To Michelle Du, being an American includes freedom, kindness and tolerance toward others, and working together to make our country great.
Du, who is a fifth-grader at Woodland Elementary School, was responding to the statement, ”Why I am proud to be an American,” for an essay assignment based on the theme of the NCSEA Americanism Essay Contest, sponsored locally by the Watchung Hills Elks.
“My teacher said it was not mandatory, but optional to participate,” said Du, who was at the Elks Lodge on Friday night at an awards ceremony for the top three essay contest winners in one of two age categories. ”Usually if there is a contest in our school, I will always participate even of there’s one percent chance I’ d win.”
More than 600 submissions came in from all Warren elementary schools for participants in the fifth-sixth grade level category and the seventh-eighth grade level categories, according Lynn Spurrier, chairwoman of the Americanism Committee and chaplain at the Watchung Hills Elks.
“This is a wonderful honor for these students,” Spurrier said.
The submissions were judged on criteria that included 1.) originality, and the ability to avoid the use of trite or worn out words and phrases (30 points), 2.) development of theme, including the ability to stay focused on ideas and thoughts (40 points) and 3.) mechanics and neatness, including the use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation (30 points).
“I thought about how the United States influences me and what it means to me and that’s how I got there,” said Olivia Fogel, the first place winner in the seventh-eighth grade category. “I did not know what to expect but I am really happy to get first place.”
Fogel and Audrey Picut, the second place winner in the seventh-eightht grade category, will advance to the state level, based on the judges scoring. Six judges scored the essays.
In approaching the writing, “I thought about how glad I was to have this free country,” Picut said.
“At first I was not so excited about it because I had to write a whole essay,” said Jillian Ferrera who placed second in the fifth-sixth grades. “Then I wrote it and I was like ‘that wasn’t so bad, that was actually kind of fun.’”
If the students make it to the national level, first-place winners in each division will receive a $1,000 U.S. Savings Bond. Second-place winners receive a $500 bond, and third-place winners receive a $250 bond. But the mission for the competition is far greater than doling out monetary prizes.
“We are bringing the importance of democracy to the kids so bringing it down to the third through sixth grade level is important," Adam Yenish, a fifth-grade teacher at Woodland who attended the awards ceremony. “We hope that it builds.”
For some, that is the case. Fogel, who is a seventh-grader, is not a stranger to writing awards. Earlier this year she received a Scholastic “Gold Key,” an award that reflects the highest level of achievement on the regional level. Gold Key works are forwarded to New York City for national adjudication.
When asked if she was planning to continue her winning tradition, Fogel said, “most definitely.”
All of the students will read their piece of writing on Memorial Day during ceremonies held under the American flag at the Municipal Complex.
The student winners:
Fifth-Sixth-grade level category winners:
First place: Michelle Du, Woodland School
Second place: Jillian Ferrara, Woodland School
Third place: Clayton Bush, Woodland School
Seventh-Eighth-grade level category winners:
First place: Olivia Fogel, Warren Middle School
Seond place: Audrey Picut, (Oak Knoll, Summit)
Third place: Gregory Piccio, Warren Middle School