“Why am I proud to pledge the allegiance to our flag?”
That was the question posed to local middle school students by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge 1491 during this year’s Americanism Essay Contest.
Two hundred seventy-five fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade students from Whitehall Elementary and High schools, Hartford Central School and Fair Haven Grade School participated in this year’s contest and last Wednesday the top 10 students in each in division (fifth and sixth grade constituted division I and seventh and eighth division II) were honored during an awards ceremony at Whitehall Elks Lodge.
Tammy Stevens, the Americanism chairperson and esquire for Elks Lodge 1491, said the program offers students an opportunity to compete for a scholarship and express how they feel about pledging allegiance to the flag, in 250 words or less.
“This is not part of the school’s curriculum, it’s something extra. Teachers don’t have to do it but their participation shows they care and displays their patriotism,” Stevens said.
Eric Ringquist, who teaches eighth-grade language arts at Fair Haven Elementary School, had his class participate for the second time.
“It fits in perfectly with what we are doing. I assign it to the class as a personal essay. I have them do as an assignment but they don’t have to submit it,” Ringquist said. “It’s not necessarily difficult because it’s a personal essay so they don’t have to cite sources but I do make them include at least one quote.
“It’s a very good exercise because it forces them to limit how much they write.”
Whitehall sixth grade teacher Christine Hoagland said the district is always trying to advance student’s writing abilities and the essay contest represents a fun way to do that.
“They get enticed by the bowling party,” Hoagland said. “But what’s really great is it’s a great tool to reiterate the patriotism that exists in this country and a nice reminder to the students of all the men and woman who have made sacrifices that enable them to go to school every day.”
Each of the 275 essays was read by a panel of five judges comprising members of the Elks Lodge and Whitehall American Legion Post 83, who evaluated each student’s writing based on their response to the question.
“I felt it was important to get a few guys from the Legion involved because this is something near their heart,” Stevens said.
After reading each essay, judges removed the ones they deemed most worthy and the ones that made the cut were read aloud and given a numerical score until the submissions were whittled down to the top 10 and eventually the top three over the course of two days earlier this month.
“The fifth and sixth grade students can really write and the seventh and eighth grade students take it to another level and expand on the topic. I actually learned things I didn’t know,” Stevens said.
Martin Rocque, Exalted Ruler of Lodge 1491, served as a judge for the first time this year and came away impressed with what he read.
“Some of them were very good, I was surprised,” Rocque said. He joked that some of the students were already cynics.
During last Wednesday’s party, students were treated to pizza and free bowling before receiving certificates and miniature American flags for their participation. The top three finalists in each category received cash prizes for their essays.
The top three finalists in each division will also move on to the district level where they will compete for an opportunity to make it to the state and then the national levels. Last year two students involved in the local competition advanced to the state level.
The top national finishers will receive a $1,000 savings bond.