I thought this article was so good that I’m posting it as this week’s Weekly Mentor!
And, here’s an additional article, by my wife Rachel:
For the Love of Words (and kids)
The Scripps National Spelling Bee is coming up next week. Have you ever taken part in a spelling bee? They can be gut-wrenching, soul-stealing, cut-throat bloodbaths. Or, they can be confidence-building, community-strengthening, education-inspiring family-fun celebrations!
How to Run a Community Spelling Bee
One of my favorite books for family reading is Gene Stratton-Porter’s Laddie. A classic scene from this novel is the community spelling bee, where people of all ages participate, and two beloved community members are the last ones standing. In Little Town on the Prairie, the Ingalls family likewise participates in a community spelling bee – and each time we have read these books with our kids, they get excited about spelling!
Several times over the years we’ve hosted a Community Spelling Bee, and it’s really fun! I like to set it up so that everyone is rooting for each other, and spelling is seen as a life-long pursuit of excellence, and not a win-lose proposition, where some have got the goods, and the rest pretty much stink. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could have a spelling bee where everyone figured out that spelling is fun, and they can have a great relationship with words, vocabulary and interesting expressions that lasts and continues to grow over a lifetime?
To achieve this in the context of a live spelling event, I use a Graduated Spelling List (meaning that it has levels of difficulty that are organized and labeled – it’s linked below). I modified and adapted this from a list I found this online YEARS ago, and regrettably don’t know whom to credit for it.
The trick to it all is the way the Spelling Bee is conducted.
We put out flyers to invite the community, used email lists and so on to get the word out. It’s helpful to upload the Graduated Spelling List to a server that you can link to (you can just copy the link below if you want) so people can download it on demand. Everyone who wants to should have access to the List in advance, so they can study and know what’s going to be covered, if they choose. It’s also available on the day of the event, so late-comers can cram as they prepare for their turn.
Then, before everyone arrives, have chairs set up auditorium-style in a large room in a library, church, school or other community center. It should be comfortable for families, with places to sit or stand around the walls informally, if possible. We liked to have an adjacent rooms with lot of crafts and dress-ups for little ones (with volunteers to supervise) so they don’t disrupt or get frustrated with the waiting. We kept the main room set up so that people could come and go freely without it being “rude”, while allowing the focus to remain on those who were spelling.
We sometimes charged a dollar per person just to cover hard costs of the event, but a small sponsorship from a business could easily take care of the expenses.
Upon entering, the participants would encounter a person at a table (or several people, if you expect a large turnout, and preferably with pretty penmanship) who has/have a bunch of certificates in a stack, ready to go. They receive the dollar in a money box and write the registrant’s name on the appropriate line of the Certificate of Merit. (see below for a sample). The registrants are provided with a List upon request, if they don’t have one already. Another List is posted on the wall where people can see it at a glance.
Ready, Set, Spell!
When the spelling bee starts, the participants have self-selected (or had help from a parent or teacher to select) for a “level” where they will enter the competition. This should be a level that they can confidently complete the words, so they have several successful turns before they are seriously challenged. The Bee starts with the Sunshine Level, which is the very most basic, and the Prompter (the one who calls out the words to be spelled) is tasked with helping the spellers, especially in very early rounds, be successful. For really tentative or nervous spellers, the Prompter is careful to select the words most likely to be spelled successfully.
Once all the Sunshine Level kids have had a chance to spell twice (reusing words from the list as needed for this), the spellers are congratulated ceremoniously for their success in spelling the Sunshine Level words, and a formal announcement is made that we will now proceed to the Red Level; all spellers wanting to join for the Red Level should now present themselves before the Prompter. The Sunshine Level spellers remain, and new spellers join them.
Same suggestions for Red Level, and as spellers (most likely the youngest ones) miss for a second time (you’ll need someone tracking this), they are congratulated for their participation, the Certificate of Merit is completed in lovely penmanship with the Level of Success they achieved (if they fell out during the Red, their Level of Success is Sunshine), and they are given a gift certificate for a treat somewhere in town. We had great success getting Dairy Queen to give us medallions for Dilly Bars; but you can usually find a grocery store willing to do a free donut, or something like that. Get creative and get sponsors! You can have special prizes for the last one in any particular level, if you want.
As each speller misspells a second time, there is great ceremony and celebration to cheer them off the stage to receive their certificate and gift. They’re excited to get their kisses, pats-on-the-back, Certificate and gift coupon, so it doesn’t feel like a fail at all!
This process continues through the Levels, and the Prompter (who may capriciously give spellers a hint from time to time, or mis-hear them, asking them to spell it again – if the situation warrants it) is tasked with being a great master of ceremonies, keeping the mood light and not-too-serious. We never saw tears or anger, as we never allowed it to be that intense. With the Prompter being most focused on everyone’s celebratory attitude, and not at all on “who’s winning”, the crowd is really quite willing to make allowances when she’s optional and helpful. Nobody wants someone to be sat down for a knuckehead mistake that they wouldn’t normally make, so they’re glad the Prompter helps breeze past such and keep able spellers up as long as possible (within reason).
It may be good to have a color-coded sign posted with the current level, so people can poke their head in and at a glance know when they should be getting ready for their turn.
Last One Standing
As the Levels progress and the really serious and well-prepared spellers are all that are left, the Prompter is not so whimsical. At some point you’re down to two or three who seem to be able to spell anything, and you need the REALLY big dictionary to keep them going. One year we went on and on and on until one of our two super-dad spellers failed on purpose so we could go home. It was a riot!
Because it is a constant flow in and out, nobody is conspicuously “losing”, and in the end, the last one standing is a winner that everyone is mesmerized by!
I’d love to hear thoughts on your successful spelling events, or comments on our suggestions here. Enjoy!
He is the NY Times Bestselling co-author of LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through Leadership Education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.