A City Education: Inspiring Students With a Spelling Bee

Posted by Meg Malone

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In our A City Education series, two City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the achievement gap and ending the dropout crisis.

Spring is finally in the air, and that means an array of welcoming sights: sunny skies, breezy weather, flowering trees, and bees. In the case of P.S. 50 in East Harlem, New York, that means spelling bees. Last Thursday, the school auditorium was fully decked out in bee-themed letters and colors along with signs cheering on each of the 28 participants in the City Year Spelling Bee.

This was the first purely academic event hosted by City Year corps members at the school, and I was a little nervous about it. It’s easy to get students excited about brushing up on math and reading when it’s combined with games, snacks and crafts, but I was unsure about an event focused solely on demonstrating academic skills. But thanks to the hard work of my fellow corps members and support from the school staff, we managed to get the whole school buzzing about spelling.

In the weeks leading up to the spelling bee, the finalists from each grade studied words at lunch and after school with corps members. There were some really challenging words on their study list—"salvageable" or "onomatopoeia," anyone? But the excitement was infectious—even students who weren’t in the spelling bee got in on the fun. 

During each of the two bees, the students stood under the hot lights of the school stage to spell out their given word. I’d be nervous standing up on a stage and spelling challenging words as a 22-year-old, much less back in middle school, so the contestants' willingness to stand up there in front of their peers impressed me.

One student I'm particularly proud of is a 7th-grader in my small literacy group. She is one of the friendliest, cheeriest students I work with, but she sometimes lacks confidence in her work. Instead of trusting her instincts, she's quick to say that she doesn’t know something. But after practicing extensively for the spelling bee, she ended up finishing in third place. She was eliminated for misspelling the word "hieroglyphics"—a word that kept giving her trouble even though we had been practicing it during lunch.

I worried the girl would be discouraged that she was knocked out on a word she had put so much effort into learning. Yet three hours after the spelling bee, she was still wearing her medal around school. She told me she immediately realized the letter she missed, but she’s still proud of how she performed. Her new-found self-confidence touched me, and I am proud of her mature, confident reaction to her experience.

The student reminded me of the real point of the spelling bee—to combine fun and friendly competition with academic challenge. Whether through small groups like City Year Los Angeles’ March Mathness or school-wide spelling bees like the one at P.S. 50, the opportunity to get students excited about academics by approaching it in special ways is truly E-X-T-R-A-O-R-D-I-N-A-R-Y.

Photo courtesy of City Year New York