Of Pride and Place — the 2016 Texas General Land Office Save Texas History Essay Contest
Over the years, our annual Save Texas History Essay contest has provided 4th and 7th grade Texas History students with a unique opportunity to showcase their creative storytelling and writing skills by describing an imaginary journey through Texas. Their “journeys” made for fun and interesting reading for sure. However, this year we decided to change the essay topic from a journey to something closer to home and more relatable to the students’ own experiences. We ask them to answer a simple question: What history in your community, or in Texas, is worth saving?
For many students there are the obvious Texas history answers that come to mind; the Alamo, the Battleship Texas, the Missions in San Antonio, etc., but there’s a lot worth saving in communities across Texas, and it’s those stories that we ask kids to share. What is an example of “history worth saving”? It could be a building, a business, an organization, a public space, or a cultural or historical event — anything a student feels is important to the history of their community. Where is it located? What would the community be like without it? Why is it important to save it?
Young or old, we can all point to something in our communities or in our state that makes it special. Truly, there’s not a place in Texas that’s not unique and worthy of a story. Some of the most revered books ever written about Texas tell tales of beloved neighborhoods, rural areas, small towns, and big cities. What they all have in common is pride of place, and our essay contest asks students to share pride of place in their own words.
For those of you who might ask, why an old-fashioned essay contest? It’s simple really. Writing is an essential and necessary skill kids need to develop to communicate effectively. Students (or anybody for that matter) should be able to express themselves through the written word. Essay writing allows students to reflect deeply about a subject they know something about (their community), it encourages reflection (their experience in that community), and helps them organize their thoughts. It’s all about putting thoughts to paper in a coherent, organized, and interesting way.
So how do we get students excited about writing? First, give them something to write about that connects to their own experience, like the Save Texas History Essay contest! Second, provide them a stimulus that will motivate them toward the goal — and it doesn’t have to include words.
There’s an artist in San Antonio named Wade Dillon who has captured the essence of the writing challenge in one of his illustrations of William B. Travis during the siege of the Alamo. It depicts an earnest-looking Travis seated at a candlelit table, staring at a blank page, collecting his thoughts before he puts quill and ink to paper. Travis is focused on the task at hand because he believes he has something important to say. The students do too. This may be the only time in their academic lives they will get the opportunity to showcase their talents and community spirit. We hope they take up the challenge.
As with any contest there are rules and guidelines, but we’ve intentionally kept them clear and simple so that students can concentrate on their stories. And what’s a contest without prizes? There are prizes for winners and runners up for both 4th and 7th grade entries. These prizes are made possible through generous donations from businesses who also share our belief in the importance of literacy. Hats off to Enterprise Car Rental, the San Antonio Tourism Council, the Wyndham Garden Hotel in San Antonio, and Phillips Entertainment Group. We are grateful for their contributions, and we are especially grateful to the 4th and 7th grade Texas History students who will answer the question, “What history in your community, or in Texas, is worth saving?”