- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2005

Our family subscribes to a DVD rental service by mail and we recently received a film I found totally fascinating, and which my family found very entertaining.

“Spellbound” is a documentary about the National Spelling Bee, which tracks the experiences of eight spellers in fourth to eighth grades who were finalists in the 1999 competition. Filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz chose children representing a cross-section of America: a girl whose Mexican parents entered the country illegally, a boy whose Indian parents spare nothing in terms of coaches and training, a peripatetic chatterbox who seems to be the next Robin Williams, a girl from the District whose mother is raising her alone, and others, equally unforgettable.

Each speller’s hometown, parents, study method and character are detailed, with a sort of modern-day Norman Rockwell approach. The subjects are treated gently and respectfully, but a natural humor emerges. There are no villains in this piece. We may chuckle over some of the eccentricities or antics, but no one is ridiculed or demonized.

The film excels in showing the many different ways the competitors prepare themselves for the grueling spellathon. Some use tutors and language coaches. Some study with computer software. Some plow through huge dictionaries. They study root words, prefixes, suffixes, definitions and pronunciations. They enlist help from parents, siblings, teachers and friends to grill them on the words.

We witness their anxiety and elation as they proceed through successive rounds. We find ourselves spelling along, getting caught up in the challenge, and we share the feeling of triumph when we get it right.

What is remarkable in the film is the extreme support and pride of the parents — across the board, they display a sort of benevolent involvement, a kind of wise emotional support. They encourage and support the child, but they also provide the resilience and safety net so that the child is not devastated by the missed word.

This is a movie that cannot help but stimulate your family’s interest in language studies. Children and parents both will find themselves suddenly analyzing words for their roots and their meanings. The vocabulary content is enormous, and unconsciously, young viewers feel excited by the chance to know more about how words are structured.

Here is a film that has drama, comedy, adventure and tearful moments — and yet it’s about real people pursuing academic excellence. Hollywood definitely could take a tip from the makers of this film — no sex scenes, no car chases, no special effects, no violence and no stars — but a thoroughly enjoyable, genuine story that invites us in.

The DVD is especially interesting because it includes bonus materials that cover other spellers and additional scenes not included in the original film. Our family loved the information on “where they are today,” describing what happened to each of the spellers profiled in the film.

Home-schooling families will feel a special kinship with the storyline, as many of the winners of the National Spelling Bees in recent years have been home-schooled. The later big wins by home-schoolers had yet to happen, so the filmmakers did not include a home-schooled speller as one of their key characters, but there is a cameo of one finalist who was a Christian home-schooler that gave us a peek, rather than a profile, of his situation.

I can guarantee your entire family will find inspiration in this film, and a lot of ideas for your own educational efforts.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer who lives in Maryland.

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