When schools submitted entries for the Maryland Humanities Council's Letters About Literature competition, a few had one or two of their students named finalists.
But the fifth grade at West Towson Elementary School didn't have just one or two finalists. They had 13.
After reading books as varied as "Matilda" and "I Am Malala," students wrote letters to the authors expressing how the book had changed them.
"Our teachers try to provide opportunities above and beyond, and we take that very seriously at West Towson," said Karen Kuebler, a teacher at West Towson.
Although none of their letters were named winners at the awards ceremony April 25, the children were proud to be finalists, she said. "They think it's just wonderful," she said.
The finalists' photos and letters are on display at the Towson library, Kuebler said. A volunteer at the library, Kuebler arranged for the exhibit, which will be on display until late May.
During November, West Towson's 80 fifth-graders, students of Terri Mohr and Erin Rossetti, were asked to read 20 minutes each night and then fill out a reading log about what they read. They could pick a book they had previously read or something new.
Then they were asked to write a letter expressing how the author and book changed their world view and themselves, as part of the MHC competition. The competition is both a state and national writing contest for readers in grades four through 12. In Maryland, 1,928 students participated, according to a press release from the Maryland Humanities Council.
Writing letters provided a unique connection to the authors, Kuebler said. "It highlights the impact not only reading has but to reflect on that reading."
The students chose books with heroes who struggled against great odds, showed courage or creativity. Carson Glikin found inspiration in "A Long Walk to Water," while Ben Chico was inspired by the girl with polio in "Small Steps" and Benjamin Raufman found himself thinking about survival when he read "Prisoner B-3087."
Ceci Wetzel chose "I Am Malala" and found "someone I could connect to," she said."There aren't that many young people who have the courage to stand up to people like that." Said Landon Katz, who read "How They Choked," a book of mistakes made by famous people, "It showed me even the best of us make mistakes." Nora Schive liked the creativity shown by the main character of "Matilda." "You can still achieve great things if you try." Ryan Quinn read the third in a series known as "The Land of Stories." It was the best of the three, he said, and he appreciated its message about being unique.
Some chose books recommended by others. Jackson Graney and his friend Will Lehmann read a story of survival, "Brian's Winter." The character, Jackson said, "shows what I like to call grit." Blake Bayer read a book recommended by his two older brothers while Ben England read a book about a character with ALS. "It made me learn how important life is and how to respect it," Ben said.
Writing the letter had its own challenges Tatum McLaney said she found herself revising her letter with her mother's help. "We kept changing it, and changing it and changing it," she said.
The project turned out to provide a healthy competition among students, she said, with some surprising results. "These aren't the students who always win everything."
"They really are starting to get into that abstract thinking phase, who I am, what I do and where I go from here," Keubler said.
NDP students recognized
In addition to the West Towson students, a middle school student from Notre Dame Preparatory School was the Level Two winner. Juliana Gorman, an eighth-grader from Glenwood in Howard County, wrote to Elie Wiesel about his memoir "Night." This is the second time she was recognized in this contest, according to the MHC press release. Her winning letter will go onto the national competition.
Three high school students at Notre Dame Prep were named finalists, 10th-grader Clare Boland, of Towson, and 11th-graders Morgan Peck, of Hunt Valley, and Allison Hardebeck, of Phoenix.