Contest #11 That Works for My Students: Stossel in the Classroom Argument Contest

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Photo: Pixabay

Each year for the past three years, I have assigned an argument essay contest to my eighth-graders. The contest is sponsored by Stossel in the Classroom (SITC), an educational website hosted by John Stossel, former consumer reporter and correspondent for ABC’s 20/20, and current Fox News contributor. According to the SITC website’s About page, the “program is sponsored by the Center for Independent Thought, an IRS 501(c)3 tax-exempt non-profit educational foundation, funded entirely by private donations.”

SITC offers teachers several teaching resources, including free DVDs featuring Stossel’s news segments with accompanying lesson plans and teacher guides, as well as its annual essay contest and its new video contest. The themes of many of the lessons and DVDs “challenge conventional wisdom” about many current issues, according to this explanation on the Center for Independent Thought’s website.

Here are some details about the essay contest.

Age Range for the Contest: Ages 12-18.

Odds of Winning: For the 2018 contest, 87 essays were awarded a prize out of 2,200 submitted. That’s about a one-in-25 chance. That’s not bad, I tell my kids. A couple of years ago, I remember the odds being about one in forty.

Topic or Prompt: Each year features a different prompt. The 2018 contest, which has concluded, was:

Natural disasters often bring people together, as they undertake rescue operations and work to rebuild their communities. People outside the affected communities usually offer additional support. But what about those that see a disaster as a way to make money? Watch John Stossel’s video about “price gouging” and write a 500-1000 word essay, arguing for or against laws that prohibit price “gouging” during an emergency. How do such laws affect disaster victims? How do they change the incentives of potential suppliers?

The video mentioned in the prompt appears on the website and is easily accessible by students. I usually show students the video up to two or three times so we can discuss it thoroughly. Our discussions usually require that we listen to the video again so we can catch exactly what was said and/or what was not said.  My students are usually engaged with the prompts, which always have a current events theme, which can often veer into the political. Regardless, the topics always give students something new and complex to think about.

This past spring, my students couldn’t believe the controversy surrounding price gouging. They had never considered the nuances present during times of a disaster when people are in desperate need of crucial supplies.

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John Stossel

Best Thing (to me) About This Contest: I would say that the best aspect of this contest is the multi-media approach that it provides. There are not many times during the school year when students must watch and listen to videos in order to develop a viewpoint, write a corresponding thesis, and then complete an argument.

Skills Addressed:

  1. In the Missouri Learning Standards, students are required to utilize technology, including the Internet, to write and publish their work. The SITC essay contest, because of its reliance on the Stossel videos, heavily involve technology. Students may also research on their own to gain the information needed for their essays; I also provide related articles and copies of Stossel’s book No, They Can’t: Why Government  Fails–But Individuals Succeed. I have ten copies of this book in my room. One year, the contest rules stated that students were required to quote the book at least once, so I ordered a handful from Amazon.
  2. Students must also provide a Works Cited page that lists their sources. The DAR American History Essay Contest also requires this. I also require it on several of our class assignments; I think it’s a good thing for students to get into the habit of providing their sources in a consistent format. It gets them ready for high school.

Length: 500-1,000 words. I like that the contest has a minimum as well as a maximum word count, since some of my students will want to write as little as possible if there is no minimum provided.

Deadline: Mid-February of each year. Check the rules page for exact dates for 2019. to submit these essays, teachers are encouraged to electronically submit their students’ essay en masse. This is a little cumbersome, but I know in the past, I have found time to do this at home.

Prizes: A total of $9,500 in cash prizes are awarded. First place receives $1,500 plus an expenses-paid summer trip with a teacher and/or guardian to New York City and lunch with Stossel; second $1,000. There are ten finalists who win $200 each; 25 semi-finals who win $100 each; and fifty honorable mention winners who receive $50 each.

Unexpected Bonus: Easily found mentor texts! Winning entries for the most recent contest and previous years’ contests are easily found on the website. These are super helpful to show students the level of quality this contest requires.

For More Info: Browse the SITC website, which has all the information you need to have your students enter the contest. I like how students can direct their ideas however they choose to make their argument. While there is a specific prompt, students are free to approach it as they desire.

My students have never placed in this contest. I believe we have entered it for the past three or four years. We spend about two weeks of class time working on it. Apparently, we should spend more!

Happening during the spring right before we begin preparing for state testing, this essay contest provides a good review of the most difficult type of expository writing: the argument.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with your thoughts or, if you’ve tried this contest in the past, let me know how your students fared.  Follow my blog for more contest information.

Contest #6 That Works for My Students: Scholastic Art & Writing Awards

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Brooke and I show our “heavy medals” in May. Certificates and medals won at the national level are awarded to both the student winner and their teacher. Nice!

One of my goals during the 2017-18 school year was to finally enter a student’s work in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. And right before Christmas break, two of my students entered poetry.

Brooke S. entered four poems, Ally W. entered two. Brooke earned a Gold Key Award at the regional level, sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Writing Project with her poem entitled “Colors,” which then advanced to the national level. In March, we learned that she had won a Silver Key Award at nationals. This was such a thrill!

Despite the fact that she had really wanted to earn a Gold Key at nationals (because then she would have attended the award ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City!); she was excited with her national prize.  After all, more than 350,000 entries were submitted nationally; only 3,259 were awarded national prizes! This places her poem in the top one percent (less than that, actually) of all entered!

By the way, Ally’s poetry did not qualify for a regional prize, but knowing that I believed her work to be of the quality needed for Scholastic hopefully awarded her with more confidence in her work.

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards is arguably one of the most prestigious contests for young writers in the country. It’s definitely the longest-running contest of its caliber. I found out about this contest when I attended a regional writing conference during February 2016. I went to the regional awards ceremony during the conference and as student after student received awards, I thought, There is absolutely no reason I don’t have a student being recognized.

So during the next school year, I kept the contest in mind. However, it does have an early January entry deadline and because I didn’t begin the school year the previous August with the contest front and center in my mind, I lost track and simply didn’t get entries submitted. My bad.

So during the following year (this most recent, 2017-18), I picked up a promotional poster at a conference in the fall and began promoting the contest more with my students. I decided that our goal for entering would be before Christmas break. So, in December, I had Brooke enter her work, and then a week or two later, asked her to show Ally how to enter.

Who should enter:

  1. Students in grades 7-12.
  2. The student who especially finds joy or satisfaction or “release” in writing and even writes during their “off” time.
  3. The student who doesn’t recognize the value of their personal story and who writes those poems or stories that, even with grammar issues and revision needs, contain an idea or a story so arresting you are compelled you to sit down and just let the words wash over you.
  4. The student with the experiences that often go “untold.” Based on many of the winning entries I have read, Scholastic judges are seeking to promote writing from all students, not just the star writers. Judges want to promote stories about difficult circumstances, which often go untold.

How to be ready to enter:

  • Have students start saving work for entering in the contest as soon as school starts in August. Before school ended in May, I collected paper copies of some flash fiction my seventh-graders wrote during the last week of school. (The stories are also in their Google Drive accounts, but I kept hard copies… just in case.)
  • Don’t lose student writing! I have a file cabinet that students can use to keep hard copies of their work. If it’s important, it doesn’t leave the room, but stays in the cabinet (and therefore can’t “disappear” in the Google cloud).
  • Consider picking a category to focus on. Since there are several categories, it might be easier to manage and plan lessons (and for students to wrap their heads around) if there is a genre already selected. For example, I’ve already told my students that “flash fiction” will be our “focus category” for the 2018-19 contest.
    • Here are the categories:  Critical essay, dramatic script, flash fiction, humor, journalism, novel writing, personal essay and memoir, poetry, science fiction & fantasy, short story, plus a portfolio category for seniors only.
  • Know that any writing from 2018 may be entered into the 2018-19 contest.
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Brooke and I at the Write To Learn Conference in February, where she received her Gold Key Award from the Missouri Writing Region Awards. This qualified her for the national award level, where she won a Silver Key Award.

How to enter:

  • First, don’t put off entering. Go to www.artandwriting.org.  Click “How to Enter” in the upper left-hand corner. There is a process and it might look confusing at first sight. All the instructions are right there if you read carefully. Call or email your regional writing project chair, whose contact info will be provided, with questions.
  • To enter, students login, create an account, upload their work, pay fees, and include their teacher’s contact information, so you as their teacher, will be kept in the “loop” on their entries.
  • When your student enters, they will also be prompted to locate their regional writing project. This will include their work in the regional contest first.
  • About those fees… there is a $5 fee per entry uploaded. (Four poems can be entered for the $5 fee.) If your student receives free or reduced lunch, the fee is waived. You’ll just print out a form that verifies their status.
  • Students enter online, but must later mail in their fees or the fee waiver form.
  • For your first student who enters, consider having them enter on a computer in front of you so you can see what the process looks like. Teachers receive an email confirmation when an entry is received by Scholastic from one of their students.
  • Regional awards are announced in February after the January deadline. Teachers will receive an email if they have a winning student.
  • National awards are announced in March.
  • Here’s the link to the general entry guidelines.

Prizes:

At the regional level, students who won honorable mentions, silver, and gold keys are awarded pins and certificates. They also receive a journal and a copy of the Best of Teen Writing. At the national level, students receive a larger medal (it’s heavy!) and a certificate. Gold Key Award winners also receive an invitation to attend the award ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Put Scholastic Art & Writing Awards on your list of contests to investigate for school next year. Promote it to your students as the “creme de la creme” contest that everyone has a shot at. Follow “artandwriting” on your class Instagram, (here’s a post about mine) so students see it often. Then, keep an eye out for those pieces of student writing that make you set down your cup of coffee and re-read. You know the ones.


I quickly wrote this post, so if I think of more details or notes to add, I’ll update it. Please follow this blog to be aware of those changes. If you know of any great contests to enter, please comment! Writing contests for students are quickly becoming my specialty and  I’m interested in learning all I can so I can share it with you.

Contest #2 That Works for My Students: DAR American History Essays

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.

 

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My seventh-grade student, Charlie, accepts his state and division level DAR American History Essay awards.

 

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?”

Use a previous winning essay as a mentor text.  Read the 2016 winning essay here. Last year, one of my seventh-grader’s essays won at the local, state and divisional level. Read his essay at this link.

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.

Skills Addressed:

  • 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.

Length: 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.

Deadline: Near Thanksgiving break every year.

Prizes: 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!

 

Contest #1: VFW Patriot’s Pen

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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.