Most education doesn’t prioritize passion. Maybe it can’t - in a traditional middle or high school environment, teachers are challenged to juggle the different interests of many (and often too many) students, in addition to any number of external requirements (school and statewide learning goals, college readiness, etc). Yes, a great teacher can navigate these obstacles and help many of their students find inspiration in the material, but we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t acknowledge the reality that this is exceptional- most of the time, most students aren’t passionate about most of their learning.
It’s not hard to see that when students lack passion, their work suffers. They’re more easily distracted, more inclined to careless mistakes, less able to internalize the material, less willing to give it the time that it deserves. These kinds of poor results can generate negative self-talk, which prompts students to further disengage. It's also a cycle that can make the many hours that students dedicate to schoolwork exhausting and demoralizing- leaving students drained and leading to a whole host of other issues.
This certainly describes a lot of my experiences growing up. That’s why, looking back, I feel especially grateful for a few specific projects that inspired passion. They empowered my curiosity and my critical thinking, and, in doing so, they taught me HOW to engage deeply with my schoolwork. Armed with that information, I found myself more able to take ownership over my other assignments- to identify passion in projects that may not have initially caught my attention or grabbed my imagination, and then to harness it in order to more fully realize my potential. In this way, a few exceptional assignments transformed me as a learner.
As educators, we aspire to facilitate this sort of engagement. Tutoring is a gift in that way- with only one student to consider, it’s a lot easier to tailor the process to their individual interests. Some projects are particularly well suited for this, and, in my experience, none more so than the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
The competition is considered the country’s oldest and most prestigious recognition program for creative teens, and, given the wide range and flexibility of categories in both Writing and Art, students can find a way to submit projects that focus on almost anything that they feel passionate about. For example, the Writing competition not only accepts traditional forms like critical essays, short stories, and poems, but also memoirs, scripts, and even jokes, among other options. The Art competition offers even more to choose from, and categories such as “Design” and “Expanded Projects” are particularly malleable. The program’s mission is to empower students in their passions- to provide them an opportunity to share what matters to them, whatever it is.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have supported a number of students through this process, and it has been totally inspiring to see them come to life in their work. One student conveyed that she had “never enjoyed writing so much.” Others echoed that sentiment. While I’d love to take credit for their enthusiasm, the real secret is that they’re just being allowed to take the lead, which is a surprisingly new feeling for a lot of young people. When they’re at the wheel, they can follow what feels good, building a project around the questions that most bring them to life. This creates that deeper level of engagement, which generates better work. The positive results bolster confidence, further contributing to their forward momentum…
The Scholastic Awards also help young people identify interests that they can take with them. Students can submit as many as three entries per year, which gives them permission to try new things- I had a student that thought she might enjoy screenwriting, even though she had no experience with it. We worked on a submission together, and the process captured her heart. Now she hopes to continue that pursuit.
Additionally, the competition teaches students to edit. Young people can be resistant to this part of the creative process. Many haven’t even developed the necessary skills. It makes sense. Given how fast their classes generally move (and the very understandable limitations of their teachers), they don’t often have the time or support to properly revise. In this project, we’re freed from those restraints. Instead, the structure actually facilitates in-depth, long-term revision. If we’re meeting weekly, students are dedicating time each week to honing their submissions, and, if they’re excited about what they’re working on, they’re investing in that process. They’re learning to make the most of it. In doing so, they’re developing the patience, perseverance, and skills to properly edit their own work. Not only that, they’re getting in the habit of doing so! That’s a practice that they can take with them too. (For students who are working on more formal writing projects, it’s also a great opportunity to elevate their mechanics. Because they’re showing up to edit, students are more receptive to grammatical notes, which they normally get only after their work is graded… at which point, they tend to be a lot less interested).
Each year, roughly 80,000 students (grade 7-12) apply, which is still considerably less than 1% of those eligible. It might even feel like a smaller number, given that it’s not evenly distributed. A disproportionate amount of submissions seem to be coming from the country’s top high schools, which have identified the value of its possible accolades. After all, in New York City in 2021, approximately 25-30% of submissions earned awards at the regional level- joining the ranks of some of the country’s most notable writers and artists including Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, and Andy Warhol. The odds of winning are good, and that sort of recognition can help make a college application more competitive. For the smaller number of students who go on to receive national acclaim, the rewards are greater- classes and grants to continue developing their work and scholarships up to $10,000.
Admittedly, these outcomes are less likely for most applicants, but I also find them less important. The real value of this project is that it provides students with an outlet to pursue their passions. In doing so, it challenges them to become better writers, better learners, and more engaged people.