Monday, June 6, 2016

The RRVWP and the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards: A Trip to the National Awards Ceremony

Last week, I, Kelly Sassi, traveled to New York City to attend the affiliate conference for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and to see the national ceremony at Carnegie Hall. 
Each of these portfolio winners received a $10,000 cash award.
 Established in 1923 by Maurice R. Robinson, the founder of Scholastic Inc., the Awards program was designed “to give those high school students who demonstrate superior talent and achievement in things of the spirit and of the mind at least a fraction of the honors and rewards accorded to their athletic classmates.”  A bold idea at the time, this mission is still relevant today, as proven by the more than 300,000 works of art and writing  submitted this year for adjudication at the regional level in the Awards’ 28 categories, which include poetry, painting, architecture, short story, fashion design and more.

Before I describe, the trip, here’s a little background on how our writing project site became involved in the Awards.  In 2014, the Alliance for Young Writers and Artists contacted me to see if we would like to judge writing entries for the Midwestern “region-at-large.” I was told that several other writing project sites do this work and find it a great way to engage in continuity and professional development with their TCs. I got the names of a couple of sites and talked with their directors at the Annual Meeting. They had positive things to say about their work with the Awards, and I found out our site would receive an honorarium for this work, so it sounded like a great way to secure some funds as we transitioned the site from Grand Forks to Fargo. We had a great response from TCs who volunteered to judge. 
For those in the Fargo-Moorhead area, we held a meeting at Atomic Coffee to look at the rubric together and make sure that everyone could get into the online scoring system. We then had a follow-up work day at the Fargo Public Library
These meetings were a great opportunity for us to reconnect with each other and also to think about an alternate way of assessing student writing. The “rubric” for adjudicating the Scholastic Awards is quite different from anything we use in our classroom. There are only three categories on which the writing is judged: 1) originality, 2) development of a personal voice or vision, and 3) technical skill. Many of us found it liberating to look at student writing through this lens, and it was great to not have to write on student work, just read it and appreciate it (and score it, of course). It was a joy to read the works and see so much creativity and talent.
Kat Hendrix, the Associate Director of the Awards contacted me and asked if we would like to be an affiliate of the Awards. I remember that call in January. I was writing the proposal for NDSU to become the new site of the RRVWP; my tenure file was being reviewed; and it really felt like I could not take on a single new thing. Kat was patient and said she would check back with me in a few months.
Kelly Sassi and the always-supportive Kat Hendrix in the "living room" at Scholastic headquarters in NYC
When Kat followed up, and things were different: I was tenured, our site application was approved, and the RRVWP already had a “community partner” relationship with Plains Art Museum. We met with then CEO Colleen Sheehy and agreed that it made sense to partner to serve as the ND state affiliate for the Awards. At our leadership retreat at Pam’s family lake house, we made the call to Olivia Edwardson, who agreed to serve as our Scholastic coordinator. We had $500 in our budget that we could devote to this new project, which just might be enough to get the job done.
What did becoming and affiliate mean? It meant the RRVWP and Plains Art took on the task of publicizing the awards (mailing the posters and catalog to every school in the state that teaches students in grades 7-12), adjudicating the awards, and holding a state ceremony. Our efforts made a huge difference: according to Scholastic, there were no entries from ND (I had been told there were only 12) in 2014, and in 2015, there were ?. In 2016 there were , including several national medalists.
Only those who received a gold medal or a Voices or Visions Award were eligible to attend the National ceremony this year. The students who qualified to attend were Heather Talma (gold) from Fargo North, Beatrice Kjelland (Voices) from Park River, and Breanna Sullivan (Visions) from Grand Forks. Only Beatrice was able to attend.
Courtney Buckland, Kelly Sassi, Miriam Harris, Virginia McInerny, and Diane Waff
Since we finally had a national medalist attending, I decided to use my remaining professional development funding from NDSU (and with help from NDSU's School of Education--thanks, Bill Martin!) to attend the Affiliate Conference, which takes place the day before the National Ceremony at Carnegie Hall. I’m glad I did because it was a full day of learning more about how to do a good job serving as a state affiliate. I got to pick the brains of other people who do this work all over the country and connect in person with the people we email throughout the year.

I got to hear an overview of the national programs from the new Affiliate Director, Debra Samdperil (below) and hear about the results of the survey we all filled out this spring. 
 It was helpful to hear how our affiliate work compared to that of other sites. We also got to work in small groups to share ideas about how to better run the awards for our regions. I brought home loads of information for our team and hope that some of them will be able to attend next year. 
By the end of the day, my brain was bursting with ideas. 
The next day, affiliates got a walk-through of the art galleries at the Pratt Institute where the award-winning work was on display. I was excited to see North Dakota represented there--here is Grand Forks student Breanna Sullivan's piece, "Urban Fungi" on display.
"Urban Fungi" upper left, by Breanna Sullivan
Here is a link to a slideshow of works in the national exhibit: National Exhibit Scholastic Art & Writing Awards