Beyond Spelling Bees

Posted on Posted in 2011

I am sure you have read the prior posts by Josephine and Kavya where they wrote about how Spelling Bee competitions have helped them develop long lasting friendships. Keep in mind that they competed at the Scripps Spelling Bee for four years together. It is not just Josephine and Kavya, but in my brief experience of witnessing spelling bees, I have seen similar qualities in many other spellers as well. During the 2009 Scripps Spelling Bee Finals, it felt like ESPN wanted to start a rivalry between Kavya and other participants in an effort to create media hype. In one of the live interviews on ESPN while responding to a question from Erin Andrews, Kavya said, without hesitation, that she is “competing only against the dictionary. All of the participants at the bee are friendly and that all of the competitors cheer for each other.” Following that live interview, another TV commentator changed the tone and compared Spelling Bees with golfers who play the course and not the person that they are competing with!!

Having been tagged as Kavya’s “coach”, I saw it as my responsibility to make sure that she inculcated the essential life skills that would help her beyond the spelling bee domain. Coaching spelling, in my case, was not just limited to quizzing words; I was a lot more involved than that. In essence, implanting such life skills was also an intricate part of my coaching responsibilities.

Ever since Kavya participated in her first spelling bee, which was organized by North South Foundation (NSF –, a non-profit organization that holds educational contests across the country, our family has become a small part of the voluntary organization. Besides, holding academic contests, NSF has also provided a platform for us parents to be able to foster the art of “giving” to the kids. While I render my voluntary services whenever possible, by conducting workshops and assisting in coordinating the contests for the local chapter, Kavya too, regularly makes small contributions to the organization, whose mission is to support outstanding, but economically challenged students.

The year Kavya won the Scripps Spelling Bee, she contemplated different ideas on how to make a slightly bigger contribution than usual. A regional champion who qualifies to participate at the Scripps National Spelling Bee receives a hard copy and a soft copy of the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. As Kavya had qualified four times to participate at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she amassed four sets of the dictionary. Due to having a copy prior to these wins, all of these four sets were intact and remained in the box unopened. One of the ideas that crossed our minds was to auction the extra copies of dictionary and the software, and then use the money to contribute towards NSF scholarships. With that in mind, we reached out to the NSF Finals team in 2009 and suggested the idea of auctioning the dictionary copies at the National Finals in Maryland. This idea was well received and Kavya was thrilled.

At the 2009 NSF national finals, the auction was added to the agenda. Since Kavya had just won the Scripps championship, a number of parents and kids alike were keen to talk to her about her experience. The organizers decided to have a Q&A session prior to the auction to allow us to talk about Kavya’s Scripps National Spelling Bee experience. A large audience was in attendance, and the auditorium was packed. Kavya and I spoke about spelling and enthusiastically shared our experiences. NSF families in the audience displayed a great interest in what we had to say, and the two of us had a wonderful time answering everyone’s questions. Towards the end of the Q&A session, we had the opportunity to auction off the dictionaries. After learning that the money would be going towards a good cause, everyone was very generous while bidding for the dictionaries, and Kavya raised more money than she had estimated.

NSF also organizes spelling bee workshops across the country. This weekend I will be flying out to Detroit to conduct a spelling bee workshop organized by NSF. A nominal fee is charged by the organization for attending the workshop. This is one way the organization is able to generate funds to support the scholarly kids.

The other objective of the workshop is to encourage and prepare children to take part in NSF contests and other spelling competitions as well. The workshop typically includes a review of the contest rules, tips to prepare, a review of basic rules, fun exercises, a mock bee, and more. This is a parent-child event and is designed in such a way that both the child and the parent have takeaways from the workshop. The workshop material was originally put together by an English teacher from Massachusetts, and includes excellent information for anyone who wants to understand what spelling bees are about and just spelling in general. When I conduct these workshops, I do include some additional material of my own. This is not the first time that I will be conducting a workshop. Last year, I conducted a workshop in Kansas City and another one in Tampa. I have also conducted workshops in other places like Chicago and Dallas.

I am particularly excited about this workshop because I am told that the registration count is close to 100. With a bigger audience, the workshops tend to be more interactive. In a more interactive environment, I get to go much deeper into the material. Although I am not an educator by any means, I conduct these workshops based on my own experiences of coaching Kavya and a few other kids. These workshops are tailored to last 3 hours with a short break in the middle. The one challenging aspect of the workshop is keeping everyone interested for the duration of the event. The registrants typically range from kindergarteners to eighth graders, and it gets tough at times to keep all the age levels involved at the same time.

Even at these workshops, I try to emphasize that kids need to develop a healthy competitive spirit, and that they should not consider the person sitting next to them at a spelling bee as a rival. I try to advocate that it is the DICTIONARY that they are competing against!!

Mirle Shivashankar

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