Laurel Neighborhood News

by John Frando

Spelling Bee champ Brian Zheng with his teacher, Ms. Helen Garfinkle. Photo by Bryan Farley

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Spelling Bee Champion

Laurel Elementary fifth grader Brian Zheng is an ace speller. Last year as a fourth grader, Brian placed first in the elementary grades division of the district spelling bee. This year he placed third and will move onto the county bee held March 15.

In a classroom interview during recess, Brian explained how he prepares for the district bee. "You get a 20- to 30-page word list, but not all the words used in the spelling bee are on the list. Some might come from the dictionary." He looks up words in the dictionary and practices with a computer spelling program.

Brian acknowledges support from his teachers and parents, but preparing and competing is his own initiative. His teacher Ms. Helen Garfinkle says: "Brian loves to learn and completes seventh-grade-level material. We are very proud of him."

Ms. Karen Graf, his fourth-grade teacher and organizer of the spelling contest at the school-site level, said: "Last year he planned to compete at the school district and Bay Area regional Scripps National spelling bees, but they fell on the same date, and we felt it better for him to compete at his grade level at the district bee." Students up to eighth grade compete in the national bee.

Brian said that during competition: "I don't feel nervous. I feel excited." He was planning to participate this year at the regional level National Bee competition held on February 21.

Clearly a good speller, but when asked his favorite subject, Brian stated: "I like math."

Laurel Elementary Orators

Laurel Elementary students performed brilliantly and won in the choral speaking category of the district's 30th Annual MLK Jr. Oratorical Fest held February 13. Mr. David Nelson's second-grade class won second place in the kindergarten to second-grade division, and Ms. Karen Graf's fourth-grade class won first place in the third- to fifth-grade division.

The images of Dr. King and President Obama provided the backdrop for the words of the young orators. Before an audience of hundreds of attentive adults and children, Graf's students recited a version of the President's famous "Yes We Can" speech, which she edited for her class. Other teams recited excerpts of the speech, but her students also spoke individually on what they wanted to become as adults and ended by saying "Yes We Can" in the foreign languages several speak at home.

Her students' success in the festival reflects her love of words and language. Graf was a practicing lawyer, and she knows the power of communicating effectively to express oneself and persuade others, important life skills.

She teaches her students techniques to overcome a fear of'public speaking, telling them: "It's OK to be shy. It's OK to feel shy. Just don't act shy."

Both Nelson and Graf sent winning teams to the competition last year. Earlier this month, Nelson's students were once again performers at Councilmember Quan's Local Heroes Awards ceremony.

John Frando can be reached at jfrando\