Bees and baseball

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Spelling bees are like baseball; they're national institutions that require children to wait their turn to be humiliated, writes Justine Bonner.

As a child, I participated in both. During my many seasons of playing American Little League baseball, I spent every game anxiously waiting my turn to bat - hoping I'd manage to hit the ball - then moving into the field, where I prayed that no one would hit the ball to me, so that I wouldn't have to worry about catching it.

When I was in class or school spelling bees, I'd wait my turn, with knots in my stomach, praying to get an easy word and obsessing over the millions of words out there that I didn't know how to spell.

Today, I'm a teacher who strives to make my classroom a safe place; spelling bees undermine this by focusing on memorisation and making mistakes, rather than effort and achievement. The aim of the competition is to have every child, save one, fail at spelling a word, a demoralising experience for all but that one. My job is to encourage students to be fearless learners, not to squelch their courage and announce each and every one of them a public failure.

The pressure to perform on cue, in front of an audience of over-zealous parents, and in a competition based on chance, is one of the reasons spelling bees undermine my notion of good teaching and authentic learning.

Children are not given a choice when to participate. They must respond at a certain time and under time constraints. Kids need to participate in an activity when they are ready. Forcing them to do anything on cue, especially to provide the "right answer", scares the living daylights out of most of them. Many parents put pressure on their children to win; bees can easily become a forum for parents to show-off their offspring's "intelligence".

And luck plays a large part. Contestants have no control over which words they get, so the winner may not be the "best" speller. Students who do poorly are apt to view themselves as bad spellers, even if they've merely buckled under pressure or had some bad luck.

The many US schools that hold bees are usually traditional institutions where spelling bees go hand in hand with other types of competition, such as organised sports, homecoming queens kings and standardised tests. I prefer to work in schools where classes are smaller and which foster a community of learners who aren't stressed out over competition and prize-winning.

A select few young people choose to train for spelling bees. I would not steer a determined student away from bees, but neither would I promote them.

Justine Bonner teaches humanities at Live Oak school, a private, progressive school in San Francisco. She has also taught at alternative public secondary schools in New York and Daly City, California

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