Originally published May 30, 2017 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation
One day last February, three of my seventh-grade students hustled into my classroom at the end of the day. “Isn’t today the deadline for the New York Times contest?” Jacob asked me. After I confirmed that it was, he asked, “Can we look at our essays one more time and submit them?”
These three students had just returned from an all-day math tournament. After arriving back at school, they remembered that they had missed the opportunity earlier that day in my class to submit their 350-word op-ed essay on a topic of their choice to the Times editorial board. “Yes! Go for it!” I shot back, elated at their mindfulness to meet the deadline. I thought to myself, This is why I love contests.
During the 2016-17 school year, one of my goals was to incorporate essay contests into my sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade ELA curriculum at the small rural middle school in southwest Missouri where I teach. I had experienced success with a couple of contests my students had participated in the previous two years and I wanted to build on that by having all three grades enter various writing competitions throughout the year.
I knew, based on the first contests we entered, that my students valued writing for a specific purpose and a specific audience. It helped if there was a specific monetary award involved, too. However, when that wasn’t the case, it gave me an opportunity to talk up the other rewards of winning, such as the satisfaction that their ideas are out there being read and heard. Another benefit: one more line on their summer job resumé or high school transcript. Another: receiving validation from an unbiased authority. One more: the prestige of being a winner. Winning a contest sets them apart, I told them, and shows the world that their work is worthy of recognition and publication. A monetary award is just “icing on the cake.”
Contests engage my students by allowing them to write for an authentic audience outside of the school building walls. Students know they aren’t writing for their teacher, but for a real-world editor, an author, a veteran, a historian, a publisher, or a TV news show host. In fact, when I introduced the New York Times contest the first time, one girl asked, “You mean it’s for The New York Times? The New York Times?” Once I nodded to confirm, a few stirred in their desks, grabbed their highlighters, and began marking key details in the FAQs. After all, it wasn’t just me requiring them to include three historical details or to use MLA format, it was the contest committee (y’know, real people!).
Contests offer all the skill-building, standard-meeting benefits of narrative, informational, and argumentative assignments. But they add something more: buy-in from your students. If you haven’t tried a contest before, experiment with one or two in 2017-18. I’ll fill you in on the competitions my students entered this past year in my upcoming blog posts. I’ll also explain how I prepared for and presented the contests, as well as how my students responded. I even had some winners and several students are now published writers! Follow along to learn more.