The scholars who broke the spelling bee

Last month, while I tried to follow the NBA championships from Zambia (hurray Raptors!) – I was also captivated by another championship. The Scripps National Spelling Bee is held each year in Washington, D.C., pitting students under the age of 15 against one another in a fierce competition of language – a competition so intense that it airs on ESPN.

And this year, something unprecedented happened. 

The judges ran out of words to challenge these young scholars and declared an eight-way tie. The champions and the words they spelled correctly:

·         Rishik Gandhasri, age 13: auslaut

·         Erin Howard, age 14: erysipelas

·         Saketh Sundar, age 13: bougainvillea

·         Shruthika Padhy, age 13: aiguillette

·         Sohum Sukhatankar, age 13: pendeloque

·         Abhijay Kodali, age 12: palama

·         Christopher Serrao, age 13: cernuous.

(I admit to knowing none of these words).

While some may claim that the words themselves were too easy for this Spelling Bee – the main consensus is that spellers have gotten that good. It’s hard to challenge them. It’s increasingly hard to challenge them on words that have not been used in previous spelling bees. And more than both of those, they now have better tools to study. Students preparing for the spelling bee often have coaches who help them identify study techniques, help to prepare them, and give them the resources and skills they need to compete well. And, there is now a computer program that helps to drill students on difficult words – in fact SpellPundit (as it’s called) claims that 6 of the 8 champions from this year’s competition used it to study.

What’s remarkable about this story is how eerily simple some of this seems – it comes down to tools, teachers, and time. These 8 champions didn’t get lucky – they put in extraordinary amounts of time, they engaged and focused, and they had incredibly support around them. And so it is for our 6,000 students – providing that support to our students is what motivates each of us, every day, to improve, to change, to innovate, and to endure.