Ambitious sixth-graders spell their way to success

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BRATTLEBORO — In a cozy room attached to the Green Street School library, four sixth-graders spend their after-school time spelling out words and giggling at inside jokes.

The Green Street School Team Spellers are going to the Vermont Principals' Association Member School Team Spelling Competition on Saturday. All four spellers have been to the state bee before as fifth-graders. Last year, the team won second place; this year, it is determined to go for the gold.

Alice Charkes, or "Madame Charkes" as the students refer to her, is the team's coach and the students' French teacher. In the days leading up to the big competition, Charkes quizzed the students on bonus words exclusively.

Sylvie Lann, the only girl in the group, misspelled "nuisance." "I always get 'nuisance' wrong," she said. But then when Charkes read out the next word, "undulating," Lann shined. She was the only speller in the group to spell the word correctly.

Eben Wagner spelled out "nuisance" like a pro, but "undulating" was his downfall. David Berkson-Harvey got the word "machete," no problem, while Thomas Hyde wowed them all as he perfectly spelled "confabulation." When Charkes posed the word "silhouetted" to Wagner, the boys scratched their heads in confusion.

"Why am I the only one who knows the word 'silhouetted'?" Lann asked.

The four students are spelling bee wizards. They've gotten right every regular word posed to them at regional competitions this year.

Last year, Wagner said, the team tied with another school, "And we just beat them in the regional, which shows that we've improved and can win the state bee this year," he said.

The members of the team said they're pretty competitive people in general. Wagner said he's motivated by sweets. When students get words right they get rewarded with ice cream, or pizza, or both. The other students agreed that they enjoyed competing with each other.

"That's one of the first priorities, to win the state bee," Wagner said.

Each student has been practicing for this bee since summer. They were all given packets of spelling words to study over the summer, and they did. The students continued to practice spelling at home once school started, in addition to doing homework and other activities. Wagner, Berkson-Harvey and Hyde play soccer, Wagner and Hyde play chess, and Lann spends her free time drawing and computer programming.

Charkes said she's had previous spelling teams who weren't as dedicated as this group.

School Principal Mark Speno said the team's success comes from the students' and staff's dedication.

"They attend their practices religiously and they work on it on their own," he said. "They've really developed into a cohesive team. I think they're really ambitious and they'll make it to the next level this year."

The group really enjoys learning and also participates in Mathematical Olympiads.

"We haven't really started that yet," Berkson-Harvey explained. The group will start training once they finish the spelling bee.

Meanwhile, the pressure is on because this is the team's last chance to compete. Next year, the four students will be heading to middle school where, Wagner said, there isn't a team.

"If we're going to win states then this is our last chance," he said.

Charkes confirmed that, if the students win, they'll get some sort of special treat, though she didn't know what just yet.

"We'll have to see, maybe a parade through downtown; we'll get the fire engine going," she said with a mischievous smile.

All of the sudden the group broke out making loud and strange noises. "Pad Paw, Pad Paw, Pad Paw," they said.

"It's the French siren," Charkes explained.

They allowed themselves a quick laugh before returning back to business. Charkes read out the next word.

Harmony Birch can be reached at hbirch@reformer.com, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.


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