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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#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?

 

“I’d like to thank the Academy…” a.k.a. What do teachers need?

Did you see the new thank-you ticker crawling across the screen at this year’s Oscars? The long list of names reminded me that whether we are actors or teachers, directors or principals, we didn’t get where we are without the help of a lot of people. I was reminded of all the people who have contributed to my own, albeit less glamorous, career in education.

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I was reminded that I have not become the teacher I am today without the help, encouragement, mentoring, and resources of others. And I was reminded that too many teachers don’t get what they need to support their growth as effective educators.

Teaching can be an isolating profession: we spend most of our time with students and have few opportunities to work with and learn from our peers. Social media has changed that in big ways, but when I started teaching, the internet was barely a blip on the paper in my typewriter. So who helped me develop my teaching skills? Who made a difference in my growth as an educator? Which names would run across my thank-you ticker?

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Photo credit: Chloe Bradley

Maybe a better question is: what do teachers need if they are to become great teachers? After 25 years in the classroom, I’ve got a longer-than-Oscar-speech ticker of gratitude, starting with:

Effective master teachers: prior to student teaching, I observed a couple master teachers in action: Joan Price and Mary Jackson welcomed me into their high school classrooms, allowed me to work with their students, and gave me valuable insights that got me started on my teacher training. When I was placed in two classrooms for my student teaching, I struck gold with junior high master teacher Carol Treu and high school master teacher Ana Byerly. Learning at the feet of these excellent teachers told me that I really had no excuse for not becoming a great teacher! But as outstanding as they were, I needed more help once I took charge of my very own classroom as a full time teacher. Then I needed:

Supportive administrators: once again, I struck gold when I landed my first job at Altimira Middle School under the leadership of Dr. Marilyn Kelly. Typical of most new teachers, I couldn’t even imagine all that I didn’t know. As enthusiastic and educated as I was, and even as successful I’d been in my student teaching, I was woefully unprepared for the demands of full time teaching in a middle school classroom.

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Fortunately for me, my boss saw my panic as well as my potential, and she made time to meet with me, coach me, and further the training that all teachers need when they first enter a classroom. I shudder to think what would have become of me (and my students) without Marilyn’s support. But years later, after I developed some good strategies and felt pretty confident about my work, I wanted to keep growing and learning and strengthening my skills, so I needed:

Ongoing support and effective professional development: just because we become effective teachers doesn’t mean we no longer need our administrators’ support. In fact, that support can be the difference between a teacher stagnating or even declining in effectiveness vs. growing into a teacher who impacts not just his/her students but also other teachers and the profession. Even after I left Altimira and Marilyn retired, she continued to be a mentor to me, encouraging me to pursue powerful professional development, such as National Board Certification and a master’s degree. When I finally carved out the time to do both, I benefited from the support of principals Dave Rose and Emily Dunnagan, who assisted me in the process, excused me from meetings when I had classes, honored my commitment to my growth, and celebrated with me when I finished.

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I can still see Dave, following me around my classroom with a video camera, taking time out of his busy schedule to film my students for my National Board portfolio. And Emily contributed to my video application for Google Teacher Academy, another example of the kind of paradigm-changing professional development that has greatly impacted my work. Dr. Jessica Parker, my advisor in my M.A. program, has been a significant mentor whose work has had a tremendous influence on my classroom.

Other valuable professional development I have had include the Bay Area Writing Project Summer Institute (thank you, Greta Vollmer!) and conferences such as CUE, ISTE and NCTE. I have been lucky to have administrators who support my need to choose the professional development that benefits my teaching the most. Quality professional development and support from administration is critical, but teachers also need:

Autonomy to choose, revise, and deliver curriculum: after just one year of teaching, I read Nancie Atwell‘s groundbreaking book In the Middle, which introduced me to the writing workshop model. I met with Marilyn (my principal at the time) to ask if I could try this approach in the fall. There I was, a brand-new-sometimes-still-struggling teacher, asking to experiment with a pretty radical method for writing instruction. And Marilyn said yes. But more than that, she asked about the details: how would I handle assessment? accountability? parent concerns? And then she checked in with me throughout the year to see how it was going. She let me take charge of my classroom, but she didn’t walk away.

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I’ve been the lucky recipient of this kind of admin. support in recent years, too. I still remember that September day in 2011 when I sat down with my then-principal, Emily Dunnagan, to propose that my 8th graders participate in NaNoWriMo, which meant I would be challenging them to write a novel in a month. She didn’t even hesitate; I still remember her exact words: “I love it! They would be writing every day! This is great!” And then, when we dove into NaNoWriMo for the first time, Emily joined my students on the journey. She brought her laptop to my classroom and wrote with the students; she competed with them in word counts on the Young Writers Program website; and she threw a pizza celebration for all the winners when it was all over.

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Emily can take a great deal of credit for my students’ enthusiastic participation in NaNoWriMo and their resulting growth in writing skills. But my students would not have loved writing their novels if they didn’t have laptops, which means teachers need:

Resources: when I decided that my students needed laptops in our classroom (instead of trying to book our school’s one, shared computer lab), I turned to Petaluma Educational Foundation, a local non-profit that has been raising money for our schools since 1982. They awarded us with a $15,000 grant, which gave my students a half-set of laptops for classroom use. That was enough to get my students off and running with their novels, and the following year, PEF granted us another $15,000 to complete our classroom set. Those laptops brought about the single, most significant change in my curriculum and teaching, a change that only came about because of the resources available from PEF.

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I’ve since received a grant for a weather system on our campus that allows our students to use real-time weather data from our site as well as sites across the country to learn about the science of weather (thank you, PEF); a smaller grant for a 3D printer for our Maker Space (thank you, Donors Choose); and two more grants for technology upgrades for our KTV broadcast media program (thank you, PEF and Educator Innovator). Grant writing is time-consuming and difficult, but well worth the efforts when one discovers the wealth of resources available to teachers. But we can still find ourselves alone in our classroom, facing the day-to-day demands of teaching on our own. How can we take advantage of the wisdom, expertise, and support of our colleagues? Teachers also need:

Collaboration time: a teacher’s day is jam-picked with in-my-face-need-it-now demands. There is never an opportunity to close my door, put my head down on my desk, and ask my non-existent secretary to cancel my afternoon appointments so I can meet with another teacher. The kids are there, every day, and I need to be with them. But sometimes our best resources are the teachers right next door to us, doing amazing things in their classrooms, yet the traditional school schedule doesn’t give us opportunities to collaborate with them. It wasn’t until I was asked to partner with colleague Isaac Raya on our school’s daily news show that I discovered the power of ongoing collaboration. Isaac and I didn’t teach together and we didn’t have much time to collaborate, but we started meeting each morning in our TV studio (along with five or six students) to broadcast our live news show. That 20 minute collaboration before school every day continued for three years, and we nurtured our little news show into a pretty professional student-run production. This year our KTV club has become an official class: two sections of broadcast media where students produce all the content and work every job of a professional news show, and we’ve added a third teacher to our digital media collaboration.

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Kenilworth teachers Neil Radke, Laura Bradley and Isaac Raya share a classroom and collaborate on their digital media program.

Isaac and I continue to collaborate on our KTV program, although without the daily face-to-face time. Much of our collaboration takes place via email, Twitter, and our class website. And our program is better because of our collaboration. How much better would all of our classes be if we had more opportunities to collaborate?

I’ve already broken the rule to keep-blog-posts-short-and-pithy, but maybe that makes my point: for teachers to be successful, we need a lot from the people in our schools, as well as from the greater community around us. It is a big and complex job to support teachers and give them resources to be successful. But if we want our students to succeed, shouldn’t we be investing all we can in their teachers?

What names would run across the screen during your Oscar speech? How did you become the teacher you are today?

 

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!

Student agency: voice, choice and making

In anticipation of the new Common Core Smarter Balanced Assessments, which students will take online, teachers are being asked to help students prepare by giving them more time on computers. After all, if the testing environment is all online, students need to be familiar with and comfortable using basic computer commands and options, as well as keyboarding and computation.

But as with any significant shift in classroom practices, there has been some push-back, as parents and educators alike ask about the potential downsides of too much “screen time” for kids. New technologies offer a wealth of opportunities for students to discover their own agency: to take control of their learning, to make choices in their education, to find their unique voice. But will students become passive learners, sitting in front of a screen and consuming, instead of actively  interacting with and producing new content?

Yesterday I participated in a webinar with the National Writing Project and Educator Innovator on how we can create opportunities, space, and time for all youth to be agents in their own learning. Kicking off Connected Educator Month, we take inspiration from the Maker Movement as well as Connected Learning principles to support the sharing of ideas and strategies related to this notion of youth agency throughout October and beyond.

As my students prepare for NaNoWriMo, they find their own voices honored as they choose all aspects of the novel they will create. How do you give your kids opportunities to find their voices and claim agency in your classroom? Please share in the comments below!

(Also published here on Edutopia.)