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What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z's New Path to Success
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At first glance, Generation Z (youth born after 1997) seems to be made up of anxious overachievers, hounded by Tiger Moms and constantly tracked on social media. One would think that competitors in the National Spelling Bee — the most popular brain sport in America — would be the worst off. Counterintuitively, anthropologist Shalini Shankar argues that, far from being simply overstressed and overscheduled, Gen Z spelling bee competitors are learning crucial twenty-first-century skills from their high-powered lives, displaying a sophisticated understanding of self-promotion, self-direction, and social mobility. Drawing on original ethnographic research, including interviews with participants, judges, and parents, Shankar examines the outsize impact of immigrant parents and explains why Gen Z kids are on a path to success.
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On a Thursday night in May of 2012, I sat in my living room folding laundry and watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals on ESPN.1 Only 10 finalists had advanced from 278. If those odds sound bad, consider that those 278 emerged from over 11 million children. The kids I saw on-screen were confident, poised, and diverse, representing an amazing cross section of America.
The oldest spellers on that stage were fourteen; spellers as young as six had been eliminated earlier in the contest. Born after 1996, they were the first competitors of Generation Z, the generation following Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) that still awaits an official name.
It had been a few years since I’d caught the contest live, and things looked different. Cosmetically, the kids were no longer all wearing standard-issue white shirts bearing the spelling bee logo. The backdrop was a gorgeous blue honeycomb that changed color to reflect the onstage action. The competition was fierce, more so than I remembered.
Despite the stakes, some spellers made funny quips when they came to the mic, while others greeted the pronouncer (the person who gives each speller their word and any information they request) in Latin, Hindi, or Spanish. Clearly, they were enjoying their moment in the spotlight. No one I went to middle school with had this kind of game, especially with ten cameras pointed at them as they performed an astonishing cognitive task. Who were these kids? I started to wonder why any young person would take this competition so seriously, what it meant to them, and how they managed to stay so effortlessly cool under pressure.
The producers had anticipated my questions and frequently cut to captivating human-interest feature stories. Some were shot in kids’ homes and schools, capturing the hometown flavor of a speller’s life. Not only were these kids orthographically advanced, but they were also dancers, magicians, model car racers, horseback riders, and aspiring chefs. They spoke eloquently about these interests in scripted voiceovers. In other feature segments, spellers engagingly held up oversized cards comically explaining the rules of the Bee or otherwise had what looked like a fun time. Apparently, the kids had been there all week, making friends as they attended social events and presentations about the dictionary. They eagerly anticipated a banquet and dance party with lots of candy the following night.
Over the course of the broadcast, I got to know so many of these telegenic, camera-ready kids that I became conflicted about whom to cheer for. I wanted all of them to win, but which ones actually could? I realized I could answer this question if I listened more closely to the commentators as they analyzed each speller’s turn, treating them like professional athletes. They knew each one’s strengths and weaknesses, telling me about their favorite languages of origin and their foibles with the dreaded schwa (the unstressed vowel sound in the middle of many words). Spellers were ready to break down their strategy for sideline reporters who occasionally pulled them out of the lineup to comment on an especially tough word.
The spectacle called into question so much that I thought I understood about childhood and young people today. The kids at the spelling bee—with their intense approach to competition, their confident personalities, and their drive to succeed—embodied key characteristics about what it now means to be young in America. It foretold something about the future of my own children, then age six and two, who were blissfully asleep while I watched. Whether they would ever participate in a spelling bee was not important; this is what childhood had become, and this was their generation.
In the end, there were no participation trophies. Not even a runner-up trophy. Just one giant, shiny trophy that fourteen-year-old Snigdha Nandipati from San Diego, California, clenched and hoisted, beaming a smile too victorious for her mouthful of braces to diminish. For the next week she was ubiquitous on the media junket of morning shows, public relations appearances, and even Jimmy Kimmel Live! When the media buzz wore off, she could start to imagine what to do with her $30,000 in prize money.2
What started with my television viewing would develop into a major research project that extended far beyond spelling bees. Through the lens of the Bee, I began to explore the nascent shape of Generation Z. These kids’ lives are filled with competitions, many of them brain sports like the spelling bee. More than just fun, the careers—and I do mean careers—that elite spellers develop open doorways to other aspects of Gen Z life, including greater participation in entrepreneurial activities and social media as children. Their parents—mostly US-or non-US-born Gen Xers who want their kids to thrive in a world they know is highly competitive—help them accomplish as children what previous generations may not have even attempted until adulthood.
I attended the National Spelling Bee every year from 2013 to 2018, plus twelve regional and minor-league bees. I interviewed past and present National Spelling Bee semifinalists and finalists, including seventeen champions, as well as parents and numerous adults whose livelihood is in some way connected to spelling bees. I visited ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut, and spent days in their studio at the Bee, watching speller features being filmed. I spent hundreds of hours observing, talking with, and getting to know elite spellers and their families over several years, seeing them once or multiple times a year at different competitions. The kids I met early on were in college by the time I finished my research.
Through the stories of these elite spellers, Beeline presents an understanding of the new childhood of Generation Z. It argues that this generation exemplifies a unique phase of childhood that is the product of heightened competition for kids, distinct US-and non-US-born parenting styles, and the affordances of social media. The book investigates several broad questions that parents face: What is the right balance for kids between competition, play, and preparing for professional life? Which parenting styles are best suited for childhood now? Can the contributions of immigrants mean something more impactful for Gen Z? And how is American society responding to these dramatic changes? Focusing on the intensity of kids’ lives today, it draws on studies in anthropology, education, child-rearing, language, and culture, and my own experiences as a Gen Xer, child of immigrants, and parent of two Gen Z kids.
The chapters connect the rise of competition to shifts in generational characteristics and immigration and examine how childhood is becoming increasingly professionalized. Chapter 1, “Kids Today,” lays out the basics of generation, childhood, and immigration. Chapter 2, “Brain Sports and Kid Competitions,” and Chapter 3, “Spelling Bees,” delve into the intricacies of the contests, looking at the rise of brain sports and how they are linked to human capital building, focusing in particular on spelling bees. Chapter 4, “Gen Z Kids,” and Chapter 5, “Parents of Gen Z Kids,” provide in-depth looks at what gives America’s newest generational cohort its distinct character. Chapter 6, “Bee Week,” Chapter 7, “Becoming Elite,” and Chapter 8, “Making Spellebrities,” together capture the training, performance, and media presence that make spelling bees today so intense and captivating. Chapter 9, “Professionalizing Childhoods,” and my conclusion, “Gen Z Futures,” look at how kids transition from elite spelling to becoming highly paid spelling coaches, giving TEDx Talks, attending incubators and founding start-up companies, and pursuing other things not usually done in high school.
Unless, of course, you are a Gen Z kid.
Thirteen-year-old Sai Chandrasekhar strode up to the mic during the semifinal round of the 2015 National Spelling Bee with the confidence of someone who had nothing to lose. This was not the case. Sai had spent three years preparing for this high-stakes competition. She was focused on surviving the two semifinal rounds and advancing into the coveted live finals on ESPN. Only a dozen or so kids make it each year. While she was grateful to be on the stage at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, just south of Washington, DC, she badly wanted to go further.
Ready to start, Sai paused when the competition director signaled her to wait. Auditorium lights dimmed and we turned our attention to the two giant screens flanking the stage. We watched Sai’s speller feature while television audiences saw it on ESPN2. Sai loves this aspect of being in the Bee, she’d tell me later that summer. “It’s so cool. It’s the only way I’ll be on ESPN!”
Sai’s feature is captivating. It showcases her daily commute from Flushing, Queens, to the Upper East Side of Manhattan on the New York City subway. On a good day, it takes her forty-five minutes to get to Hunter College High School, where she attends middle school. On camera, Sai tells viewers that the building used to be a weapons armory and looks like a brick prison—no windows. Hunter is one of the most competitive public schools in New York City, with a gifted and talented program that she tested into in kindergarten. As she rides the 7 train, she gazes at the New York City skyline. She loves photography, telling viewers, “I probably have, like, a thousand pictures on my phone.” She plays clarinet, is a midfielder on her school’s lacrosse team, and likes to ice skate. She speaks Tamil and Spanish. Sai has long had a passion for language and has been an avid reader since she was a toddler.
The audience applauded enthusiastically when the feature concluded. If they had liked her before, they seemed especially impressed with her afterward.
All eyes were back on Sai as she stood onstage. She wore her thick hair in two plump braids with a middle part. Her striped cardigan was part of her signature look, along with a plaid shirt, jeans, and black Nikes with a white swoosh. Her casual style was a counterpoint to the clinical poise she demonstrated each turn at the mic. Unlike spellers who fidget, mumble, or wear anxiety on their faces, Sai remained calm.
Sai was not always such a cool competitor. She had to learn how to manage her excitement about her extensive word knowledge. She remembers misspelling gingivitis in a Manhattan bee in 2013 simply because she was so excited to recognize the word. Now when Sai gets a word onstage, she tries to visualize it in print. She writes the letters out on her palm and thinks about which version looks better based on what she is hearing. Sai has learned to go with her first instinct, even under the time constraints. “I’m fine with the time limit. It makes you think schematically, and I like that. I don’t second-guess, I just spell it.” Sai regards the Bee as a sport and thinks the mental strength and capacity needed to compete at this level should be celebrated.
Sai positioned herself at the microphone. She had some stage experience through her school debate team and playing the clarinet, but nothing quite like this. To handle it, she tells herself, “Don’t focus on the cameras. Cameras are not there to hurt, just to document. Being distracted by them isn’t what you’re here for. You have to focus on the pronouncer and what you’re doing.” She smiled directly at Jacques Bailly, the 1980 National Spelling Bee champion and now pronouncer, and awaited her word.
Littoral, relating to the seashore. Sai’s smile grew into a grin as she repeated it back.
Sai is extraordinary in many ways, but not unusual. At age thirteen, she has a public persona, has been the subject of several media features, has won national contests, and has participated in a staggering array of extracurricular activities. The opportunities available during childhood, as well as the number of activities young people choose to take on, has changed dramatically from past generations.
Now kids are doing in elementary and middle school what older Millennials were expected to do in high school and college. They have resumes, become Instagram and YouTube stars, establish corporations, and offer coaching services at pricey hourly rates. With the help of their parents, but driven by their own goals, they earn thousands of dollars, and in some cases, millions. Many are interested in politics, current events, travel, and self-actualization. As I discovered over the course of my research, time management is something they learn to navigate early on in their heavily scheduled lives.
Like any national competition, the National Spelling Bee is the most challenging platform in the field of spelling. It has been dubbed the “orthographic Super Bowl” and has grown to fit that title.1 The competition to get there intensifies each year. Since the 1990s, the size of the Bee has nearly doubled. Of the 11 million kids who participate in spelling bees annually, what used to be around 150 competitors has burgeoned to north of 500. Of those, no more than 50 advance past the preliminary rounds, and about a dozen are featured in the live championship finals broadcast during prime time on ESPN. The competitors I met during my research at the National Spelling Bee belong to Generation Z, born 1997 onward. They bring a distinctive approach to competition, self-presentation, and what it means to win.
Where does this drive come from, and how have children today learned to navigate the complicated path to success? Intense competition is now an openly acknowledged and routine part of childhood outside of the school day. Travel sports, televised contests, academic fairs, and game tournaments are standard fare for elementary school kids.
Even those who don’t aspire to be national competitors still understand the playing field. My twelve-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter are like many middle-class children with a variety of extracurricular activities and interests. Like their peers, they are accustomed to thinking about time management, competition, and goals. Their friends compete in chess tournaments and science fairs, travel for soccer, and are on dance teams. On television, they see kids their age win cooking shows and face off against adults on The Voice. People don’t tell them they are too young for anything because now there is a junior version of nearly every adult contest. They are not expected to just imagine their adult lives but to begin living them right away. The question has shifted from “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to simply “What do you want to be?”
As with any generation so new, few things are agreed upon about Generation Z. Two things are certain: they have had greater exposure to digital culture than any previous generation, and they are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in US history. Marketers have taken the lead in sketching the contours of Generation Z, aiming to characterize their consumer and media tastes as young children, tweens, and teens. Beeline offers an anthropological counterpoint to those market-driven definitions. Parents, teachers, and anyone wishing to understand this generation can also do so by observing how it is a product of changes in childhood, the growing influence of immigrants, generationally distinct parenting styles, and kids defining themselves through social and broadcast media. Much can be learned from looking at National Spelling Bee participants, studying them closely as bellwethers of Generation Z.
Kate Miller entered the semifinal rounds of the 2014 National Spelling Bee with a powerful secret. The previous night, she’d received her score from the written test that spellers take to qualify for finals. After breezing through her preliminary-round words, maelstrom and weevil—child’s play for a speller of Kate’s caliber—she did well enough on the finals test to advance to the live prime-time competition if she could just make it through two onstage rounds of the semifinals. Kate had exceeded even her own expectations and had no intention of stopping. Just two words to spell correctly. She had spelled so many over her years of competition, what were two more?
Kate is from Abilene, a midsize town in West Texas. She is tall and slender, with wide, animated eyes and the long, smooth, straight hair of shampoo commercials. She had come a long way since she first became interested in spelling. When she was six, she watched her younger brother Jack playing with refrigerator magnets, making simple words. She decided it looked fun, and that she could do it better. Watching the National Spelling Bee on television that year piqued her curiosity further, and she became inspired by what she saw. Kate’s mom explained to her that only the most accomplished, prepared spellers advance through regionals to the national bee. “I had no idea what it was like, but if the best spellers were there, I wanted to go. Early on, I developed a strong passion and that dream.”
Kate won her first school spelling bee in second grade, when she was eight years old. Despite dominating her school bee again in the third and fourth grades, she had to wait until fifth grade to compete in regionals due to a minimum age requirement. Fifth grade came; Kate easily won her school and district bees and made it to the regional competition. She tied for fourth place. In sixth grade, she started to study word lists devotedly, determined to win at regionals and advance to nationals. That year, she made it to the National Spelling Bee. She was elated, but also didn’t know what to expect. Each year, the National Spelling Bee modifies its format to suit the needs of that year’s competition. In 2012, she would take a written spelling test before onstage competition, and a second if she was named a semifinalist. Between these tests she would spell onstage twice in preliminaries, and twice again in semifinals. If she spelled correctly onstage and had a high enough score, she would advance to the finals. Kate aced her two preliminary-round words, fougade, a type of land mine, and trepak, a Ukrainian folk dance. Her test score for semifinals was not high enough.2
Seventh grade was a big year for Kate. She handily won her regional bee and traveled to Washington. A new twist awaited. It was 2013, and the National Spelling Bee had just introduced vocabulary as part of the written tests. Like many of her 281 fellow competitors, Kate was less prepared for this aspect of the competition and missed semifinals by one point. She still managed to enjoy her time at the Bee, coming in contact with a world of word-lovers and connecting with one other speller in particular, Amber Born.
Amber is the first person Kate remembers meeting at her first Bee in 2012. They both returned to find each other in 2013. They had ample opportunity to socialize at Bee Week, the week of events that feels like a cross between summer camp and an orthography conference. When the three of us spoke on Skype in 2014, Kate reminded Amber, “We were nervous, and I thought you seemed smart, so I said you’d make it to semifinals and you did!” Amber progressed to finals, and Kate cheered her on. It solidified the bond that would make them BSFFs (best spelling friends forever).
Watching Amber advance, and realizing she had only one year left to compete, Kate completely gave herself over to training. As part of her practice, Kate participated in mock spelling bees on Facebook with other spellers. One person was the pronouncer and streamed a video of themselves saying the word, and the others spelled. They’d keep going until someone won, training together to hone their skills.
Kate’s approach to spelling bees illustrates why they are considered brain sports, as one parent described them to me. They demand rigor and offer competition on a cerebral level, with great potential reward. As a brain sport, spelling bees offer an interesting window into childhood because they are age restricted. The oldest competitors are predominantly eighth graders, ages fourteen or fifteen.3 The youngest are six. When you consider the kind of aspiration, discipline, and notoriety surrounding this activity, it is astounding that children take it on so early. What’s more, spelling study at Kate’s level can take over a kid’s life, reorganizing the day-to-day rhythms of childhood. Those who become elite spellers manage and structure their time meticulously. As children do with other sports, young spellers build stamina and focus to become experts, often while taking on numerous other activities.
Until 2018, the only way to get to the National Spelling Bee was to win a regional contest and secure sponsorship from a newspaper or other business, organization, or institution. That changed in 2018 when Scripps introduced the RSVBee program that granted an additional 240 invitational spots, with spellers paying a participation fee and covering their own travel and lodging costs. Adding these wild-card spots has only increased the difficulty level of this competition, which has become much more challenging than a decade ago, when vocabulary was not assessed. The addition of vocabulary tests and several other rounds of written exams makes advancing through the contest dependent on test scores, not just spelling onstage. Many past and present spellers confirm that the difficulty of the competition continues to increase every year as the top competitors arrive better prepared and can thus handle more challenging words.
Gen Z spellers like Kate and Sai can be highly motivated without becoming ruthless in their pursuit of success. Their generation strives to be socially aware and admires those who add value to the world. They aim to make the world a better place and care about their public reputation as they do so. Like Millennials’ childhoods, Gen Z’s are highly organized. Millennials were the first to experience the hyper-scheduled childhood, with playdates and a packed slate of after-school and weekend activities. Taking this approach one step further, Gen Z kids are not only goal oriented and geared toward productivity, but can be intense competitors. They value success and acknowledge the challenges and sacrifices required. Participation trophies are meaningless, numerous kids told me. This is one of the key differences from Millennials, the “everybody gets a trophy” generation. I mean this not as a critique but as a fact: for Gen Z, winning, rather than effort, is acknowledged and rewarded.
As a sixth grader, Sai’s focused preparation allowed her to accomplish in a few months what some spellers could not with years of study. Sixth grade is considered a late start in the world of elite spelling. By comparison, her fellow competitors may have started winning local bees as early as kindergarten or first grade. Without question, Sai is gifted. But she is also an innovative, self-directed problem solver. Part of her preparation involved charting a course toward her stated goal. The first year was about “testing it out, figuring out what competitive spelling is. I’d only learned there was a national bee a couple of months before it happened!” In a region as competitive as New York City, where Sai lived, making it to the Bee on one’s first try after only preparing for a few months was astounding.
Sai was twelve when she arrived at her first National Spelling Bee in 2013. Wide-eyed and in unknown territory, Sai kept her composure and spelled correctly through the two preliminary rounds, withstanding a long first day of competition. She tested one point shy of semifinals and did not advance. “My loss drove me to tears,” she admitted. But Sai was determined not to let her newly minted spelling career end in failure.
Sai and Kate, like so many of the kids I met, are more than simply hardworking. They have become great at what they do. And they persevere in the face of failure. What makes someone good at something, and why they stick with it, is a topic of some contention. Social psychologist Angela Duckworth has identified this as “grit.”4 It is what keeps people invested in succeeding at certain activities, even when they are not required to. For instance, there is no elementary education requirement for kids to learn the dictionary. Yet this is what some kids decide to do. Duckworth does not link grit to talent, as being talented at something does not necessarily make one persevere. Yet so many of the elite spellers I met wanted to do just that, and succeed.
How someone becomes an expert is also a relevant question to ask here. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell employs the concept of “deliberate practice” to suggest ten thousand hours of focused activity.5 Others argue that some people are simply prodigies, and that hours alone won’t matter if the person does not have an affinity and ability for the activity in question. In spelling competitions, practice undoubtedly does influence how far someone can progress and how they fare against others with greater talents.
It should come as no surprise that grit is required to do something as difficult and isolating as preparing for a national contest of any kind. Competitive spelling certainly calls for it. Answering a 2015 press conference question about what it takes to become a spelling champion, Scripps National Spelling Bee Executive Director Paige Kimble said that to become the champion takes “a lot of determination and an awful lot of hard work.” She explained that all 285 kids that year were well-read and knowledgeable in word patterns, and that they were already champions of their regional contests. The elite spellers I met were willing to put in the hours over months and years to become a champion. They knew it might not be the final outcome, but it was their goal.
The most curious part of grit is what keeps people invested in an activity, especially in the face of failure. Psychology professor Carol Dweck addresses this matter through the concept of “growth mindset.”6 That is, the ability to learn is not fixed. Capabilities can grow in response to challenge. Failure, then, is not a permanent condition, as long as one is willing to get back into the game. This disposition toward failure is very reminiscent of what I observed in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. During the dot-com bubble, there was no fear of failure at all. Failing at something—a start-up, a venture capital investment, or a career path—was seen as a learning experience. Sometimes it was even celebrated as a precursor for something better to come. Failing a few times could be a recipe for success. It was certainly not grounds for quitting.
Grit and growth mindset are part of what it takes to be an elite speller, as numerous kids demonstrated with their approach to studying and competing. Some of them made it to the National Spelling Bee each year only to fail to progress past the preliminary or semifinal rounds. Yet they didn’t walk away from this activity. Sai’s spelling philosophy, developed over her spelling career, captured this approach to competition: “Failure isn’t not winning; it’s not keeping it together, not being a good competitor. Winning is about keeping it together and being a good competitor as much as actually winning. People might tell you this, but it doesn’t register until you do it. So that’s been an important part of my growth.” Playing hard, win or lose, is a very Gen Z concept.
- "In this engaging book, Shalini Shankar tells the story of the extraordinary kids who participate in competitive spelling bees, and through them, in turn, the story of Generation Z. Shankar shows us how these kids become entrepreneurs of their own lives, and do it with amazing discipline, poise, and good spirit."—Sherry Ortner, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at UCLA
"Fascinating. Shalini Shankar uses the spelling bee as a lens into the world of Gen Z, illuminating its contours and giving us all a chance to reflect on what it means to grow up."
—Angela Duckworth, author of Grit
- "Spelling stichomythia or gesellschaft in front of a television audience of millions isn't just about hundreds of hours of study and dedication. As Shalini Shankar's exploration of the culture of spelling bees shows, the orthographic feats of a handful of driven children reflect much more -- about intellectual competition, the immigrant experience, and the pursuit of success in modern America."—Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players
- "Shalini Shankar does a remarkable job of pulling back the curtain on the phenomenon of 'spelling bee kids.' With the careful eye of an ethnographer, she takes the reader behind the scenes to understand the cultural world of elite spellers who learn to master not just the dictionary but the complex terrain of 'brain sports.' Anyone concerned about how Generation Z is faring will appreciate the grit, determination, and savvy that these competitors display. The kids are all right."—Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal
- On Sale
- Apr 30, 2019
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Basic Books