The bees. Everywhere you look they’re buzzing about, especially in the spring and early summer. They can pack a ferocious sting, but they can also yield sweet rewards. These bees aren’t members of family Apoidea. They’re the swarms of academic competitions that enthrall students every year. There are literally dozens of such national contests, and probably hundreds more local ones. They cover the spectrum of academic subjects--math, science, writing, foreign languages, history, geography, civics and government, economics, and the arts. They run the gamut from prestigious awards that virtually guarantee that winners will gain entree to the colleges of their choice to pedestrian contests that seem more interested in promoting a corporate sponsor’s name than in enhancing students’ educational development.
A small sample: the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, the National Handwriting Contest, the Black History Bee, the Endangered Species Poster Contest, the Deaf Spelling Bee, the National Peace Essay, and a writing contest based on Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Greeting card contests have also come into their own. Kentucky Fried Chicken and Family Circle magazine sponsor a Mother’s Day card competition, and UNICEF supports one that benefits needy kids. Federal agencies have even gotten into the act. The U.S. Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and even the Central Intelligence Agency run science competitions.
So prolific have academic bees become that they have inspired books, invaded cyberspace, and spawned a cottage industry. Two Stanford University students, for instance, are selling materials to help students lick the U.S. Academic Decathlon.
But are these activities worth all the time and effort? Do they enrich the educational experience by adding zest to the learning process? Or does the quest for winning overshadow the goal of excelling academically?
Some educators reject the idea of academic competitions outright. But by and large, competitions can serve as worthwhile tools to help motivate students. The trick is to select what the National Association of Secondary School Principals defines as contests designed solely to benefit students’ educational, civic, social, or ethical development.
Of even greater importance than the quality of the competition, though, is how teachers, parents, and administrators treat contests. Most experts believe that if these adults emphasize winning, students will learn that beating others is what counts and that they are failures if they lose. If they emphasize learning and making an effort to excel, however, students might take a more active interest in academics and more fully realize their potential."There are so many good competitions out there to help kids learn, and teachers don’t know about them,” says Mary K. Tallent-Runnels. That’s the reason Tallent-Runnels, an associate professor of educational psychology at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, joined with Ann C. Candler-Lotven, the dean of education at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, to write Academic Competitions for Gifted Students: A Resource Book for Teachers and Parents, published this year by Corwin Press.
“People need to know how to approach it correctly because kids can be hurt if it’s approached incorrectly,” Tallent-Runnels says.
Academic contests are not a new phenomenon. In the 19th century, spelling bees were a popular form of entertainment. The famous National Spelling Bee dates its origins to 1925. The Scripps-Howard newspaper chain took it over from The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., in 1941.
But the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards has two years on the spelling bee and may be the oldest of the competitions. Maurice R. Robinson started the contest in 1923, two years after he founded Scholastic Inc. “He felt that students in junior and senior high school who pursued creative endeavors did not receive the same sort of recognition as student-athletes did,” says Chuck Wentzel, who directs awards programs for the educational publishing giant.
Some recent additions, however, trace their roots to the publication of A Nation At Risk, the 1983 report that decried the “rising tide of mediocrity” in education and spurred today’s campaign for education reform.
That’s why Robert Cope, the president of the Orlando, Fla.-based Writers Foundation, created the America’s Best writing competition. “If each of us makes our small contribution, I am hopeful we can avert an educational meltdown,” Cope says.
Many of the academic competitions have borrowed from sports terminology. There are decathlons, triathlons, olympiads, leagues, invitationals, tournaments, coaches, teams, and so forth. In fact, some of the contests, such as debate, are run by the same state associations that govern interscholastic sports.
Many academic contests are also structured like sporting events. Teams compete at the local or regional level with the winners moving on to the state contests and, for the lucky few, to the national level.
The extension of the sports metaphor to academic competitions is probably inevitable given the nation’s love affair with interscholastic athletics. Principals proudly point out to visitors the billboards and banners that proclaim the school’s championship football, basketball, or soccer teams. They’re much less likely to crow about the debate team’s latest trophy.
“It’s a source of great frustration to see the amount of attention paid to sports,” says Douglas H. Rome, the theater director at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, Va. He helps run a districtwide competition called theater sports in which teams of students vie to produce the best improvisational skits. “It’s wonderful in terms of acting skills, in terms of building ensemble,” Rome says. “They have to listen to each other and work as a team, or they fail.”
The competition also trains students to handle a crisis without panicking. Two years ago, his school was producing the play “Stage Door” when one actress realized she had on the wrong costume for her next scene. While she tracked down the costume and changed, the two young men on stage ad-libbed in character. Both of them had competed in the theater sports contest. “The guys were having a ball out there,” Rome says, and the audience was never the wiser.
But Rome also tries to minimize the negative effects of competition. Schools participating in the contest are identified by letters rather than their names. Rome also runs a program in which the students perform their improvisations sans the judges, points, and medallions. Despite the steps he and other teachers involved in the event take, he acknowledges that competition and its rewards can be “a very tempting trap.”
Besides, he says, “the principals do love those trophies.”
Speaking of winning, if you look at who wins some competitions, year after year, the same schools tend to pop up. California and Texas schools frequently come out on top in the U.S. Academic Decathlon, in which teams of students answer questions in 10 subject areas. Students at Cape Elizabeth (Maine) High School have a strong showing in the Scholastic Writing Awards, while their counterparts at Central High School in Memphis, Tenn., capture a goodly share of that contest’s arts awards.
“We do have some very strong schools, dynasties,” acknowledges Wentzel of Scholastic Inc., who notes that in his firm’s competitions, the judges don’t know the identity of the schools.
Success, of course, breeds success: Once schools do well, they often stick with the same contests.
Heather B. Webster, an English teacher at Mountain View High School in Mesa, Ariz., takes her cue from the district, which has a long relationship with the Academic Decathlon. “I get all kinds of things in the mail about academic competitions,” she says. “What our district focuses on is the decathlon program. I still hear about the other ones. In terms of the scholarships they offer and the opportunity for the kids, they don’t seem to have as much as the decathlon has.”
The traditions help turn schools into dynasties, at least those that have a culture of parent, administrative, and community support. So long as the schools keep their winning tradition, everyone is happy. But, say some teachers and students, because expectations are so high, losses bring major disappointments.
“Last year, they were really upset that we didn’t win state,” one student says. “I think the school would have been really disappointed if we hadn’t won it back. I don’t think it would have been devastating.”
Mark L. Goldstein, a Highland Park, Ill., psychologist who specializes in students afflicted with school-related stress, has seen his caseload grow exponentially during the past decade as teenagers vie to get good grades and position themselves to get into the best colleges and universities. He traces some of the rising stress level to academic competitions.
“What has happened is the level of competition has become too intense, so it no longer becomes just an enjoyable experience for kids,” Goldstein says.
For example, Goldstein’s son, who will be a senior in the fall, quit the debate team because it had stopped being fun.
“There is pressure from parents to make this particular team,” he says. " Then, secondly, you have the faculty and the administration. It reflects in their eyes how we rate as a high school, and then it filters down to the kids. I think what they do is exacerbate the competition. You’re dealing with kids who are already bright and gifted. They’re competing at an altogether different level. They want to win. They want to be victorious. They are putting in countless hours preparing and practicing. That is the norm at many high schools.”
These bees, in fact, can be killers. Teachers and students devote hour after hour preparing for the competitions and end up sacrificing other areas of their lives.
Kathryn Holeywell, who won a partial scholarship in this year’s National History Day competition, spent nearly all her spare time preparing for the event. “Any teenager wants to go shopping for clothes, to go out with her friends,” says her mother, Jane. “There were nights after she finished her homework that she would have liked to go to bed.” Instead, Kathryn, who will be a sophomore this fall at Cypress Falls High School in suburban Houston, worked on her project.
Heather Webster of Mountain View High estimates that her students spend a minimum of 15 hours a week all year long--including the summer--if they want to take part in the U.S. Academic Decathlon. At times, some students put in a full 40 hours a week on the contest. One of her students went so far as to give up the opportunity to study at Northwestern University over the summer.
“The kids really have to give up a lot to be good at this program,” she says. “The TV show ‘Friends'--I don’t think any of my kids know what this is. They don’t watch TV. They gave up jobs because they interfere with studying.” Decathlon, she says, “interferes with their social life, too.”
Trisha McMahon is one of Webster’s students. Five days into her summer break, she started studying so she could get a leg up on making Mountain View’s team in the fall. A junior this past year, McMahon was part of the team that made it to the nationals that were held in Atlanta this spring. Team members spent three of their five days in town holed up in the hotel cramming. “We got to see downtown through our window,” McMahon says. “That time was pretty stressful.”
In the end, the Mountain View team got to visit Underground Atlanta, a tourist spot filled with restaurants and shops, and ride up and down in the glassed-in elevators of a towering hotel at Peachtree Plaza. The team also took third place, which satisfied them this go round.
McMahon has no regrets about the things she gave up for the competition. " I think decathlon is one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had,” she says.
McMahon’s enthusiasm is what educators yearn for when they encourage students to enter academic bees. But the costs that can be involved in sponsoring students raise serious questions about who has access to the competitions. While many of the competitions are free, some charge modest fees for registration or curricular materials and the like. But the real cost is for transportation and lodging for students who make it to state and national matches. Teachers and students in poorer schools find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.
One such school is Banneker High School in Washington. The school district for the nation’s capital is, like the city itself, in dire financial straits. There is little cash for extras like competitions. And most of the district’s 81,000 students come from low-income families.
Students from Banneker, the district’s academic magnet school, participate each year in “It’s Academic,” a local television quiz show that pits area public and private high schools against one another to win trophies and scholarship money for the school. One wing of Banneker is decorated with photos, posters, and other treasured memorabilia from “It’s Academic” and similar competitions nationwide.
Students take enormous pride in being part of the Banneker team, says Douglas A. Tyson, the team’s coach. “The kids really desire to get their faces up there. I don’t see a downside to the competition at all. It is very natural for the kids to have a desire to compete.”
But if Tyson doesn’t see a disadvantage in competition, he does see some inequities. For the first couple years his students competed in “It’s Academic,” they came home “with their tails between their legs,” he recalls. Last year, pitted against two teams from neighboring suburban districts, the Banneker students racked up the highest point total in the 35-year history of the game.
But despite Banneker’s recent success, it’s a constant struggle to get the money to enter similar competitions around the country. Most of them charge $40 per team, Tyson says, and because he wants all his teams to participate, the cost per event runs about $120 to $160. That’s before transportation, accommodations, and food.
“Here are students involved in an academic extracurricular activity, not roaming the malls or the streets,” Tyson says. But “there are just no funds in the city for the competitions.”
Banneker students, teachers, and parents seek donations from businesses and hold bake sales and car washes to raise funds. Even so, they have to scale way back, lessening their chances of doing well in major competitions like the Panasonic Academic Challenge, which takes place each June in Florida. “You cannot be successful at a competition like Panasonic when you’ve only competed in three or four competitions,” Tyson laments.
It has also not escaped Tyson’s attention that his Banneker teams routinely are the only ones out on the circuit made up solely of black students.
Equity of another sort is also a concern for competitions, especially those in math and science.
Washington’s Deal Junior High School fields a team in the annual MathCounts contest, a series of written exams, team problem-solving events, and oral questioning. This year’s team won the local math competition and then went on to the nationals, where it came in eighth out of 56 states and territories. The team was all male.
James Reed Campbell, a professor at St. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y., tracked down 94 of the 135 students who won the Math Olympiad--a lengthy, rigorous mathematical examination--since the competition began in 1972. Of the 72 who responded to his survey, 84 percent were white, and 16 percent were Asian-Americans.
But only two of the entire group of 135 were female.
Not surprisingly, the majority of competitions are also aimed at the brightest and most gifted students. A few, such as the We the People ... The Citizen and the Constitution contest, which promotes learning about the U.S. Constitution, require an entire classroom to participate. The Academic Decathlon requires participants be drawn from three levels of academic achievement.
Like their athletic counterparts, academic competitions increasingly are linked with the names of corporate sponsors: the Texaco Star National Academic Challenge, the American Express Geography Competition, the National Handwriting Contest, sponsored by Parker Pen and Zaner-Bloser, a publisher of handwriting texts.
Alex Molnar, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, views the commercialization of academic contests on a continuum. At one end are companies that underwrite contests with little or no product tie-in to engender goodwill with the public and educators. At the other end are those with a clear product linkage--for example, Parker Pen’s penmanship award.
“The question becomes whether or not the contest is being promoted in the interest of the children,” Molnar says.
Other critics go even further, asserting that competition runs counter to the educational experience and learning itself.
“Academic competitions are a seductive way to manipulate students into pursuing some subject matter, but they turn learning into a quest for triumph,” says Alfie Kohn, a former teacher and the author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition, which was re-released by Houghton Mifflinin 1992.
Kohn cites three central arguments against academic competitions. First, he maintains that “competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth.” Competitors “come to see themselves as effective and good only to the extent that they have beaten others.”
Second, he says the central message competition sends is “other people are potential obstacles to your success. That is poisonous in terms of how it affects the way children come to look at others. People come to be envious of winners and contemptuous of losers and suspicious about just about everyone.”
Finally, he says people tend to learn more effectively when they are able to do so with, rather than against, others.
Edward L. Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, has conducted research in this area, which he documents in Why We Do What We Do, published last year by Putnam’s Sons. He concludes that student outcomes differ significantly when motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic.
“Intrinsic leads to much better learning, greater conceptual understanding, greater creativity, and better psychological adjustment at school than the kind of controlled or external motivation,” Deci says.
But in his view, that doesn’t mean that all competition is harmful. “If you’re just into the game for the enjoyment of the game, and the orientation is toward doing your best, then it is not detrimental,” he says. “The detriment comes when you emphasize winning.”
He recalls taking part in spelling bees when he was a youngster, and even though he wasn’t the last one standing, “it was never that big a deal.”
“Competition can add an element of interest and challenge, but we have to be careful in how we handle it,” he says.
In Pittsburgh, the Civic Light Opera annually presents the Gene Kelly Awards. Named for the late entertainer, the awards are supposed to be the high school version of Broadway’s Tony Awards.
For two years, Ken Lutz, a music teacher and band director at Allderdice High School, entered his students in the competition, but then stopped.
“I’m not criticizing anyone for doing it,” Lutz says, “but from my point of view as an educator, entering in a competition is not compatible with my philosophy of teaching. I want the students, and I work to convince the students, that they must do their very, very best all the time because that’s the right thing to do, not because there is a prize waiting.”
The two years when Lutz entered shows in the competition, and judges came to watch them, bring back bad memories. “I remember the displeasure I felt at the students backstage saying, ‘We have to do a good job tonight.’ I remember saying, ‘What about last night’s audience? What about tomorrow’s audience?’”
Lutz gets pressured to change his mind and enter the Gene Kelly competition and other contests. “I get lots of flack about this. I have lots of pressure,” he says. “My answer is always the same: I don’t believe in it. It’s not that I’m afraid of competition. I want them [the musicals and band concerts] to bring people together, not to separate people, and competition tends to do that. It can easily pit one person or group of people against another.”
Taken to extremes, academic competitions have led to cheating. Students at Steinmetz High School in Chicago were stripped of the Illinois Academic Decathlon title they won in 1994 after officials learned that the team’s coach had used a stolen copy of the questions to prepare his students. The coach, an English teacher at the high school, was forced to resign. Officials there learned that cheating had also taken place in 1995.
Some educators concerned about competition have turned to alternative models. Among them is the Oakland, Calif.-based Developmental Studies Center, which promotes activities that require cooperation rather competition and often involve students’ families, too.
For example, the center recommends turning the science fair, which some students have learned to dread, into a family science night. The students help each other with their projects and can also ask for parents’ assistance or help from older siblings. Then, during the event, families and students move from classroom to classroom where they can all get involved in the hands-on projects.
Marilyn S. Watson, the center’s program director, believes that children need to be prepared for the competitive nature of the world. But she also believes that U.S. classrooms have tipped too far in the direction of competition.
In a school where she once worked, the teachers had an annual door-decorating contest. Every year the same teacher won, until the rest of the staff got so upset they removed her door.
“I worry that competition has become so pervasive that children almost begin to see winning as the reason for learning rather than an added boost to the real goal,” says Watson.
Watson’s work involves elementary schools, but she believes the cooperative spirit can take hold at the secondary level as well.
It has for one Washington event. In the late 1980s, the Folger Shakespeare Library eliminated the competitive aspect of its annual Shakespeare festival for students. “The competitive zeal of some schools was undermining the educational values of the contest and souring the atmosphere,” says Janet Field-Pickering, Folger’s head of education.
Now, instead of having only one or two winners, students from each of the participating schools are recognized for a variety of honors that range from best dynamic duo to the most joyful onstage presence. As a result, the festival has grown to 50secondary schools and become so popular that another 20 had to be turned away this year.
Why, though, is competition appropriate for athletics but not for academics? Watson takes a stab at an answer.
“We still look at athletics as a game,” she says. “It’s not in our core that we are a basketball player or a baseball player or a soccer player. Therefore, we can be moderately good in sports without the definition of ourselves being not a good person. But when we think about schools and succeeding in school, that’s about the core of what an acceptable person is in our society.”
Of course, there are also many educators who worry about winning at all costs in athletics rather than enjoying the sport and honing skills. In other words, it’s all in how the game is played.
Once when she was working with the Future Problem Solving Program, a competition in which students work together to solve scientific and social problems, Tallent-Runnels of Texas Tech University recalls a teacher who really wanted her kids to win. In one section of the competition, students are supposed to develop criteria to come up with solutions to various problems. But, she says, the teacher missed the point. “Instead of having them go through the process to learn how to develop criteria, she went from teacher to teacher and group to group and had a list of criteria and would give it to the kids. She was so proud of this list. She missed the point. That teacher was more concerned about winning than about helping kids learn. I don’t even think she realized that.”
For every argument against academic competitions, however, there is one in their favor. “Those programs serve a great purpose for students who are so motivated,” says John Lammel, the director of high school services for the Reston, Va.-based NASSP. “They provide the opportunity to earn a scholarship or a financial award or whatever recognition there may be. They provide an opportunity for kids to stretch their academic skills in the pursuit of excellence in a given field or a given area.
“It seems to me that competition can be healthy. Even if they don’t win, they gain something because, in fact, they have run the race or they have competed in the competition.”
Indeed, the financial rewards can be great. The grand prize winner in the Westinghouse science competition earns a $40,000 college scholarship.
Amma Ghartey-Tagoe, who will be a senior at Manhattan (Kansas) High School this fall, received a full scholarship to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland for winning the grand prize in the National History Day competition in June. National History Day contestants present papers and give performances based on in-depth research of a historical event.
In the same competition, Kathryn Holeywell won a $2,000 scholarship. " We’re happy for the honor; never mind the money,” says her mother, Jane.
Students in other contests may take home ribbons, certificates, or trophies--with no cash rewards involved.
“I don’t think it’s something the kids think about when they’re participating,” Paige Pipkin, the director of business and public affairs for the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, says of the money.
Winning a competition, especially one of the more prestigious ones, also looks good on a college application form. “We do know that the colleges look at that,” says Frann Shermet, the executive coordinator of the U.S. Academic Decathlon. “We know that is a tremendous factor in getting into college.”
Most of the Math Olympians James Reed Campbell studied, for example, went on to attend Harvard University, Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, or the University of Chicago.
Teachers and students who enter these contests say the opportunity to travel and broaden their horizons is well worth the time and effort involved.
Susan McNeil teaches social studies at the 225-student Loup County Public School in Taylor, Neb., a town of 186 residents. The closest big city to the agricultural community is Grand Island, population 39,400, 125 miles away.
Her secondary school students participate in the We the People competition and National History Day, among several others.
“We get a trip down to Lincoln for the state competition,” says McNeil. " The kids get to be around professionals. There aren’t that many in our community. They get to see a different side of life.”
McNeil also believes the exposure to other schools and teachers helps keep her on her toes.
Banneker High’s Tyson also appreciates the travel opportunities the competition affords his students. Many of the contests take place on college campuses that students might not otherwise get to visit. “I think it is an extraordinarily important thing to see Princeton and stay overnight and interact with the students on campus there,"he says.
While the Banneker students get to see the world outside the Capital Beltway, other contests often bring students to the nation’s capital or its suburbs. The finalists in the National Spelling Bee, for instance, get a six-day all-expenses-paid trip to Washington.
Students from McKinley Middle Magnet School in Baton Rouge, La., were among the semifinalists at this year’s National Engineers Week Future Cities Competition. Using computer software, they designed McKinleyville, a three-dimensional city, and wrote an essay about the factors involved in zoning selections.
During the finals, the judges quizzed them about elements of their design and about how one decision affects other aspects of planning and zoning. If you cut back on manufacturing to reduce emissions into the environment, then you might have to raise your tax base.
What did the students learn? “Teamwork,” says participant Carlos Stewart. " It takes all engineers to work together.”
“You can’t always please the people,” says Jason Mellad.
“Now, we know how the mayor, the governor, and the president feel,” adds Bradley King.
And finally, adds Jason, “you get to learn how to compete better.”
Joe O’Brien, who was an 8th grader at St. Leo’s School in Fairfax City, Va ., also competed in the Future Cities finals this year. “In school, you can’t show creativity unless you’re writing or taking drama,” says the St. Leo’s student. He only wishes schoolwork were more like the work he did for the competition than the “busy work you get in school.”
Guy Brandenburg, who coaches the MathCounts team at Deal Junior High School in Washington, agrees that gifted students need special challenges. " The regular curriculum doesn’t necessarily challenge them that much,” Brandenburg says.
Ghartey-Tagoe’s winning National History Day project was about the Amistad incident and its aftermath. As she describes the little-known 1839 rebellion aboard a Spanish slave ship and its legacy, her enthusiasm intensifies.
She started it as a project for her Advanced Placement history course. She went to the library and did the typical library research with secondary sources. Once her teacher persuaded her to enter the contest, though, she shifted gears. She started going after primary sources, calling archivists and researchers across the country, and otherwise delving into the subject.
The experience was different from how she usually learns. Take the Vietnam War, for example. “We learned that these things happened and they were a part of history, but we can’t link it or apply it to today. We only learn the factual side of it,” she says. “When you enter competitions such as National History Day, you immerse yourself in the topic, and you learn all aspects of the story.”
“There was never a time that I worried about winning,” she adds. “I never thought about winning. My objective was to tell the story. If we strictly did it just for winning, your research and your topic loses its value.”
In his research on the math olympians, Campbell found that both they and their parents believed the competition strengthened the students’ academic abilities. Seventy-six percent of the students and 70 percent of their parents said they would not have accomplished as much without the program. Only 4 percent of the olympians said it hindered their development.
Not all was rosy for them, though. Forty-three percent said that the intensive summer training sessions that augment the competition had some negative consequences, and 16 percent experienced some degree of burnout.
Overall, though, the experience proved fruitful. Most of the olympians have turned out to be college professors, scientists, and Wall Street financiers.
“The academic competitions certainly serve the national interests in America” Campbell concludes. “They represent modest financial investments and pay large dividends for the country.”
Educators also look at the intangible rewards--poise, pride, and confirmation that students are as capable as they thought they might be.
Sure, inside an urban public school like Banneker, says Tyson, the students might stack up just fine. “But let’s be real. We have these inhibitions inside ourselves.” The students wonder, “Am I as good as Montgomery Blair and Thomas Jefferson and Eleanor Roosevelt?” he says, referring to some top-achieving public schools in the surrounding suburbs. " When you go out and compete against those kids, that gives you a barometer by which you can measure yourself.”
This spring, the finals of the We the People competition were held in a richly appointed conference room of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington. The judges sit on a raised podium at the front of the room, the great seal of the United States looming behind them. The student finalists sit facing them on the main floor.
On what constitutional principles are preferential policy based, a judge asks the students, who seem a bit nervous but very earnest as they make their arguments--pro and con.
Behind them, though, it’s the adults in the audience who appear uptight. They put their heads in their hands, shake their legs, squirm. A look of anguish crosses some of their faces. Alarmed looks pass between them. Then, when that panel of students completes its questioning, the next comes forward. The coaches accompany them to the witness table, give them pep talks, remind them of the major themes.
“The child frames his or her experience to a large degree on how the parents and teachers react,” says the national spelling bee’s Pipkin. “If the parents or teachers don’t frame that experience positively, then it can lower their self-esteem.”
During the national finals week, she says, they make it a mantra that every one of the kids is already a champion. “They have already proved themselves. They are here just to show off.”
Yet spelling bee officials also know that losing can bring heartache. So there is a comfort room, closed to the public, where the children are taken immediately upon misspelling a word to have refreshments, to cry, to meet with their parents, whatever it is they need before facing the world again.
“So much depends on the parent,” says Jane Holeywell, whose daughter competed in the National History Day contest. “If you make it seem like life or death, I think that’s where you run into problems.” Instead, she says, parents need to take the attitude that “you did the best you could under the circumstances. After that, there are so many things you can’t control. That’s the same as life.”
This past year, Susan McNeil’s students took third place at the state We the People finals in Nebraska. Taking first place was the school that wins every year. A state official told her that it was unlikely her tiny school or any other could ever come out on top.
“I explained this to the kids. What do we think? Should I continue or drop it? You know what we’re up against. Every single one of the kids said, ‘Do it. It’s fantastic. It’s the most fun way to learn about government. So what if we don’t win?’ They were proud of themselves.”
And they also gave her one more piece of advice: “Don’t dare tell the seniors next year they don’t have a chance to win.”