Originally published June 9, 2017 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Tired of making all the rules? Let a contest committee do it for you. Your students will show more buy-in when citing their evidence, for example, when the judge — and not you — requires it. Here’s another contest to help you teach important writing skills.
Every fall, the Daughters of the American Revolution conducts its American History Essay Contest for 5th-8th grade students. I assign this to all sixth-graders and make it optional for seventh- and eighth-graders. This is one of my favorite contests because it challenges the students to write from 600-1,000 words. Contact your local DAR chapter to get started. (Click here to find a local chapter.) After the school-level contest, each school’s winning essays move on for judging at the regional, state, and national levels.
Topic or Prompt:
Each year the prompt is different but focuses on an important American historical event. In 2016, the National Park Service celebrated its 100-year anniversary. The prompt: “Pretend you are writing a journal while visiting one of the 58 national parks. Identify its location. Discuss why and when it was established as a national park. What makes this park one of our national treasures?”
This is key: Use a previous winning essay as a mentor text.
The Best Thing (To Me) About This Contest:
I love how this contest asks students to blend narrative and informative genres. The most recent contest required a journal-style essay. Last year’s was a narrative about the effects of the Stamp Act on a colonial family. The previous year’s asked students to pretend to be an immigrant at the Ellis Island immigration center. They then had to write a letter home about the experience. All DAR essays must provide historical facts within an innovative structure. That’s a complicated skill and the kids love the creativity it naturally requires.
- Providing Evidence. Essays are judged on historical accuracy. All facts and details must be cited in a bibliography. This is new territory for my sixth-graders.
- Development. Students must adhere to the topic. This can be difficult to do for sixth-graders within a narrative structure. Every essay must contain a beginning, middle, and end… all the while giving the reader the facts and details needed.
- Creativity. This is where we discuss techniques to hook the reader: conflict in the first sentence, compelling dialogue, imagery, sensory language.
- Conventions. Students must submit a “clean” essay. Judges look at spelling, grammar, punctuation, and neatness.
5th grade: 500 words; 6th-8th grades 600-1,000 words. This is a challenge for my sixth-graders at first, especially for those who have only mastered the paragraph. I tell them that I can’t submit their essay unless it has the required word count. (Again, blame it on the judge!) Of course, many students enjoy pushing their essays to 1,000 words. This leads to class discussions about the importance of every word doing its job. Authors can’t stuff with fluff.
Near Thanksgiving break every year.
The DAR offers awards at each local, state, division, and national level. Awards at lower levels vary. The national winner is announced at the annual Continental Congress in June and receives a monetary prize, certificate and gold pin.
The Unexpected Bonus:
I introduce MLA style to sixth-graders with this essay. They love the final product: a professional-looking multi-page document with a contest-required cover page and bibliography.
For More Info:
Click here for general information. Visit the DAR website in August for a 2018 guidelines sheet.
Questions or comments? Something you know about this contest that I don’t? Have a contest success story? I would love to hear from you!