N.W.T. students square off in spelling competition in Fort Simpson

Competitors battled for prizes in several categories, depending on their grade level, with participants from Grade 7 to 12 taking part.

Territory's first spelling bee in recent memory happened Tuesday

Four young people sit together on chairs.
Kyle Tuyishime, left, Bisikha Dhungel, Queen Ajibade and Adrian Allen sit together in the gym of Líídlįį Kúę Regional High School in Fort Simpson, ready to spell. (Meaghan Brackenbury/CBC)

Kyle Tuyishime always thought his first trophy would be for something sports-related. But a trophy for defeating his peers in a territory-wide spelling competition works just as well.

"I've never actually had a trophy in my life," Tuyishime said, fresh from a first-place win for his grade level on Tuesday.

"It feels great, honestly."

Tuyishime, a Grade 12 student from Yellowknife, was one of about a dozen who faced off in Fort Simpson's Líídlįį Kúę Regional High School on Tuesday for the territory's first spelling bee in recent memory. Competitors battled for prizes in several categories, depending on their grade level, with participants from Grade 7 to 12 taking part.

The formula for getting kids involved in the spelling bee was a simple one: offer some great prizes (laptops and iPads) and the rare opportunity to travel for an academic competition, in exchange for memorizing some words.

"It was fun, and honestly it was worth it," said Émile Gagné, 14, who won first place in the Grade 9 to 10 category.

Two smiling young people hold medals.
Kyle Tuyishime and Émile Gagné display their medals. Both won first place in their grade category. (Meaghan Brackenbury/CBC)

Illonis Hall, the principal of Echo Dene School in Fort Liard and the co-ordinator of the spelling bee, said the idea was to get kids out of their shell and give them a chance to experience something new, building confidence along the way.

"Having students put themselves out there to be vulnerable in front of others, I think that's the most rewarding thing I want to see," Hall said.

In order to qualify for the territorial competition, students had to win spelling bees at their own schools. Hall said his hope is that the competition will return in future years and even more students will participate.

"When I see my students win — no matter how small the wins are — that's something that really affects me in a positive way," he said.

"It really warms my heart, to see the students grow in that way."

New horizons

Some of the students who competed, like 15-year-old Zandria Blake Andre Bernhardt from Inuvik, had never been to Fort Simpson before. 

"You learn how to spell new words, you meet new people and you go on a journey along the way," she said of the experience.

She practised for the competition on the plane ride to Fort Simpson with her friend and fellow student Bisikha Dhungel, who drilled her on her spelling throughout the day leading up to the bee.

Three young people stand together for a photo.
Zandria Blake Andre Bernhardt, Bisikha Dhungel and Race Vittrekwa-Blake all joined the competition from Inuvik. (Meaghan Brackenbury/CBC)

Dhungel, 13, placed first in the Grade 7 to 8 category. As someone who has always had an affinity for spelling, Dhungel said she never thought much about it until she had to study for the competition.

"I think I just like being proud of myself ... I just like knowing that I'm able to do things," she said of what her win means to her. "My parents are going to be really happy with this. It would be good for my resume."

A lifelong love for language

For Adrian Allen, 18, from Fort Liard, his vocabulary has often been a source of pride for him, impressing his teachers and helping to cultivate a love for writing and reading.

Books have helped him through traumatic experiences, he said — and he's been taking part in spelling bees since he was just four years old in Jamaica.

The spelling bees he's done in the N.W.T. are different, though, with more difficult or obscure words.

He said he thinks about his family as he spells, and about making people back home in Fort Liard proud. His parents put time and care into giving him those experiences, he added.

"[They] went through the words with me, helped me study, helped me get prepared so when the day's come, I could spell away," he said.

He hopes it will help him with his own students when he eventually becomes a teacher, since he has plans to get his teaching degree once he graduates.

Overcoming language barriers

Both Tuyishime and Gagné said their families also played a role in helping them prepare.

English is Tuyishime's parents' third language — they speak Kinyarwanda and French — and he said that's helped give him an appreciation of how certain vowels and sounds can be heard differently.

"Language is a beautiful thing that we learn, that we created," he said.

As for Gagné, both her parents are French. She hears French roots in many words that have been adapted into English, which can be frustrating for proper pronunciation and syntax.

Still, her stepmother, father and stepfather all helped her get ready for the competition — and her mother cheered her on the whole way, sending her good-morning texts each day and telling her she was proud of her.

"I feel very confident now — much too confident for my own good," she said.