NaNoWriMo

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Ask & Suggest

My students are deep in the planning stages of NaNoWriMo, which means they have crafted their main characters and plotted some main events. But we are all a bit foggy about where our stories might go. Brainstorming ideas and bouncing them off our friends only takes us so far. So today we tried something new, and my students (and I) were so excited about the results that we knew it must be shared.

First I should confess: my own novel plan this year is painfully thin. I’ve got a main character and her dad, I’ve got a setting, and I’ve got a touch of mystery, but that’s about it. So my reason for today’s lesson is a bit self-serving: I needed my students’ help.

Photo by Callum Chapman on Unsplash

So I wrote a couple paragraphs about the story I have so far, and then I read them aloud to my students. I told them I wanted two things from them: questions about and suggestions for my story. As they peppered me with questions, I didn’t try to answer them. I just wrote down exactly what they said, using my laptop and projector so my students could see that I was writing down their exact words: “Where’s the mom?” “Why did they move?” “Who’s in the photograph?” Whether or not I could answer the questions didn’t matter; the ideas sparked by the questions would.

Then I asked them for suggestions, and that’s when they went crazy! I think we love to tell others what to write because we know we won’t have to actually make those ideas work. And again, as students shouted, “They live in an RV!” “The mom is a spy!” and “Her dad is actually her older brother,” I dutifully wrote down everything they said, smiling and nodding as if every suggestion would save my story (and some of those ideas really did!).

After I modeled the exercise in front of the class, my students partnered up and did the same. I had to remind them a couple times to just write down whatever their partner said and not worry about whether or not the ideas even made sense, and by the end of class they were glowing with excitement.

“Did this help?” I asked. They clutched their notebooks and grinned up at me. “Yes!” “I got so many great ideas!” “Mrs. Bradley, listen to this….!” Writing is usually a solitary endeavor, but the benefits of participating in a writing group are touted by many. We don’t need to (and shouldn’t) make this journey alone!

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Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash.

Sometimes the best lessons come out of our own desperation, and sometimes we just need our writing friends to inject some inspiration into our stories. My protagonist doesn’t live in an RV, but that suggestion triggered the idea of a mysterious friend who walks miles home from school every day because she doesn’t want anyone to see that she and her mom live in an RV on the outskirts of town…

This is what the Dare Machine on the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program website does for us when we struggle with writer’s block. With one click we’re given a suggestion that might make no sense at all in our story, but if we just try writing about it, chances are our creative juices will start flowing again and our stories will get right back on track.

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Where do you get ideas for your novel? What’s your best strategy for developing your plot? Please share!

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Coding in English class? Yes! And not just an #HourOfCode, but a #MonthOfCode!

My students have participated in the Hour of Code since it launched in 2013. Regardless of the class I’m teaching (English 8, Digital Design 7/8 or Broadcast Media 7/8), we take a break from our current projects and spend a class period dipping our toes in the waters of computer coding. Thanks to a wide variety of video tutorials provided by the good folks at Code.org, I don’t have to be a coding expert to give my students this opportunity. Even better, the tutorials differentiate the experience for my students, some of whom have been learning to code on their own via Khan Academy, and others who have never heard of coding. Best of all? The online tutorials are all free and continue to be available beyond Computer Science Education Week, which is when Hour of Code is officially held.

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Three years later I decided it was time to take my English students beyond just an hour. Our first semester had been devoted to narrative writing, when my students wrote their own novels for National Novel Writing Month. When that project ended on November 30, we had three and a half weeks before winter break and the end of the semester. I decided those weeks would be a great time to go deeper into coding.

Although I am not a gamer, I know enough about games to recognize the link between narratives and games. I asked my students to brainstorm elements of novels (something they had become quite expert in) and elements of games. Eventually they saw these similarities:

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Then I told them about Computer Science Education Week and Code.org’s vision to give “every student in every school the opportunity to learn computer science.” We watched a couple of introductory videos, and then I introduced them to Scratch, the free online coding program launched by creative thinkers at MIT. Using a step-by-step lesson for creating a simple Scratch game, I set my students loose on the Scratch site to get familiar with the drag-and-drop platform that introduces them to the  language and logic of coding. And that’s where Hour of Code would usually end. But I had a better idea…

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Here’s the assignment I gave them: create a computer game based on the novel you just wrote. Their eyes lit up and their creative juices started flowing. Having just invested over a month into that novel, they knew their characters, plots, and conflicts inside and out. I hoped that the chance to create a game from that story would honor their writing and stretch some different brain muscles, while also giving them the basis for a richer game than they might create if it didn’t come from a well-developed story.

Their enthusiasm was exciting, but I knew many of them were nervous about tackling something as foreign as coding. And that’s where the geniuses at MIT make the significant difference between a one-hour tutorial and an entire unit, semester, or even year of coding instruction possible. I showed my students the many help options on the Scratch site, and told them to please work with friends so they could learn from each other. Each day, as they developed their games, we stopped midway to share out our questions, discoveries, and excitement. With a few weeks to devote to the project, students who thought they were done one day discovered a neighbor who added sound effects to her game, so they were inspired to go back in and do the same.

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The next week, I gave my students small tasks each day in case they thought their game was done and they were ready to quit. One day they added introductory information on their game info page; another day they traded rough draft feedback with a peer; and another day they updated their online portfolios with reflections on their coding experience and screenshots of their games. Some students had so much fun they chose to stay in at lunch to keep working on their games:

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And what will these students be doing on their “final exam” day next week? They will each create a Google Form feedback survey for their game, and then they will post the links to their games and feedback forms on a shared doc. Their work will then be assessed by their peers as they play each other’s games and submit feedback for revision.

There is so much about this project that mirrors the writing process: in addition to creating a story, they brainstormed and outlined their games, drafted them, tested them, found errors to fix, drafted some more, tested some more, revised some more. And eventually they will publish their games to an audience as big as the internet (via the Scratch site), where this creative gaming community can play, rate, and give  them feedback. And if they didn’t proofread their game carefully? It won’t run.

Do I expect all of my students to pursue computer science? Of course not. But will they all benefit from their month of coding? Absolutely. They were immersed in a new language and area of study in a collaborative, student-driven, interactive, face-to-face and online environment. Their narrative skills were sharpened, along with logic and critical thinking, and they got first hand experience in how computer devices are programmed. They saw their work published and learned the value of revision, proofreading, and peer feedback. It was well worth our time to devote weeks, instead of just an hour, to coding.

Have your students gone beyond an #HourOfCode? Have you found a way to integrate coding into your subject area? Please share!

#NaNoWriMo: ask the experts

I’ve never published a novel of my own, so it’s intimidating to ask my students to write a novel under my tutelage. But since the answer to just about every question can now be found online, I decided this year to ask my students to search the web for writing advice from those most qualified to give it: published writers.

Much of the wisdom they found echoes what I will be teaching them in the next few weeks. Maybe my lessons will carry a bit more weight since the experts said it first!

  • Don’t give up. Trust your journey.

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  • Editing matters. Write truth.

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  • Your story matters.

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  • Make it real; make it scary; and … cliffhangers.

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  • Make it human (but don’t let your mom read it).

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  • Also good: tension and snap.

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  • When you get discouraged, remember: the world needs your novel!

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What advice do YOU have for my #WriMos?

 

50% means it’s time for a box castle

My students have been working on their novels for a couple weeks now, and as November 15 approaches, they know it’s time to get to 50% of their word goal. When they cross that halfway line, they choose a NaNoWriMo button to wear proudly on their hoodie:

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But many of us are starting to feel like we’re running out of steam. The story we were so excited about in October is suddenly boring and annoying, and we need some inspiration. According to writer and pep-talker Robyn Schneider, it’s time for a box castle:

We don’t have room in our classroom for cardboard boxes, blankets and pillows, but we can take Robyn’s advice that a change in location can help vanquish our suck dragons and move us into another great scene in our novels. And we know that just one great scene can lead to another and to another…

So we move outside, or we curl up on carpet squares, or we just roll over for a different view of the classroom. And of course we string up lights, because it isn’t a box castle without lights.

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How do you celebrate that magical 50%? And what is your favorite version of a box castle? Where do you go when you need a change of writing scenery?

Do you speak NaNoWriMo?

Today is November 1st, which means WriMos all over the world are silencing inner editors, tackling plot bunnies, vanquishing suck dragons, building box castles, pantsing or plotting, striving for that ever elusive word goal and the bragging rights of winning as they NaNo the night away in Write-Ins with fellow WriMos. They rely on caffeine, sugary snacks (thank you, Halloween), the Dare Machine, Pep Talks, fellow WriMos (both online and in person), Word Wars, NaNo Stats, and an ever growing online community of WriMoVloggers.

Do you speak NaNoWriMo, or did I lose you at “plot bunnies”? Either way, you are sure to be bombarded with NaNoVocab, as your WriMo friends clutter your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram feeds with their daily word goals, #amwriting, word count celebrations, and woe-is-me-I-didn’t-have-time-to-write-today sob stories. To help you understand all things NaNo this month (and possibly entice you to join), I offer you a glossary of NaNoVocab:

NaNoWriMo: the vision that started it all, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to writers everywhere to pen 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in the month of November. The student version from the Young Writers Program allows students to choose their own word goal and write towards it in November.

Young Writers Program for student WriMos.

Young Writers Program for student WriMos.

NaNo: verb; to participate in NaNoWriMo; to write; as in, Did you NaNo today? How much NaNo-ing did you do over the weekend?

WriMo: noun; person who participates in NaNoWriMo; as in, Are you a WriMo? Did you see all those WriMos in Starbucks?

Word Goal: noun; the total number of words a WriMo will try to write in November; also the number of words a WriMo needs to write each day in November. Not to be confused with a complete draft of a novel, a word goal is simply a target. As experienced WriMos know, reaching the magical 50,000 words on November 30 does not give one a complete draft of a novel, especially if one reaches 50,000 words right in the middle of a sentence.

Day 1 of NaNoWriMo and this student is well on her way to winning!

Day 1 of NaNoWriMo and this student is well on her way to winning!

Pantser: noun; person who writes without planning or plotting ahead of time; as in, Are you a WriMo pantser? Do you write by the seat of your pants? Pants: verb; to write without a plan. Due to the tight time frame of NaNoWriMo, pantsers can learn from plotters (below) so that when they get writer’s block, they can go back to their plan for inspiration.

Plotter: noun; person who outlines, plots, and plans his/her novel before writing it; as in, I outlined my entire novel, but it took a turn I didn’t expect, and now I have to start all over, plot it again, and start writing again. I’ll never win! Due to the tight time frame of NaNoWriMo, plotters can learn from pantsers to just write from their guts without needing to follow a plan.

Winner: noun; one who reaches 50,000 words by midnight on November 30; NaNoWinners receive no prizes, but they do earn bragging rights forever (or at least until the next November, when everyone’s word count is reset to 0). Participants in the Young Writers Program who reach their self-determined word count goals by November 30 are also crowned winners, and along with bragging rights, they earn five free copies of their novel published through CreateSpace, and they may (like some of my students) sell them on Amazon. Of course, this means these young writers must also complete, revise, and edit their novels for publication.

NaNoWriMo winners, 2011.

NaNoWriMo winners, 2011.

Novels published by some of my 8th grade students.

Novels published by some of my 8th grade students.

Inner Editor: noun; often the bane of every writer’s existence, our inner editor can lead to writer’s block, as it sits on our shoulders and nags us, pointing out every mistake we make, every awkward sentence, every plot hole and inconsistency. While an inner editor really comes in handy in the revision and proofreading phase of writing, we need to silence that nag during the rough draft phase. Since we need to write a lot (and fast) in order to win by November 30, we need to let go of that need to write perfectly and beautifully, and heed the wise advice of novelist John Green, who says, “NaNoWriMo gives me permission to suck.” Yes, get those English teachers off your back, silence your inner editor, and write that sucky first draft! Plenty of time to entertain that inner editor after you reach your goal on November 30.

Box Castle: noun; cozy place to curl up with your writing; place of WriMo inspiration; cardboard box or table+blanket fort or pillows in your closet. Inspired by NaNoWriMo Pep Talker Robyn Schneider, your box castle just might get you past the mid-way point in November when you aren’t quite to the mid-way point in your word count. My students were inspired to write in their classroom version of box castles:

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Plot Bunnies: noun; story ideas that invade your brain and must be written into your novel. Ignored plot bunnies will badger you until you do include them. While they may seem to be bad ideas, plot bunnies can benefit the WriMo because (1) they will add to your word count, and (2) they can surprise you by breathing new life and unexpected twists into your story.

Suck Dragons: noun; issues in your story that get in the way of its success, such as lack of plot (there is no problem for your protagonist to solve) or structure issues (such as boring scenes or pacing problems). WriMos facing writer’s block can break through it by going back and vanquishing suck dragons from earlier in their draft.

WriMoVloggers: noun; WriMos who vlog (a.k.a., video blog, or make YouTube videos) about NaNoWriMo. Since writing is very hard work, many WriMos discover that it’s much more fun to make videos about writing than to do the actual writing. The online community of WriMos on YouTube is an enthusiastic, devoted, and very silly group of vloggers (and procrastinators) who are available to inspire, motivate, and chastise you to get back to your writing instead of wasting time watching videos on YouTube.

There is no shortage of tips from NaNoWriMo Vloggers.

There is no shortage of tips from NaNoWriMo Vloggers.

Write-Ins: noun; community events where WriMos gather together to work on their novels. Held in coffee shops, bookstores, gymnasiums and basements, Write-Ins offer writers the chance to write with other writers, but often lead to more community building, game playing, coffee drinking, and plot planning than actual writing. While writing may be a solitary, lonely endeavor, we often get more writing done when we are alone. But, hey, even writers need a break. And friends. And fun. So get thee to a Write-In!

Word Wars: noun; timed writing events that challenge writers to write more words than another WriMo in a brief, timed race. While Word Wars may not produce the best writing, the desire to beat an opponent can blast a writer out of writer’s block and back into the game of writing. Word Wars may happen face-to-face during a Write-In, but more often they take place online via chat rooms or Twitter.

Dare Machine: noun; tool to combat writer’s block. The Dare Machine dares writers to incorporate random plot/character/setting/conflict suggestions into their novel. Similar to plot bunnies, the dares might be ridiculous suggestions that don’t make any sense in one’s story (e.g. “include a dog who steals underwear,” or “have someone eat poisoned food”), but they can also take a WriMo’s story on an unexpected path that leads to an actual plot goldmine.

Combat writer's block with the Dare Machine.

Combat writer’s block with the Dare Machine.

NaNo Stats: noun; online graph of progress toward one’s word goal. Plot, character development, and conflicts may be central to the writing of a novel, but during NaNoWriMo it’s all about writing 1,667 words per day to reach the magical 50,000 by the end of the month. To help motivate WriMos, the NaNoWriMo sites offer visual tracking of each writer’s progress. And sometimes updating one’s word count and seeing that bar graph move up is the only thing keeping us in our chairs (or box castles) and writing.

How much did I write today? How much more do I need to write? Will I make it to my goal in time?

How much did I write today? How much more do I need to write? Will I make it to my goal in time?

So there you go. Now when your friends post #amwriting and over-share their NaNo progress, you can reply with the vocabulary of someone inside the NaNo circle of WriMos. Or you can hide them from your feed until December 1st. We understand. Really, we do.

Want to know more about NaNoWriMo? Check out:

Happy NaNo-ing, all you WriMos!

It’s beginning to look a lot like #NaNoWriMo!

nanopostcardThe first time I introduced National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo) to my 8th graders, I was terrified. One of my teacher friends had said, “They’ll run screaming from the classroom in tears!”

Some students did later confess to a brief moment of panic (“I almost lost my lunch!”), but the end result was resoundingly the most powerful and successful writing project I have ever seen in my classroom. So before you click away in fear at the words “novel writing,” let me share what NaNoWriMo is and why you should offer your students this literary challenge.

  • what it is: according to the Young Writers Program, NaNoWriMo is “a fun, seat-of-your-pants writing event where the challenge is to complete an entire novel in just 30 days. For one month, you get to lock away your inner editor, let your imagination take over, and just create!” According to me, 8th grade English teacher, NaNoWriMo is the best writing project I have ever seen my students tackle, and it includes writing process, community, strategies, revision, and publishing. So how does NaNoWriMo turn students into enthusiastic writers?
  • challenge: we know that challenging our students to aim high can motivate and inspire them, but who would think challenging them to write a novel in a month wouldn’t just terrify them? I don’t think my typical student dreams of writing a novel, but here’s what I discovered: given a meaningful challenge, plus resources, support and lots of time to write, students will write with enthusiasm.
  • student ownership: my students do their best writing when they own the genre, topic and final product. With NaNoWriMo, students write the stories of their choice. Often they mimic the books that they love to read: dystopian worlds, wizard fantasies, historical fiction, teen romance, zombie gore. With guidance, they choose a challenging yet attainable word goal, allowing each student to be successful while tackling a significant piece of writing. I have spent many years devising clever projects to motivate my students to write, but for the first time in my career students came to class begging, “Can we please start writing now?”
  • online support: my students join the online NaNoWriMo writing community, where they create their own author page, upload a book cover they have designed themselves, share their book’s title, genre, summary and an excerpt, connect with other young writers, compete in “word wars,” track their daily progress towards their goals, and read tips from published authors.  As they encounter the inevitable writer’s block, they learn to jump to the writing community for productive distractions and genuine writing help. Bonus: the online NaNo community serves as a perfect avenue for teaching (and practicing) digital citizenship.
  • publication: one of the most exciting aspects of the Young Writers Program is that Best Linesstudents who successfully make it to their writing goal by November 30 are rewarded with the opportunity to publish their novel, receive five copies for free, and sell their novels on Amazon. (See my own students’ novels for sale here.) But there’s no need to wait until the month is over to start publishing. We publish our work in a variety of ways:
    • sharing one great line on a class bulletin board
    • posting a proud excerpt on the NaNoWriMo site
    • exchanging excerpts in a shared Google Doc
    • Author’s Chair at the end of class: reading aloud from our works-in-progress
    • sharing our work with the community: our local bookstore hosts Author Nights for students who want to read aloud from their completed novels
  • Common Core aligned: while “Common Core aligned” doesn’t really make my heart sing, the reality is that most of us must use curriculum that meets certain standards. Fortunately, the folks at the Young Writers Program provide detailed documentation of how NaNoWriMo does align with Common Core Standards, so if your boss, school board, community members or parents question the value of “30 days of literary abandon,” you’ve got back-up.
  • confidence and pride: I’m certain that the best way to build our students’ self-esteem is to give them opportunities to struggle, work through difficulties, and find their own voices in the process. My students validated this in their enthusiastic responses to the NaNoWriMo project. My favorite comes from Jessie, a girl who had been labeled below grade level in her reading and writing skills, and who was not successfully engaged in her own education:

“I just think this whole thing about writing a novel is really cool. It made me think that a lot of things could be possible in the world. I mean I am thirteen years old and I just wrote my own dang novel! How cool is that? I think it is honestly amazing. I loved the writing time and I wish it wasn’t over!”    -Jessie, 13

The actual writing of the novels starts on November 1, but free curriculum provided by the Young Writers Program of NaNoWriMo makes it easy for teachers to devote weeks (even a couple months) of valuable class time to the project. Go here to get started, and check out my own NaNoTeacher site for help bringing this awesome writing experience to your students.

Stay tuned over the next couple months for a few more posts on the NaNoWriMo project: getting your classroom ready, getting your students ready, assessing their work, and publishing. And please share your own NaNoWriMo stories below!

(originally published on edutopia.org)