Writing Contests Deliver Student Buy-In

Originally published May 30, 2017 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation

alexis-brown-82988 (2)
Photo: Alexis Brown

 

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 TimesThe 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.

Writing Contest #1 that Works for My Students: VFW Patriot’s Pen

vfw winners (2)

Originally published June 1, 2017 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation

 

My first post in this new blog focused on writing contests and how I use them in my middle school ELA classes to provide authentic writing experiences. As promised, my subsequent posts (starting with this one) will highlight a contest that I used in 2016-17 or plan to explore in 2017-18. 

Every fall, the Veterans of Foreign Wars conducts its Patriot’s Pen essay contest for 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders. Contact your local post to get started. (Click here to find your local post.) The contest’s timing coincides with Veterans Day and announcing the winners during our school’s Veterans Day assembly adds to the festivities. I keep the names of the winners secret and call parents so they can attend. The local VFW post sends officers to present the awards. I make this a seventh-grade assignment and everyone enters. 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 centers around a patriotic theme. This fall, the prompt will be “America’s Gift to My Generation.”  Including a personal connection to the prompt is important each year. Students should write about a veteran they personally know, or write of a personal experience that directly relates to the prompt. For an example, use a winning essay as a mentor text.  Read the 2016 winning essay here; watch it here.

Best Thing (To Me) About This Contest: The judges don’t favor the grammatically perfect essay; they are more interested in content and ideas. This is a contest that gives every writer in my class the opportunity to win. I love that.

Skills Addressed:

  • Theme. Students must show research and show knowledge of the theme.
  • Development. Students must develop the theme in their essay by answering the five Ws in their essay.
  • Clarity. Students must write clearly in an “easy-to-understand” voice that shows they understand the theme.

Length: 300-400 words. I like how this contest stresses concise writing. They quickly figure out that limiting themselves to no more than 400 words can actually be difficult.

Deadline: October 31, 2017. Essays must be provided to local posts only.

Prizes: VFW offers awards for national-level winners that last year totaled $54,500. All national-level winners win at least $500. Find a winners list here. There may be prizes at lower levels as well.  Our local Branson-Hollister, Mo. post is extremely generous with prizes. For each school in the local area that enters essays, the post awards three prizes: 1st ($100), 2nd ($75), and 3rd ($50). I tell my students that three of them will win, so they need to do their best.

The Unexpected Bonus: My students also benefit from following the directions to correctly fill out the entry form that they attach to their essay. (Essays are judged blind.) They must use their best handwriting and write their signature. To me, the term “signature” implies cursive, so that’s what we do.

For More Info: Click here to download a PDF of the entry form and brochure that you can photocopy for your students.

Questions or comments? Something you know about this contest that I don’t? Have a contest success story? Leave a reply and we’ll talk.

 

 

Writing Contests Deliver Student Buy-in

alexis-brown-82988 (2)
Photo: Alexis Brown

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 TimesThe 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.