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Twelve Peace Essay Contest state winners from Maya Inspektor's AP English Language class!
Maya Richman Inspektor, 4/13/2011

Editor's Note from Susan Richman: I was so proud to hear this wonderful news from our daughter Maya about her AP English Language online students. I think this helps families see, too, that often work in an AP (Advanced Placement) online class in our program can have 'spill over' impact into further challenges that a student may take on-- I know that many of my AP US History students did very well in various history essay and project contests this year (not to mention homeschool speech and debate leagues!), and I know many of our AP science students take part in science-related contests, and that several AP Studio Art students earned scholarship and contest awards. Once students get the courage to try for a higher challenge, you never know where they might end up! 

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Maya Richman Inspektor, AP English Online teacher

As a teacher, it's important to me that not every assignment feels like an "exercise." While practice exam essays are important (and believe me, I assign plenty of them!), I also want my students to understand that they have an audience beyond the exam graders or their classmates. I also want them to get used to the idea that I'm not their ultimate audience. It might be simple for them to figure out my quirks and learn how to get a high grade from me, but where does this leave them when they graduate from my class? 

With this in mind, three years ago I decided not to assign a typical research paper to my AP English Language students. Instead, I gave them the challenge of responding to someone else's assignment and writing for an audience beyond our class: the Peace Essay Contest. 

The National Peace Essay Contest has been around since I was in high school, and it challenges high school students across the United States to write a researched argument paper in response to a very specific prompt related to world peace. It demands not fluffy "let's all be friends" idealism but rather careful research into case studies and critical consideration of how third parties (such as the US) can prevent violence, encourage good government, and protect civilians. In my experience, conservative students do just as well in this contest as liberal students; they are asked not to parrot an ideology but to present original thought. 

As an AP English teacher, I love this contest because it fosters the skills demanded of students on the synthesis essay on the AP exam. Students are unlikely to come into this assignment with any knowledge of, say, corruption in Liberia, so they must rely on their own research in order to form an educated opinion. They also must craft a persuasive argument, learn to reference sources correctly, and take Strunk & White's famous mantra ("omit unnecessary words") to heart-- one of the most challenging parts of this contest is often cutting enough words from a first draft to meet the contest's 1,500-word limit. 

As students work on their papers during December and January, I see them mature as writers before my eyes. Some students are enthusiastic about this assignment from the outset, but some are so daunted that their hesitation is palpable through their posts on our class message board. Many aren't used to being asked to form an opinion a topic so literally foreign to their life experiences. By the time they submit their papers, though, the surge of confidence and "expertise" gained through this experience is equally palpable. In addition to their progress as AP English students-- growth that directly translates into their exam-style essays-- they seem to grow as people. This year my students submitted papers about establishing good government in the wake of conflict just as protests broke out across the Middle East. This was the point, we realized-- my students could read news stories about the uprising in Tunisia and not only understand the circumstances that led to this unrest but also speculate about how a new Tunisian government might be best formed. These real people, on the streets of Tunisia-- in a small way, my students now understood them. 

And, I'll admit, the possibility that students might come away from this contest with scholarship money is a nice bonus. 

The first year that I assigned this paper in my class, two students won their state level competitions (earning $1,000 scholarships and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington DC for a five-day awards seminar), and another three received second place honorable mentions. The next year, three of my students made the trip to Washington DC, and another three won honorable mentions-- and one of the three state winners actually received second place nationally, for an additional $4,000 in scholarship money. 

On Friday, April 8th, information packets arrived at the homes of this year's winners. All eleven of them. Twelve, in fact, if you count Erica Weston, who was an AP Lang student last year and decided to enter the contest again on her own this year. Fully eight of my students won their state competitions, and they'll get to meet each other in person for the first time at the awards seminar in DC. Let's just say that this proud English teacher has been breaking her own rule and including many exclamation points in some class website posts. (Twelve winnners!! Did I say that already??) If you're keeping track, by the way, this brings the scholarship money won by my AP students up to $17,000 so far, and this year's state winners are still in the running to win national prizes. 

Here's a list of the twelve winners:

  • Jesse Villines, Idaho (First)
  • Justin Banda, Indiana (First)
  • Caroline Harper, Maryland (Second- honorable mention)
  • Kathleen Ten-Hove, Massachusetts (First) 
  • Thomas Nath, Minnesota (Second- honorable mention)
  • Megan Kruitbosch, Nevada (First)
  • Meredith Pochily, New York (First)
  • Erin Mainwaring, Pennsylvania (Second, Tie- honorable mention)
  • Evan Booher, Tennessee (First)
  • Jackson Reed, Washington (First)
  • Courtney Klauber, Washington (Second- honorable mention)
  • Erica Weston, Connecticut (First)

To whet the appetites of the eight students who will attend this year's awards seminar in Washington D.C., here's what some past state winners said about the experience.

First, from Anna Boynton, who was the Virginia winner in 2009:

I have to start out by saying I am really excited for you guys! Not only are you fortunate enough to have ended up in Ms. Inspektor’s wonderful AP English Language class, but you are about to start writing what could very well be the most important essay in your life. I know it was for me! The process of researching and writing the essay, and the awards program changed my life more than any other experience I‘ve had.

 I’ve always had a drive to help people somehow, but before last year the BIG issues seemed so far out of my reach I couldn’t imagine being able to effect them. The people in Darfur, or Haiti, or any other war and poverty torn region in desperate need of aid seemed completely beyond anything I could do to help. I had decided I would be a Therapist, and left it at that. During this process I learned about so many remarkable individuals, normal people with extraordinary drive, who have done so much for the places in the world that need their effort most. I realized that there’s nothing keeping me from being like the people I admire so much. My career goal right now is to work for NGOs bringing Psychological aid to traumatized victims of conflict around the world, and I have never felt more passionately about anything. Now, the USIP Essay isn’t necessarily going to turn your life in a completely different direction, but I think it’s impossible to partake in it without having your prospective on the world changed in some way. 

As if that’s not enough, the scholarship money and bragging rights for your college applications are not the only rewards awaiting you. The United States Institute of Peace really pulls out the stops when it come to us. The Awards Program was one of the craziest yet most fun weeks of my life. There are so many opportunities to learn, we get a kind of access and time from important people a DC graduate student would kill for. But the best thing about the USIP week, by far, are your fellow winners. In the five days we were together my USIP friends and I formed a really amazing bond. I can’t describe the energy at the Awards Ceremony. All the people there really believe in us, and in our ability to change the world. There’s nothing like it.

Anna is now spending a gap year volunteering at an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, inspired by her experience in the Peace Essay Contest.

Next, from Connor Perkins, the Missouri Winner in 2010:

I wanted to thank you for telling us about and encouraging us to participate in the United States Institute of Peace NationalPeace Essay Contest. It was the best week of my life thus far! While very few people--one exception being [AP Lang classmate] Jessi Countryman--shared my worldview, these were some of the most amazing people I have ever met. The camp was life-changing, though maybe not in the way that it would be for most of the campers. It makes me more convinced that there is a need for people who believe what I believe to be active and vocal leaders in America, because the other side certainly has its share of them. I feel so motivated to be a difference-maker. I don't think I can thank you enough for encouraging us to participate in this contest; you have given me some direction in life, I think.

In addition, it was very fun to meet Jessi and Sara after having been in a class with them all year. It was kind of ironic, but we homeschoolers were the only people there who "knew" anybody else at the camp. Both Jessi and I called Sara's victory that night, and it was amazing to feel that happy for someone I barely knew. If it had been my best friend, I couldn't have been much more proud or excited. Something magical happened at that camp....

Connor is a senior this year in my AP Lit class, and next year he plans to study history in college with an emphasis on public policy. 

I couldn't be more proud of all of my students, not just the winners-- I saw them all grow immensely as they completed these challenging papers, and I was proud of the way they helped each other through the process. I can't wait to hear about this class's experience at the awards seminar.

And if you're interested in my AP English Lang class for next year, consider this: your tuition fee just might pay for itself! 


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