CONCORD- You could hear a pin drop in the cafeteria at W.M. Irvin Elementary as fourth-grader Ranferi Perez spelled his last word. The students in the audience learned forward, hanging on every letter that he spoke and watching the judges.
As Perez finished his word, he looked to English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher Emily Francis, ready for her to confirm that he was correct or give him the bad news that he was off by a letter.
After just a moment, Francis smiled as she informed Perez that he was the winner of the first Spanish Spelling Bee for W.M. Irvin and Cabarrus County Schools.
The bee was held on Friday, March 17 and only included about 10 students, but it was a milestone for diversity.
“It’s just empowering for our kids and shows them that being bilingual is important,” Francis said.
The idea to hold the bee actually came from Twitter. Francis said she was perusing the social media site one day when she came across information about the National Spanish Spelling Bee. Inspired by the program, Francis and Instructional Technology Facilitator Crystal Turney decided to give Irvin students the chance to be part of the school’s own bee.
An announcement was made at school and any students in the third through fifth-grade were invited to participate.
“We announced it and they showed up at the media center. We let whoever was interested in it come but they had to know how to read and speak Spanish,” Francis said. “We did have some that didn’t speak Spanish at all but still wanted to try.”
She said about 30 students volunteered to try and practices began. The group practiced each day for a week and then Francis began selecting students to participate in the final bee.
When the day of the real bee came parents and fellow students filed into the cafeteria to experience a lesson in spelling, speaking and culture.
As Francis gave each students a different word in Spanish, some spelled it immediately while others used a dry erase board to write out the correct spelling before speaking.
“In Spanish, you speak it the same way you write it,” Francis said. “So when you write it, it’s easier for them to be able to spell it.”
The judges for the bee were fourth-grade teacher Cecily McClear; Concord Police Officer Paul Rodriguez; Cesar Delgado, an interpreter with Cabarrus County Schools and Martha Roig, ESL data manager/welcome support for Cabarrus County Schools.
When a student spelled a word correctly, there was a sigh of relief from the audience. And when the word jalapeno was pronounced, the non-Spanish speaking students in the audience gasped and whispered to each other; excited that they recognized a word.
“They know it, it’s just the way we say it is different,” Francis said. “It’s good for them to be exposed to the actual way of saying it.”
The bee continued for almost 45 minutes and at the end only Perez and third-grade student Brayan Jimenez were left standing. Both boys beamed with pride at each word they spelled correctly.
But in the end Perez, an academically gifted student who once took ESL classes, spelled the final word and was announced the winner. Francis said Jimenez is new to Irvin.
“We got both ends of the spectrum. The one that won is AIG and came out of the ESL route and second place is new to the school,” Francis said. “It’s good to know you have both.”
And Francis said the event wasn’t just a positive for the winners. She believes the Irvin spectators got a lot out of the experience.
“I think it’s going to inspire them to want to learn the language” she said.
As a result of the bee, Hispanic families also visited the school to see their children participate. Francis said the Irvin is trying to build up community and parent involvement and this was a step in the right direction.
“We had a lot of Hispanic families wanting to see their kids, that’s something you wouldn’t see on a normal spelling bee,” she said. “I really loved our parents and their expressions. They were happy to be here and see their kids up there. It’s just empowering our kids that being bilingual is important.”
Francis hopes to hold another Spanish Spelling Bee next year.