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Opinion: What a more equal National Spelling Bee could do for all children

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The remarkable 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde is the 2021 Scripps Spelling Bee National Champion. True to its last name, Avant-garde holds three Guinness World Records for basketball dribbling; she can add a fourth record to her name as the first Black American National Spelling Bee champion, and a fifth for being Louisiana’s first winner.
This year’s finals may seem like a return to normal, but with the added excitement of First Lady Dr Jill Biden attending in person. For the 11 finalists, however, a lot has changed. The first laps were conducted remotely, and the number of competitors is considerably reduced.
More broadly, the potential participants of the Bee are now confronted with a world remade by the massive social changes caused by the pandemic, in particular the socio-economic and racial inequalities that it has exacerbated, which will surely widen economic and social gaps. already evident in this competition. To further benefit American children, the National Spelling Bee should focus on better access and inclusion for socio-economically disadvantaged and racially minority children.
Socio-economic concerns have come to the fore in recent years of this competition, regarding who is able to afford the competition and the preparation to attend. With more spellings paying to attend than being sponsored, the competition was already heavily geared towards families able to pay their own way.
Rather than reverting to old models of competition, organizers may instead seek other ways in which the pandemic has forced innovations that could, if adapted, transform the bee to be more inclusive and accessible. . For example, conducting the first three rounds of the contest remotely meant that Scripps had to look beyond the contest on the spot in the houses of spellings. To create a uniform spread, they shipped tech materials to each of the 209 participants (a lower number than in previous years, due to the pandemic) and monitored the stability of every internet connection.

While this step was taken to ensure smooth television broadcasting, it can also be seen as an acknowledgment of the inequality of this playing field. When I spoke with J. Michael Durnil, executive director of Scripps National Spelling Bee, he called the measure a “ramp to equality.”

By recognizing that not all children who wish to participate in the Bee have equal access to the Internet, the Bee could open up a whole new set of possibilities. What if, each year in the future, the first rounds of the contest could include remote participation for those unable (for financial or other reasons) to participate in person? What if, in future contests, they provided these distant participants with the technological capabilities necessary to participate equally in the contest?

Another area of ​​growing disparity among participants is access to learning spelling. When I started my spelling bee study in 2012, there were relatively few paid coaches, but competitors who worked intensively with a teacher or parent tended to progress further in the competition. . This scenario is illustrated in the beloved 2006 film “Akeelah and the Bee”, in which a young black girl from an underprivileged background is able to turn her gift for spelling into preparation for a contest after a teacher volunteers to coach him.
By 2019, when I published my book “Beeline”, the field of coaching had grown considerably, populated with elite old spellings as well as spell parents offering coaching services, wordlists and more. on-site support during the national finals. In fact, the level of competition has risen to the point that only these experts can follow.
Given the increasing number of spellings paying coaches and training year round for this event, Durnil stressed the importance of “leveling up” the competition to meet the readiness of today’s competitors. Why not go further and offer financial assistance for coaching? All children with skills and abilities would benefit greatly from this type of support. Needs-based scholarships for training, even in limited amounts, would go a long way in giving economically disadvantaged children a much fairer chance to progress in this competition.

It may seem absurd to offer spelling scholarships at a time when many children lack educational resources. Yet tackling inequalities in education as well as extracurricular activities is a viable way for society to take action to tackle racism and white supremacy. The alternative is to perpetuate the exclusion and elitism upon which spelling is based. While this educational competition is open to all children, it has historically rewarded racially and economically privileged children.

The roots of the spelling are in the standardization of American English as part of the colonial American nation-building colonization project. The establishment of a distinct variety of American English was a central part of this process. Spelling bees were originally class exercises to create uniformity in pronunciation as well as spelling, and the latter was regulated by the dictionary publishing industry. Lexicographer Noah Webster’s first dictionary from 1806 eventually formed the basis of Merriam Webster’s publishing house. The emphasis on the monolingualism of American English amid a plurality of Native American and European languages ​​spoken at the turn of the 20th century was intentionally exclusive.
The monolingualism of American English prevails despite the fact that the United States has been soliciting migrants from areas with many languages ​​and other varieties of English since 1965. With Generation Z (b. 1997-2012) containing more than As children of immigrants and Métis individuals than any other in the modern age, finding ways to ensure this diversity in the competition is vital. “There is no social engineering with the Bee,” Durnil confirmed in our interview, stressing the mission that all students who want a place on the national scene should be able to see themselves there. Yet exclusion is one of the ways in which those with the most resources are best able to compete.
Exclusion also occurred regularly on racial grounds. Although the first National Spelling Bee took place in 1925, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, black children were routinely banned from participating in spelling competitions. All of the winners were white until Puerto Rican Hugh Tosteson García was named champion in 1975. Until that year the only black winner was Jody-Anne Maxwell representing Jamaica in 1998. American Indian winners who won regularly since 1998 have endured a litany of racism on television and on social media for not being “American” – code not to be white. Seen by many as outsiders and part of communities subjected to waves of anti-Asian violence, they are being left behind in negative reactions to their success in the form of appeals to “real Americans” to take back control of this contest. .

Let us use this period of economic and racial calculation to determine not only who can afford to participate in this competition, but also who counts as an American. Almost everyone’s reality has changed and we find ourselves in a time of potential and potentially intentional transformation. A racially diverse bee in which children were given increased access to technology, coaching, and support would not only create a more inclusive dynamic, but would also help transform its focus into one that new generations of Americans can feel. a sense of belonging.


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