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How The National Spelling Bee Showcases The Determination Of Generation Z

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Karthik Nemmani, 14, from McKinney, Texas, holds the Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship Trophy with Scripps President and Chief Executive Officer Adam Symson after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, May 31, 2018

The country's top young spellers battle next week in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Last year’s champion, Karthik Nemmani, is from McKinney.

Youngsters who participate in spelling bees spend countless hours preparing for the contest.

But rather than being stressed and burnt out, these competitors prove that hard work at a young age sets them up for victory going forward.

That’s the conclusion of Northwestern anthropologist Shalini Shankar, author of Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z's New Path to Success.

Shankar joined KERA’s Krys Boyd on Think to discuss her book and the work Generation Z kids put into being the best spellers in the country.

Interview highlights

 These conversation highlights have been edited for clarity.

Shankar on spelling bee champions as a microcosm of the best that Generation Z has to offer:

I started to go to spelling bees after I had watched them on television for several years and noted that they became more and more difficult and more and more challenging. The kids themselves seemed more poised and camera ready. I was very curious to see what kinds of shifts might be underway. So that's what led me to start to do this project at the National Spelling Bee.

The skills that champion spellers must develop, besides knowledge of word origins and orthography:

Primarily, they have to have a very deep and detailed knowledge of etymology and how word patterns and letter patterns work in the different languages that contribute to American English. But they also have to learn how to be a good competitor on stage. They have to learn how to block out the lights and cameras and really just focus on the task at hand and get that job done within the two minutes that they're allocated in order to spell their word correctly. 

» VIDEOWatch the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee:

In a world of reality TV competitions, how children who are ages 10 to 14 have their eyes set on a national competition:

Unlike some of those other televised reality show format competitions, these start in their own classrooms. The way to make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee is to compete in your classroom bee and your school bee. It's something that they're already doing as part of their grade school education. That makes it all the more accessible.

How kids of South Asian heritage have been winning the National Spelling Bee and using spelling bees as a lens to understand Generation Z: 

"One of the [South Asian] kids I interviewed for the book very rightly pointed out to me that no one has ever questioned the fact that, for the majority of the contest's history, it has only had white winners."

Generation Z, born after 1996, is reported to be the most diverse generation in U.S. history. Part of this is due to there being more mixed-race children, but the larger part is due to children of immigrants. So what we see is various immigrant groups who were solicited because of their high qualifications in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Many of them gravitated toward these educational contests.

When I noted that the South Asian winning streak was occurring, I also looked at why it was occurring now, and not earlier when immigrants from South Asia began to immigrate in 1965. It's because there is this sort of concentration of kids whose parents have the means to encourage this kind of activity. They've really taken it on with a great deal of excitement.

The rise of racist trolls online upset about Indian and other South Asian spelling champions:

One of the kids I interviewed for the book very rightly pointed out to me that no one has ever questioned the fact that, for the majority of the contest's history, it has only had white winners. And I think that this is the kind of rhetoric that gets stirred up at various points. That, shouldn't someone American win? It’s as if America doesn't actually include this plurality of races and ethnicities.

The importance of spelling bees for helping kids learn to deal with loss and failure:

I think they're fantastic, because most of the kids I met did not win the spelling bee, and most of the kids I've met, many of them didn't even make it to the finals. And I met so many kids who didn't make it to the National Spelling Bee because they couldn't get past their regional bee.

But what was astounding to me is that that was not a reason to stop trying to get there. And so some of the ideas I explore in the book: Angela Duckworth’s concept of grit, Carol Dweck’s idea of growth mindset. While I don't have any really concerted way that I look at these concepts, I do find that they're helpful in trying to understand the idea that just failing at something doesn't mean that these activities become unappealing for these kids. Often it's a motivator to try to improve.

Learn more

» Listen to the entire conversation on Think.

Galilee Abdullah is a producer for KERA's "All Things Considered" and evening newscasts.