Spelling bees are practically a rite of passage for kids. The Scripps Spelling Bee is one of the largest academic competitions for children in the nation, so most schoolchildren share the experience of standing up alone in front of an audience, speaking into a microphone, and spelling a word for the judges--for many kids, this will be their first time doing at least a couple of those things. And for everyone other than one kid in the entire nation each year, this will also be the shared experience of, at some point, misspelling a word and losing the competition.
All these--the public speaking, the competition, the academic focus, the winning and losing--are great experiences for kids. I'm a big believer that academic competitions should be as ubiquitous as sports competitions (and that sports competitions should be LESS ubiquitous, but that's another essay entirely...). I'm a big believer in regular exposure to public speaking to desensitize us to it, and a big believer in large-scale academic projects that require lots of research and preparation. And yes, I'm a big believer in losing, because I think it gives us the best practice in good sportmanship, which I'm also a big believer in.
Now, if your kid is in school, you don't have to lift a finger for this spelling bee business; you may not even know it's happened until after the fact. But if you homeschool your kid, then yes, you have many fingers to lift. But the good news is that homeschool groups are just as welcome in the Scripps spelling bees as schools, and even though you'll have to organize the entire school-level bee yourself, it's a very rewarding volunteer job.
1. Get the buy-in. Registering for the bee is pricey, but since it's the same amount of money for a family to register as it is for a homeschool group to register, it's preferable if you can get your homeschool group or co-op to register, and then either take the registration fee from the group's account or split the fee between the participating families.
The con to this is that you may have a debate on your hands, and you may have to convince people who don't like spelling bees, or competitions, or academics, or you. A large and diverse homeschool group will have all those kinds of people, but the most aggressive debaters don't necessarily represent the majority, and at least so far I've found that if I can bring an issue to vote, good academics win out regardless of what side the big personalities are on.
2. Register at the proper time. Registration for the Scripps bee opens up in late August or early September-ish, so keep an eye out. The benefits to enrolling early are that you get a bonus prize for your school-level spelling bee if you enroll early (this year we received a second free Encyclopedia Britannica online subscription on top of the first one that's included with your registration, so both our first and second-place winners received one), and, since your entire homeschool group can make use of all the study materials on the Scripps Spelling Bee site for the duration of your registration, your entire group has access for that much longer at the same price with early registration.
3. Get some help with planning. I asked the few people who knew right away that they wanted to participate in the spelling bee to email me, and then we, as a group, emailed back and forth several times until we hashed out the basics of the bee, namely where and when it would be located and who would run it (more on that later). The people who were involved in this planning were also guaranteed to get the bee scheduled at a time convenient to them, which is a big bonus for busy families.
4. Book a location. I really wanted the spelling bee to be a little nicer, and therefore more special, than our usual fairs and parties and events, so I got Matt to use his connections at IU to get us a beautiful space there, with plenty of free parking, a microphone set-up, and room to hold a potluck reception after the competition. The building manager of the place gave us the room for free, which was awesome.
5. Score some volunteers. For my spelling bee, I wanted to have two pronouncers (so they could take turns), three judges (you want more than one, and you need an odd number in case of disagreements), and an "emcee," or kid wrangler (I was almost thinking that we wouldn't need this one, but we did. Oh, we did).
The pronouncers and judges for the bee should not also have children in the bee; this can make them tricky to staff, because what random adults want to spend a Saturday afternoon judging a children's spelling bee?
Random adults who enjoy community service projects, that's who! I'm an alumna of Alpha Phi Omega, a college-level service organization, and when I knew how many and what types of volunteers I wanted, I contacted the APO chapter here at IU and asked if they could provide student volunteers. They could, and those students could not have been more helpful. Seriously, they made the entire event. They were patient with the kids, they did their jobs perfectly, they handled more than one nerve-wracking kid/parent kerfuffle that I was glad that *I* wasn't having to handle, and if at any point they thought that the homeschoolers/their parents/me were crazy, they kept it to themselves and kept their game faces on.
If you get undergrad volunteers, too, don't forget to remind your volunteers (as I reminded mine) that they can now write "Ran school-level Scripps Spelling Bee" on their resumes.
6. Encourage attendance. Sometimes you've got to really encourage people to participate in things. Maybe they're not sure if their kid would like something, or something seems like too much work, or they're not sure that something is really important to them, etc. If you've got enough lead time, it helps to send a little message every couple of weeks to keep people thinking about the spelling bee, and to give them reasons to participate. You also need to have a database to record sign-ups, both to help people feel more locked-in when they sign up, and to phone someone in an emergency when the bee is supposed to be starting but their kid isn't there yet (this always happens).
Another thing that I thought would be nice to encourage attendance and cheer up any disappointed kids was to hold a potluck reception immediately after the bee. I asked every family to bring something to contribute, and I brought plates, napkins, and bottled water. I'd wanted to have a little food and drink on hand anyway, in case any kids were nervous and needed something on their tummies, but I thought the reception afterwards would be a nice way for everyone to relax, celebrate, and visit together after the bee--and it was!
7. Tell everyone all the rules ahead of time. I did not do this as well as I could have; I assumed that because all the rules are clearly stated on the Scripps spelling bee web site, everyone who planned to participate would have read them as I asked them to. Some people, though, didn't do any prep work specifically for the bee, which is fine, and some just missed reading or understanding some things--it happens. As a result, there were a couple of moments during which a parent or a kid was confused about something, but fortunately our amazing volunteers got every problem straightened out and every wrinkle smoothed without much fuss. Thank GOODNESS for them!
What I DID do was collect some Youtube videos showing other school-level Scripps spelling bees in action, and link them for the families to show their kids. I think it's good for kids to have a model to see, and know what something is going to look like ahead of time.
8. Pack carefully. You should bring with you to the spelling bee site enough copies of the pronunciation guide and rules for each judge and pronouncer; a copy of the dictionary specified in the rules; a step stool in case kids need it to reach the microphone; certificates for each competitor (the Scripps site has these for you to print); your computer so that you can register your champion and give out the prize coupon code(s) on-site; your contribution to the pot luck (and at least bottled water and crackers if you're not having a pot luck afterwards--you know kids and their nervous tummies!); enough popsicle sticks for each competitor (more on this later); your cell phone so that you can call no-shows; a card or certificate to be signed to thank whomever gave you the room you're using for free; and some duct tape, paper, and markers in case you need to make signs to give directions.
I arrived at the site an hour in advance, I asked my volunteers to arrive a half-hour in advance, and I told the families that the bee would start promptly at 1:00, so they should get there before then. In the end, thanks to Matt and the volunteers and their muscles in moving tables and chairs and their smarts in figuring out that stinkin' microphone, everyone was completely ready to go a couple of minutes before 1:00. Inevitably, however, we didn't get started until closer to 1:10, as I tried to call and kept waiting for one no-show. I finally decided that if the kid arrived before the end of the first round we could just toss her in, but she never showed up. This, too, happens, and should be counted on at every event.
9. Put the volunteers in charge. I prepped the volunteers, and told them that when the bee started, they would be in total charge, and I would be just another parent. If any confusion happened, they should just figure it out to the best of their abilities, and the judges' ruling was final.
Before the bee, I wrote numbers on the popsicle sticks, and the volunteers and I lined up chairs for the kids, next to the podium and facing the audience. The emcee had the kids draw these sticks to determine their place in the line-up, and then sit at their place. Because the bee goes in rounds, one of her jobs was to make sure that each kid stayed in the correct order in the line-up--the kids actually did get confused a couple of times, so I was glad once again that I had my kid wrangler!
I asked the volunteers to do a practice round first, so that they could help the kids figure out the microphone and coach them through speaking clearly and enunciating properly:
I asked the volunteers to just give the kids the easiest words in the world for this round, but next time, I may ask them to have each child recite the alphabet. One of the competitors had trouble enunciating a couple of letters, and it caused an issue that thank goodness the judges worked out. One of the good things about a homeschool group, I suppose, is that you probably know the kids competing and know if any of them will have speech issues that should be brought to the judges' attention.
Here's what it looks like when a speller encounters a homonym:
They were all so little behind that podium! You can see my step stool there to the side, shoved aside by all the children after the first couple of rounds.
Our spelling bee went pretty perfectly, lasting about an hour. Up until the bee started, I had been very disappointed that more children weren't participating, but when we got started, I realized that if THIS was what it took to get this number of competitors through the bee, then I was happy not to have the twenty kids that I'd been wishing for!
Our bee was drawn out a little longer, as well, because after one kid won, the judges had to bring back up the two kids who'd tied for second place and have them spell again to break the tie, because there has to be a second-place winner; we had a second-place prize! The two kids were so evenly matched, though, that this tie-breaker took a while, and next year I'll tell the judges that if that happens, they can feel free to flip a few pages to get to the harder words.
It was with much happiness and relief, then, that we finally crowned a second-place winner, handed out the certificates with much fanfare, and moved on to eating, drinking, chatting, and running around. I told the volunteers that they could eat some food, but they did not have to help clean up, and I thanked them abjectly and profusely. This is also when you should take the champion's parent aside and register the kid for the district bee, as well as make sure that the parent knows how to find all the contact information and study materials for that bee. It is inevitable that by the time you get over to the potluck, yourself, all that will be left is a couple of pineapple slices, when you know for a fact everyone was eating doughnuts earlier! This, too, happens.
10. Clean up. When families start making noises about getting ready to go, you start making noises about getting the room put back together. Then everyone will help, and many hands make light labor. This is also when you should make sure that everyone has signed the card for whomever donated the room--you want them to feel good and happy and give you another room another time!
11. Follow up. Within a few days of the bee, you should make sure that your winning kid's parent has heard from the district bee organizer, and if they haven't, that they have that contact info. After that, you're done until next year!
I won't lie--there were times, organizing this spelling bee, when I was NOT sure that it was going to be worth it. You know what, though? It totally was. I enjoyed having all the kids there, watching them compete, congratulating them, and giving them the spelling bee experience, but Will, in particular, made me really, REALLY proud. She wasn't always thrilled about studying, but she did study, hard enough that she absolutely saw her studying pay off during the competition. She visibly grew in confidence during the bee, she clearly did her best, and she was a great sport. I'll do the whole thing all over again next year to share that experience with her.