This year’s theme will resonate with students as it recalls the national conversation about patriotism and specifically how we show patriotism toward our national flag during sports activities (think NFL kneelers) and other public events. However, don’t limit your students to that angle. Your kids will get creative with the topic, so allow them that freedom to interpret the prompt how they see fit.
The deadline for this year’s contest is October 31 and while that sounds like a distant point in the future, once school starts, it rolls around pretty quickly.
Here’s my checklist for how I go about introducing the contest each year:
Announce the theme the first or second week of school just to let it brew in students’ minds.
Facilitate a class discussion where we discuss prior knowledge relating to the prompt.
Brainstorm some possible angles for the essay. (If kids have a hard time coming up with ideas, that’s okay. We still have a month before we attack the contest in earnest, usually around the first of October.)
Set a day where the work will really begin. This is usually one month before the due date. This allows plenty of time for drafting, protocol peer review, revising, and editing. It also gives us plenty of time to send drafts home for parents to read objectively. Students often become so close to their material that they need someone totally new to the project with whom to share it. I have students attach a note that says “Fresh Eyes Needed” to explain the project to parents.
I also usually make a phone call to our local VFW chapter just to let them know that my students will be participating again and to confirm the due dates. The post commander usually comes in person to pick up the entries, so the phone call helps to solidify that pick-up date.
I assign this essay as an activity that only my seventh graders do to increase the students’ incentive to win. And since our local VFW recognizes three of them with cash awards, their chances of winning are high!
First through third place winners receive $100, $75, and $50 each, respectively, as well as a nice medallion and certificate. Our local chapter is so generous and I appreciate their sponsorship of the contest. Check with your local chapter to learn how they are able to support your students.
The three winning entries from my class then advance to the next level for judging. Unfortunately, my first-place winner last year missed progressing to the next level by only one point! Nationwide, 132,000 students entered last year’s contest where the grand prize national winner receives $5,000.
So there you have it. The 2018-19 VFW Patriot’s Pen Essay Contest theme and a few details. For much more about this contest, including information about mentor texts and what the judges look for, click here. If you haven’t had your students compete in many contests before, click here for my post about how motivating writing contests can really be.
I’m a believer in writing contests and I’m always on the lookout for new ones. In fact, tomorrow I’ll be posting about a Holocaust-related contest you might be interested in. I hope you’ll click follow to learn about it.
Thanks for reading! Click like if this contest is one you’d like to try. For high schoolers, click here to learn about the Voice of Democracy essay competition, where next year’s theme is Why My Vote Matters.
If you have a question or need more information, please respond below and I’ll get right to you with an answer.
An any-genre writing contest just for your 8th graders
Full disclosure: this is a contest I have NOT tried with my students… yet. I’m a member of NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and for some reason, I just found out about the group’s Promising Young Writers contest a few days ago while surfing their website. You can join NCTE here, and then learn more about this contest here, but for now, here’s a consolidation of what this contest is all about, prompt, deadline, and other details.
Age Range: Eighth-graders only. That’s interesting, isn’t it?! I think if I market this contest to my students as a “rite of passage” contest, as in “Not every middle schooler gets to do this contest, just the older ones…” then it might add some caché to the competition. My eighth-graders know that their final year in my class is a doozy with our “human rights dissertation,” but that project ends in the spring. The fall semester could use a similar premium project just for eighth-graders, and this could be it.
Topic or Prompt: The 2018 prompt was “Truth and Reconciliation.” The prompt for 2019 will be available October 1-15 (I emailed), so check back then. However, we can infer from the 2018 prompt about the nature and quality of the next. The prompt and its description is quite lengthy. Here’s how the prompt is introduced:
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1997), former Chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, has proposed that the “future” of our planet depends on “forgiveness.” Writing is a powerful tool for bringing difficult truths to light and for helping people, in response to those truths, to reconcile with others, as well as with themselves. This year, we invite you to write about, and to write for, truth and reconciliation in your life.
Wow, right?! Sounds meaty to me… full of opportunities to think deeply. This intro was followed up with some ideas to develop the theme. Some of the questions it posed are:
Have I ever been forgiven and experienced reconciliation? How did that come about? Why was I forgiven? How did I learn from the experience?
What is a difficult truth that I (or my family, faith group, friends, community) have faced? How did I come to accept that truth? What was that process? What were the effects of accepting that truth?
Have I (or my family, faith group, friends, community) ever been healed by truth?
What aspects of my life need truth and reconciliation? How could this be achieved? What obstacles may need to be dealt with? What will the benefits be?
The prompt also provided a reference text for students to use. Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness. In addition, the site’s Note for Teachers suggested that teachers use the literature and resources on the NCTE website.
Mentor Texts: The website does not currently provide winning entries, which is a bummer. However, I emailed NCTE to find out if that would be a possibility and yes, I was told that the committee will select a couple of winning entries and post them on the site. Yay! Knowing what the judges have awarded in the past really provides some extra scaffolding and differentiation for some students. Others, of course, don’t need the mentor texts; they just take off on their own.
Skills Addressed: This is interesting. According to these guidelines, any genre can be submitted. A student can submit a personal essay, graphic novel, podcast, scientific report, eulogy, sermon, letter to a politician, etc. I noticed that poetry was not listed; however, I also asked about that in my email, and was told that poetry can be used.
Judges grade the writing holistically. Your students need to pay special attention to:
and my personal favorite, style
Start your workdays for this contest with mini-lessons on these key elements their writing will be judged on.
Another interesting note: at the bottom of the “Note to Teachers,” teachers are encouraged to allow their students to submit any appropriate writing done outside of school. I’m not sure if or how that could work. Again, I’ve not done this contest before with my students so this year will be experimental. I will know so much more in a year!
Length: Maximum four pages.
Deadline: In 2017, the final deadline was February 15, but submissions could be sent in electronically beginning December 15 by using the “Submit An Entry” button on this page. And, based on my experience, this should be the final deadline for my class. (With Christmas break followed by a brand new semester, no one is going to want to drag out something from the previous month and then finish and turn in during February. Not happening!)
A timeline for teacher planning purposes is provided. Last year, it suggested students begin their first drafts November 15. I think this should be moved up to middle October, however, to allow enough time for revisions prior to the December 15 date.
I checked with NCTE about deadlines for next year, and I was told deadlines would mirror those from 2018. In fact, I was also told to check the site in early October for updates.
Also, the contest organizers request that teachers send in a limited number of entries. In other words, you can’t send everyone’s in. There’s a chart on the website that shows how many entries teachers are allowed to send. Me? I can send one since I have fewer than 100 students. If you have 100-199 students, you may send two. It scales up from there. Teachers with 500 or more can send in six entries.
This being the case, adjust your schedule accordingly! You may need more time to do your selections, especially when you find out that students (drumroll, please!) must send in ANOTHER piece of writing, the one they consider their best effort. It can also be in any genre, but must be in a different genre from the themed prompt entry. Both entries must be clearly marked, “Best” and “Themed.” The “Best” entry should be no longer than six pages. Gee… this contest has a lot of interesting rules and I’m ready to take it on; however, I may need a student to help me keep all the dates, requirements, and myriad details in order.
Prizes: Results are announced in May. Works that are judged “superior” receive a Certificate of Recognition and their name and your school’s name appears on the NCTE website.
Okay, I know I’m going to get a bunch of groans when I tell my students that there are no actual prizes, such as cash or publication. And, yes, it’s a pity that NCTE doesn’t provide more incentive. Still, this is a notable contest simply due to its sponsor. This is a contest a winning student should let their high school counselors know about so the award can be listed in their transcript file.
I love writing these posts when I find a new contest because they help me get my thoughts in line for entering my students’ work later. It’s totally possible I’ve left out some pertinent information, especially since this contest has such a unique procedure and process. If I discover any such omissions, I will include them in a future short post, and if you’re following me, you’ll get a handy notification of that when I do.
Thanks for reading! Click “Like” if you’re interested in this contest. Leave a comment to share your ideas or share this post to spread the word about this contest.
I enjoy recognizing students for their on-time, on-target writing
Last year, sometime during the second quarter, I decided to start awarding students for their hard work on their weekly written homework assignments. I came up with four awards to recognize students for being on-time and for doing a good job. The awards and the skills they address follow:
The Annotator Award for their annotating of the nonfiction article that was assigned
The Most Interesting Lead in the World for the lead they wrote to begin the response to the prompt of the assignment
The Voice Award for using their unique writer’s voice and not being afraid to take a risk by showing that voice
The Extra Award for their proficiency in some other area
Using memegenerator.net, I created some memes to put on a bulletin board in my classroom. The bulletin board is shown above.
This weekly recognition has had good results. Students like to check the board when they enter my classroom on Mondays to see who won the awards in the previous week’s assignment.
I post the student’s work next to their award’s sign, and make sure to write feedback and notes in the margins. Sometimes I highlight the “golden lines” that really stood out to me as I reviewed their writing.
I’ll write more about these particular weekly assignments in a separate post coming soon, but with today’s post, I wanted to relate the importance and positive outcomes of providing these weekly awards.
I figured that if students found motivation and agency when they completed their submissions for the various contests we entered, they would do the same if I treated these weekly assignments like mini-contests. That’s exactly what’s happened.
It’s been a good thing and one I plan to continue for the 2018-19 year.
Follow my blog for more ideas and notes about my experiences teaching middle school English Language Arts. Thanks for reading and click like if you found this useful or leave a comment. It’s good to know what kinds of posts are resonating with my readers.
Don’t forget to investigate any contest opportunities that may be available from a local writers group in your area. My principal received a flyer from a member of the Ozarks Writers League last fall. The flyer gave the basic details for the league’s annual youth writing contest. I’m always up for the extra motivation that contests provide for my students, so I added some projects to their “Writers Workshop” project list that could be entered in the OWL contest.
The contest had two categories, poetry and short story. Both of these categories are ones that I can always devote more time to, so I jumped at the chance to have students write poems and narratives.
Students could write on any topic, which really gets them excited to create! Of course, for some, that kind of leeway is overwhelming. For those kids, ideas will usually surface if we just have a conversation about their lives, families, hobbies, or memories.
As for poetry, there is a great poetry generator at PoeticPower.com. And to be honest, students will typically use the generator to get started, but will often veer from the templates once they get the juices flowing.
For the OWL contest, I copied off the flyer and kept several for kids to reference as needed. I also found some mentor texts and had those available as well. Those examples were not previous OWL entries (since we hadn’t entered it before and OWL doesn’t post winning entries), but merely mentor texts I just collected on my own.
Even though there were only two categories in which to enter, there were several awards given within those categories. Those categories were:
Short Story: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, Honorable Mention for Attribution, Honorable Mention for Characterization, Honorable Mention for Romance, Honorable Mention for Empathy, Honorable Mention for Humor.
When the contest deadline came around, I had to pay extra attention to the small print in the guidelines. The league required paper copies of all entries. They also had a short list of basic identifying information to be attached to each entry. To make this easier, I made a slip with blanks for students to fill out that we then paper-clipped to their entry. By the time the entries were ready, I had a stack of stories and poems about two inches thick!
According to OWL members who I spoke with at the awards ceremony, not many area schools participate in the contest. That’s okay… it just left us with several opportunities to win.
Here are the winners! Gabby F. placed 3rd in Short Story for her work “Foster Child”; Brooke S. won Honorable Mention in Characterization for Short Story for her work “Anxiety”; Zack S. placed 3rd in Poetry for his work “Sometimes on a Boat in the Fog”; Cristina H. placed 1st Honorable Mention in Poetry for her work “This is My World”; Sara C. placed Honorable Mention for Romance for her work “The Hopeless Romantic.”
OWL held a brief awards ceremony in February. Students who were able to attend received a certificate and small cash prizes that ranged from $5 to $20. I hyped the results up by posting the winning entries on the wall outside my class and recognizing the kids at an end-of-the-week assembly.
I plan to have students enter the contest again next year. Contests provide motivation and build confidence. Those are reasons enough to enter any contest, even the small local ones. Do some internet research or inquire on social media to learn about any writing contests for students in your local area!
Thanks for reading! Click “like,” leave a comment and check out my posts about other writing contests for middle school students. Find those by clicking “Writing Contest” in the list of categories in the sidebar on the right side of this page.
Finally… here’s that follow-up post I promised plus the winning essay entry
Last winter, I wrote a post about a contest that my seventh-graders enter each fall: the Patriot’s Pen youth essay contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. At the conclusion of that post, I wrote that I would update you on the results of that contest. Well, ahem… I’m just now getting to that. Whoops.
The 2017 Patriot’s Pen essay contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars was another success this year. The first-place winner in this seventh-grade contest was Avery F. Second-place went to Bella F. and third-place went to Logan C. The winners were awarded certificates, pins, and $100, $75 and $50 cash prizes, respectively. This year’s theme was “America’s Gift to My Generation.”
The awards were presented by Hollister VFW Post Commander, Gerald Long (at right in photo below), and VFW State Inspector Paul Frampton (at left).
Avery F.’s first-place essay follows:
America’s Gift to my Generation
A whisper; a promising whisper. It doesn’t promise death, but rather life. It doesn’t kill but rather sacrifices. For when there’s something that we love, we really truly love, we must do any and everything we can to protect it.
For we are Americans. We grew up with a freedom many people only dream of having. Our ancestors fought many brutal wars so that we could lavish in a country and all be united. A country where diversity is alive; where we all can consider ourselves brothers and sisters, children of God despite our differences.
This is America’s gift to my generation: a country that was taught by the promises, the brave actions that good people like my great-grandfather, a veteran gunner on the USS Franklin during World War II, fought for. America was raised by people who wanted to ring the best out of the world and people from different cultures with different traditions and the same desire: a place to possess rights to embrace the different cultures, traditions, and languages that could someday, today be admired by people of all sorts.
When America was first born, there were seven key founding fathers. These men imagined a country of peace in diversity. They had the courage to separate themselves from injustice because they hoped for a country blessed with freedom where people were able to believe in what they wanted to. These men made a proclamation for “we the people” to follow known as the U.S. Constitution, a document that establishes our rights as equals, the privileges they fought for us to have.
Those whispers, those promising whispers don’t promise death; for when a battle is being fought, nothing can be quite positively assured. They rather promise life. When brave men and women volunteer for the military, they show their love, compassion that they have for their family, not just their blood family, but the family that we the people of the United States create when we unite ourselves as one under God. For when there’s something that we love, we really truly love, we must do any and everything we can to protect it. This is America’s gift to my generation.
I hope you’ll consider having your students enter this contest this fall. There is so much room for creativity within each year’s provided theme. Plus, my students love contests and especially this one with its cash prizes and recognition. Next year will be the fourth year my kids have participated. It’s truly a highlight of the year!
Thanks for reading! If you found this informative, click “like” and feel free to leave a comment. Follow this blog for updates on the 2018-19 VFW Patriot’s Pen contest. I already have some details that I’ll be posting soon. Stay tuned!
I’ve posted the poem below that one of my eighth-grade students wrote, which won Gold and Silver Key Awards, respectively, at the regional and national levels of the 2018 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Read yesterday’s post here to find out more about the contest, such as guidelines, tips, and how to enter. Hint: it’s more involved than other contests.
Colors by Brooke S.
“Claire, what’s your favorite color?”
Because it reminds me of when I was little.
When I was happy.
“It’s just pretty.”
“What’s your least favorite color?”
The color of the containers prescription pills come in.
Because it symbolizes dying and death.
Because it’s the color of weakness and vulnerability.
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?”
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.
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!