ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
What does it take to be a top speller in school spelling bees?
“In my opinion, it takes a person who can think on their feet and under pressure,” said John Fast, principal of Goessel Elementary School.
That theory will be put to the test at the Marion County Spelling Bee to be held 10 a.m., Wednesday, Feb. 13, at Goessel Junior/Senior High school.
Although strong academic students do well at spelling bees, they are not always the finalists, Fast said.
It takes someone who works well under pressure and doesn’t get rattled.
“They’re up there in front, it’s their turn to spell a word, and they’ve got 100 to 200 people out there watching,” Fast said. “And if you start to pronounce the wrong letter, you can’t go back and retract the letter if you misspell it.”
Marion County students in fourth through eighth grades will participate in the spelling bee.
“It’s every elementary school and middle school here in Marion County,” Fast said. “We have one school that’s not sending any contestants, so I think there will be 11 schools that will be sending contestants. That 11 also includes the Home School Association.”
In past years, the spelling bee was hosted by Marion Elementary School.
“Last year, the administrators got together, and we agreed it would probably be good to rotate the duties,” Fast said.
“There is quite a bit of work involved in the preparation of this.”
The principals decided Goessel will host it this year, and the following year it will go to Hillsboro. Twenty-four students are expected to compete at the bee, and coaches, parents, teachers and friends are encouraged to attend.
Goessel students participating in the meet earned their way to the top position by a process of elimination.
“Each classroom had their own spelling bee,” Fast said. “Then within the school, we had our own spelling bee from those grade levels which were your strongest spellers. That’s how we came up with our final contestants.”
The selection process varies from school to school-some schools will ask the teachers to select the contestant finalists-but the Goessel method is typical, Fast said.
“From Goessel, there will be two students from grades four through six, and two from grades seven and eight.”
The top spellers in the elementary grades were Chris Johnston, sixth grade and Kendall Voth, fifth grade. Isaac Fast, fourth grade, was chosen as their alternate.
In the middle school, seventh graders Garrett Hiebert and Brittany Dirksen will spell off, and Tanner Dickerson, seventh grade, will be the alternate.
At Goessel, preparation and study for the county spelling bee is left up to the students.
“For some students, we will give lists they can practice from previous years,” Fast said.
“The Topeka Capitol Journal, which is the sponsor of the state-wide meet, publishes a practice list every year, and we typically will duplicate that and pass that on to students to use to practice if they want to.”
The list is comprehensive for the five grade levels so a fourth-grade student is studying the same words as an eighth grader.
On last year’s list alone, there were more than 1,000 words, and Fast said they were “tough words.”
“But we don’t force them to practice beyond what they would like to do,” he said.
Chris said he has been practicing by going through the dictionary at home.
“My brother reads the words, and if I can’t spell it, I’ll ask him the definition, and I’ll spell it,” he said.
Although the Topeka paper offers a list of suggested words, those words will not necessarily be the ones used at the spelling bee.
“The three judges, the pronouncer and myself have gone to the last six or seven lists of practice words from the previous years,” Fast said.
“And we can select from any of those lists of words. So we have selected words from all across these lists to try to scramble some things up here.”
The judges try to start with easier words and gradually move on up to the harder words during the event, Fast said.
The pronouncer will be Elaine Schroeder, a retired GHS English teacher. She will be working with three judges who have taught in the Goessel school system and are also retired: Jane Hiebert, Bonnie Heinrichs and Leann Toews.
“They have worked with language arts, worked in theater and worked with children, and they’re patient,” Fast said.
The rules are studied by the pronouncer and judges (See sidebar).
“Our pronouncer has been going through the list and making sure she can say each word distinctly,” Fast said.
Prior to the day of the event, Fast’s staff chose a definition and sentence for each word in the competition.
On the day of the bee, each group of contestants will have a coach responsible for transporting them to and from the contest.
“Those are the adult sponsors who bring the contestants,” Fast said. “It might be a class teacher, a counselor or a principal.”
The students will go to a waiting room where cookies and Kool-Aid are provided to help them relax.
“During that time, we draw numbers,” Fast said. “Each child draws a number for the order, and I line them up in that order.”
They will sit in chairs on the stage in front of the audience, and the rules will be read aloud.
Fast said he will encourage each student to take advantage of the following avenues of recourse when there is any confusion about a word presented to them:
Step 1: They can ask the pronouncer to “Say it again, please”;
Step 2: They can ask the pronouncer to use the word in a sentence;
Step 3: They can ask the pronouncer to give a definition of the word.
“So there are three steps they can take, if they didn’t quite hear, to make sure they are spelling the correct word,” Fast said.
One practice round will be offered for each student to ease them into the actual contest.
The proceedings will be recorded in the event a judge questions what the student said or a coach protests a ruling. Parents are not allowed to protest-that is the responsibility of the coaches.
Fast said he will allow pictures to be taken during the practice round, but will discourage any other photography until the end of the event.
The contest typically goes quickly, Fast said.
“Usually within 15 to 20 minutes, it’s over,” he said. “Sometimes, it will go much longer if you have students who are very good in spelling, but in the last couple of years, it rarely went to half an hour.”
At the end of the bee, three awards are given, and each student receives a plaque. But only the first-place contestant goes on to the state spelling bee. That contestant also has an alternate who is the second-place winner.
Last year, Goessel student Jacob Unruh won the Marion County competition and went on to state.
The state spelling bee finals, in its 49th year, are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., Saturday, April 6, in Topeka.
Among the prizes at the state contest are reference books, an engraved souvenir pen and a spelling-proficiency certificate.
The state finalist also receives an expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to compete in the National Spelling Bee.
And why is a spelling bee important in this day and age of computers that have a check-spelling option?
“Being able to spell words is an essential part of our communication,” Fast said.
“It sometimes seems that people who are also able to spell also have a broader vocabulary, they’re better able to express themselves and have more words available to them to speak with.”