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.

 

acceptance
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!

 

In middle school research, pictures are winning

squirrels

In the game of middle school student research, pictures are winning and words are losing. I have noticed increasingly that students, when they are researching a topic for a writing assignment, spend a lot of time not reading articles. Many spend their time looking at pictures. Or watching videos. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve noticed students scrolling down full screens of thumbprint images. Here’s a typical conversation we would have as I walked around the room and noticed students doing their research with Google Images.

Me: “What are you doing?”

Student: “I’m doing my research.”

Me: “What are you trying to find out?”

Student: “What gray squirrels look like.”

Me: “So why don’t you Google gray squirrels?”

Student: “I did.”

Me: “But Google it in web search and find articles.”

Student: “But I Googled it here instead and now I’m just looking at the pictures to find out what gray squirrels look like.”

And that got me thinking because the student had a point. I think. It made me wonder whether perusing images could be more authentic research than reading. So I had a debate with my selves: my old school self and my new media self.

Old school self: No, reading is better.

New media self: But couldn’t the result of reading simply be ingesting and recording what someone else has written about what gray squirrels look like?

Old school self: Yes, true, but don’t forget that in looking at all these images, you are just looking at what someone else has decided for whatever reason is a gray squirrel.What if some of them you’re looking at aren’t actually gray squirrels? How do you know they’re gray squirrels?

New media self: Well, in an article, how do we know the author actually knew what he was writing about?

Old school self: That’s why we choose authoritative sources. “National Geographic,” for example, instead of answers.com. 

Authoritative sources. There’s really the issue. It seems kids don’t know how to locate authoritative sources. Looking at images is easier. And then they get stuck. Scrolling endlessly through mind-numbing screenfuls of tiny images.

True, an exhausting variety of visual information, whether it’s the printed word, the image, or the video, simply comes with the Internet territory. So why not use it all to benefit our research? Perhaps.

The thing is this: I’m just afraid middle school students will take the path of least resistance and over-rely on images for the bulk of their learning every time they need to do research.

Your thoughts? Am I over-reacting or noticing a troublesome trend?

A Facebook Status Can Be a Starting Point for Hesitant Writers

 

steinar-engeland-128831 (2)
Photo: Steinar Engeland

 

Originally published March 16, 2016 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation

One of my students wrote a 150-word personal essay. It was heartfelt. It was raw. It was also a Facebook status.

So I’m a little confused. That’s because this student—let’s call her Lisa—often struggles to complete most of the writing I assign in seventh grade language arts. Regardless of the topic or the discourse of writing, Lisa fights to come up with the ideas, let alone the words, to complete the assignments. On several occasions this year, she has visited my classroom during study hall for one-on-one help with her assignments.

In fact, just two weeks ago, I asked my students to write the first draft of a personal narrative essay. For writing ideas, I included several prompts from which they could choose, and if they didn’t like any of the prompts, they could create their own. Lisa has yet to turn this assignment in, yet she did . . . on her own . . . unprompted . . . write this Facebook status, an extremely personal—albeit brief—essay that expresses her belief in the importance of friendship, her deep concerns about our society’s preoccupation with physical perfection, and the dangers of self-destructive behaviors.

Her status is actually a solid start to a keenly insightful personal essay or memoir. The status is clearly and succinctly written and grammatically clean. I sense the voice of the writer bubbling to the surface through her carefully chosen words.  It has an existential, reflective quality that we often discount, dismiss, or “test out of” our kids today.

So what happened? What possessed Lisa to write in her free time . . . over spring break, no less?! Answer: the “authenticity” of the experience. She knew she had an audience. She knew her work would be read and pondered, and that it would elicit “reactions.” She knew it might make a difference, it might matter.

Current writing pedagogy advocates that teachers provide authentic writing experiences to increase student engagement and motivation. As a fifth-year rookie teacher, I try to involve my students in similar experiences as much as I can, and I’m gradually getting better at providing more and more of these opportunities. For example, I post their writing in the room and hallway, and I’ve begun to post their writing in a blog on my classroom website.  One student will have an article published soon in a local newspaper. We enter contests. Now, Lisa’s status has shown me that social media can offer authenticity as well.

Yes, many (myself included) consider social media a diversion that primarily engages young people in abbreviated, often pointless, conversation. Much of what one sees while scrolling Facebook, especially among young people, is brief, inconsequential texting. But occasionally, you find a gem of a status like Lisa’s that surprises you. Cling to these authentic experiences, incorporate them into a lesson, or otherwise use them to show hesitant writers that their thinking on social media can be consequential and have greater purpose.

Lisa’s personal essay, as it reads now as her Facebook status, doesn’t contain a narrative, a story . . . yet. But it does contain the impetus, the spark necessary to ignite the story that is already there in her memory and is waiting to be told. When she weaves that story into her status, she’ll have a personal essay bonfire that will illuminate the writer she is becoming. And she’ll have one fewer missing assignment on the list.

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.