WESLEY CHAPEL — There were 125 words on the master list and Lauren Payne, 12, had done her best to learn how to spell as many as she could: Martes (Monday), Viernes (Friday), minuto (minute), lechuga (lettuce).
"My mom quizzes me after school," she said after some pre-bee cramming with a classmate. "But it's kind of hard because she doesn't speak Spanish so she doesn't always pronounce them right. I have to correct her a lot."
Even so, the practice paid off. After about a half-dozen rounds, Lauren was the last student standing in the English speakers category of the first-ever Spanish Spelling Bee at John Long Middle School. Seventh-grader Diego Povlete, 13, was the winner of the Spanish-speaking competition.
The bee, held on Oct. 12 in honor of Columbus Day, was part of the school's celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which was Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.
"We did this with the purpose of making it a pilot program with plans to extend it to other middle schools in the district," said Spanish teacher Evelyn Sanyet, who coordinated the spelling bee with fellow teacher Hector Zambrano. "And we wanted to promote the Spanish language class."
The monthlong celebration has been a mixture of fun and learning for students with lessons that touched on all the senses, drawing from Spanish-speaking nations throughout the world.
Students tasted traditional foods: Cuban bread, Spanish churros, nachos. They read books written by Hispanic authors and presented projects of various countries they had researched.
"We learned a lot," said Daniela Rodriguez, 13.
For instance, did you know that the potato was first cultivated as a food crop in Peru? That in Puerto Rico there's a popular frog with a short tail called the coquí that sings from dawn till dusk?
"It's supposed to be romantic. Can you imagine — a whole union of frogs singing?" said seventh-grader Rachel Sawah, 12. "But some people just think it's noise."
Students also brought in souvenirs and photographs from countries they've visited, listened to music and went on a "Who's Who" Hispanic-American scavenger hunt. Some even donned traditional garb and took a turn learning the Puerto Rican plena, a dance to music blending Spanish narrative song and African rhythm that sprang from the coastal lowlands of the island.
"It's a fun dance to do — you can be flexible," Rachel said as she showed off the long, wide, floral skirt that was perfect for twirling but functional as a harvest basket for the women who spent hours toiling in the fields and on the sugar cane plantations.
"It's a mix of our African roots and our Spanish roots," said Sanyet. The activities exposed many students to a new culture, she noted, but it was also important to reconnect Hispanic students to their own heritage.
"It's a great thing to do," said Zambrano, whose native country is Venezuela. "Some of the children in Hispanic homes don't speak the language so well anymore. This puts those kids in contact with their roots."