By Sarah Colson
Walking onto the stage of the University of Tennessee’s alumni Memorial Building for the Southern Appalachia Regional Spelling Bee in Knoxville two weeks ago, Ashley Academy eighth grader Sunny Wheeler wasn’t quite sure she had ever heard the final word: leguminous.
“But then I asked for the definition,” Wheeler said, “and it just gave it away. That’s really how I pieced it together.”
Wheeler “pieced together” the last word to become the region’s spelling bee champion. Gaining that title took a lot of studying and a bit of luck in the last few hours leading up to the bee. Wheeler’s family got caught in traffic from a car accident on I-81 and Wheeler said they “barely made it” to the competition in the first place.
Wheeler hopes to have smoother travels when she competes in the Scripps National Bee in Washington D.C. May 22. But in the meantime, the bright, smiley, quiet 13 year old will be plenty busy preparing for yet another competition—this time, in the realm of geography.
After competing and winning first in grades 3-8 in her school geography bee, Wheeler took an online test to qualify for the state competition in Nashville April 1. A geography bee is set up much like a spelling bee, but questions could be based on geographical features, landmarks, or societies and their different interactions.
“The format starts out as multiple choice, but then as you progress they take away the multiple choice so it’s like the game Millionaire,” said Wheeler’s language arts teacher, Rucht Lilavivat. “You just need to answer the question. So it gets really obscure and really difficult.”
Ashley Academy’s headmaster, Ramona Harr said she isn’t worried a bit about Wheeler’s next competition. “She is a very disciplined student,” Harr said. “I could say whether it’s the geography bee, or a spelling bee, or whatever Sunny does, she gives it her all.”
When she’s not studying maps or the giant dictionary she won at the regional spelling bee, Wheeler likes to compete on the cross country and track teams, and paint. Harr said that Wheeler’s well-rounded attitude and work ethic is inspiring to the staff at Ashley Academy. Wheeler studies beyond her grade level in nearly every subject, even taking on geometry and Shakespeare.
“She is a leader in the classroom,” Harr said. “She’s very bright, but that’s because of her hard work. That’s why we’re so proud of her. When we found out about the geography bee, we were all thrilled. But she kind of jumped and clapped and that’s just Sunny’s reaction.
She celebrates and then she gets back to work and that’s something you don’t always find in a student her age. She quietly sets a goal and once she sets a goal, so far she’s accomplished it.”
Harr and Academic Dean Jamie Gammon said that it’s the school’s ability to provide their teachers with the freedom to teach creatively that leads to the success of students like Wheeler.
“We’re not focused on a standardized test and that’s where we really work for some hands on experiences,” Harr said.
Gammon said for teachers, not being bound to the textbook, “is very helpful because we’re able to develop the child as a whole.
Sunny has surpassed any of my science information so I have to hand-create every science test for her, just to try and get that 97 instead of 100. We have that freedom to go beyond based on the child’s levels and you really can challenge them in that way.”
Wheeler said she’s not sure what she wants to be when she grows up, but is interested in paleontology. Lilavivat, who also taught Wheeler in sixth grade, emphasized her excellent writing skills and said that no matter what path she chooses after her next four years at Science Hill High School, she’s bound to be successful.
“Sunny is definitely one of the best writers I’ve come across through my (15) years of teaching,” he said. “Of all that I’ve ever seen, hands-down, she’s one of the best. She’s already writing at a college level and I know that because I have a friend who works at ETSU and is the head of his department and was amazed at her papers.”
“It’s not like she just walked in the door that way; I’ve seen her develop into that. Every time I’ve asked her what the magic trick is, she just says she works hard. She’s just sort of, ‘what you see is what you get.’”