Tag Archives: Florida

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”.




Venison Stew

14 Jul

Over the last few weeks we’ve been seeing a lot of deer in our backyard. The delicates fawns remind me of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s classic tale– The Yearling. My fourth grade teacher, read it to us one chapter at a time and all but the most jaded fourth graders , anxiously awaited each installment of this cracker coming of age story. Our teacher was from the deep south and the color of Rawlings’s writing completely captivated her. She also read us a rather dubious story about a little “colored boy” named Skip, who is depressed about moving up north but gets to eat at automat and after taking a piece of cherry pie from its plastic cubbyhole, decides that the north is really cool after all.
I don’t remember all of the plot of The Yearling but it went something like: Boy meets deer. Boy loses half-wit friend. Bear almost gets Dad. And boy loses deer.
I remember crying when the boy, Jody Baxter learned that his brain-damaged friend, Fodder-wing, died from the fever. Fodder-wing got his name from jumping off a roof while flapping his fodder-laden arms eventually landing on his noggin.
Fodder-wing came from one of those families that had more hounds living under the front porch than are in most foxhunts We had neighbors just like them so I could easily relate to this part of the story. Our neighbor ran a beauty salon and her children enjoyed throwing aerosol hairspray cans into a blazing trash barrel for the explosive reaction. Hey also played in the piles of discarded hair, much to everyone’s revulsion. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they glued hair to their arms and jumped off the garage.
In The Yearling Jody’s mother, Ora (Ma Baxter), was depressed, traumatized, and irritable, woman, having suffered the loss of several babies. I wondered if our teacher , no beam of sunshine herself, identified with the melancholic Ora. Jody’s long suffering father, Penny, was essentially worthless at home, although he fared better out in the scrub, tracking Ole Slewfoot– the killer bear.
The story’s dramatic conflict centers around an orphaned fawn that follows Jody home one day. He names it Flag, teaches it to fetch, roll over, and bring Penny his corncob pipe and slippers. The crabby Ma Baxter was not impressed. SoonFlag gets too big for his pen and after Penny is injured going a couple rounds with Slewfoot, the household just can’t afford to mess around with exotic pets. Too domesticated to return to the wild, the voracious Flag keeps threating the family’s subsistence garden, driving Ma Baxter to want plug the pest in the porterhouse. It’s a Florida coming of age story, so Jody is suppose to grow up and put a bullet between the trusting deer’s antlers. Jody runs away but eventually returns when the Johnny cakes run out and is reconciled with his family.
We all cried our eyes. The story aptly demonstrated something we were all becoming acutely aware of– growing up pretty much stinks. I always hoped that Jody, at least, didn’t have to eat the stew.
Rawlings, who shared the same editor as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, wrote another Florida best-seller– Cross Creek. In doing so she managed to infuriate most of her neighbors and ignite one of the longest and most vicious libel trials in Florida history. But that’s another story.

The Great Canoe Death Race

15 Apr

I had worked with Allen for about three years when he invited my wife, Diane, and me on a canoe trip. Allen had just become engaged to an icy divorce and fellow canoe enthusiast named Thorne. He thought a canoe trip down Ichnetucknee Spings was a good way for us all to get acquainted. Like most of our encounters with other couples, Diane and I were immediately overwhelmed. Somehow we always end up in a game of bridge with Charles and Omar, Monopoly with Donald and Marla , or name that tune with Steve and Edie. No matter what we try, it mutates into a fierce competition in which we get totally demolished. In retrospect going on a canoe trip with two self-proclaimed experts was obviously self-destructive, but our desperation to make friends overpowered our reason.
While we admire the notion of canoeing, in truth the last canoe we paddled was a bright orange inflatable pool toy five years ago. We planned to leave the landing at 8:00 A.M., have lunch along the way, and finish up in early afternoon. We were immediately struck by the pristine beauty of the run, but by the time we could turn around, Allen and Thorne effortlessly slide into the first canoe and shot off like a cannon across the water. Like sheep to the slaughter we followed, Diane in the bow and me in the stern. But before we could get our paddles in the water, Allen and Thorne out of sight. We paddled furiously to catch up. Lacking any coordination in our effort and not knowing a ”J” stroke from a heat stroke, I over-paddled on the right while Diane paddled ineffectually on the left, beginning the first of many unintentional humiliating circles
Being someone who values competence, Diane was completely frustrated by our lack of control. And since it seemed to her that the problem was emanating from the stern, she communicated as much. In return I politely suggested that perhaps she needed to speed up her paddling using maybe a pry or draw stroke. She courteously replied that it was a miracle that we moving at all with my paddle at that angle and my thumb in that position. Instinctively she knew that the sternman was responsible for steering the damn canoe and she was not about to let me forget it.
Before our deliberations escalated we caught up with, Allen and Thorne, who were waiting for us where the run widened slightly. They were doing the canoer’s equivalent of pacing back and forth. They just glared at us as if we were dim-witted children spoiling their fun. “Come on you slowpokes”, Thorne forced herself to say in a mockingly cheerful fashion, never knowing how close she came to getting a prefrontal lobotomy performed by the blade of Diane’s paddle.
Unbelievably they rocketed off again, leaving us in their wake. As we did our feeble best to keep pace, it didn’t take long to decide that we hated Thorne and that we hated Allen too. We also hated canoeing and weren’t feel very good about each other either.
We didn’t see Allen and Thorne for several hours by which time we had learned to almost coordinate our paddling. They had finished their lunch on the run and took off again as we approached them. Their shiny canoe irritatingly knifed through the water like a silent torpedo. It was a cruel playground game of keep away and we were the monkeys in the middle. The innocent canoe trip had insidiously degenerated into a life and death struggle for supremacy. The “Long March”, “The Trail of Tears”, and “The Battan Death March”, now was joined by the “Great Canoe Death Race”, another venue in which Diane and I would get clobbered.
In hot pursuit, we came to a shallow section of the run where our canoe kept bottoming out. Desperate to catch up, Diane suggested that since it was my bottom which was causing the problem, I should pull the canoe through the channel. As I surveyed the swampy shoreline, images of toothy snakes filled my mind. But there was little choice since we weren’t moving at all and we could hear tubers behind us threatening to pass. I very cautiously threw one leg over the gunwale, slipped, and violently plunged into the icy water.
After my heart resumed beating, I rationalized that getting dunked wasn’t so terrible on such a hot day. But suddenly I heard screaming from the tubers behind us, something about a snake in the water. Just then Diane pointed to an object swimming rapidly towards me. I just knew it was an enormous water moccasin about to attack. The snake appeared to be holding its head above the water and seemed to have long white whiskers. It was actually an extremely large river otter. Mr. Otter ignored me and swam right by, a few feet away which was fine with me considering his numerous needle like teeth.
The experience along with glacial water evoked a sudden rush of emotions. Swimming freely in the cool pristine spring water near the beautiful wild otter induced a mystical sense of communion with nature. But it was also like finding a large rat in your bathtub. This rat feeling prevailed and I scrambled out of the water as fast as I could. Diane beached the canoe and we abandoned the chase to watch the otter swim upstream.
After the otter encounter we finished the run less embittered and found Allen and Thorne waiting for us with a smug look. Relieved that the ordeal was over, we didn’t speak to each other or Allen and Thorne on the way back to our car, which was just as well, since we probably would have said things we would later regret.
Later that night Diane and I received a lovely parting memento when we broke out in large red splotches. We learned the hard way, why you should be cautious about swimming in any body of water whose name starts with the letters “I-C-H”.