School ended Friday on a particular high note for me: our first annual spelling bee. The event had all the trappings of your typical elementary school winter performance ---nervous students, harried teachers, and parents with camcorders--- except that instead of being an ill-concealed celebration of Euro-Christian cultural bias it highlighted our school’s true raison d’etre: academics. Parents, teachers, and students, all came together to value and celebrate the learning of words.
What made me happiest is that we did it so well. (I should also add that I only helped push for and plan it, The Man himself made all the elements of quality happen.) Too many of our efforts, including many of my own, are undertaken with insufficient time or resources. I don’t blame us, there’re so many areas desperately in need and the handful of committed staff members must spread ourselves very thin. But, somehow, the spelling bee got all the time and energy it needed and it showed.
We started the process on Halloween, when we reclaimed another holiday by trading class parties for a showing of the movie “Akeelah and the Bee.” In this inspiring family film, produced (oddly) by Starbucks, Akeelah Anderson goes from South-Central LA middle school of intellectual doom to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The movie simultaneously let our students see that children of color can be involved in academics and still be cool and taught them how a spelling bee works. As they walked out, we handed them a page of words that would be in the first round of spelling bee. Even if only ten kids in each class really cared, a critical mass of kids started studying. For a little while, I got to see kids studying spelling words during recess, without anyone else batting an eye. A few Fridays ago we had a practice round and then a semi-finals last week.
The children who sat on the stage Friday knew how to participate and took their role seriously; their sincerity brought the kids in the audience into the drama and everyone was remarkably well-behaved. Parents of the finalists turned out in force, even at 1:30 in the afternoon, a rarity in our working-class world. Our school’s parent group created a lovely banner declaring the “2006 M--- Elementary School Spelling Bee Finals” and decorated the auditorium. The principal and our school’s reading coach officiated, bell and all.
When the first student up got nervous and spelled hospital “sospital,” I started to worry that the Bee would last about five minutes. But competition quickly improved and it became clear that some students, at least, had prepared. S----, a second grader who had studied tremendously, added no small amount of drama by staying in until the final round and leading the teachers to worry that three years at our school would conspicuously be proved detrimental to students’ spelling. In the end, however, the Bee was won by a smart 4th grader, who managed to remember that there is only one L in “harmful.”
We plan to continue this excitement for academic competition with a Math Relays in January. We did this last year and it was great. Our top 30 multipliers form teams of five and compete, in front of wildly cheering students, to fill out a 100-problem test sheet. Each student does 20 problems then races back to tag the next. The fastest student team competes with the teachers. Believe it or not, it works to get them enthused about learning their facts.
There is so little in my children’s world that really proves to them the value of smarts. Their pantheon of heroes is filled with pro-wrestlers and pop stars, who are certainly not achieving fame and money through brain power. We TFA teachers constantly talk about college, about building a self-expectation that they will go to college, and that is great. But college is a very distant goal for an eight-year old, who is far closer to being in diapers than a dorm room. In elementary school, we need to build a culture of learning as cool that will build the drive to get them to college. The Bee, if it can be true to its title as “annual,” is a great first step.
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