Tag Archives: Education

Spelling 2013: From A to Zed

10 Jul



Many students have sought fame and glory  in the world of competitive spelling.  I, however,  hold the distinction of misspelling the word “curriculum”  six times in my application for a doctoral program in Curriculum and Instruction.  Kindly  Dr. Clark  said with a remarkably straight face  told me that it would probably be a good idea if I learned how to spell the word, if I intended to get a doctoral degree in it. Thus was the world before spell checkers.

Thanks to comic books I was a pretty good reader, but I seemed to have a touch of dysgraphia,  as my handwriting and my spelling always left much to be desired. Oh,  I could learned to spell hard words in areas that interested me,   like “Mr. Mxyzptlk”  (Superman’s impish adversary from the 5th dimension),  but I’ve always had a devil of time remembering  even common words that have complex vowel combinations or doubled constants.

Spelling always made me  kind of anxious, so I was surprised  when my wife Diane and I found ourselves attending the 20th Annual Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee. It was held last Saturday morning at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The contest, which is sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, took place in the swanky PNC Club, a luxury stadium suite with a glassed-in view of the playing field.

We were there because our oldest granddaughter Tori was one of the sixty-five contestants participating this year. This was Tori’s second appearance at the event. She represented Kenton County and had won the county championship by beating out a number of other school champions, including her younger sister.  The Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is sometimes referred to as the Kentucky State Spelling Championship, but it includes students from Indiana as well. In fact, the second place finisher this year was a girl from Lawrence County, Indiana.

The rote learning of spelling is an old tradition in American elementary schools and the spelling bee competition  has evolved into a popular  nation  institution.  Nonstandard spelling is routinely taken as indicating a lack of intelligence, illiteracy,  or lower socioeconomic status.  Hoosier U.S. Vice-president Dan Quayle’s misspelling of potato at a 1992 spelling bee  in Trenton, New Jersey, was widely taken as a  strong verification of  his  alleged  lack of intellectual chops.

Of course, many folks (mostly poor spellers)  take an opposite view,  such as President Andrew Jackson,  who once said,  “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.”

Back in 1978 spelling reform advocate Abraham Citron,  from  Wayne State University,   vehemently  attacked  our   system of spelling,   as well as tradition educational methods  saying    “At the portals of education we have laid, not a highway, but a labyrinth.” He described spelling as “difficult, irrational, deceptive, inconsistent, clumsy, frustrating and wasteful”.  He called it   “one of the basic sources of academic discouragement and failure”.

Godfrey Dewey, a Chairman of the national Phonemic Spelling Council, found that Americans use 561 different spellings for  the 41 separate  sounds that make up our spoken language.   The 26 letters of our alphabet are pronounced in 92 different  ways. English spelling rules are so irregular,  rote memory is the educational strategy of choice.  If mathematics was organized in  the same  haphazard manner,  our society would have  screeched to a halt long ago.

Citron who  founded  Better Education thru Simplified Spelling  argued for   creating a more rational  spelling . While major spelling reforms did not ocuurr,  many school systems banished spelling textbooks  and deemphasized the spelling curriculum for many years.  Last year, however,  Boston Globe writer Linda Matchan  reported that spelling is  making a dramatic comeback nationally,  with an  increased interest in  spelling clubs, as well as the reissue  of spelling books and the reestablishment of weekly spelling tests in many  schools.    Matchan  also notes the  growing popularity of  spelling bees with fabulous prizes,  like the legendary  Scripps National Spelling Bee,  which  is now broadcasted  live  on ESPN.

When it comes to prizes,  the Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is no   piker, with a first prize  that includes a $10,000  savings bond The top five places not only receive cash,  but a number of other awards  as well. Emily Keaton  an  8th grader from Pikesville Kentucky, who has won  this year’s Kentucky Derby Bee, making it four years in a row, walked away with a total of over $43,000.

Spelling bees  have  been featured in popular  movies such as “Akeelah and the Bee” and  “Spellbound”  as well as  the 2006 Broadway musical,  “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”.  As spelling has become especially  “hot”,  Florida reading and spelling consultant  Richard Gentry  says,  “Researchers want to understand how we learn it, teachers want to know how best to teach it, and kids want to know how to   win competitions.” Spelling success also meets a need for an indicator of intellectual rigor that many parents find appealing. Spelling, along with activities such as academic teams and chess clubs,   increasingly offer an alternative for  children who aren’t  athletically  inclined  but still want to compete.

Educational psychologists have found that “deliberate practice”, which consists of  memorizing words while alone,  which is the  most difficult   and least enjoyable type of spelling preparation,  seems to lead to the  most success in competition.  Also related  to winning  is a little known (non-cognitive) personality factor that psychologists call “grit” . It mostly consists of passion and commitment to the task at hand. 

Brian Palmer, a writer for the online magazine Slate, investigated what happened to  National Spelling bee winners later in life. He found that many of them entered careers related to understanding the human mind.  Many became   psychiatrists, psychologists,  and neurosurgeons.  Others went on to work with words as writers and journalists.  One was even a Pulitzer  Prize winner. A few continued to participate  in competitions in other areas,  such  as television games shows like Jeopardy or  the international poker circuit.

Our granddaughter Tori, survived the brutal second round and finished  up in 7th place with another year to compete.  Emily Keaton is on to future successes and all eyes are now on her younger brother, to see if he has his sister’s spelling magic.

There are also spelling bees for people over the age of 50.  One of these is the AARP National Spelling Bee that  was established  in 1996 by   AARP members in Cheyenne, WY.  Their goal was  to create   a fun way to compete with each other,  while   keeping their minds sharp. This spelling bee is held annually in Cheyenne and you can find details on how to enter at the AARP.org website. You  can even win $1000 if you take first place, but you will have to beat 67 year-old attorney  Michael Petrina Jr., who has won twice—last time  spelling the word “Rhizoctonia.”  I’d consider  entering myself,   but I’d probably  get the word “curriculum”.




Delta Tales: We Don’t Grow Polester

1 Sep

“And it pays a hundred dollars a day.”   “Say what?”  Back then that  was more money than I could imagine.   Randy, the psychologist I worked for, was moving to Atlanta  and bequeathed me a plum consulting job at  a private school for handicapped children.. “All you got to do is go there once a month,  test a kid or two , have lunch, and  talk to the teachers. And it’s a remarkable place.  Mrs. Johnson, who runs it is a miracle worker.”

            Early Saturday I carefully started out for Johnson City. I had only been in the deep south a few months, but had learned that road hazards ranged from the sudden appearance of  highboys full of cotton to raw-boned state troopers who were unsympathetic to red sports cars with  “Land of Lincoln” license plates.

            By nine o’clock I came upon the  large white  ranch house with an oak and a rusty swing set in the front yard.  Mrs. Johnson met me at the door. Her appearance was overshadowed by her enthusiasm and sense of  urgency. She was a personable  woman in her early forties, but she was obviously a woman with a mission. I remembered Randy saying that the Johnson’s  started the school after having a disabled child who died at an early age.

            The spacious living room had only a couch and chair and was dominated by a   white brick fireplace and  a sailfish mounted on the wall. Mrs. Johnson asked me to sit and launched into a description of the school. They had 10 children, four teachers  and few part-time aides.   The teachers were all young women  who lived at the school. Usually one of them was off attending the university  as part  of a home made work-study program, the Johnsons sponsored. The  house was larger than it appeared with separate  living quarters for the family, children, teachers, and even the farm help. Behind the house was a long narrow building with a  tin roof that served as the Chicken Coop School.

            Through the front window I could see a boy of about 10 years riding a bicycle with a tether attached to the handle bars. He could only ride in a wide circle. Mrs. Johnson told me that  was Donny. He was an appealing child with shiny black hair and steel gray eyes. Donny also was autistic  and spent most of his life isolated in a private world  with only the most slender  connection to our reality. The tether was devised to prevent him from running his bike into the trees. Donny couldn’t use language and Mrs. Johnson eyes virtually glowed when she talked about teaching him to communicate.

            At lunch time, Mr. Johnson arrived looking like he just hopped off a tractor, which he had. He looked more grizzly bear than human and he shook my hand vigorously. The children flocked around him and he herded them all into the kitchen.  We all sat around  a huge wooden  table. Each child was seated between two adults. I saw  Mrs. Johnson expertly  redirect Donny when he started slapping at the place setting. I was feeling out of place–  not sure how I was suppose behave. A petite black woman appeared from nowhere and   poured sweet  tea into big plastic tumblers. I immediately knocked  mine over, soaking the  tablecloth. Mr. Johnson and the children laughed out loud, while the teachers  politely grinned. The farm hands ignored it and continued  dishing out the cornbread stuffing. Mrs. Johnson explained  to the children how that everyone makes mistakes, even one hundred dollar a day consultants.

            As I ate the chicken  and fresh figs, I heard Mrs. Johnson telling her husband  that the children needed new clothes. He agreed but insisted that she buy  100 % cotton underwear, because as he put it, “Honey, remember we don’t grow polyester.”

             After lunch we reviewed the case of a very disturbed five year old girl.    The week after she arrived  Mrs. Johnson carried her to a church service. The girl started screaming racial epithets disrupting  the sermon. Mrs. Johnson  stared down the  parishioners. gently held the girl on  her lap. and gestured  to the traumatized preacher to continue. The girl finally fell asleep as the sweating preacher quickly finished his sermon. The screaming eventually extinguished, but the First Baptist Church was never quite the same.

              Mrs. Johnson told me  more about Donny. He had shown little progress since he came to the school a year ago.  His parents had abandoned him and the school was the was the end of the line after a series of foster homes. Mrs. Johnson said she had decided to take Donny  down to the state university, where they would both live in a trailer  in the parking lot for three months, while she took him to specialists in speech and language twice a day.   She planned to  work with him individually the rest of the time. 

            When it was time to leave, Mrs. Johnson pressed a check in my hand and saw me off. I drove straight for  a town where my Lebanese friend, Saleem  lived. Once  I got there there I ate kibbi and promptly lost the entire hundred in an all night Boo Ray game.

            A few months later I  left for a job in another state. I never found out if   Donny learned to speak, but if not, it wasn’t for lack of effort. They didn’t  grow polyester  down there,  they grew hope.