Imagine getting a 15-year-old to think hard about the meaning of citizenship. Imagine getting her to turn off her iPod, sign out of Facebook, and spend a few hours grappling with really serious questions. What are the laws of life? What does my father mean to me? What does it mean to be an American?
Now imagine getting another 30,000 teenagers to do the same thing.
Now imagine getting them to do it every year.
American kids live in a media-saturated society where technology is corroding already-short attention spans. In the age of Twitter and YouTube, it seems more and more difficult to get young people to stop and spend time thinking seriously. How do you get a bunch of wired adolescents to ponder serious, complicated, and meaningful topics? One way, donors are finding, is through an old-fashioned extracurricular activity: the incentivized student essay contest.
“One of the most popular ways of engaging students, historically, has been the essay contest,” says Larry Tise. “And one of the most effective ways of reaching students is to motivate them with prizes.” Tise would know. He is the president of the International Congress of Distinguished Awards, and has studied, advised, and administered prizes for 15 years.
Growing numbers of donors are coming to agree with Tise. They have seen the ability of student essay contests to foster appreciation of ideas and principles that public schools have neglected. And they are applying their resources accordingly.
Character and Citizenship
A few years ago, John M. Templeton Jr.,M.D., president and chairman of the John Templeton Foundation, approached Victoria Hughes, president of the Bill of Rights Institute. According to Kimon Sargeant, vice president of human sciences at the Templeton Foundation, they discussed “the importance of teaching the links between character and citizenship in the United States—a topic thats no longer part of most school curricula.”
Born of those conversations was the “Being an American essay contest,” which asks high school students to answer a simple question: “What civic value do you believe is most essential to being an American?” Begun in 2006 as a pilot program in Kansas, Texas, and Virginia, the contest now reaches students in all 50 states, the U.S. territories, and U.S. military and diplomatic schools overseas.
Jason Wilson, director of the contest at the Bill of Rights Institute, notes that the contest is intended to deepen the “civic knowledge and appreciation of students across the country.” The Bill of Rights Institute measures the contest’s impact in a number of ways, all of which, he says, demonstrate the contest’s effectiveness in strengthening an “understanding of, and commitment to, our Founding documents and principles.”
- 50,000 students have entered the contest since its inception in 2005.
- 30,000 students participated in the 2008–09 contest.
- 82 percent of students agree that, by writing the essay, they “deepened their understanding of American values, heroes, and the Founding documents.”
- 50 percent of students reported that the contest prompted further discussions and debates with fellow students or family members on what it means to be an American.
Much of the contests success comes from the incentives it offers. Students and teachers in each of the contests nine regions are eligible for prizes. The first-place essay in each region wins a total of $10,000—$5,000 for the student and $5,000 for his or her teacher. Similarly, the second-place essay in each region wins $2,500 for the student and $2,500 for the teacher; the third-place essay, $1,250 apiece. Moreover, the top three essay writers from each region are invited, with their teachers, on an expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. Winners of the 2008–09 contest visited the National Archives, the Supreme Court, and the United States Capitol. Speakers at the awards ceremony included Templeton, Juan Williams, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
To further spread interest in the contest, the Bill of Rights Institute offers participation prizes to teachers and schools. Teachers with 50 or more of their students participating in the contest receive a Bill of Rights wallet card for each student-participant. The two schools with the highest percentage of student participation receive the Bill of Rights Institute curriculum, an eight-volume set of materials on the Founders and the principles that guided them.
Truman Anderson, president of the Stuart Family Foundation, another major supporter of the contest, likewise highlights the effects of the contest. “Many students dont ordinarily reflect on the privilege of being an American,” he says. “Getting students to articulate for themselves the value of American citizenship is one of the most important things we can do to prompt students to think about what makes America exceptional.”
“Every generation needs to learn what makes the American experiment distinct, says Sargeant, and how our actions as citizens can contribute to its vitality.”
Laws to Live By
Sargeant also serves as administrator of the “Laws of Life” essay contests, which ask students to reflect about core values “that we take with us wherever we go and whatever we do.” Unlike the Being an American contest, the Laws of Life essay has no set questions. When he launched the first Laws of Life essay contest in Franklin County, Tennessee, Sir John Templeton said, “We don’t tell the young people what to write about in their essays. We ask them to tell us. This is what the Laws of Life essay contest is all about: offering young people an opportunity to reflect and write about their principles.”
Though the Templeton Foundation offers centralized administrative support, the Laws of Life contests are largely decentralized. Each secures its own funding locally, sets up its own prizes, appoints its own judges, and features its own awards ceremony. “Sir John Templeton’s hope,” says Sargeant, “was that people and communities around the world would develop their own versions of the essay contest, and give young people the opportunity to discover—or understand more clearly—the principles and maxims that make a positive difference in their lives.”
Sir John Templeton’s hope is being realized on a global scale. Today, there are approximately 100 contests in more than 30 countries. Last year alone, more than 150,000 students wrote a Laws of Life essay.
Fathers and Families
Another essay contest intended to inspire meaningful reflection comes from The National Center for Fathering and its Father of the Year Essay Contest, which invites first- through twelfth-grade students to write on the theme, “What My Father Means to Me.” “There is conclusive research about the importance of fathers to their children,” says contest manager Lucy Bloom. “But research doesn’t often engage the heart or spur an individual on to greater things.”
The essay contest is designed to do both. “When an individual dad reads the words of his child and how that child feels about him, he becomes even more motivated and energized to be the dad his child wants and needs,” says Bloom. “Sometimes dads see themselves in the essays of other children and learn new ways to be a dad or realize—sometimes for the first time—how important they really are to their children.”
Crucially, the center and its partners engage community volunteers in the reading and reviewing process. “With thousands of essays, theres a lot of reading to do,” says Bloom. “Companies and other organizations gather volunteers who read essays together and then share their favorites with the group. They often return to their professional lives and seek to make changes to encourage fathers or to remove barriers from father involvement.” Winning essays can be viewed at the centers website.
The contest has sponsors and participants in several markets. Its home base is in Kansas City, with satellites in Minneapolis–St. Paul, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. It works through schools, getting teachers to involve students with the contest. Major League Baseball teams provide forums for recognition of the contest winners, such as announcing the winners on-field before a game. “It was a natural fit to tie fathers and baseball together,” says Ben Aken, senior director of community relations for the Kansas City Royals. “A lot of us came to baseball through our dads.” The Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, and Washington Nationals also recognize local contest winners.
Significant funding comes from corporate giving programs, including Target in Minnesota and American Family Insurance in Minnesota and Kansas City. The contest in Washington, D.C., is funded by Together Is Better, which promotes healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood.
One more thing. Since 1996, contest participants have submitted more than one million essays.
Faith and Freedom
The First Freedom Center of Richmond, Virginia, invites students to ponder what Thomas Jefferson once called the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights, the freedom of religion. The “First Freedom Student Competition,” now 16 years old, is the brainchild of one of the center’s advisors, a former school superintendent. It asks high school students “to examine the history and current significance of religious freedom,” says Isabelle Kinnard, the centers vice president for education. “The students must do historical research, analyze the law, and show us why this core value has a place in their lives.”
The center helps encourage student participation by marketing the contest to “high school teachers of social studies and English, guidance counselors, private and home-school associations, and American schools abroad,” says Kinnard. “The annual essay topic is also linked to the curriculum,” she adds, “so that teachers can introduce the topic in the classroom and then assign the essay as a written class assignment.”
Though the contest started as a regional competition, it has expanded statewide and, for the last four years, nationwide. “It now attracts over 2,500 public and private high school and home-schooled students from across the country, and from American schools and students as far away as Zambia and Thailand.” To help such geographically dispersed students prepare for the contest, the center’s website also offers “bibliographic resources, a lesson plan, and grade-appropriate (and educational standards–sensitive) supporting teaching materials.”
One of the contest’s major supporters is the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation, based in Richmond, which will sponsor the contest for the next three years. The foundation expressed that it had been interested in the competitions success for several years. “In fact, before considering a grant award, the board carefully reviewed the bios of the past award winners along with their essays,” says Kinnard. At the foundation’s request, the center provides the foundation “up-to-date information on the latest competition news.”
“I chose to use your essay contest as a hook for teaching a history class on the evolution of freedom in the United States,” says one teacher at an alternative charter school that caters to struggling students—dropouts, substance abusers, and teenage mothers. “The idea of being able to express their opinions on the topic of freedom at a national level was an authentic motivator for them. The topic brought about many meaningful and in-depth discussions and activities in the classroom.”
Michael Leaser is an associate editor in the Center for Family and Religion at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.