Friday, July 23, 2010

Buzz buzz

Oh hey, what's up? Long time, no see. Excuses abound – the last few weeks have been highly interesting and can be summed up with the phrase, “embracing uncertainty.”

First I received a layoff notice due to potential massive library budget cuts. Thankfully much of the budget was restored by the Mayor and City Council, so it has since been rescinded. Next I was temporarily transferred to a busy new library where I am planning Summer Reading Club on the fly. Mostly though, I’m just really enjoying my summer so the last thing I want to do after work is sit in front of a computer.

So back to the new library! I'm having such fun getting to know the community in this lively and highly used children's room. This library is the only one in Queens where the circulation of children's materials is significantly higher than adult materials, by a 3 to 1 margin. It is constantly crowded with families that visit the library for hours at a stretch and are eager to attend programs. A bonus is that the neighborhood is predominantly Latino so I often get to practice my newly acquired Spanish skills (thank you NYU continuing ed!)

I only learned at the end of June that I would be staying there for the month of July, which required planning and leading programs like, immediately. I've taken the approach of reaching into my programming bag of tricks which, believe it or not, includes hosting a Spelling Bee.

I've had great success with Spelling Bees in the past. They meet my general qualifications of accommodating a wide variety of ages, being highly adaptable depending upon the participants and requiring no to minimal budget. In the past I've usually had anywhere from twenty to forty school age children attend; last week, for my summer Spelling Bee over eighty kids showed up!

These are some helpful practices I’ve learned along the way:

1) Select words in advance.

I print off grade specific word lists for kindergarten through sixth grade (often from the website, along with lists of challenge words. I highlight the words I want to use then have volunteers write them on small slips of paper to be placed into containers labeled, “Kindergarten”, “1st grade”, and so on. When it’s their turn, children choose from their corresponding grade level, making the experience a bit more dramatic and clearly without favoritism.

2) Make it as "official" as possible.

I always set up a microphone to make it more formal as well as ensure the audience can hear the speller. I instruct the participants in the official spelling bee behavior of first saying the word to confirm they heard it correctly, spelling the word, then repeating the word one more time to signal their answer is final. I emphasize that the audience is not allowed to give clues or assistance and must remain silent until I announce whether the answer is correct or incorrect. And of course, no matter what the outcome, the audience claps for each participant.

3) Consider your community.

Most children love competition. It could be your neighborhood kids would prefer a cutthroat spelling bee with a clear winner. My approach with many new speakers of English is to focus on the experience, emphasizing trying your best in a fun, supportive learning environment. In my most recent bee I let kids choose any grade level of word they preferred; many chose the “Super Challenge” words, while some selected easier grade levels. In a different library where I offered regular Spelling Bees, children started spelling at their grade and with every round they passed moved up a level. Clearly there are many ways to organize this and it’s quite easy to play it by ear.

With so many children at the program last week, I gave everyone who came up to spell a sticker to put on their shirt so I could easily tell who already had a turn. If the word was spelled correctly, two stickers were given. I had envisioned that perhaps at the end I would be able to reward those who participated most or spelled the most words correctly based upon this visual system, but after an hour and fifteen minutes there was only enough time for everyone to spell one word. I did have everyone with two stickers come up to the front for special recognition and another round of applause.

Some related materials to display are:

How to Spell like a Champ by Barrie Trinkle, Carolyn Andrews and Paige Kimble
Workman Publishing Group (2006)
ISBN: 9780761143697

Scholastic Dictionary of Spelling by Marvin Terban
Scholastic Reference (2006)
ISBN: 9780439764216

Pinky and Rex and the Spelling Bee by James Howe
Various editions, first published 1991

I Put A Spell on You by Adam Selzer
Delacorte Books for Young Readers (2008)
ISBN: 9780385735049

Spelldown by Karon Luddy
Aladdin (2008)
ISBN: 9781416916109

You can also recommended one of my favorite movies of all time, Spellbound. It's an amazing documentary that tracks eight finalists on their journey to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

Happy spelling!


  1. Sarah-

    Sure sounds like the kids had F-U-N at their bee. Nice to read your blog again!