Each spring, the WITF Central PA Spelling Bee invites 5th to 8th grade students from 10 surrounding counties to demonstrate their spelling knowledge as they attempt to make their way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Interested schools register with Scripps in the fall and then conduct their own qualifying Spelling Bee at their school. Winners from each of the participating schools compete in a 50 word written test and 50 word vocabulary test held at the WITF Public Media Center. No more than the top 35 spellers participate in the WITF Grand Championship Spelling Bee, an oral spell down which is then broadcast on WITF TV. The winner from that bee qualifies to compete nationally in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
That's how Joanna Ye, the 2010 and 2011 Champion of witf's Central PA Spelling Bee and two-time Scripps National Spelling Bee contender, sums up her Bee experience.
"It was kind of a happy accident that I was ever even involved in it. In sixth grade I never would have thought I would make it national. In seventh grade I wasn't even really Trying," Ye recalls.
Ye is a freshman at Carlisle High School. She was born in China and her family moved to Iowa when she was 18 months old. In 2005, the family made the move to Carlisle. Ye’s father, Yunshan Ye, is a research librarian at Johns Hopkins University. Her mother, Caiyun Zhao, is a nurse. “I’ve always been pretty good at spelling. I’ve read a lot of books. If it’s something that I’m good at I might as well try to go all the way with it against some of the best spellers around.”
The spellers come from middle schools from 10 surrounding counties. After winning their individual school bees, they’re invited to participate in a 100-word written test at witf. The top spellers from that test become the contenders in witf’s Central PA Spelling Bee, which is broadcast on witf. The stage at this bee is smaller than the one the winner will grace at the national bee, but Ye claims the experience prepared her for what was to come.
“It really helped having a stage and having it televised. That prepared me for standing up in front of a lot of people,” Ye recalls.
Preparing for witf’s Central PA Spelling Bee is not something she took lightly.
“I wanted to try and do my best, but I wasn't sure how far I would actually make it. I stayed at home a lot, studying words instead of going out and hanging out. I knew that if I took it seriously, something was going to come out of it,” says Ye.
The 15-year-old was crowned champion in 2010 at witf’s Central PA Spelling Bee with the correct spelling of “livelihood,” meaning a means of support or subsistence. In 2011, she extended her reign by successfully spelling “scalene,” meaning having three sides of unequal length. After winning two years in a row, Ye noticed a change in the way people treated her.
“A lot of people were reaching out to me and asking questions. Usually a lot of people talked to me, but a lot more talked to me,” she recalls with a chuckle. “I liked that people were asking me questions about the spelling bee, but now that it’s died down I can talk about normal things instead of always the spelling bee.”
It’s a feeling Katie Dudding, the 2012 winner of witf’s Central PA Spelling Bee, can relate to.
“Everyone wants to be my friend now. I think they like it that I spell well,” she says.
Katie, a seventh-grader from St. Joseph’s Middle School in Mechanicsburg, found it weird watching herself on TV. “We watched it at home and when it was on again we watched it at school. I didn't really want to watch it again. I felt like seeing it once was enough.”
But, this 12-year-old’s TV experience had only just begun. She and 277 other spellers would go head to head in front of the cameras at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The National Bee began in 1929 with the collaboration of nine local newspapers. In 1941, Scripps became the sponsor of the bee. Since the beginning, there have been 87 champions. Of the champions, 46 have been girls and 41 have been boys. The bee has been broadcast on TV off and on since 1946, and consecutively since 1994. Currently, the Scripps National Bee is broadcast live in primetime on ESPN.
In 2011, witf followed Joanna Ye through her journey at the Scripps National Spelling Bee held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center near Washington, D.C. It’s like the Super Bowl for spellers. From the moment you walk into the hotel everything is b-i-g, from the Gaylord’s 18-story glass atrium to the words. The place is littered with TV cameras, reporters, security and adoring fans looking for spellers’ autographs. Past champions who are in attendance are regarded as celebrities. It’s enough to make even the most confident of spellers take a deep breath.
“It really depends on the person,” recalls Ye. “I was trying to stay positive and upbeat, but I think it would be easy to sit by yourself and think about words. It’s also pretty crazy. People will want you to sign their bee keeper. I didn’t get back to my hotel until about midnight because of all of the interviews and autographs and photos.”
In preparation for the national bee, many spellers admit to reading the dictionary and its addenda section. Some have a special technique for spelling on stage, like writing out the word with an imaginary pencil on their arm. Others may choose to spell the word out with staccato-like form.
“When I’m up there, I just let my mind go completely blank and I focus on the spelling. I don’t rush at all. I think I try to stay focused. If I’m taking a really long time, I know that I don’t know it. That’s why it kind of frustrates me when people stand up there for like two minutes. I don’t try to milk every second,” Ye says with a laugh.
During the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee, Ye tied for fifth place. She correctly spelled words such as brachygraphy, pinetum, rocaille and hypotrichosis to tie for third in 2011.
Ye’s age will prevent her from qualifying for the spelling bee again. This year she has shifted her focus from spelling to the flute. So far, she has played in the youth symphony, county band, county orchestra and district band. She’s also playing varsity tennis and she’s on the freshman class council.
For those who still have another shot to spell their way to the top like seventh-grader Dudding, Ye suggests taking it all in.
“I would tell her to just enjoy. Enjoy the whole experience for what it is. This is something not a lot of people can experience in their lives. If you do really well, then you deserve it. But even if you don’t, you’re still one of the best spellers in the world,” says Ye.
Dudding spelled “chassis” and “megahertz” correctly on stage in the preliminary round at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but she didn't capture a high enough score on the written test to advance to the semifinals. Only the top 50 spellers out of 278 contestants advanced to the semifinals after the written test. She plans to try again next year. “I don’t really know. Sometimes I feel like I could make it really far and other times I don’t,” says Dudding. “I just want to keep trying and see how far I can get.”
While Dudding envisions another spelling bee in her future, Ye has her sights set on college. “I actually want to be a dentist now. I want to study evolutionary biology in college. It’s just something I would enjoy doing for the rest of my life,” she says.
One thing’s for sure, while she probably doesn't need it, this spelling bee champ still plans to use spell-checker on her college applications. “I do, just because sometimes my fingers can’t keep up with my brain,” Ye said with a laugh. But, sometimes spell check can be pretty annoying because I use words that it doesn't recognize as words. So I have to just add it to the dictionary.”
IMAGES FROM TOP LEFT:
Joanna Ye, 2010 and 2011 winner of witf's Central Pennsylvania Spelling Bee, onstage at the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Central PA students participate in a 100-word written test at witf in hopes of qualifying for witf’s Central PA Spelling Bee;
Katie Dudding is announced champion of witf’s 2012 Central PA Spelling Bee.
The stage at the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee, held at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center near Washington, D.C.;
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