spell pundit

Shourav Dasari and Shobha Dasari, shown during the 2015 MetLife South Asian Spelling Bee competition, at which Shourav came in as first runner-up and Shobha Dasari the Texas regional champion. (photo provided)

Indian American siblings Shobha and Shourav Dasari have organized an online national spelling bee after the Scripps tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The siblings had previously participated in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, though neither one was able to claim the ultimate crown.

The experience, however, was something irreplaceable, and the thought of some kids in eighth grade not being able to take part in a national spelling bee in the final year of their eligibility for the Scripps bee – which April 21 canceled the event for the first time since World War II – led them to creating one of their own.

The New York Times reports that the siblings, who are from The Woodlands in Texas and run a paid spelling bee prep service called SpellPundit, will host a national spelling bee of their own in the final week of May, when the Scripps tournament had been scheduled.

Open to students from 1st to 8th grade, the competition (full details found here: https://bit.ly/2SjbYHc) will hold written rounds from May 23-24 and oral rounds from May 26-28.

There is a $25 registration fee with $4,000 in total prizes being doled out, including $2,500 to the champion.

Like so many college courses, business meetings and get-togethers of friends, it will take place online, most likely on the videoconferencing platform Zoom, according to the Times.

“It is something that people spend years of their life working toward,” Shobha Dasari, a 19-year-old freshman at Stanford University, said in the report. “To not have the opportunity to show off their skills in their last year of eligibility is heartbreaking.”

The Scripps competition, which is held in National Harbor, Md., began in 1925. The spelling bee’s executive director, Paige Kimble, welcomed the concept of a virtual spelling bee.

“It’s a good outlet for these high-achieving super spellers to practice their spelling and demonstrate their talents,” Kimble said in a statement, according to the Times. “We commend any opportunities to celebrate learning. We know the knowledge they have gained through their preparation will provide long-term benefits that will help them all their lives.”

The Dasaris are just hoping to provide an opportunity for kids, like they had previously.

For the SpellPundit competition, Shourav, a high school junior, said he has been busy putting together a list of 1,000 to 1,500 words for the spelling bee. In the spelling bee world, lists of words used in competitions are a valuable commodity. SpellPundit, which counts many top spellers as customers, charges a $600 annual subscription fee for complete access to the lists and other features on its website, the report said.

So far, 200 to 250 students have registered for the online spelling bee, according to Shobha, who is busy enlisting the help of judges, proctors and those whose job it is to pronounce the words, the report said.

She added that the organizers will be keeping a watchful eye on the contestants on their webcams to make sure they’re not getting any outside help. They were also looking into blocking people from opening other tabs on their web browsers to look up the answers.

And there will be an honor system, she told the Times.

Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and the author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success,” said she expects a clean competition, according to the report.

Shankar said the brother and sister, whom she interviewed for her book, have the wherewithal to pull off a virtual spelling bee.

She said the cancellation of the Scripps National Spelling Bee was devastating for returning competitors and that an online tournament would give them some consolation, the Times said. (See earlier India-West story here: https://bit.ly/3aPkDqX)

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