Contests, Part Two

Happy summer, everyone! Here is the second half of my article on the contests I run with my middle schoolers.

Fortune Writing Contest. In this contest, students must write a better fortune than the ones they find in traditional fortune cookies. This contest is more of a lift for me, as I need to buy fortune cookies, steam them soft in the microwave so I can extract the original fortune and insert a student-written fortune. It’s such fun, though, to watch kids open a cookie and find a student fortune!

2022 Winner: Look forward, don’t look back, unless you’re driving, then you want to look back when merging. —Mia, 6th

Photo Finish. Before this contest, I hold a lunchtime meeting in which students cut interesting photos out of magazines and catalogs. During the contest, they must choose three photos from among all the cut-out photos, then write a story (at least three sentences!) that incorporates those photos. It’s another colorful contest, with all of those stories posted around the library!

Scenes From a [Virtual] Hat. This pandemic contest came from a game in the TV show, Whose Line Is It, Anyway? With some help from colleagues and AISL, I devised a bunch of prompts, like “Most useless spell Harry Potter could learn,” “Things you don’t expect to hear when you put your ear to a seashell,” and “Scout badges we’ve never heard of.” I loaded them all into a wheel of choice widget that students could spin, and then they had to write a response to whichever prompt they got. This is another one I only ran once, though I would love to run it again!

2020 Winner: Failed ideas for Project Week: Axe throwing. –Hannah, 5th

Six Word Memoirs. This contest was inspired by a book: I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous & Obscure. After some confusion about what a memoir is, though, I retitled the contest; it’s now the “Your Life in a Six Word Sentence” contest, as I was tired of getting lists of words! This contest actually inspires students’ most thoughtful writing, and on occasion, has alerted me to something I think our counselors should look into. You never know what you’re going to get!

2022 Winner: A bit messy, a bit magical.   –Virginia, 7th

Story in a Tweet/Story in Twenty-Five Words. This contest began when tweets were fairly new, with the original length of 140 characters. When that changed, I adapted the contest to keep the challenge of squeezing a whole story into a few words.

2020 Winner: She walked inside the house admiring the furniture, taste-testing the food, and tried out the mattresses. Unfortunately for Goldilocks, she was not at IKEA.  –Emily, 8th

Two-Sentence Horror Stories. An SLJ article by Rozanna Baranets inspired this contest. I challenged students to write either a funny or scary two-sentence horror story. They excelled!

2022 Scary Story Winner: Everyone always asks how many trick or treaters I get. But no one asks how many leave.  –Savannah, 7th

2022 Funny Story Winner: Through the darkness, a silhouette emerged. I screamed in horror as it said: “I’m here to talk about your car’s extended warranty.” –Andrea, 7th

Unlikely Superheroes. This contest came from a game in the TV show, Whose Line Is It, Anyway? I challenge student to create an unlikely superhero with an unlikely power, and a ridiculous crisis for them to solve. Extra points if students write a short story showing how the superhero used their power to solve the crisis. This was a pandemic contest, and though it was a lot of fun, I didn’t get a ton of entries so have only run it once.

2020 Winner: Superhero: Taco Teen, who can create extra spicy tacos out of thin air. The tacos can dissolve enemies from their spicy salsa. Crisis: Two big cutting boards come alive and are trying to poke the city with the extra sharp knives! –Jon, 5th

World Book Contest. This contest requires a full set of World Book encyclopedias in print, with “World Book” written across the combined spines. The challenge is creating new words with the letters available.

Zip Code Poetry. A teacher alerted me to this NPR article about “Zip Odes” in Miami, and it seemed like a great idea for a contest. For this one, students chose a zip code connected with them (home, school, grandparents, etc.), wrote it vertically, and then penned a poem with the same number of words in a line as the corresponding number in the zip code. For zeroes, they could draw a picture or leave it blank. Obviously, this will work better in parts of the country without a lot of zeroes in the zip codes!

2023 Winner:

–Rylie, 7th

Awesome, baby!

I’ve been serving both middle and upper school constituencies since I arrived at Out-of-Door in 2008 and have often joked that I could use a clone to cover all the spots where I need to be in two places at once, but this time I really mean it!


In August we celebrated the ribbon-cutting on our shiny brand-new building, which comprises the Dick Vitale Family Student Center and the Dart STEM Center. The student center occupies the ground floor, while the STEM center takes up the second floor. (Yes, it’s that Dick Vitale. They’re a really lovely family, as are the Darts.)

VitalesThe student center is host to a small café area with a coffee machine, a few booths, a couple of high-top tables with chairs, and a very large TV tuned to CNN to keep us current on events as they unfold throughout the day. Our food service is just a few feet away, so it’s easy to grab a salad or the daily special and enjoy it there.

CafeThe director of student activities occupies a small office nearby, which allows for easy communication with the kids. Along one wall is a spectacular classroom equipped for videoconferencing with a very large projection screen and a camera and microphone suspended from the ceiling.

tech ctrAdjacent to that is a writing lab, soon to be staffed by peer tutors and overseen by members of the English faculty. Our director of collaborative learning and educational outreach is next door, and immediately next to her resides the assistant head of our upper school. The academic services office is also found in the student center.

The majority of the ground floor is given over to open space filled with tables, chairs and soft seating, just the kind of collegiate environment to encourage social study and collaboration with pockets of quiet for individual work.

Upstairs are the classrooms for all the math teachers, science laboratories for biology, chemistry and physics; and we have two 3D printers that have the campus buzzing with imagination. (Everyone is about to ask, so I’ll answer: they are available by appointment only, must be used for school-related projects, and the cartridges are removed when the machines are not in use.)

And where am I? And where’s the collection?

And thus . . . the conundrum. The librarian is not in the library, and by the way, what’s a library? Is it the place where books are, or is it the place where the librarian is?

My desk, really more of a fortress, occupies one end of the Student Center. I don’t have an office, but I have plenty of storage and the very best view of anyone on campus, including the headmaster.

Pond viewThere are two small project rooms behind me, plus a larger conference room with a curtain wall of glass, so there is plenty of room for book processing if I need it and places for private consultation with students or faculty.

Fortress of Solitude


The Savidge Bowers Library suddenly became the “old library,” paradoxical because there isn’t a “new library,” it’s a student center; but we do have a small collection here. I brought reference materials suitable for high school students, as well as fiction and biography for high schoolers as well. I figured that since it was designed to be Hangout Central for ninth through twelfth grade, what should live here are materials that need to be quickly at hand, either for reference or to grab as pleasure reading while walking by.


(Interesting side effect: these are mostly the same books that occupied the library these last eight years and had faded into the background as part of the scenery, but by removing them to a new location suddenly they’re a hit. “HOLY COW MISS MANDEL,” I keep hearing, “WHEN DID WE GET THESE AWESOME BOOKS? I LOVE THIS AUTHOR. DUDE, YOU SHOULD TOTALLY READ THIS.” It’s both gratifying and slightly perplexing.)

The “old library” houses the rest of the circulating non-fiction, and biographies, reference, and fiction for middle school students. How to get middle schoolers in front of those books to keep the collection relevant and in use is the other issue. Senior students collectively take a seminar course that meets in the old library (I guess we’re saying that now!), so they visit every day. All high schoolers are allowed some freedom to wander the campus at lunch or other free times of day, but our middle school students are more managed than that, so they don’t simply just wander over to the library. And if they did, I’m not there!

All students in grades six through eight have study hall during the same period of the day, divided up by advisory group. Thus, I made a rotating docket that schedules each group to come in at least four times per semester during that study hall. Teachers have pretty universally been on board – who’s opposed to more reading? – so I set up my laptop and portable barcode scanner and wait for the hordes to descend at the appointed hour and check books out to happy readers.

It’s working well. I don’t think there’s a perfect method, short of replicating myself, but this way I get to work with readers and with the collection, my circulation numbers are up, awareness of the resources we have has improved, and I think all of my constituencies really understand that I’m trying to serve everyone despite trying to be two places at the same time. Also, seriously, have you seen my view?