During a recent professional day, when we divided into interest groups, I joined teachers who wanted to talk about SEL. I was so touched when many of them told me that I did a lot for SEL through my low-stakes, brain-break library contests! I have always enjoyed contests, and I try to run one a month during the school year. Connecting them with books, reading, or writing, I use contests to leverage students’ creativity and writing skills in a fun way.
Everyone who enters my contests, whatever their skill level, earns intramural “Green or Gold” points for their efforts. At Overlake, all students are on one “team” or the other, and earn points all year through ASB activities, Field Day, and library contests. I love that my contests help quieter, maybe non-athletic students to shine and earn points for their team. Full disclosure: in addition to points, students also earn small prizes (water bottle stickers, lollipops, key chains, etc.) or one of my homemade cookies. I consider that a significant point of SEL, as well as an encouragement to flex their creative muscles! To pull the biggest possible participant pool, I run all my contests in the cafeteria during lunch. To determine winners, I cull the top 10-12 entries, and send them to faculty for voting.
I thought I’d write a two-part blog article to cover my contests, many of which originated with other librarians. I can’t run all of these in one year, so I alternate some of the less popular contests, and I’m always up to try a new contest as well. Please contact me if you’d like more information on any of these! I’ve listed them alphabetically, so here you have Bad Writing through Food Haiku.
Bad Writing Contest. This is an iteration of San Jose University’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which challenges entrants “to write an atrocious opening sentence to the worst novel never written.” I append the rule that kids’ sentences cannot gross me out, and must make sense. This is their favorite contest; they love the opportunity to write badly! As an example of how much a challenge it is, though, I’ve added a category for “accidentally great sentences,” since often I’ll encounter a sentence for a book I’d love to read!
2022 Winner: The sheep attacked my face like I was wearing a wool sweater and it wanted justice. —Diya M., 6th
2022 Accidentally Great Sentence Winner: If I can’t dream, am I allowed to live in this lightless city? —Rylie, 7th
Book Spine Poetry. This contest came from the library zeitgeist a few years ago—it’s a great one to run in April, as part of poetry month. My colleagues and I gather books with titles clearly visible on the spine, making sure we have some verbs, adverbs, etc. Having a cart of these available, I challenge students to “write” a poem using at least three books. I photograph the poem, as well as having students write it down so I know who created what verse.
2023 Winner: Meesha, 6th
Book Stacking. I borrowed this contest from a librarian at my last school, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. I have six boxes full of discarded books, and I challenge students to see how fast they can build a tower using all the books in two boxes. Stacks consist of one book laid flat on another book (no pyramids or books on their sides), and cannot wobble. Of course, the kids’ favorite part is knocking the stack down!
Book Title Snowman. This was formerly Book Title Hangman, which someone pointed out was not a good association for a kids’ game. For Snowman, I list twenty authors and titles that I hope kids will be familiar with, and turn them into forms with blanks. Because this contest requires a lot of input from those running it, I recruit student helpers. Kids guess letters and try to identify the author or title before their snowman is built.
Bookface. This activity was in the library zeitgeist a few years ago, when a lot of book covers featured partial faces or just parts of bodies. My colleagues and I amass a cart of books with such covers, and students choose a cover to be photographed with. As the trend in cover art has moved away from this type of cover, I haven’t run this activity recently.
Captions Contest. I could not do this contest without generous people who still get the local paper in print, and save their Sunday comics for me. Gathering these pages, I hold a lunch meeting before the contest, and ask students to cut out interesting comics panels and then trim out the speech bubbles. That leaves me with a pile of cartoons without captions, so the contest challenges students to write better, funnier captions. This is a colorful contest, when I post all of the entries around the library!
2021 Winner: Sammie, 8th
Clickbait. We all know what clickbait is—it promises amazing information with a tantalizing headline, but if you click, be prepared to be completely underwhelmed (and possibly infected by a computer virus). For this contest, I challenge students to come up with a great clickbait headline, as well as the less-than-thrilling truth behind it.
2021 Winner: OMG!!! TRAIN WENT THROUGH A MOUNTAIN!!! (There was a tunnel.) —Nidhir, 7th
Excuses, Excuses! To prepare for this contest, I take all of the entries from the prior writing contests of the year, and put them through a word frequency counter. I list and cut out the less common words, and students must draw three of these and use them to write an excuse about why they were late to school, or why their homework was late. For whatever reason, this contest inspires students to write mini-novels!
2022 Winner: Words: Mice, Moon, Foil. I’m really sorry that I’m late today, as when I woke up, I saw a bunch of giant mice surrounding me. I was obviously very terrified and tried to run away, but the mice all collectively grabbed me and put me in a spaceship that was made of foil or something, and sent me to the moon. I had to find my way off the moon but I made it, only six hours late! I brought some moon dust though, so please don’t mark me tardy. —Gloria, 8th
Food Haiku. What’s more inspiring than food? This contest challenges students to write a haiku about food. Over the years, I’ve tried alternate versions of this contest, like Book Review Haiku and Overlake Haiku, but food remains the most popular version!
2022 Winner: I love chocolate/Rich and dark and bittersweet/Like tasting a hug —Diya M., 6th