Five tips to help your students succeed
Looking for a middle school writing contest this fall? Look no further than the Daughters of the American Revolution’s (DAR) American History Essay Contest. In a previous teaching position, my middle schoolers participated in this contest for several years. I always looked forward to the day each fall when I would receive my teacher’s packet from my local DAR chapter.
If you’re not familiar with the DAR, here’s a brief intro from the organization’s website: “The DAR, founded in 1890 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., is a non-profit, non-political volunteer women’s service organization dedicated to promoting patriotism, preserving American history, and securing America’s future through better education for children.”
My students have had great success with the DAR American History Essay Contest. Within five years, eight sixth- through eighth-grade former students won at the local level. Of those, two essays placed first at the state level. One of those also won at the division level (comprised of eight states), and then competed at the national level. Recognition and prizes are determined by each local DAR chapter. In fact, my local chapter provided an annual luncheon where the local winners would be celebrated. In addition, the chapter awarded certificates and pins for winners, and certificates for all entrants. At the state and higher levels, monetary awards are distributed.
My students benefited from the emphasis placed on the contest. First, entering the contest was an assignment. I didn’t want only the advanced students to compete, as usually happens when I make a contest voluntary. I wanted everyone to see that I had confidence in their abilities and that they had a real opportunity to win.
I always made a big deal out of the annual contest. I would decorate my room around the theme, hanging posters and decorations to fit the topics. For example, for the year that Women’s Suffrage was the topic, I printed and hung vintage posters, created vignettes for notable women in the movement, and built my room around a color scheme of purple and yellow, the colors of the suffrage movement.
The best thing about this contest? The topic changes every year.
The topics for the contest, all based on a historical event, change from year to year. Past topics have included the National Parks system, Ellis Island, the effects of World War One, the Stamp Act, Women’s Suffrage, and others. (While the topic and prompt changes every year, the general rules and guidelines for the contests remain the same.)
This year’s topic follows:
As usual, the prompts encourage students to write a narrative-style essay. Let your students get creative.
- Could they write the essay in the form of a letter?
- A journal?
- Or would a straight-forward answer to the question in the form of an informative piece be better to their liking?
- This year’s prompt could even be written in the form of a persuasive essay, arguing for the passage of a particular piece of legislation unique to the chosen colony.
Download the contest guidelines by clicking below:
This year’s 2022-2023 contest guide sheet outlines the topic, length (600-1,000 for 6-8 grades), format, and bibliography details. (Note: Each DAR chapter designates their own individual due dates. Check with your local chapter by locating it here on the national DAR website’s chapter locater.)
I encourage you to try the DAR American History Essay Contest with your fifth- through eighth-graders. It was a mainstay in my middle school classes, as well as the DAR’s high school contest (Patriots of the American Revolution). Check back next week for a post about the high school contest.
Over the years, I’ve developed some ideas to generate success with this contest. Here are those tips:
5 Tips to Help Your Students Succeed at the DAR American History Essay Contest:
- Don’t skimp on prior knowledge. Getting kids invested in the contest depends on piquing their interest and building expertise on the topic. Because students are required to write 600-1,000 words on the topic, they need to be confident in the subject matter. In my previous middle school classroom, I would start around October 1 to plan ways to make my students familiar with the topic. I designed AOW assignments using articles that pertained to World War One, Women’s Suffrage, and other topics. We also watched educational videos and documentaries, and made short presentations about characters central to the theme.
- Decorate your room. Make the contest an event! I would typically devote an entire room-length whiteboard to the contest. I located war posters, suffragette flyers, national park info, and more to make my room all about the essay topic. Some students even used these visuals to inspire authentic details for their essays.
- Locate and share mentor texts. I scoured the internet to find previous winning essays, or check with your local chapter. Despite being written on another topic entirely, sharing with students a few winning essays showed them the level of quality they would need to produce in their own work. Here’s a link to a post with a former student’s winning essay that competed at the national level.
- Encourage students to blend genres. In my experience, I guided my eighth-grade students to take a narrative approach, and then fortify the narrative with informational exposition. This blended genre approach conveniently allowed me to introduce those multi-discourse skills at a relatively early time of the academic year. When testing time came around in the spring, students already had some experience with blended genre writing, thanks to this contest.
- Don’t rush the writing process. Start early enough so students have time to brainstorm, draft, peer review, revise, and submit. From start to finish, the DAR contest would typically fill four to six weeks; however, I do know that in some years, we crammed it into three.
Thanks for reading!
Have you ever tried a DAR contest? Leave a comment below or send me a message via my Contact Page. If you need more info, please ask. I’ll be glad to help you however I can.
I thoroughly believe that writing contests can infuse ELA with relevance and a dash of project-based learning. Whenever students know their words will enter “the real world” and be reviewed by real people, it makes them take the work more seriously.
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