A Way with Words
Murray Elementary held its annual spelling bee in late January, and fifth grader Gray Tracey emerged victorious from a field of 22 fellow students with his correct spelling of the final challenge word, electrolysis. “I didn’t actually practice very much, though Mrs. Waterbury [the school librarian] said I should,” said Gray, grinning, after the bee. “I do read a lot, so I was familiar with some of the words.”
To say he reads a lot is a bit of an understatement, said Gray’s parents, Erin and Terry. “He’s always been very verbal,” said Erin. “He taught himself to read and we don’t even know how, we just realized he was doing it. For years he only read nonfiction, and didn’t get into fiction until he was older.”
Gray concurs. “I like to read nonfiction if it’s good, if it’s interesting, like if it’s something I haven’t heard about before,” he said. “Science and history are my favorites.”
The National Spelling Bee, now sponsored by the media company Scripps, began in 1925 and has surged in popularity over the last few decades due to live primetime television coverage. All across the country, the first step is a classroom bee using lists from the Scripps site. At Murray it’s a 20-word written test, and the top three spellers from each classroom qualify for the school bee, which is held in the library.
“At other schools it’s held in the auditorium with a microphone, but I find that adds too much stress,” said librarian and bee coordinator Elizabeth Waterbury. “The students who qualify from the classrooms all get an official study list of 225 words, so they can study during the week before the school bee if they want to.”
At the school event, the contestants were excited and fidgety, but respectful and supportive of each other. The final three competitors exchanged fist bumps as they progressed through increasingly difficult rounds, puzzling over words like diminutive, Prague, and antecedents. Waterbury said Gray made an impression from his earliest days at Murray. “Even as a kindergartener, Gray was an old soul,” she said. “He likes books that are a hard sell to other kids because he’s so sophisticated. For instance, he reads Tolkien, and those are not usually elementary age books.”
When asked if he was nervous during the bee, Gray said, “Really nervous, yes. I was kind of surprised I got that far because usually I get tripped up on a silly mistake. A few years ago [back in third grade], I spelled pretidigitatious instead of prestidigitation, and went out.” Now with more experience under his belt, he’ll head to the countywide bee February 11 at the County Office Building in Charlottesville. Best of luck to Gray and to Hayden Castle (Meriwether Lewis), Kaleb Espes (Brownsville), Paige Lane (Crozet Elementary) and all the other county spellers!
Masters of the Bot
Local students in grades 7 to 12 took part in a recent “Rover Ruckus”—a qualifier held at U.Va. to advance to state-level competition in the world of dueling robots. The event, called a “FIRST® Tech Challenge,” is part of a global robotics program that allows students to design, build, and command their robots to compete against those of other teams. The Charlottesville Qualifier, sponsored by Micron and hosted by U.Va. Engineering, drew three dozen regional teams including two from Western Albemarle High School (Cable Management and Her Majesty’s Engineers) and one from Henley Middle School (Troop of Techie Turtles).
During each round of the event, each team controls a robot they have built from an Android technology kit and programmed to perform tasks using Java. During the pulse-pounding and fast-paced competition, three representatives from each team stand outside a small, square arena, gripping remote controllers, and try to quickly and efficiently direct their robot to execute moves such as collecting balls, sorting and depositing them in a central bin, and navigating to specific parts of the playing field. More often than not, something goes awry.
“Usually our first round goes pretty poorly because something malfunctions that we didn’t think was going to malfunction, or we were so worried about one thing that we forgot about this other thing,” said Elizabeth Jackson of the Techie Turtles, who attends Village School but participates with the Henley team. Jackson described a difficult maneuver called a “linear slide,” which involves coding the robot to lift itself off the ground using a hook clamped to the central structure. If successful, it’s worth a valuable 50 points in the end game scoring.
“We’d worked really hard on it and had gone through a billion prototypes for the linear lift, and we got it off the ground in practice,” said Jackson, “but when we got it over there [in the arena] the wheel came off, and we were stuck.” Back at the team’s workstation between rounds, a mad scramble to find a fix for the broken wheel hub, a 3D-printed part, ensued.
“In addition to the engineering side of it, [robotics] really builds persistence, said Anne Geraty, retired Meriwether Lewis School gifted resource teacher and current team co-mentor along with Jane Jackson, Elizabeth’s mom. “They meet on Sunday afternoons, and Jane, who is a software engineer, has taught them a lot of the coding.”
Henley eighth grader Maya Kim has been doing robotics since fifth grade, and says most of the skills are self-taught and involve trial and error. “We learned the basics using Lego Mindstorm sets, and then in sixth grade we started using Tetrix robots and Java programming,” said Kim. “The competitions are really fun but stressful. It’s crowded, it’s chaotic, there’s a lot of people, but it’s been a really good experience because we’re all close now.”
A Smooth Segue
Rising Henley Middle School eighth graders visited Western Albemarle High School to get a tour of the place and to attend a Curriculum Expo that focused on the wide variety of elective classes, clubs, and extracurricular activities awaiting them next year. “It’s fun for them,” said Caroline Bertrand, the career specialist at WAHS who organized the event. “They’re excited to be here, and then when they see all the choices they understand better how it works.”
Bertrand noted that the best part for the middle schoolers was getting a chance to talk to the current high schoolers manning each station, so they could get the inside scoop from students who were already actively involved. Displays from groups representing robotics, drama, the arts, yearbook club, and more drew clusters of Henley students toward their interests. There were also tables for outside groups like CATEC, PVCC, and Albemarle Tech where students who are thinking ahead could learn about those options as well.
The high schoolers were happy to talk to the rising freshmen about their avocations. Sophomore Bryan Bradley stood chatting with students with one hand covered in a furry claw glove and a fanged bear mask perched on his head. “We are telling them about drama class and also about technical theater and after-school drama productions that we have in the fall, winter, and spring,” said Bradley, who also wrestles for WAHS. When asked what surprised him about the transition from middle to high school, he remembers not being particularly nervous about it.
“I was more excited than afraid,” he said. “I was a little bit surprised by how interconnected the grades were. I thought it would be more separated, but there are elective and core classes and a lot of people cross-mingle between the grades, and that’s been cool.”
Senior Emma Lane stood by a display for a Women’s Studies class open to all grades. “In the class we are learning about women in the U.S. and the struggles we have here, and also about the history of women all over the world,” said Lane. “We can do a project each year—mine is about the honor killings in Pakistan—and then we all share collected knowledge about what’s happening in other countries.”
Reflecting on her early days at WAHS, Lane said, “It’s a lot bigger, and better, than I thought it would be. I was bullied throughout middle school and I found that here you can spread out and find your people, which was a pleasant surprise.” She recalls getting lost quite a bit on the first day of classes because of the staircases, she said, but it all worked out in the end. “A friendly janitor named Michael Jackson walked me to my classes that day. I’ll never forget that.”