Students Write Novels—in 30 Days
By: Art Peterson
Date: May 12, 2011
Summary: The National Novel Writing Month's Young Writers Program makes writing fun for students because of, not despite, its audacious goal: kids must pen a novel in a month.
First Novel. Check. Next? A Screenplay.
Most teachers assign novels for students to read not write. But many teachers nationwide are not only asking students to read novels but also giving them a month to write them.
Yes, you read that right: one month.
Instead of complaining about being absurdly overworked, students participating in November's National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) have been known to ask, "Can we work on our novels today?"
That's because, above all, NaNoWriMo is meant to be fun. An exercise in "seat-of-your-pants" novel writing, it has almost no rules.
The Office of Letters and Light , the nonprofit behind the event, believes this carefree approach encourages writers to take imaginative risks and truly enjoy their work. Founded in 1999, the adult version of the event requires only that you commit yourself to taking a stab at novel writing—and submitting a novel of 50,000 words, no matter how good or bad they are, by the end of November.
Since 2005, NaNoWriMo has entered many classrooms, including those of National Writing Project teachers, through its Young Writers Program . In addition to curriculum and support, teachers receive a classroom kit featuring a progress chart, stickers to mark word counts, and buttons for writers who cross the finish line.
Approximately 1,800 classrooms and 45,000 kids and teens participated in 2010. The rules for under-18 writers are the same as those for adults, with one important exception: young writers can pick their own "reasonable yet challenging" word length.
If a student elects to write, say, 18,000 words and achieves this goal in a month, he or she is a winner. Awards include a "handsome winner's certificate," a Web badge, and a promotional code to receive a free bound proof copy of the finished novel.
The Young Writers Program also facilitates Script Frenzy , a similar scriptwriting event that happens each April and challenges participants to write a 100-page script in 30 days.
While young writers work primarily as individuals, teachers are also encouraged to write along with them—an approach at the heart of NWP's philosophy.
Common Core Curriculum Provided
But how does novel writing fit into a school day? The Young Writers Program provides teachers with a curriculum —aligned with the Common Core State Standards for writing—that includes grade-appropriate creative writing lesson plans, tips, worksheets, and activities. The curriculum is designed to help students build their novel- and script-writing muscles before they jump into churning out the words. For more info, download this NaNoWriMo Flyer (PDF).
Says Young Writers Program director Chris Angotti, "NaNoWriMo's curriculum encourages students to spend the weeks before November closely studying plot structure and planning their novels. When they apply the spontaneity of a month of writing to this more rigorous foundation, it leads to a more authentic connection between knowledge and practice."
That's what Noriko Nakada, a Los Angeles middle school teacher, found. "Now as my students move through the standards, they have so much more confidence as writers," she says. "Hey, if they can write a novel, a research paper is nothing."
Teaching Common Core Confidence
While skill acquisition is embedded in the NaNoWriMo process, Stephen Slaughter, a teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois, emphasizes an additional benefit: confidence building.
He tells his students, "You will never be given an assignment this ambitious, and because you have conquered it, you know that you can conquer more. You are unstoppable."
One NWP teacher who has taken up the young writers' challenge is Donalyn Miller, a teacher-consultant with the North Star of Texas Writing Project. The author of The Book Whisperer, Miller is renowned for getting her students to read 50 books a year. Now she has them penning novels.
"They performed in ways both their parents and I found amazing," says Miller. "They surprised themselves with how much they could write in a short period of time."
Luke Perry, a literacy coach in Battle Creek, Michigan, concurs, adding, "[Students] needed no threats, no punishments, no rewards. They owned their writing experience in a way that made me think of one of those 'teacher saves urban students' movies."
NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty knows why this happens. After a live reading by young authors at a San Francisco Bay Area book store, he noticed that the kids couldn't stop beaming.
"I'm sure it was partly relief at having survived their literary debuts," he explains. "But their faces also carried the same beatific expressions I'd seen on my friends who had completed their first NaNoWriMo back in 1999. It was the mile-wide grin of someone who had just realized they had the magical power to make the impossible happen."