As she walked up to the microphone, the bright lights and cameras surrounded her. I could feel my heart suddenly beating faster. I could only play with the glistening bee charm she had given me that hung on a chain around my neck. Homeschooler Kendra Yoshinaga was about to do what we all hope and dream for... her very own personal best!
And so it was that Kendra, speller #22, returned for the third consecutive year to the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee, this time tying 14th place out of more than ten million contestants. This year she made it to the seventh round. Once again she proudly wore an official bee polo shirt before the world on ESPN... and was happy. Yes, for Kendra had achieved her personal best.
As parents and educators we can teach our children many things. Finding a child's needs, strengths and weaknesses, and balance is the key to creatively teach and challenge our students that stand before us.
Kendra was in my class for first, second, and third grade, before she became a homeschooler. At age seven, her words were first published in my book, JOYFUL LEARNING: No One Ever Wants To Go To Recess! Our connection has continued as we share our joy of words and learning. At age ten, Kendra and I co-authored a book about her spelling bee experiences. In this book Kendra's words ring out cloud and clear: "You see, where I live they wouldn't allow me to participate in a real bee in third grade, since they said the minimum grade was fourth. You've got to be kidding me! I always believed that, it didn't matter what you looked like, or how young or old you are, you can do anything if you put your mind to it."
My classroom spelling bees took place in a multi-aged classroom where children thrived on thematic learning (what homeschoolers call "unit studies"). Kendra's parents, Drs. Brenda and Steve Yoshinaga, now design her stimulating homeschool program which continues to use Kendra's interests as the door to open most school subjects.
One of the reasons why homeschoolers are so highly represented in spelling and geography bees is because they have figured out how to pursue their interests, in these cases using spelling and geography as launching pads. While some only see "spelling" as what Spelling Bee participants are learning, a close examination of such students shows that they are developing a vast understanding of ideas and concepts through the vehicle of words.
Kendra has an appetite for learning and is an avid reader with a memory like a sponge. Competition in the Bee has helped her to develop computer and research skills, along with expertise in time management and goal setting. Through the vehicle of spelling she is being exposed to culture, communication, languages, linguistics, etymology, and many other subjects.
Once when I was at Kendra's house for collaboration and a visit, she prepared one of her unique concoctions: perfect popovers that puffed in the oven to a golden brown. How impressed I was at her high level of cooking skills. How impressed her dog Yuki was too! For while we were engaged in discussion and for a moment standing before the computer, Yuki quietly and quickly maneuvered from place to place, devouring our treats. (By the way, that was also the day that news reporters were visiting to observe a champion homeschooled speller. I was delighted that they witnessed a "hands-on" experience and saw that no two homeschool days are ever the same, as learning is ongoing and non-stop.)
To see you standing up on the stage amidst judges, bright lights, cameras, and a full audience was awe-inspiring even to me, who know you so well. Your composure, confidence, smile, and the twinkle in your eyes caught the hearts of many.
To be able to spell a word by simply knowing the language of origin and a brief definition of the word is indeed an art. It is not just your mastery of vocabulary and the English language. It is your attitude and the ability to soar in all avenues of academia.
While spelling is the subject of the spelling bee, the interactions between contestants are a lesson as well. Each of you demonstrated immeasurable skills: those of compassion, understanding, and empathy for your fellow contestants from all walks of life and locations.
Kendra's father Steve says, "Kendra far exceeded our expectations at many levels. No matter what happened with Kendra, she was a winner to me. She learned how to pace her studying and achieve very lofty goals. I felt happiest that one little girl discovered her gift and a way to share it with the world." And in her mom Brenda's words, "Can you imagine your child in the National Spelling Bee? When you begin to read and hear about the national contestants, it appears that every speller at the National Spelling Bee is an incredibly talented academic achiever! I think many small successes build up inside children to help them face bigger challenges with grace and composure." Referring to preparation in all realms of education she continues, "Practice generates confidence, which can be carried on to the next challenge. I also believe that we need to set strong examples for our kids to follow. Watching Mom or Dad prepare to face their challenges appropriately will teach your child how to face their own challenges."
I was selected as a Fulbright Memorial Scholar, which has opened many doors for me. In my view, education is more than a piece of paper, a pencil and a book to study. Experiencing life is when learning becomes interesting and fun, and when it is recorded and retained in one's memory bank. Curiosity, challenges, and a multitude of varied activities stimulate the learner to explore and take extra steps forward.
Preparing for a Bee is an excellent learning opportunity. Homeschool parents and creative teachers have the opportunity to create challenging spelling exercises that complement student interest and ability more than narrow memorization exercises.
Writing out words is valuable practice. Ask children to help you to write words on colorful poster paper. Place the posters on the fence at the park or high on the ceiling at home or in a center. Record words that have multiple syllables or are of foreign origin. Research to find the "most misspelled words."
One non-academic word study method is to make lists of unusual foods found in restaurant menus or cookbooks. Prepare a tasty treat from this and word mastery, math, and science can become delicious. Many "food" words continue to appear at all levels of spelling bees.
Use your creativity in making spelling exciting. Camouflage vocabulary words by creating a word find, a study technique to challenge fellow homeschoolers while blending fun into studies. Identifying words is fun and increases recognition, retention, and mastery. Or try writing words on blank grids and make up an original bingo game. What about creating a "fish" type card game or a colorful game board depicting clues and skills? Construct an original silly story and the ensuing laughter is a healthy reward for learning.
There are many intangible benefits to having a student who is fully engaged in the learning process. Let me share a letter that I wrote which illustrates this:
Along the road of homeschooling, find ways to celebrate. Even (especially) the small things! When once a pronouncer said, "Knish," Kendra sounded out that word. "K-N-I-S-H" brought her to a championship and on her way to her first county bee. We celebrated with a "knish party" when Kendra and family arrived to surprise me with knishes. That was tasty, and a taste of more success to come.
You can also celebrate words. We have discovered new words by writing in glue and pouring on glitter for some extra pizzazz. And you can celebrate friends and family. Kendra brought pixie dust to the first two national bees, and sprinkled it all over us!
Bravo to Kendra for her dedication to following the sparkle of her curiosity and to all of you homeschoolers who have the creativity and commitment to be your very best!