Teen Teachable Moments in (Louisiana) History.

Well, we (my 14-year-old daughter) and I just got back from Lake Charles, LA, where she competed in the Louisiana State Social Studies Fair. Well, “competed” isn’t exactly the right word. She entered. She did her best. She excelled. And she did not win. But for her to have “competed” would have required that they actually stage a competition, which, sadly, they did not. What they did do bears some explanation – and analysis.

If you’re not familiar with “social studies fairs,” they are like science fairs – but for history, archeology, political science and the like. The rules are similar. The process is virtually identical to the one they use for the science fairs across the country. My daughter took second place at her school’s science fair, then went on to win first prize in her category (Louisiana History) and the Grand Prize for the region’s Middle School competition. This was the first year they’d broken out Louisiana History from the general “History” category (we didn’t know that until Regionals), so it enabled her to compete against a little smaller field, which was nice. Now understand, the Kozak family motto is quisquam dignitas effectus est dignitas super effectus, which, roughly translated means anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Her project covered the Birthplace of Jazz, and the role New Orleans played in music history. She had a well-organized and visually appealing backboard, a well-written presentation, a homemade 2-string banjo she built from a pie tin, my grandfather’s trumpet (he played with Sousa), and a soundtrack that blended her voiceovers with excerpts from historic jazz recordings. Ken Burns would have been proud. She even dressed up like an old blues man – porkpie hat, shades, white shirt, black pants and black tie. She knew her stuff.

Sarah and her project
Note the homemade banjo, her great-grandfather's trumpet, and the replica of the small amplifier. The kid's got game.

Now in any competition, you have to realize that, as good as you may be, there’s always the possibility that somebody else is better. That’s the way the world works. I’ve got no problem with that. And if someone else has a better project, they should win. I respect that, even if it means my kid doesn’t win. Where I have a problem is if they change the rules, and it tips the playing field so that the competition is not fair. And I’m afraid that’s exactly what happened here, at the state level.

As I mentioned, Louisiana History was a new category this year. Nowhere in the rules did they mention that, because it was a new category, and because not all the regions across the state fielded entries in the category, would they change the rules for the category. Thus, after we’d arrived, set up the exhibits, gone through judging, and took our seats in the stands for the announcement of the winners, we were surprised to learn that they were going to treat the Louisiana History category differently. The officials said that “because it’s a new category this year, we’re only going to award a first place trophy.” Um. Wow. Okay. I guess. Kinda bites, but the parents don’t make the rules. Still, I felt that my daughter’s project had a good shot. She presents well – she’s personable, makes eye contact, and knows her subject. But to my surprise, she told me she’d only been visited by one judge. Not three, as at regionals. Or four, as in the competition at her school. Keep in mind, there were TWO ways to compete in each category – as an individual or as a group. All the group projects competed against each other, and all the individual projects competed against each other. That’s how it should be. It’s really not fair to have an individual’s work compete against the work of an entire class of kids, or even three or four kids. Now in every category, that’s exactly the way it worked – First, Second and Third prizes for group projects, and First, Second and Third for individual projects. Except in Louisiana History. There, they gave out ONE First Place trophy to a combined field of both individual and group projects. And the winner was – not my kid.

The (group) project that won the only prize awarded in the category.

I’m not going to go into “which project was better.” That’s not the point. Just like in the NFL, “on any given Sunday” any team can beat any other team, regardless of their relative skills or rankings. And it can be for a variety of reasons. If someone beats my daughter on merit, I respect it. Even if they best her and in my eyes their project wasn’t as good, I realize that a lot of this is a judgement call, and I’m necessarily biased. A judge could have a soft-spot for a given topic, see something I didn’t see – lots of factors go into the judging. But what we DIDN’T get to see was the score sheets. We have no way of knowing if, for instance, all the group projects outscored the individual ones, or if my daughter would have won something, had they kept the group and individual projects apart.

It’s not like they only had one or two projects in the category. I know for a fact that they had at least 16 entries in my daughter’s division. Now if a lack of entries was the problem, the smart thing to do would have been to roll them back into the general History category and not break it out this year. That would have been the SMART thing to do. But they didn’t do that. So the both of us (as well as an angry mob of other parents) were left with the feeling that we wuz robbed. And we were. Did I mention that the lone judge high-tailed it out of there before the announcements? And that the event director was rude, defensive, arrogant, and dismissive of the parents that expressed concerns?

I think you can learn a lot from defeat. In many ways, you can learn more from losing than from winning. And as a parent, it’s my job to help my child lean how to handle defeat gracefully (she did – she’s a trooper) and learn from the experience. Had the competition been handled professionally, and she’d been defeated by another individual with a better project (or even one that wasn’t better) it would be relatively easy to deal with it. But because the competition was so hopelessly skewed – and screwed up, the lesson learned for her that day was more along the lines of Life isn’t fair. Learn that now, and avoid the rush later. As lessons go, that’s a good one to learn. But it was the wrong time and place for her to have to learn it.

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  1. Thank you for writing this.  I hope you are forwarding this to all the officials involved.  I was dumbfounded by this terrible decision and then blown away by the lack of understanding or care shown by the officials.  They should not have anything to do with this event in the future.

    Dr. Elizabeth B. Christian, Louisiana Tech University

    1. Dr. Christian, 

      Thanks! I’ve already talked to my daughter’s Social Studies teacher, and he was as incensed as I am. He’s promised to give an earful to the teacher at Youree Drive that is in charge of the fair, and I’ve got a call in to LSU-S – the sponsor of the regional contest. 

      I’ve participated in a number of contests before – as a student, a teacher, and a parent. I can’t remember one that was as poorly organized or executed as this one. 


    2. I just got off the phone with a very nice lady at LSU-S, in their Dept. of Continuing Education, the group that oversees the regional competition. She was shocked to hear my report on the event, and promised to relay my experiences to those who can “take it up the food chain” and determine what happened, why it happened, and how to keep it from happening again. 

      1.  Tell me who I can call, and I will express my opinion as well.  I posted your blog to Facebook and on the State Social Studies Fair page.  I hope you don’t mind.  I couldn’t have written it better, so I just shared it. 🙂

        Beth Christian

        1. Beth, 

          Please feel free to share my posts any time you like. You can also do as I’m doing tonight, and email Carl Dermady (carl.dermady@jppss.k12.la.us – he’s the supervisor of the event. Other than that, I don’t know. If you find anybody else that you think can help, feel free to link to my blog post and/or get me their contact info. I’ll be MORE than happy to expound – at length – on the subject. 

      2. UPDATE: I’ve been in communication via email with Carl Dermady, the Executive Supervisor of the Fair. He met with the Director today, and they determined that the fair thing to do was to award all the First, Second, and Third prize plaques that would have been given out under the rules, prior to the change they made at the event. In addition, they plan to send out certificates to all the participants in the Louisiana History category, to acknowledge their participation in Louisiana’s Bicentennial year. 

  2. Was the albacore tuna in water a part of the winning project?  If so, why was it upside down?  If not, why was it not covered up? 

    1. That was a label on the box the kids used as a base for their diorama. I’ve no idea why they didn’t cover it up. I’m not being critical of the winning project. They won. I’d just like to know why the organization changed the rules without letting the regions or the participants know in advance. From what I’ve been told, the oral presentation and judge’s questions count for a lot of the score. I saw several entries that I thought were more visually striking, or had more interesting topics. I didn’t have time to read the written part of any of the entries, so that could have been something really strong, too. My congratulations to those that one. I don’t want ANYthing I say here to take away from their win. This is not sour grapes. It’s a legitimate questioning of a poorly-run part of a worthwhile event. 

  3. This was the first year that my child was able to enter social studies projects. Just being able to come to State was a real treat. We were impressed with the size and number of projects entered. What a daunting task of making this happen. We had a hard time finding current information on 2012 contest rules at the state site. Most of what we found when we searched the internet was dated 2011 or older. Going in to this compatition, we were confused, terrified, and excited. I felt so sorry for the kids in the History catagory because there were so many of them. Three hours is a long time for the youngest to wait to be judged. Three hours/ four minutes with one judge for a year of work. The floor was packed with little room to move about. It would have been nice to have room for more than one judge to move through the projects.

    Where do they get the judges from. I have helped judge regional science contest and I know how hard it is to get qualified judges in quanity. I do not have a problem with one person judging my childs project as long as I have a chance to know what their score is; their weakness and strengthes. The teachers in their classes back home do it all the time. If I have a problem with the score they get on something, I can meet with them and get clarity. The teachers give clear expectations at the start of a project and

  4. My daughter presented at the 2013 state fair in Lake Charles. She only had one judge. The judge only ask her 2 questions and moved to the next child. He did not let her give her 2 min speech. She came out very upset. why do they not have to follow the rules. They expect the children to follow the rules. What can I do. I feel so helpless to help my child.

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