Two sixth-graders at T.J. Walker Middle School in Sturgeon Bay produced winning entries in a contest designed to increase civic engagement while celebrating First Amendment rights.
Ella Nerby took second place for her editorial cartoon highlighting the importance of the First Amendment, and Steven Blevins received an Honorable Mention for a Letter to the Editor he wrote, “First Amendment is the Most Important Amendment of All.”
First Amendment is the Most Important Amendment of All
I believe that the First Amendment is what this country’s founding was based upon. The First Amendment is about freedom of speech and our right to peaceably assemble in protest, which was not true before our independence from the British. The British had stopped protesting against things such as the Sugar Act, or when the founding fathers had to hide from the British government to gather in the Continental Congress. They had also stopped Americans telling people the truth, about how they were repressed from saying what they wanted and protesting.
If we did not have the First Amendment, we would not be able to protest on things such as giving equal rights to all people, or protests on the war in Vietnam. And if we weren’t able to protest on those topics, we would have a worse government where they pick and choose what laws to keep and what laws to discard. If we didn’t have the First Amendment, we wouldn’t have the ability to talk about the government negatively, which a lot of people in other countries can not do. The First Amendment is the most important amendment of all.
Steven Blevins is a 6th grader at T.J. Walker Middle School in Sturgeon Bay. This letter won an Honorable Mention in the Wisconsin Civics Games in the editorial writing category
The two sixth-graders were among 16 students across the state awarded cash, certificates and the opportunity to be published by newspapers for their winning submissions in the 2023 Wisconsin Civics Games Editorial Writing and Cartoon Contest.
Nerby and Blevins are the first students from Door County to have received one of the rewards in the three years the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation (WNA Foundation) has hosted the contest for students in middle school and high school. Nineteen schools across the state participated in this year’s contest.
Students were asked to convey their opinions about an issue related to the First Amendment through editorial writing or an editorial cartoon. The latter was Nerby’s choice because she said she’s always liked art and drawing.
“I thought it was a cool challenge to test my art skills against the First Amendment,” she said.
She said the First Amendment empowers people and even she feels that.
“As a middle schooler, I don’t have much power but I can use my voice,” she said.
First-place winners in each contest receive $500, second-place winners receive $250, third-place winners receive $100, and honorable mention recipients receive $50.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Blevins said when asked why he participated. “The reason I wanted to do it was for the prizes. There was no reason for me not to do it.”
No matter the reason, he was all in once he started, and one of the outcomes was how it helped him grow his writing skills.
“For every essay I write, I’m a better essay writer,” he said.
Nerby also realized personal-growth lessons through the contest.
“I learned to not be so hard on myself,” she said. “I had the idea in mind when I started, but I redid it so many times.”
The contest is part of the WNA Foundation’s response to declining civics education and participation in the democratic process. That it required students to research the First Amendment and its liberties appealed to Stephen Jacobson, who was the T.J. Walker Middle School sixth-grade geography teacher who pitched the contest to his students.
“We had great conversations in class about this topic as we were promoting it to the students, and as a social studies teacher, I was excited to help build a sense of civic responsibility in my students,” he said. “Freedom isn’t free, and I hope that our students don’t take their privileges for granted.”
Participation was 100% voluntary.
“I had six students attend my political cartoon workshop, and two students submitted work for the contest,” Jacobson said. “Mrs. [Kasee] Jandrin [English Language Arts teacher] had 10 students attend her essay workshop and she submitted three essays.”
The contest enabled the students to practice writing, critical thinking and analytical skills and provided a platform for students to explore and express their understanding of the First Amendment through writing.
“We offered a series of writers’ workshops in December where students could come in, brainstorm essay or cartoon ideas with their peers, get help with editing their rough drafts, and finally present their final ideas for feedback before we submitted them,” Jacobson said.
The contest also provided an opportunity to challenge proficient students.
“We focus a lot of time and energy on students who are struggling and need extra help, and we often forget to push our higher-achieving students,” he said. “This contest was open to all students, but you could tell immediately that our highest achievers were going to thrive with the open-ended question and that they could use their creativity to produce some amazing pieces.”
Entries were judged on adherence to the theme, quality of writing or artwork, originality and proper use of grammar, spelling and punctuation. The 16 winners will receive prizes totaling $3,600. The awards are funded by the University of Wisconsin System.
A complete list of winners and their entries can be viewed at wisconsincivicsgames.com.
The First Amendment to The Constitution of the United States
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”