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CLINE: Spelling bee features old school competition

Todd Cline

Todd Cline

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Anabelle Armah of Twin Rivers Middle School competes in the Gwinnett Spelling Bee, held Saturday at Central Gwinnett High School.

Kids don't walk to school two miles uphill each way these days. Chalkboards are a thing of the past and mimeograph machines have been gone so long an entire generation likely doesn't remember that distinctive smell.

Everything is different it seems when it comes to the way kids are taught and how they learn -- from whiteboards and iPads to videotaped lectures and emailed grade reports. Which makes the annual Gwinnett County Spelling Bee such a neat throwback.

In an educational world of shiny and new, the spelling bee is decidedly old school. There are no electronic tablets or smartphones, just smart kids standing in front of a microphone doing their best to spell whatever word the moderator throws their way. They don't tweet their answers or relay them via Skype. They merely repeat the word, then spell it out loud for the world to hear.

It's that simple, and for anyone who has ever participated in or witnessed a spelling bee, that hard.

For many of the parents I spoke with after Saturday's county competition, this old-fashioned contest is a nice complement to all the gadgetry kids use these days.

"Old school is always better," said Martha Armah, whose daughter Anabelle made the finals of this year's county competition.

I happen to agree. With the Daily Post sponsoring the county bee, I've had the pleasure of serving as a judge over the past seven years. It's a neat competition, featuring many difficult words and many amazing students, who not only have to come up with the correct answer on the spot but do so with a spotlight shining down on them and an auditorium hanging on every letter. And you thought there was pressure in the Super Bowl?

Most of us participated in some sort of classroom bee growing up, but things have changed so much with schooling that even the term "spelling" is a thing of the past.

"We don't really do the old-school spelling tests any more," said Chadd Stern, a fifth-grade teacher at Burnette Elementary and a fellow judge at this year's county bee. "We don't even call it spelling; it's called word study and we introduce the words and their Greek and Latin roots."

This is not your father's educational system, but it may well be his spelling bee. Because for all the things that have changed since you (and your dad) were in school, the spelling bee isn't much different from the old days. In fact, the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee hasn't changed much since its inception 88 years ago. In Gwinnett, children are given a list of words (a list, not a PDF or a link to a website) to study, and those making the finals at their respective schools are then given a second list.

They study and practice using those lists with each school -- 88 this year -- sending a winner to the county competition. That group participates in a written bee, with the top 12 scorers emerging as finalists for the oral bee. This year, Karl Patram of Crews Middle School bested them all, beating his brother Neil of Brookwood Elementary in a sibling spelling showdown.

Though their father Parm is in the IT field, the Patram brothers aren't computer-only kids. In fact, with both of them qualifying for the county bee, it made for perfect practice partners as they prepped by quizzing each other from their spelling lists. That's the type of balance between new and old their father likes.

"There's a good mix in our house," Parm Patram said. "Technology should be used in our life to make it better, not take over. There are certain skills you are always going to need (despite technology). We know a car is faster than a human, but we still have (human) races."

Saturday's competition was about brain power, not horsepower, but Mr. Patram makes a great point: Sometimes "old school" is the best way to spell success.

Email Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.