Smart kids: Bee contestants credit peers for their support

Friday March 29, 2013

NEWFANE -- A few weeks ago, sixth-grader Fairen Stark represented NewBrook Elementary in a statewide spelling bee.

And next week, NewBrook fifth-grader Joseph Meihak will travel to a state geographic competition at Middlebury College.

Both are competitions where the students test their individual skills. But it's clear that, from group study sessions to a group interview this week, the students consider this a team effort.

Case in point: Stark says her favorite part of the spelling bee was the trip to Colchester with three classmates and teacher Joyce VanPamelen.

"The ride up -- that was really fun," she said. "We played 20 questions."

NewBrook is known for spelling prowess: The school's website proudly announces that it was the Vermont spelling bee champ in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

Stark was part of the latter team. She said she preferred the team format, because "everybody's relying on each other."

For the March 13 state spelling bee at St. Michael's College in Colchester, though, she would have to step to the microphone alone.

"I was really nervous," she said.

Stark successfully spelled "potash" and "tundra." She was tripped up, however, by her third word -- "Boswell" -- which she spelled with only one "l."

Stark acknowledges that the word was a bit of a curveball. But she also admits she was somewhat relieved to exit the competition, "because then I wasn't so scared anymore."

For Stark, the real point of such competitions comes before the competitions themselves: Armed with a list of about 1,000 words, she participated in daily study sessions with other students at NewBrook.

"Studying for it, you learn a lot," Stark said.

The informal "team" stayed together for the bee itself. A photo from the event shows VanPamelen -- sitting in the audience with NewBrook students Hunter Leavitt, Vinny Ferrizzi and Meihak -- holding her hands over her mouth while Stark spells a word.

After three decades as a spelling-bee coach, VanPamelen said she still gets nervous.

"You have all this anxiety waiting for the word," she said. "And then there's anxiety when you get the word."

Ferrizzi, a sixth-grader, described the experience as "intense" and said he "learned a lot of new words." And Leavitt, also in sixth grade, said he was glad to get a chance to "see how the really good people spell."

The spellers and their teacher aren't shy about dispensing a few tips.

VanPamelen says she tells her students to always ask for a sentence or definition before trying to spell a word. The point is to allow contestants to take a deep breath and think.

"It just makes them slow down," she said.

Stark tries to visualize how a word might look.

"You can write it on your arm," she said, tracing letters with her finger. "You can write it in the air, too."

In spite of her nervousness during the competition, Stark said the presence of her NewBrook classmates meant a lot.

"I was really glad that they came," she said. "They were super-supportive."

Also getting support from the NewBrook community is Meihak, who won a school competition and performed well on a test to qualify for the state GeoBee April 5 at Middlebury College.

He represented NewBrook at the GeoBee last year as a fourth-grader. But Meihak isn't taking anything for granted.

"It feels like I never did it before," he said.

GeoBee participants aren't eliminated for missing a single question, but they must earn enough points in each round to advance to the next. Meihak has been getting help in preparing for the bee, and he said it's about more than memorizing place names.

"If you see a place you don't know, you have to look it up and study it," he said. "I'm learning more than I did last year."

Added VanPamelen: "I'm learning, too."

Mike Faher can be reached at or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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