With over 1,300 entries this year in the KET Young Writers Contest, you would expect the judging to be intense. And it most certainly is, but it’s a labor of love for all involved.
“The Young Writers Contest is one of my favorite projects we take on,” said KET education consultant Amy Grant. “It is very labor intensive, but to see the excited, smiling faces at the end makes it all worth it.”
Once the submission window closes in mid-April, the judging begins. This year the contest had a record number of entries, just as it has for each of the last three years.
Entries came from students in 26 states and even outside the United States—from Canada, Nigeria, India, and New Zealand!
No doubt fueling the growth over the years has been the addition of new categories. The contest originally judged illustrated stories from grades K-3, then expanded to grades 4-5. Poetry was added in 2017 for grades 6-8 and expanded this year to grades 9-12.
Entries are scored, based on rubrics developed for each category, by KET judges and, for the last two years, by student teachers in Dr. Nancy Hulan’s literacy class at Western Kentucky University, who are trained to help in the scoring process.
The entire effort takes several full working days, a time filled with excitement–and some coffee and chocolate, Grant said.
“While the judging is generally serious business and we are deep in concentration, there is also typically also a lot of sharing: ‘Oh, you all have to read this one!’” Grant said. “As former teachers, we still get excited when students create great work and we want to share that excitement with others.”
Larry Moore, KET education consultant for the North Central region, agrees.
“Although reading so many entries is a bit of a marathon, I really enjoy seeing the talent of students in both the areas of writing and illustration,” he said. “It is exciting to me when one of us comes across an especially good story or poem and cannot wait to share it with the rest of the group to see how we each react to the piece.”
Lynn Shaffer, KET education consultant with the Northeast region, is impressed with the inventiveness of the young writers.
“I love that we are encouraging kids to use those gorgeous imaginations!” she said. “I also think about the students for whom we are lighting a little flame that will continue to grow as they grow.”
Grant said that judges often see general themes emerge: bullying, the supernatural, and adventures in the illustrated and short story categories, and teenage angst and heartbreak in the poetry division.
Shaffer said serving as a judge reminds the adults how “sweet, insightful, and observant” young people are.
“Sometimes middle and high school students are thought to be apathetic, but they usually are just the opposite–their poems show how much they care about the world and the issues around them,” Shaffer said.
Judges name 8-10 finalists at each grade level.
For the illustrated story and short story categories, scores are tallied to identify first, second, and third place winners. As you might imagine with so much excellent work, it’s difficult for the judges to choose just three winners in each category. That’s why judges this year will name 1-2 honorable mentions for illustrated stories.
For the poetry category, the finalists are sent to three published poets for final judging.
This year the poetry judges are Chuck Rybak of Green Bay, Wisconsin (author of /war), Sarah McCartt-Jackson of Louisville (author of Children Born on the Wrong Side of the River), and Adam Sol of Toronto (author of Crowd of Sounds). The poets spoke highly of the quality of work produced by the middle and high school students.
“What I admire most about these fine poems is how they are unafraid to look at the world in a new way,” said Sol. “Whether the subject is as familiar as the season or as painful as a loved one’s suffering, these poets all take on their subjects with curiosity, bravery, and an inventive sense of how the language arts can help us discover.”
McCartt-Jackson said reading student poems reminded her when she was a young poet.
“Poetry contests like this encourage our young poets as they develop their arts,” she said. “And behind these students are many excellent teachers who also encourage and uplift them.”
The poets identified the first- through third-place poetry winners for each grade level 6-8 and the first- through third-place winners for high school in two categories: form poetry and free verse poetry.
McCartt-Jackson said it was a pleasure reading all of the finalists’ poems. “The winning poems all transported me to a new world, as any good poetry does,” she said. “I send my gratitude to the students for sharing their words, and I implore them all to keep writing!”
Winners will be announced no later than May 30. The top three entries in grades K-8 and the two high school poetry divisions will be published online at KET.org/writerscontest.
Moore said presenting the awards is one of his favorite parts of his job.
“I find it tremendously rewarding when I am allowed the opportunity to actually visit schools and present awards to students in front of their teachers and peers–and watch both the student’s reaction to receiving the award and how the rest of the school celebrates the success of one of their own,” he said. “I look forward to it every year.”