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No gray areas in Gilpin County School’s 2019 spelling bee

Eighth grader Peter Kniffen wins with “sepia”

by Patty Unruh

I know how to start spelling “banana.” I just don’t know how to stop. Maybe I should study for the spelling bee. That’s what students in grades four through eight at Gilpin County School did for the past several weeks as they prepared for the local Scripps-Howard spelling bee, held on February 21 in the school auditorium.

After a tough 15 rounds of words like “diabolical,” “alabaster,” and “miscreant,” eighth-grader Peter Kniffen emerged as the first-place winner and recipient of $100 for correctly spelling “sepia,” a word meaning “a reddish-brown color associated particularly with monochrome photographs of the 19th and early 20th centuries.” Peter is eligible to participate, if he chooses, in the state spelling bee on March 16 at the University of Denver.

Sixth-grader Jiselle Osteboe, last year’s champion, took second place and a prize of $75, and seventh-grader Jordanna Gagnon captured the $50 third-place winnings. Prize money was donated by the Central City Elks Lodge and the City of Central.

Elementary principal Heather Huntoon and elementary secretary Joni Schmidt coordinated the bee. Secondary language arts teacher Jeff Schuessler was the pronouncer, or the one who gave the students the words to spell during the competition. Judges were Superintendent David MacKenzie, Gilpin school board member Sarah Swanson, and Gilpin staff substitute Ashley Rietman.

The E.W. Scripps Company puts on the annual event, with competitions at the local, state, and national level. The purpose is to help students improve their spelling and vocabulary and develop correct English usage.

Gilpin students received an official Scripps-Howard word list to study prior to the bee. In past years, students in grades four through eight met in the auditorium for several rounds of competition. Many students were spelled down in the early rounds. This year, each class held its own preliminary rounds, with the teachers as pronouncers. Students in the middle school grades, who have different teachers for each subject, held their initial rounds in either their language arts classes or study halls. The top five spellers in each grade then competed for the final rounds.

The change was made to bring forward onto the stage those students who took the event seriously, studied, and were the most accomplished, noted MacKenzie. This made the contest truly challenging.

Prior years’ procedures were followed for the final rounds. Schuessler explained the rules to the students, reminding them that if they didn’t understand a word, they could ask for it to be repeated, defined, or used in a sentence. As pronouncer, Schuessler would strive to pronounce each word according to the diacritical markings provided by Scripps-Howard. If a word had a homonym or could be confused with another word, he provided a definition for clarification.

Judges were in complete control of the competition. They were responsible to uphold the rules and determine if the words were spelled correctly.

Each speller was given one word per round. They were to say their word, spell it, and say it again, pronouncing distinctly and with sufficient volume. If they misspelled the word, they were out of the competition. When only one student remained who had spelled all words correctly, a one-word round was held with the anticipated championship word.

The students began with a practice round in which they stepped to the mic, faced the judges, and clearly spelled their own first names. No problems with this.

Round one offered fairly simple words, and all spellers made it through just fine. Each subsequent round contained words of comfort, like “mercy,” “relax,” or “inspire.” Some were a bit intimidating, like “flail,” “dismissal,” and “eliminate.” Others brought a chuckle: “oink,” “poodles,” “gremlin,” and “fiddle-faddle.”

Most of the students were spelled down in rounds two through 11, getting tripped up on troublesome terms like “majestic,” “solely,” and “miniature.”

Finally, in round 12, there were only three determined souls left — Jiselle, Jordanna, and Peter. All correctly spelled their words. In round 13, Jiselle correctly spelled “martyr” and Peter got “garbanzo” right, while Jordanna missed “extricate.” Jiselle was spelled down in round 14 on “diminutive,” but Peter made it through “couriers” and was the lone speller remaining.

Round 15 contained the anticipated championship word. If Peter missed it, a new round would be started with him, Jiselle, and Jordanna. Would he spell the word correctly?

Everyone held their breath as the pronouncer gave the word: “sepia.” Peter looked relieved that it was not something dreadful like “onomatopoeia.” He asked for a definition just to make sure and then nailed the 2019 championship word with ease.

Congratulations, Peter Kniffen!

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