The bell rings, my classroom door flies open, and Tony comes hurtling through. “Can we write today, Mrs. Bradley? Please, please tell me we’re gonna write today!” He glances at the white board, sees “writing” on the agenda, and throws his hands up in celebration. “Yes!”
In 20 years of teaching, I have never seen students this eager to write. Sure, I have had success in the past with writing assignments that were tailored to engage my often-reluctant 8th grade writers, and I have seen them respond with enthusiasm to many writing pieces. But I am sure that I have never had students beg for writing time day after day. Nor have I seen them write silently and focused for a solid 45 minutes, day after day. We are ten days into this project, and I am still in shock. So what is this magic assignment?
National Novel Writing Month offers a bold challenge to writers: pen a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. Never mind that published authors usually spend a year or more writing their books; NaNoWriMo encourages writers of all levels to “silence their inner editor” and write, write, write for 30 days, aiming only for the word-count goal. Those who join the online NaNo challenge are given a profile page (similar to a social network site), where they can upload a profile pic (what would you wear for the author picture on the back of your future-novel?), along with a summary of and excerpt from their novel and a picture for its front cover. Writers may also add “writing buddies” to their NaNo page, allowing them to follow each other’s progress toward the completion of their novels.
Probably one of the most exciting parts of the NaNo site is the daily uploading of one’s writing to the NaNo “word count validator” box. The site doesn’t keep or publish the writing, but it counts the words, updates the writer’s progress, and then graphs it to show one’s progress compared to what the writer needs to do to make the goal. Each time we load our words for counting, we are told, “At this rate, you will complete your novel on…” I imagine there are editors out there who would like to offer this kind of progress-tracking to their contracted writers!
I first heard about NaNoWriMo a couple years ago, and my college-age daughter participated last year. Although I was intrigued by it, I never considered offering it to my students. 50,000 words is no small writing task, and the last thing I want to do is set my kids up for failure. Then I discovered the Young Writers Program department of NaNoWriMo, and the magic began.
I couldn’t sleep the night before I told my students that they would be writing a novel in a month. I told a colleague about the project, and he predicted they would run screaming from the classroom or sob with fear. Write a novel in 8th grade? Write a novel in a month? One seems impossible. Both? Crazy. So I tried to hook them by appealing to their desire to be the first: “You are about to do something that no student at our school has ever done! No teacher at our school has ever done it either! You are going to write a novel in a month!” Then I promised that they would have time in October to plan their novels, and that I would help them through the process in November. The icing on the cake was that I would suspend all other class work and homework for the month of November; I would only ask them to write their novels. Also, the Young Writers Program allows students to choose their own word count goal. After lessons on how many words they can write in one sitting and what would be a reasonable 30-day goal for them, we were ready to dive in and take the challenge. “Trust me,” I said. They were excited but wary.
When November 1 finally arrived, my students came to class armed with character descriptions, conflict plans and plot outlines. And they wrote. And wrote. And wrote some more. And they didn’t talk. And didn’t complain. And had to be told to stop writing when it was time to pack up for lunch. Day 1 of NaNoWriMo was a hit. And so was Day 2, Day 3 and every day that we have worked on our novels since. They are invested in their writing, have taken ownership of their novels and are fully engaged in this crazy “month of literary abandon.” They are writing more than they have ever written in their lives. And they are loving it.
But there is one more factor that I know has made this project a success; in fact, without this piece, I am certain the project would fail. Thanks to a generous $15,000 grant from the Petaluma Educational Foundation, I have a cart of 16 laptops in my classroom, allowing half of my class to write on laptops. That means that in a 90-minute class period, half of my class writes their novels on the laptops and the other half reads or works on their novels by hand. Mid-way through the period, we switch. On some days, I am able to take half the class to the library computer lab, while a volunteer stays with the laptop-group in my classroom, allowing them all to write for more than a full hour.
We know that word processing is not necessary for great writing. And people who love to write will write anywhere and with anything. But we also know the tremendous ease and benefits that come with word processing programs. Give an 8th grader a writing assignment, and no matter how engaging the task is, if they are writing by hand, they will soon tire and become distracted (as will many adults, I suspect). But give them a laptop and watch them write… and write… and write. In fact, it may have been the word processing that made this project seem do-able for my students; imagine writing 5, 10 or 20,000 words by hand. Now imagine writing them on a laptop. That they can do.
I am writing a novel along with my students, and sharing the process with them has been great fun (and so hard! what a challenge!). Our principal has even signed on, and often brings her laptop into our classroom to write with us. We are all novelists, hard at work.
Stay tuned for the further adventures of my NaNoWriMo students… We’ll check in after the Thanksgiving break. In the meantime, listen to the sound of novelists at work…