The Competition

I’m thinking out loud here.  I’m hoping to start a conversation.   Here goes.

 The high school where my husband teaches recently hosted a group of teachers and students from France.  In talking with the kids, he discovered how surprised they were by the level of competitiveness in American society in general and school in particular.  The drive to beat out others and prove you’re the best perplexed and kind of amused them, my husband said.  They could see it in sports, but when it came to learning and creating? 

I remembered that conversation when I came across a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times.  We’ve all read (and maybe written!) articles deploring how test-driven schools have become, but this essay was especially moving to me.  Claire Needle Hollander, a middle school English teacher, for years has successfully used novels like “Sounder” and  “The Red Pony” with her marginalized students, students who understand better than she can a book like “Of Mice and Men” with its “terrible logic—the giving way of dreams to fate.” 

Yet the pressures of test performance have forced her to cut way back on the amount of real literature she can teach.  Rather than helping her kids learn to love reading, to experience the way a story can hack that old frozen sea inside, she’s teaching them how to pick the right multiple-choice answer.  In the frantic effort to raise test scores, she says, “We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound.”     

Which brings me, in a very round-about way, to writing contests for kids, another place where we quantify their efforts.  Of course, there’s a huge difference between standardized tests and contests, which students enter voluntarily.  I recently judged two competitions, both sponsored by libraries, and I’m here to say I was the mega winner.   The work I read will inspire me for months to come—its earnestness, its exuberance, its gravity and playfulness and the sense that everything matters.  Matters a lot.  As a  writer, I felt more than ever the tremendous responsibility I have to deliver my readers the highest quality work I’m capable of.

But as a judge, my heart got a real work-out.  Rewarding one child inevitably means hurting another.  While I know as well as anyone that the growing-up road is pitted with potholes, I had a terrible time knowing some writers would feel their work wasn’t good enough.  It made me remember when my own daughters took part in Power of the Pen competitions.  I was leery of the whole business, even when their teacher explained, “Kids who are athletic get recognized all the time.  This is a way to celebrate our quiet, creative kids.”

Well yes.  If you win.  Since I write for adults too, I’ve entered lots of contests sponsored by literary journals.  I’ve won a few, lost far more—but my old skin is tough by now. I even know enough to be pleased by a nice rejection!  Yet I worry about younger, more tender souls who put their hearts on the page.  Is picking one over another really the best way to nourish them?     

Those writers whose work I read were clearly all readers.  I could see it in their vocabulary, their pacing, their cadences—these were kids busy metabolizing language and story-telling.  You could say that, in this sense, they’re winners already. I consoled myself by hoping that the process of completing their stores had been exhilarating in and of itself.  I eased my guilt by  thinking some of them probably hadn’t know what they were capable of, and now they’d get hooked, and write more and more.  Maybe not winning (I couldn’t bring myself to use that L word) would spur some to work even harder—after all, if it’s instant gratification you’re after, forget being a writer.  Kids are resilient.  And hey, it’s never to young to learn you can’t always win, right? 

This, I’m sure, is what all the dedicated librarians, teachers and parents who support these kids hope, too.  And then of course, there are the winners, so talented and promising and deserving of recogntion.  It’s impossible to measure the boost that external validation can give to a writer (just ask me!)

Still, I fret.  With all the competitiveness in our children’s lives—fourth graders prepping for the SATs, eleven years olds specializing in a single sport—do we really need to make art a contest, too?  With the pressure they face in the classroom, are we adding to their sense that everything they do can be quantified and ranked?  

Please chime in!  Teachers, librarians, parents, kid-lovers—what do you think?  On balance, are contests positive or negative things?  Are there other, possibly better, ways to publicly encourage and recognize kids’ creativity? 

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Speaking of competitons: Tricia’s middle grade novel “What Happened on Fox Street” was recently named a finalist for two state awards.  Hypocrite that she is, she would love to win! 

5 Responses to The Competition

  1. I’m late to the discussion, Tricia, but wanted to thank you for getting me thinking about this. I’m very anti-standardized testing and am tired of all the competition in practically every aspect of kids’ lives. However, I never even thought about writing contests as competition. Of course they are. I’d like to think, though, that they can be sparks for kids continuing on a writing path, and not just for the “winners.” A writing contest could very well prove to a child she’s capable of working hard and completing an entry, and fire her up to try write something else.

    I still haven’t “won” a publishing contract but I keep writing books because I love the challenge of writing an even better book.

  2. Yours are all wise voices and you have cheered me up considerably. I still will think twice, though, before agreeing to be a judge!

  3. Really interesting topic, Tricia. As a former teacher, I can’t talk too much about standardized testing without getting red-faced and ranty. Not a fan.

    As far as competition goes, anything can of course be taken too far. But while it’s hard to see kids try so hard and then (in their minds) fail when they don’t win, I feel that with the right teacher/mentor, they still learn a valuable lesson. Competition in school isn’t just for sports – look at band, choir, theater. There are SO many competitions for those activities year-round! In many (most, I hope?) cases, the students grow and learn from those experiences, win or lose. I think it’s got to be the same with writing.

  4. Interesting discussion! I’ve always thought that writing competitions encourage children to write. But I do agree that there is a downside to our competition driven society. Our kids are constantly being evaluated and compared and it’s happening at a younger and younger age. It doesn’t foster cooperation or creativity. Something to think about, for sure. Thanks for sharing this perspective!

  5. Karen B. Schwartz

    I totally get what you’re saying about the quest to teach to the test. My 4th grader has missed out on weeks of valuable instruction time both to prep for and take NY standardized tests.

    As far as writing contests for kids go, I don’t think that kind of competition hurts. Only the top written pieces will be published in real life. I think that the kids with the drive to write will keep writing. Sometimes all it takes is one person really believing in them. Even if that person is themselves.