Writing for Authentic Audiences #3: Youth Writing Contests

A sense of audience—knowing that someone beyond the teacher will read what the students have written—is crucial to the success of writing workshop.  – Nancie Atwell, In the Middle 

In her book, In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning about Writing, Reading, and Adolescents, Nancie Atwell suggests seventeen ways student writers can go public. Number one on the list is photocopies shared with friends and family. Number seventeen is blog entries (my personal favorite).

Atwell’s number eight suggestion is student writing contests—from local to national. Any teacher who keeps her eyes open will see there are a variety of contests for young writers out there. I prefer the local ones because there is the added benefit of students becoming engaged with our community. Also, it is easier for me to see if the contest is a commercial enterprise or a humanitarian one.

Sometimes writing contests can seem like an unwelcome distraction to English teachers. We think, I don’t have time for a contest! I’m preparing my student for the benchmark exam or I’m in the middle of a serious unit of study here. When those thoughts intrude, repeat to yourself like a mantra: Students need a real audience in order to write well. As a writer yourself, do you want to write exclusively for assessment purposes? I know I do not—and that’s coming from someone who is pretty good at those kinds of tests. What about the student who doesn’t like writing to begin with?

The two contests my students participate in almost every year are the local Young Poets Contest—usually in April for National Poetry Month—and the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League’s Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Young Writer’s Contest. Every year I almost decide not to participate in one or both contests because I worry that I am straying from the standards or from the approved curriculum or from whatever my PLC is doing. However, I talk myself out of it and we proceed. Repeat: Students need a real audience in order to write well.  Constant test preparation will not do it.

Teaching Tips for Contest Writing

  1. Make a Do /What Chart: Teach them how to read (and reread) the contest requirements in order to fulfill them. Think of it like a job application. You can’t leave the required bits blank. Reading directions carefully takes on a whole new importance when there is a cash prize or public recognition involved. In my class we read the prompt and complete a “Do / What” chart. With seventh graders, you have to remind them to refer back to the chart constantly. They aren’t done until everything is checked off. Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 6.56.05 AMScreen Shot 2016-02-05 at 6.56.20 AM
  2. Provide Context: Give students some context for what they are writing. In the case of the Martin Luther King Jr. Young Writer’s Contest, we read and discussed his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Click here for a look at the reading and discussion protocol I used this year.
  3. Study the Pros: Use mentor texts: For this project, each student was required to write an essay and a poem. I found great professional examples of each:
  4.  Try “Writing Off the Page”: This is another strategy I learned from Nancie Atwell. The idea is to “let your mind play” as you jot initial ideas apart from the first draft. For me, the best part of “off the page” writing is that it helps students get over that fear of facing the blank page. Of course, I write my “off the page” beside them.12-7 Writing Off the Page
  5. Write Beside Them: I try not to have my students write anything that I haven’t tried myself. This essay was a particularly tough challenge for me to write, but writing with my students helps in two important ways: First, I can anticipate potential pitfalls for them. Second, I am demonstrating that I too am part of our community of writers. We don’t stop writing when we leave school. We don’t automatically become expert writers upon high school or college graduation. Writing well is a lifelong journey. The added bonus is that students like hearing the teacher’s writing. At least, I’ve found that to be true in my case. Sometimes they even clap! For my example essay, click here.
  6. Give Concrete Ideas: Some student writers (but not all) need a way to get started. Without teaching a formulaic, five-paragraph essay, there are still some ways to give students a structure or or starting point. For the essay and poetry ideas I used this year, click this link: MLK Contest Student Materials. For the essay, my go-to strategy is “Save the Last Word.” Here’s how it works:
    • Students choose one or two “golden lines,” particularly compelling or thoughtful phrases or sentences from the anchor text. In this case, they chose from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
    • Next, they write a response to the line(s), answering questions like: What does that line mean? Why did you select it? Why is that passage particularly meaningful to you? To our community? To the world? How does it connect to the theme of the contest?
  7. Celebrate! One good thing about participating in local contests is that you usually get at least one actual winner. This year seven students won prizes in the Martin Luther King, Jr. contest. Those students had the opportunity to stand on a stage and receive public recognition for their writing. Two read their pieces to a large audience over a microphone. You might be wondering, what about the kids who didn’t win? I’ve never observed acrimony among the other students in the clas. The general feeling is pride for classmates who did win. Again, that is another outcome of being a community of writers who work together. Even though it’s a contest, we aren’t really competing. We are collaborating.

I am proud of my student writers, so I will leave you with a quote from one of the winning essays. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

So what can you do to contribute? From this point on, stand up against prejudice. No doubt some point in your life, you have either been affected by it or perhaps have witnessed it happening to someone else, so next time, do something; help people in need, for if you do it, it inspires others to continue on where you left off just as we continue the fight against racism after Martin Luther King. When you see people being treated unfairly, fight back. Inspire others and follow the spirit and attitude of how Martin Luther King approached things: with peace and respect. – Natasha, age 13


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