prevails, old-fashioned spelling feels like a dying skill. Yet discerning the phonetic variation between words like “bizarre” and “bazaar,” without the help of red squiggly lines or the coaxing of apps such as Siri, still makes a difference. No tech aids will be available when Clear Creek Elementary students defend their first-place title at the Kiwanis Club Spelling Bee.
Last year, the six-person team of 4th and 5th graders approached everything from one- and two-syllable rarities (e.g. “knell,” “zephyr”) to five-syllable juggernauts with equal confidence, says team coach Holly English, a teacher at Clear Creek Elementary. An Etowah Elementary alumnus herself, English participated in the bee as a student in the ’90s. She doesn’t remember her exact results — though she does concede that the experience morphed into a motivating adage: “I tell my students: ‘If I can do it, so can you.’”
She also helps them memorize contextual hints for tricky words. A student kept trying to spell “caterer” with a “d,” so English reminded him that it contains the smaller word “ate.” Similarly, “finite” is part of “definite.” “Knowing that helps them hear [the letter ‘i’] in ‘definite’ and understand the spelling,” she explains.
As fundraisers go, the very notion of a spelling bee is a little quaint. It doesn’t generate profit (Kiwanis hosts a concurrent bake sale to break even) or make any radical statements about social justice. But the event is going strong in its 24th year, honoring the junior bookworms and aspiring writers who might otherwise be lost in efforts to rev up STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.
“It celebrates kids with a passion for language,” agrees Susan Newman, curriculum specialist and spelling-bee coach at Hendersonville Elementary. Her team meets weekly to study the four-page, four-column vocabulary list provided by Kiwanis. The document features classic tricky words such as “colonel” (“like the officer, not the increment of corn,” Newman prompts the kids), along with “facetious,” “parallelogram,” and easy starters: “ponytail,” “giraffe.”
Homophones and certain suffixes (“ous” and “ion”) are always frustrating, and stage fright doesn’t help. “The competition is intense,” says Kiwanis member Chandra Burgher, the event’s organizer. “You listen to them, letter by letter, and you hold your breath.”
During the second half of the bee, the braver contestants can request wild-card options — words not listed on the provided list — for extra points. Then, teams tied for first, second, or third partake in a sudden-death round. “You can cut the tension with a knife,” says Burgher.
Clear Creek has been practicing twice a week from 3-4:30 pm, using whiteboards and Excel spreadsheets to document their progress. When they brought home the first-place plaque last February, the whole school rallied. Students and teachers showed their support by writing “big words” on posters during a hallway parade, says English. She doesn’t expect this year to break the winning spell.
The Kiwanis Club of Hendersonville hosts 14 schools for this year’s Kiwanis Spelling Bee, happening Saturday, February 18, 9am-12:30pm in Bo Thomas Auditorium at Blue Ridge Community College (180 West Campus Drive, Flat Rock). Free. For more information, call 828-694-1700.